It’s been part of the Welsh cycling furniture for well over a decade and it continues to provide all sorts of experiences to love and hate, along with an amazing personal challenge to cyclists of all kinds.
My bike has been cleaned up and my leg muscles are still humming. I’ve been there and literally got the t-shirt. Overall, I’m pretty pleased with my second attempt at the CARTEN100 Cardiff to Tenby cycle ride. I managed to knock over an hour off my previous best, finishing in just over 8 hours.
Let’s clear one thing up. It’s not 100 miles. It’s 107.5 miles. That’s what it says on my Garmin. It’s not a sportive either, as the organisers are very keen to point out. It’s a more social event, with no winners or losers or finishing positions.
Every year as the event approaches, participants nervously study the weather forecast to determine whether it’ll be a “Marmite” year or not. In other words, will we be blessed with a tail wind or a head wind? Will it be cold and wet, or warm and sunny? Two years ago it was definitely a Marmite year. Cold, wet and with a head wind to challenge the strongest of cyclists. I chickened out of that one, I’m ashamed to say. For me cycling is about having fun, not punishing yourself.
So what does it involve?
The route can be broken down into 7 sections, each one with its own types of challenges.
Cardiff – Pyle
A long drag on the A48. Riders are still bunched at this early stage and there’s lots of traffic. You need to have your wits about you. A couple of moderate climbs and descents, but nothing too challenging.
Pyle – Baglan
The bunches start to string out now and the road is less busy. The new route goes past Port Talbot steelworks on some smooth tarmac. If there’s no headwind this is a fairly easy stage. The first stop is in Baglan for breakfast, at around 2½ hours. If you want to avoid queues, go to McDonald’s just before the Briton Ferry bridge, or hang on until the outskirts of Swansea on Fabian Way.
Baglan – Swansea
Again this is another stage which really depends on the strength and direction of the wind. A headwind can transform the ride along Fabian Way into a real battle, sapping the strength in your legs. This year it was a leisurely cruise into Swansea. We headed around the marina and along the road to Mumbles. Another quick drink stop at the entrance to Clyne Gardens, and then we turned north through the woods towards Llanelli.
Swansea – Burry Port
The first few miles follow an old tram track through Clyne Woods to Gowerton. It’s slightly uphill, but you don’t notice the gradient. Look out for dog walkers and other cyclists. You emerge at Gowerton and join the bypass which leads to the Loughor bridge. This is one of the least pleasant parts of the ride, and again it can be made much worse by a westerly wind. Once you’re over the bridge into God’s Country, there’s a few more miles of flat roads before you dip off onto the Millennium Coastal Path at Llanelli docks. A slice of cake from the cafe and a refill of the bidons and we were off again. With a strong headwind this stage was a real trial for me last year. At times it felt like I wasn’t moving forwards at all. This year it was a joy. Spinning along at over 30kph without even feeling like I was pedalling. We were soon in Burry Port and we headed back onto the road through Pembrey towards Kidwelly.
Burry Port – Carmarthen
This is where things can start to seriously unravel if you haven’t kept yourself fuelled up. There’s several sapping climbs after Kidwelly which never really let up until you get to Carmarthen. Plenty of food choices just before the big roundabout if you need to stop. My family were there to meet us this year, which was just the pick-me-up we needed after an hour or so of tough hills.
Carmarthen – St Clears
A few minutes of hairy traffic on the A40 and then you pull off and you’re almost immediately back in rolling countryside. Some people choose to follow the dual carriageway all the way to St Clear’s. I don’t see the appeal myself. You’re riding on what is effectively a motorway. The official route takes you through an industrial estate and then there’s a really steep climb up Allt-y-Cnap Road into the country. The hills roll up and down, and as long as you’ve taken care to fuel up, this is an enjoyable stage with hardly any traffic, save for the occasional tractor. Eventually the road rejoins the A40 just outside St Clear’s and there’s a mile or so alongside the dual carriageway before you turn off into the town itself. We stopped and took on some energy gels and water, because we knew what was coming next.
