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Wiggle Dragon Ride REVIEW

by Mark Tearle

Date: Sunday 10th June, 2012
Routes: Gran Fondo 206km, Medio Fondo 125km, Corto 37km
Entry fee: £39.50, £39.50 and £29.50 respectively
Participants: 4500
HQ, Start Address: Margam Park, Port Talbot, Wales. Plentiful Parking, showers and 'event village' including food stands and retail tents.
Other: 3 feed stops on the Gran Fondo, Mavic Neutral support vehicle and motor bike support, St Johns Ambulance.  Timing chip attached to the bicycle rider number.

The Ride:
I paid my £6 to cross the new Severn Bridge, my bicycle nestled snugly in the back of the car, and arrived at my hotel in Pencoed in the early evening on Saturday.  Clean, comfortable and devoid of any real charm the Travel Lodge offered just a place to sleep; sadly there was no real time to go off and explore - just find a place to eat and then try and get some sleep in preparation for the next day.

The Dragon ride has been looming quietly at me for a while now, I've been so busy lately that the regular email updates and rider instructions from the organisers were much appreciated.  My rider pack arrived in the post a few weeks ago, offering my start time, rider number and timing chip - a neat touch which allowed the start to go very smoothly indeed.  A contingency was on offer if, for whatever reason, you forgot your number or it hadn't been sent to you.

Judging by your comments and ratings of last year's event, see here>>> the new event organisers, Participate Sport (since merged with Human race, the events company behind the Cycletta Series), seemed to be going out of their way this year to prevent the same from happening again. Despite the "fiasco" of 2011 it has to be noted that the Dragon Ride 2012 still managed to sell out in 2.5 hours.   

Steady Stream of People

I am aware that some of you reading this did have a bit of a wait on the motorway and roads leading into the event HQ which seems a little unfortunate, and there might have been a few queues for the toilets but I guess that is usual at any event where there's a lot of people - my own neurosis about public toilets, especially those of the mobile variety prevent me for using them so I can't in all honesty say that I shared the experience and because I and my riding companions arrived at the venue quite early there were no parking issues for us.

Margam Park as an event HQ seemed to be to be fairly ideal, issues on the day entering the park aside (perhaps some of the other entrances could have been opened to allow a better flow of traffic management?), it had everything available on hand, plenty of parking and conveniently accessible via the M4 - the events 'village' area didn't seem all that much to write home about but I know it livened up a bit later on in the day.

So, having assembled ourselves it was simply a matter of approaching the start holding pen area and setting off.  Again, no problems or delays here, it was all efficiently organised with riders in small groups away every 3 minutes.  Off we go then, on what would become, for us anyway, an exquisite challenge, leaving us absolutely wasted and, oddly, wanting to come back for more next year.

The route headed for a bit of a swoop towards the east, through Aberkenfig, Maesteg and back towards Port Talbot, which was disappointingly urban in nature but came with a few short sharp climbs to warm up the legs a bit.  From Neath, approximately 40km into the ride, the route begins its rise up into the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Queues at the First Feed Stop

The first feed station offered a distinct marker between sections of the route.  The tables were very well stocked and staffed with friendly, helpful people but the queues were rather long, albeit very civilised, to get to the water and energy drink.  The first major climb was The Black Mountain (an ominous sounding name), a long dragging climb, averaging 5.9% and 5.4km in length (according to Strava at least), with a very fast and beautifully sweeping descent - I dare say the nearest we'll get to in the UK to experience 'Alpine' style riding.

Still Smiling

The Brecon Beacons are stunningly beautiful, a rolling landscape reminiscent of waves on a swirling tide suspended in relief just at the point of cresting - a wonderful patchwork of lush green grass and dark pine - it's no wonder the Welsh like singing - the infinite mum in her wisdom has given them an awful lot to sing about!

The route continues to snake its way through the Brecons, ascending and descending relentlessly.  The next feed stop was, again, well stocked, ZipVit is the energy product of choice for the Dragon organiser, but suffered the same issues with queuing...have I mentioned the salty spuds?  If I had a Sportive wish list, first on that list would be a pleading to organisers to provide real actual food, the salty spuds went some way to fulfilling this wish.

Brynmelyn, A Pig To Climb

I remember the Brynmelyn being a bit of a pig to climb, though I can't remember if this was before or after the 2nd feedstation.  The Rhigos was a heartbreaking 25 minute climb as it loops around the escarpment gently rising at an average of 4.9%.  I'm not used to climbs like this but I'm not one to give up and found my rhythm to grind on up. 

The Summit

Feed Stop Smiles

Only the Bwlych left to go then.  I don't care about the view anymore; can I just lay down here for a bit? No? Oh.

