Event Review

REVIEW: Tour of Pembrokeshire 2017

by Jennifer Trotman

REVIEW: Tour of Pembrokeshire 2017

Date: Saturday 20th May
Distances: 28, 40, 60, 80 & 130 mile routes
Start: Crug Glas Country Hotel and Restaurant,  Nr. St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, SA62 6XX.
Feedstops: three on the 80 mile route
Timing: electronic tag on helmet
Signs: black arrows on fluoro yellow background
Roads: very scenic, on a mix of roads, mostly quiet ones.
Photos: Huw Fairclough Photography
Goody bag: Tour of Pembrokeshire coaster.

So it's a year of repeats. Three for three.  This time being the Tour of Pembrokeshire, which it would appear I do every year.  I do the Prologue every year too.  Well, any excuse to visit St David's and Pembrokeshire - it's such a long way away that I wouldn't visit otherwise - so getting there twice a year is great.  Having said that...I wasn't going to do it this year.  Not again.  Until I did the Prologue and discovered that rather than same old same old, it was going to be all change this year.  And a change is as good as a rest, right?  

Here I go again then...but not on my own this year.  This year my fiancé Matt would be joining me, and having company made the whole idea yet more appealing.  That and getting to hang out with Peter, the organiser, and other friends who I've made over the years of doing this event. 

So...  It's not easy to get down to Pembrokeshire at a reasonable time on a Friday night if you work. Luckily we both managed to finish earlier than usual.  We loaded up the car and set off down, or up, or along, various damp motorways, and got to HQ at The Cow Shed at Crug Glas Country Hotel and Restaurant a little after 8:30pm, which was pretty good going really.  Registration had been open all day, with various entertainments, food available, etc, and was now in the final phase, and winding down rapidly.  Tour patron and multi record-holder  Tori James was giving a talk about her amazing achievements, and although we were officially too late for food, we were allowed to sneak in, grab a couple of pints, grab some fish and chips, and lurk in a corner at the back.   

Sustenance sorted, chatting done, and we headed back to the main building to check into our once again lovely room - it's a truly fab place to stay. Plus not having to get out of bed at hideous o'clock the next morning is always well worth it!  Not that we were going to have to get up as early as some.  The 130 mile route had the early bird start slot, our 85 mile route got to have a bit of a lie in.  Like I was ever going to do 130 miles around here!  I know the terrain, and I know how slow I am these days, and how many breaks I have to take - I'd be out there for days doing that!  So yes, 85 miles for us.  No brainer. And to ride bikes you need bikes, so before heading for bed, we got the boot unloaded and the bikes out of the car, before they were locked away safe for the night inside The Cow Shed.   

It wasn't the best night's sleep ever.  Ho hum.  I probably still got more sleep that I would have done if I wasn't staying on site though, I find you always tend to fall the most asleep as the sun is coming up, and not having to get up before that happened meant I managed to grab a little more shut eye before the alarm rudely awoke us up

So, up and at 'em right? Outside our window riders could be seen parking up in the field, and not at all helping me when it came to me trying to figure out what to wear, as there was a wide range of layering going on and no consensus at all.  As our bikes were already ready and waiting for us, over at HQ where breakfast was also being served, all we had to do was faff a lot indecisively.  OK, so the weather was looking ok, but it was damp under wheel after the day before, there was plenty of wind, and there were definitely chilly edges to the day.  So...S/S Cyclosport jersey. L/S winter Cyclosport jersey - oddly never ever worn before. Cyclosport Gilet. Long summer bib tights. Mitts. Head scarf. Options in other words, with storage space for stashing things, and pockets and bags full of food, gels, and the usual baggage. Eventually it could be put off no longer.  Time to go and see what this year's Tour of Pembrokeshire would hold.  

First things first - breakfast.  I'm not sure if it was free or not, it may well have been, but as guests of the hotel, we had a token to hand over for our breakfast and were allowed pretty much what we wanted.  I really wasn't hungry, but Matt wasn't about to let me get away with not eating, so it was porridge & a bacon roll for both of us.  Oh, and coffee of course.  I ate the porridge, with plenty of brown sugar, which I still had to force down, however lovely it was.  Fodder, fuel...not food really.  And I really couldn't face the bacon roll, so it went away into Matt's back pocket for later consumption.  Hey, at least I ate, right?   

