Distance 302km (186 miles)
Climbing 3864m (12,677ft)
Duration 10-15 hours
Maps OS Landranger 160, Brecon Beacons
- Download the route here
Having happily signed up for the Dragon Ride back in the spring, I was coasting towards the June event on inflated self-confidence and very little riding. I’d done the Dragon a couple of times five or six years ago; it wasn’t easy but the climbs were steady, distance manageable… I’d be okay.
Then the week before the ride, Editor Rob decided that the Dragon Devil option: 300km rather than 220, with the added attraction of the 15 per cent Devil’s Staircase climb was the ride I should be doing, and after quietly acquiescing I disappeared to contemplate my folly.
Both Google and I knew full well there was nothing I could do at this stage to prepare myself, except to hope that the basic level of fitness I’d thought would get me round the Gran Fondo could be stretched to cover the Devil without breaking. It would be the furthest I’d ridden in one go, and a quick look at the route showed me the Staircase wasn’t the only climbing addition since my last visit to the event. The Dragon also had a signature climb: the Devil’s Elbow.
PARK AND RIDE
Cutting it a bit fine, I arrive at the ride’s Margam Park HQ just in time to set off with a few fellow Devil stragglers and the first batch of Gran Fondo participants at around 7.15am.
It’s only as we’re guided out of the park and across the first road of the day that I start to contemplate the challenge that lies ahead. Audax rides often total 300km and more, but sportives rarely do. What lies ahead is uncharted territory for me. Can I even ride 300km? If I can, can I do it over the Welsh mountains? And can I do it before nightfall?
In an effort to keep the negative voices quiet – ride at 25kph all day to get around 300km in 12 hours? – it’s time to start accentuating the positives. The long, sweeping climbs offer the sort of riding that’s rare in the part of England where I live, and the scenery will be breathtaking. Also, the longer distance will take us beyond the national park and deeper into mid-Wales, where the roads will be even quieter and the countryside even more remote… We just have to get out of Port Talbot first.
The wide roads that take us towards the villages and valleys of the Beacons are quiet at this time of the morning, giving us a clear run away from the steelworks and into more open country and more interesting roads. Before long we’re on the lower reaches of the day’s first climb, the Bwlch. Having approached from the west, we ascend from a different route to my previous visits, but the climb is as spectacular as I remember it and immediately has me shifting into my smallest gear.
It’s going to be a long haul, and I can’t afford to waste any energy this early, so it’s time to suck in the ego and let as many people ride past me as see fit. My eyes are fixed on the long goal.
The most rewarding part of climbing in the Beacons is that the long roads up are followed by long, sweeping roads down; descents much more enjoyable than the steep, tight, twisting affairs we often encounter in the west country. There’s still quite a chill in the air on top of the mountain, and I’m grateful for my gilet on the way down, but there’s nothing like getting into a crouch and shooting down a long, wide road to put a smile on your face.
After passing through Treorchy at the foot of the Bwlch, we’re all on our way up again, this time climbing the Rhigos. Another long and steady affair, it features the same sweeping hairpins as the Bwlch and conjures up images of an Alpine adventure. More riders come past me, including one on what I can only describe as a step bike: he’s standing upright on a cross-trainer with wheels and powering his lean, sinewy way past me. It’s impressive, though his trouble will come on the way down, where he is presumably limited in the same way a rider on a fixie would be; Usain Bolt would struggle to run as fast as he will need to…
After cruising past the Penderyn whisky distillery (too early!) and into the Beacons, things become increasingly remote. Due to the numbers involved, the Dragon Ride has a history of sticking to major roads, but today the organisers have taken us off the beaten track. And the hedgerow-lined lanes eventually bring us to the foot of the day’s first brush with Satan himself.
The Devil’s Elbow has become the key climb of the event. A mile-long grind through two hairpin bends to the top of the Senni valley, it offers spectacular views – if you can lift your head higher than the tarmac one metre ahead of your front tyre – and gives me my first inkling that this ride might be too much for me. Out of the saddle I labour my way up with the rest, but this is mile 55 out of a proposed 186.
After a run across sparse moorland, with red kites circling overhead, we hit the town of Glynneath and double back on ourselves to head out across the Beacons once more, climbing to the Cray Reservoir. It’s a long drag, but with the right gear and a sense of perseverance I tackle it fairly easily.