St Clear’s – Tenby
At this point there’s only 28km left, but there’s a long sting in the tail if you’re not careful: Red Roses Hill. A 7 kilometre climb from Llanddowror up to the village of Red Roses. The climb takes you through the woods, so the summit is never quite in view. As the road winds around, you keep hoping that the next corner will reveal the top of the climb. But it keeps going. At the top we dip down into Tavernspite, where water, bananas and even beer are available at the Alpha Inn. We re-loaded the gels and were ready for the last 10 miles.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this last bit would all be downhill into Tenby, but there’s still a few nasty surprises left. At this stage, even a short climb can really peg you back. It’s only really when you pass the turning for Saundersfoot, about a mile outside Tenby, that you know you can relax. We stopped for a photo by the Tenby sign, and then freewheeled down to the finish where our families were waiting to greet us. A great feeling.
Tenby was really buzzing early on Saturday evening when we arrived. Tired cyclists and their companions mixed with the usual revellers, spilling out of the numerous pubs onto the narrow streets. It’s a great atmosphere, but be prepared to wait in a queue if you want a pint or something to eat. Down by the harbour, Tenby Lions had put up a marquee where we could buy a drink, grab a burger and claim our commemorative t-shirt. We had to wait over half an hour for our pints, but they were worth the wait.
Hell yes…. weather permitting. I think we can persuade a few more of our friends to join us, and we might even stay down in Tenby for the night. I have to say the drive back isn’t much fun after 8 hours in the saddle.
7 Things To Love About The CARTEN:
- It’s on a Saturday. This means you a whole day to recover before you have to go back to work. You can have a night out in Tenby after the race.
- It’s a game of two halves. The first half, as far as Llanelli, is fairly flat. The second half isn’t. This is what makes it such a good test of your stamina, both physical and mental.
- You don’t have to be a serious sportive rider to take part. People of all shapes and sizes made it to the finish.
- There’s some really great traffic-free sections, including the Clyne Valley and Millennium Coastal Path.
- There’s plenty of places to stop for refreshments.
- Red Roses Hill. Don’t fear it. Enjoy it.
- The finish in Tenby gives you a real buzz.
7 Things Not To Love:
- It doesn’t start and finish in the same place. OK, I know this is kind of obvious, but it does mean that you need to have a way of getting home from Tenby.
- Queues. At the start. At the refreshment stops. At the bar at the finish. Has the event become a victim of its own success? Is it too big?
- The A48. I hate that road with a passion. Crazy drivers, crazy cyclists, horrible road surfaces, endless roundabouts. The bit between Cardiff and Pyle is without doubt my least favourite bit of the course.
- Open roads. Early on in the day, riders are still bunched and there’s a lot of overtaking. It makes for an uncomfortable and nervous couple of hours of riding. Yesterday I saw a lot of risky behaviour from cyclists and motorists alike. There was one massive crash on the descent towards Pyle with at least 4 riders on the floor and a big bunch of onlookers. I hope the people who were hurt are OK.
- It’s not a ride to do on your own. Last year I did it alone, although a few people I knew were taking part, I wasn’t with them on the road. Do it with some friends. This year I was with my mate Carwyn and this made it a much more enjoyable experience.
- Look behind you before you rejoin the road. Please. I don’t want to have to swerve in front of a car to avoid ramming you up the arse. I don’t care if you’re a member of a cycling club. You should still look behind you before pulling out.
- Allt-y-Cnap Hill. Why? Just why? What sadist invented that hill?
Dan can be found on Twitter at @eggynewydd and is now preparing to do it all again in less than two weeks when he tackles the Velothon. Hopefully he has studied our guide on how to recover from a long ride! By doing this ride Dan was also raising money for the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital. If you would like to make a donation, Dan has a page for that.