Having arrived after registration closed yesterday, that was the next thing to get done.  As a guest/press, Peter hadn't officially registered us beforehand, so we had to join a small queue of people filling in the necessary paperwork on the day.  Peter's other half Helen was in charge, so we chatted in the meantime. This year's new timing system was apparently proving a little challenging in various, but not insurmountable ways.  

Once signed up we were both presented with our timing chips, bike number & ties, map, and post-ride food voucher.  The number on the timing chip and the bike number didn't match, for some complicated reason, but notes were made to make sure everything was going to be recorded properly. Which meant it was time to load up and label the bikes.  The ties turned out to be those little twine twisty things rather than cable ties and they were both fiddly and short.  I could have gone back to our hotel room to get cable ties but I decided not to, so my bike number ended up vaguely attached around various cables, all bent and coggled before we'd even started.  

Which is what we did next, after the obligatory trips to the toilet.   Most of the long route riders had already left, as planned, and we were in our window for heading out.  Having joined our queue, and taken the usual range of photos as the two groups in front of us moved through and off, it was finally and unavoidably our turn to be cheered on, briefed, and let go.

Actually getting underway felt better.  And as we headed northwards away from Crug Glas down the drive, with views beyond towards the sea that could actually be seen this time around, things started to look a little more positive.  Cloudy skies were brightening, I was on my bike, I wasn't on my bike on my own, and hey, only 85 miles to go, right?   I was kinda looking forward to seeing what the new route would be like, whether I'd be up to it, and so forth.  I know how beautiful it is around here, and I also know how hard cycling around here can be!  

First off, time to head west towards the very beautiful city of St David's, a few miles away down flattish country lanes.  Surrounded by plenty of other riders, we were off to a good start.  Sadly one of the changes to the route means that navigating St Davids no longer comes up the road past the Cathedral which, considering how beautiful it is, is a great shame.  I'm sure the local council and health and safety have their reasons, but it's the one thing I really wish they hadn't changed.  Plus the climb up from the river below the cathedral up into the city proper is, and was, killer.  It's not short enough, it is quite steep enough, and there's always an audience of curious spectators wondering what the hell you're all doing there!  

After flattening out a bit, the climb continues until you're heading out of St David's along the High Street, past the old venue, and onto the main A487 road out of the city.  This is a road I'm familiar with, having driven it many times to get to and from the Tour, and it was decidedly novel to be doing it on a bike.  With all of us spread out like a lycra dot-to-dot along the road, the traffic wasn't best pleased to have us there methinks, although they were doing their best, mostly, to be respectful.  Over to the right of us were sea views, and the road rolled up and down fairly pleasantly.  Well, not everyone thought so, some of the steeper ups had a few walking up them.  

10 miles in came the picturesque & colourful coastal village of Solva, after a slightly hairy descent.  Everytime I've driven down the road into Solva I've mused that I never wanted to cycle up it and...here I was cycling up it.  Ouch!  Steep and long but...actually maybe not quite as bad as I thought it would be?  Definitely a grind though!  A few miles later and it was a case of more of the same, albeit on a bigger scale, with the lovely windy descent into Newgale, with the long wide bay opening up in front of you.  A short while enjoying the beach, and it was a bigger longer climb back up to the top again, where we took a short break to enjoy the view, take photos, and grab a bit of food etc. Very pretty indeed :)  

We continued along the A487 for a while, playing with the traffic until finally, with somewhat of a sigh of relief, we turned left and inland.  Where we discovered Roch Castle.  I can't believe I've never seen it before, or heard of it.  It's now a very expensive hotel/venue, so I think cycling past it may well be as close as I ever get to it!  Time for more rolling country roads, with notable climbs from Wolf Castle, and then a really nasty steep and somehow unexpected climb at the 30 mile mark.  Blimey that was tough!  It may not have been the longest climb of the day but it was definitely the steepest, and after a fairly pleasant start to the day it came as a bit of a shock to many.  Not me, as I know what Pembrokeshire is like and I'd been expecting things to get more challenging for quite some time!  It was definitely a better start to the ride than usual - much easier to warm up and get into the swing of things, and less relentless.

The weather was warming up a bit too, and it being a little later in the day, there was quite a bit of support out on the route, both from families supporting riders, to spectators just watching the whole thing.  Somewhere along the way there was a family with a range of young lads all trying to pass jelly beans out and I don't know who was more pleased when I actually managed to slow down enough to take one from a small outstretched hand - me or him!  It was very cute and very cheering.  Support really helps the positive mental attitude (PMA).  