After dropping back down to the northern edge of the national park, we head towards the town of Llandovery. It’s here that the ride splits between the Devil and the Gran Fondo, and I’m ashamed to say there’s a part of me hoping I’ve missed the cut-off time for the longer route. I’m about 100 miles into the ride, my legs already ache, and I’ve ridden the furthest I have in a year or two. Even the shorter of the two routes will mean another 50 miles of pedalling.
The moment I reach the checkpoint and find it open, though, the bailout option has gone. Oh well. Who wouldn’t want to go and find a climb called the Devil’s Staircase? After some welcome pasta and salted potatoes at the feed stop, I roll out again in search of another run-in with Beelzebub.
HEAVEN TO STAIRWAY
Knowing I’m in it for the long haul now, it’s time to make the most of things, which is easy on the next stunning stretch of the route, despite my wilting legs. These additional roads are quiet, isolated and beautiful; the only problem is the sting in the tail that I know is coming.
Oh, apart from the other problem: not knowing when exactly it’s going to come. A fellow rider tells me we can expect to meet the horned beast after taking a left turn in the picturesque town of Llanwrtyd Wells. And we do, but not for some time. A short, sharp rise is dismissed as definitely not the famed climb, even though it has me digging into my meagre reserves, and then we are rewarded with a breathtaking ride along the side of the Irfon valley.
Eventually we drop down and cross the river and there it is: a signpost signifying gradients ahead of 25 per cent. I’ve walked in a sportive before, up the Koppenberg in Belgium, but I put that down to the crowds and the cobbles. I have to make this climb to keep that myth grounded in any kind of reality.
Ramping up sharply, and taking in two traditional British hairpins – they get steeper where their Continental cousins tend to offer some respite – it takes all my willpower, all the strength in my excruciatingly cramping legs, and the 36-tooth inner ring fitted to my Genesis Volare (thanks Genesis!) to get me to the top. Fortunately the road then plateaus and I get a chance to ride the cramp out of my legs for a while.
At last I’m able to say ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ and look forward to the mere 70 miles I still have left to ride; 70 miles that would make a very healthy Sunday run on their own…
ROUND IN CIRCLES
At some point in a ride of 300km, your legs just keep pedalling because that’s what they do. If you’re to continue your forward motion, they must turn in circles. After more pasta in Llandovery, this is the state I find myself in when I resume.
With only 500 Devil riders, I have had only the most fleeting company over the last 50 miles. In such isolation cycling becomes almost Zen-like. I say almost, because you surely can’t achieve a higher level of consciousness by repeating, “Oh Lord, when will this end?” over and over.
But the thing is, I now know I’m going to make it. I have no idea how long it’ll take, but my mind is set on it and my body has accepted it. The near-12km climb of the Black Mountain is brutal, despite its seemingly benign 3.6 per cent average and 8.6 per cent max; it’s partly because of its length (and you’re climbing long before the official start point), but mostly because my body is so tired. In my smallest gear I slog to the top, passing riders forced onto foot and pitying them for the time it will take them to reach the summit. We’re already racing the approaching dusk.
A chilly but welcome descent brings us back to the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons, and after the short, steep Cimla climb out of Neath it’s a flat run home. The only problem is I’m riding on fumes and there’s every chance a flat 15 miles could take me well over an hour. It’s more than 12 hours since I set off, and I don’t have any lights.
At this point, like a gift from heaven, two riders tear past me in formation. I can’t contribute, but I can hang on. They get me home before dark, in 13 hours and 15 minutes, and each get a grateful pat on the back and my undying thanks. Then, as I head back in my car to the M4 after a post-ride snack, I spot the chap on the ‘step-bike’, lights ablaze, heading towards the finish. If I’d been wearing a cap, I would certainly have doffed it.
Find out more about the different Dragon Ride options at humanrace.co.uk/cycling. Choose from three distances or the three-day Dragon Tour
Port Talbot www.nationalrail.co.uk
FOOD AND DRINK
A stop for food in Llandovery is pretty much essential on a ride this long. The Just So Scrumptious Deli (tel: 01550 720824) in Market Square does delicious local food with friendly service. Stops outside the towns are few and far between, but there are filling stations on many of the main roads.
WHERE TO STAY
There are hotels in Port Talbot and Porthcawl, as well as in the national park, but The Twelve Knights (www.twelveknights.co.uk) is literally on the doorstep of Margam Park and offers food and accommodation.
Welsh Coast Cycles is near the start of the ride in Port Talbot
Images: Matthew Alexander