Getting Some Rest In

My legs are re-living the day and all electro spasm in sympathy as I write this.  Today is Wednesday, I braved it out on the commute to work yesterday but I don't think I have fully recovered just yet.  The Dragon Ride has to be the biggest Sportive Challenge I have ever faced, I am very glad I set out in complete ignorance of what was ahead of us, otherwise I may well have made my excuses - not really, I wouldn't have missed it for all the money in the world...ahem...

Smooth Tarmac

Despite the minor niggles, as already mentioned, the organisers put on a very fine show - I would recommend making a slight change to the beginning of the route but otherwise I think as a premier UK based sportive The Dragon Ride got it right all the way this year. 

Motorbike Support

A special mention and thanks for the marshals, the motorbike mechanical support and mavic neutral support vehicle who all seemed ever present, and in fact we had to call on the services of on one occasion thanks to a speedy descent and a cattle grid.

I left Wales a broken man, but vow to return again one day.

A Broken Man

Apologies for the lack of photographs - it rained a bit on the way round.

If you were there we'd love to hear from you.  Please rate the event here and leave us a comment about your experiences.


Adam Tranter
14th June 2012 8:11pm Adam Tranter wrote:

Nice one Mark! Good ride.

15th June 2012 9:29am brianthesnail wrote:

Excellent summary of the ride. Agree wholeheartedly that if the organisers can sort out the start of the route then they should have this one nailed. I started about 15 minutes after the first rider and must say that I had no issues of having to queue at the feed stations but then there were a lot of riders taking part so I can imagine that is must have got very busy during the day. And, the salted spud was a revelation for me. Combined with a caffeine gel that really did give me a lift. I can't remember feeling so bad in a sportive as I did in the first 90 miles. In hindsight, I wish I had gone for my compact chainset instead of the 53/39. I had never ridden in this area before and my research indicated that the climbs were not so severe that I needed to opt for the compact. However, a combination of the distance and the climbing had me wishing half way through that I had.

15th June 2012 12:46pm wrote:

I Would like to thank the Dragon Ride team for an excellent event, from start to was a great day!! I will most defiantly be doing it next year.

15th June 2012 3:15pm Herbie wrote:

Good summary of the day. For me the Dragon Ride certainly upped its game this year - I enjoyed it 2 and 3 years ago, but last year, only doing the medium ride I felt a bit cheated. Some of the 2011 coastal route was quite nice, but then there was only one real climb and we were back home. This year I did the long route, and it was massive. I paced myself and in the end just plodded in, but thoroughly enjoyed the tough day. I lost count of the major hill, 11, 12 was it: Bryn, Cimla, Black Mountain, Roman Camp, Glasfynnd, Cray, Defynnog, Devils Elbow, Glynneath Bank, Rhigos and Bwlch,and one or two I forget!! The start location was great, and worked so much better than last year. The first part of the route was a bit towny, but the rest really took in the wild South Welsh mountains - epic is over-used, but this was epic!

BTW - your photo of 1st feed is actually the 2nd one at Cray - as the 1st one was by a locomotive outside a coal mine.

15th June 2012 7:25pm SteveCurry wrote:

Great route in beautiful Wales - the Gran Fondo, although too many riders and too many with poor riding skills probably accounting for a few nasty crashes which I saw the aftermath of.
Also witnessed ignorance of cyclists who wound-up motorists waiting patiently to pass, by staying 3-abreast.
Worst of all was the amount of littering, and in a National Park!
When I learned to ride I was regularly 'instructed' by older club members, and this taught me technique, safety and etiquette. I've never dreamed of littering, cyclists shouldn't need telling about that!
I feel that countryside and Police authorities will intervene unless organisers (even those more interested in making money out of events than promoting cycling) enforce some basic rules.

15th June 2012 8:29pm wrote:

My review would be more positive than this. Port Talbot too urban? It's a industrial town, what do you expect? Get over it, pedal harder and bring the ride to you. Out the in the Brecons is where the real action is, and this was indeed a challenging, beautiful ride. Well marshalled, well signposted and blessed with good weather on a day when it pissed down in England. Having done the Dragon for the past two years, this was the toughest edition. Long draggy climbs punctuated by shorter stings which never let you relax. Long swooping descents (86km/h on the way down from the Bwlch for me) were nicely non-technical but too quick for real recovery, which meant I was nicely cooked after 211 km. which brings me to my only real complaint: I targeted a sub-7.5hr ride. At the advertised 205km my Garmin read 7h29m. But there were still 5.7km to go and they were annoyingly slightly uphill. That last 5km nearly killed me! Afterwards I thought the pasta tent coped admirably with the constant stream of riders and the village was the best I've seen at a UK sportive. As I pulled away from the car park (absolutely no problems driving in or out) the party was in full swing and riders were still flooding across the line. I for one will be back for a fourth helping of pain next year.