Although we'd been taking the odd break as and when necessary, the first food stop was still a very welcome thing.  32 miles in, at Maenclochog Village Hall, it was busy, bustling, full of riders, staff, cadet volunteers, and plenty of provisions.  The food at the Tour of Pembrokeshire is superlative, with a wide range of sweet and savoury, locally sourced, including flapjacks, jam sandwiches, faggots, welsh cakes, banana, and much more.  Including boiled potatoes - my personal favourite - sweet food does my head in when enroute all I'm eating is sweet bars and sweet gels.

So potatoes for me, faggots and jam sandwiches for him (madness!), and we both topped up our bottles with whatever suited.  Tea and coffee were also available, served by a lovely group of what could possibly have been grannies.  Hot drinks weren't necessary today, but I've done the Tour on days when I'd pay for such!  It was nice to take a break, warm up a bit in the sunshine, and use proper facilities in the village hall - bib shorts are not conducive to side of the road breaks!  

Time to head further inland.  We'd identified a few places on route where we could have bailed, and the first of these was here, where the shorter 60 mile route got to leave us.  But we were doing ok, albeit slowly.  So we didn't bail - go us!  Life started to feel a bit more moor-ish, with exposed hills looming around us.  Rather more normal roads took us through trees, past bluebells, and along in a generally rolling way, with gradual climbs and nice descents. The miles ticked by, and the big climb of the day loomed.  It's deceptive.  If you don't know it's there, and forget to look up at the crucial moment, you presume that the first chunk of it is the whole thing.

 A longish grind on a normal road, with glimpses of views growing behind and to the left of you.  And then you emerge from tree and bank cover and there it is...the other side of a cattle grid...stretching up and up and away into the distance.  I realised where I was and what I was in for early on.  I've done it before, and did it again, albeit slower than ever before.  Matt hasn't, and after a while dropped back behind me.  Hills were ever best done at your own speed so I carried on, and concentrated on keeping going.  The views are stunning here, but concentrating on the front wheel and going forwards rather than the distance to be done tended to work better for me, with just occasional moments with the head up to try and both appreciate and capture the scenery.  

Man it doesn't half go on - the climb and the scenery!  Eventually I reached the top, where there's a small lay-by/car park.  I parked up on a bank, took a pew, and waited for Matt.  Having had to resort to walking for a while, it took him a while to catch me, but I was grateful of the chance to take a breather and properly appreciate those views to be honest!  As he took his turn to recover we chatted to some other riders who joined us there and, as it turns out, were doing the 130 mile route and were there for the second time around.  Rather than be a longer route, the 130 is the 85, with a loop that that route does twice.  Yet another reason not to be doing that route I think - no novelty value second time around, especially when it includes that climb twice!    

It was pretty good to know that the biggest climb of the day was out of the way, and the descent after it was pretty cheering too - I do love down hills, and this one was great   Time to go in search of the second food stop which was at one of the events' sponsors - Bluestone Brewery - and as such involves a detour off the main route really, unsurprisingly named the Bluestone Brewery loop. Not that we were complaining as it was quiet, and mostly downhill.  In fact the last downhill was a corker, which is probably why there was a marshal on it to warn us to slow down.  Much fun was had by all nonetheless :)

Matt got a puncture at the bottom of the hill which, though annoying, turned up to be fortuitously timed as the Bluestone Brewery was quite literally just around the corner. We made our way there so he could fix it at leisure while we took a break, got comfortable, refreshed, and enjoyed the sunshine.  I'm still not sure about faggots and jam, but Matt still was!  It was definitely warmer now, if not toasty, and sitting in the sun was lovely.  The gilet had vanished a while back, and zips and sleeves had been going up and down regularly en route. Sadly beer as refreshment would have been unwise...but man, a beer in the sunshine would have been nice!  Motivation to get back to HQ maybe?  

Right then, the home straight. Out of the brewery and a right turn to get us back on our way again, with another 30 miles or so still to do.  And not flat miles either.  Well, this is Pembrokeshire, right?  So you'd have thought the next few miles along the flattish river valley would have come as somewhat of a relief, but actually it felt like a real drag - probably not helped by the wind seeming to be constantly head on.  Yep, Pembrokeshire may have been being sunny, and verging on warm, but it still had a healthy wind going on all day!  

Fighting hills is, oddly, better than fighting the wind, or at least that's how I find it. And there were more hills to fight - a couple of doozies.  The worst of which came in Fishguard which was, laughingly, a timed climb.  The Continental Stop and Call Hill Climb in fact. And which was actually not at all amusing, and very hard work, and pretty gratuitous, as there are far easier ways out of town!  Ouch!  I slogged it up, and I did make it up without walking, but Matt slowly dropped back and eventually resorted to stretching his legs, so I waited for him at the next food stop which was conveniently at the top of said hill.  Once more time for a short break, refreshment, and the ticking off of another stretch done.  

From here on in we were back on what is pretty familiar turf for me, albeit done in reverse to previous Tours.  I'm always happier by the coast, and although we weren't actually down by the sea much, there were lots of lovely views over towards it.  Although there were a few more climbs to get through, things definitely got more back to the kind of rolling we'd started out with, and knowing we were nearing the end did wonders for the PMA as usual.  Mind you, actually getting there still took a while and felt like it took even longer.  Thanks to the one way parking/entry system in place at HQ to keep traffic and cars separate, we had to do a very weird loop to get in, taking us from ever so close, out, and round, and back again.  

Wiggling along narrow little country lanes, with leaving traffic going the same way as us, we, along with others, started to worry we'd gone wrong somehow and were lost.  Heading away from HQ will do that to you!  We carried on though, and clearly we weren't lost as eventually we found ourself being waved into the turning into the other entrance to Crug Glas, and it was just a little ride down the drive to be finally rolling under the Finish Arch.  'Rah!  Tour of Pembrokeshire done!  Sure, it took us forever, and we were slow (though not quite as slow as Strava says, since the Garmin seems to have failed to autostop at the brewery beer stop). But it was beautiful and we had a nice day out in actual sunshine, as the ridiculous patches of sunburnt forearms I discovered later proved. I think it's safe to say it went better than last time!  I like the new Tour of Pembrokeshire a lot.  I may have to do it again   

So I guess "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" is actually true, but in a good way.  All new routes, but still a great event.  I think the new route is great.  Better in fact.  It's still challenging but somehow less relentless, and the challenges seem to be better spread out.  The organisation is always spot on, from food stops to road signs, marshals and supporters.  I would say that I don't think the 130 mile route should just be longer by virtue of repeating bits of the route, and I do think they should bring a 100 mile route option back, as for some reason ticking off a century always feels good, and I reckon we could have coped with another hour out there.  But the Tour of Pembrokeshire remains my favourite sportive - even more so than before Time to celebrate our survival then.  

We could have stashed the bikes in the car and got sorted, before settling down but nah, that felt like something that could wait.  Instead we walked our bikes over to HQ where the sun was shining, lycra was lying around, live music was playing, and all felt well with the world.  It felt even better once I was sat down inside with a pint of cold lager!  We dug out our food vouchers and, leaving our drinks under the eye of an obliging fellow rider, we grabbed food.  Jacket potato or a wrap topped with, or filled with, whatever you wanted from a selection of chill, pasta, veg, all sorts really...  And man did it ever taste good! Huge though it turned out to be, I even managed to eat most of it.  Refuelling is important apparently, and I get told off when I don't eat.   

And there pretty much concludes the official Tour of Pembrokeshire review. The rest of the evening included more beer, much relaxing, chatting with Peter and others, and the usual kind of après ride stuff.  Our lovely room in the main hotel was the perfect place to kick back and relax, and the huge copper bath tub was still fabulous as ever.  Being on the Saturday, we had time to spend doing beach things on the Sunday, and all in all, it was a pretty awesome weekend  

If you fancy trying it yourself, the dates for next year's event have now been released - Saturday 19th May 2018.  I've booked our room again already.  See you there?

Official Review

1. Feed Stops (correct foodstuffs and energy drinks, the right many, well spaced) 10 out of 10
2. Timing (correct and easy to use) 10 out of 10
3. Signage (Clear, concise, maps, profiles, route card) 10 out of 10
4. Facilities (HQ, Parking, Toilets) 10 out of 10
5. Support (Sag Wagon, Outriders) 10 out of 10
6. Friendliness / Professionalism (Sign-in, marshals, support) 10 out of 10
7. Website - ease of use (Online and postal entry, clear concise) 10 out of 10
8. The Course (Area of outstanding beauty/scenic, quiet roads, cleverly designed?) 10 out of 10
9. Would you recommend it. (Would you ride again?) 10 out of 10
Overall Rating 100.0%

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