This year I set myself a challenge to ride as many cycling events as I could. When attempting to compare them, it’s a fairly subjective business once you’ve gone beyond the cold hard Strava stats. In the end I settled on the following criteria:
1 – Ambience
- Riding companions
- Friendliness of fellow riders and spectators
2 – Climbs
- Overall altitude gains
3 – Course conditions
- Road surfaces
4 – Support
- Feed stations and other rest stops/hubs
- Mechanical / medical assistance
5 – Suffering
6 – Performance
- How I think I did
- PRs achieved
7 – Cost
I’d never ridden more than two sportives in a year prior to 2017. I’d done the CARTEN 100 a couple of times. Although it’s not strictly a Sportive, at 100 miles, the CARTEN is more challenging than many other organised rides. I did the Velothon for the first time in 2016, and had decided to do it again in 2017, along with at least 4 or 5 other Sportives. I had my eye on two new challenges when I started planning my 2017 rides: the Tour of Pembrokeshire and the Dragon Ride. This would mean giving the CARTEN a miss, which wasn’t a great loss as I’d been there and done it a couple of times already.
At 128 and 143 km with over 1700 and 2000 metres of climbing respectively, these were going to be the big ones. The first, the Tour of Pembrokeshire wasn’t until 20th May so I decided to sign up for a “gentle warm-up,” the Wiltshire Wildcat, at the beginning of March.
In early February I was already well into my winter training when the email arrived telling me I’d been successful in getting a place in the RideLondon 100 at the end of July. So along with the Velothon I now had 5 Sportives on my 2017 calendar.
Location: Salisbury, Wiltshire, Dorset
Date: 4th March 2017
Distance: 98 km
Elevation: 788 m
Course conditions: 8/10
Overall score: 82%
The ambience score was instantly bumped up by the addition of top cycling companion @rhodrielisjones who also provided the wheels for our early morning trip down to the start at Salisbury Racecourse. We were very lucky with the weather, considering how early it was in the year. Although it had been raining overnight, the sun shone all day which meant the roads soon dried out and I even managed to pick up a sun tan in the afternoon!
The Wildcat is one of the numerous UK Cycling Events Sportives which run all year round. It’s sponsored by Cycling Weekly magazine and is very well-organised. Parking at the racecourse was simple and since there were only a few hundred riders there were no queues for registration or any of the food and drink stalls.
Apart from a couple of cheeky kicks, the climbing is fairly undulating and the countryside scenery is fabulous. The feed stations were well-stocked with cake and biscuits as well as the usual serious cycling sustenance. The signposting was easy to follow and it provided a relatively gentle start to the year’s cycling. Altogether a very pleasant day out. I’ll definitely be doing this one again next year.
Tour of Pembrokeshire
The KOM arch awaits you at the top of the 20% climb from Goodwick
Location: St David’s, Pembrokeshire
Date: 20th May 2017
Distance: 128 km
Elevation: 1743 m
Course conditions: 8/10
Overall score: 96%
This is one of the more well-known Welsh Sportives and has grown from around 400 riders 10 years ago to over 1500 in 2017. There’s a few of us who might not think of Pembrokeshire as a particularly mountainous county, but what it lacks in massive peaks, it more than makes up for with relentless up-and-down rollercoaster hills which really test your endurance.
There are several routes to choose from, ranging from a sedate 25 miles to a whopping 100 miler which includes over 10,000 ft of climbing (that’s over 3000 metres in new money). We chose the Mavic 75, which confusingly is actually 82 miles (128km), with over 1700 metres of climbing. Tasty.
I was again joined by Mr Jones (ambience bonus) and also Mr Davies (a very modest but also very excellent cyclist – double ambience bonus). We had all stayed nearby in B&Bs or caravans, so the trip to the start wasn’t too arduous. We’d registered the night before, so it was a case of park up and go. There was plenty of parking in the field next to Crug Glas Manor, and although it had been raining overnight, the ground underfoot was still firm enough to keep the mud at bay as we wheeled our bikes to the start.
After some encouraging words from the event announcer, we trundled over the start line and followed a gentle descent into St David’s, where the climbing begins. To be honest, the climbing never stops, even after you’ve reached the highest point in the Preseli Hills (400m), 50 miles into the ride.
It’s a really good challenge, with a couple of really sharp ascents, the worst of which is the climb out of Goodwick to the final feed station. At that point you might think the worst is over, but in reality there’s still 16 miles to go with a lot of those swooping drops and leg-sapping climbs through the coves and villages along the coast. If you can see through the pain, the views are truly spectacular.
One of the highlights of the event was the quality of the food on offer at the feed stations. Cakes, pastries, pasties and even delicious roasted Pembrokeshire potatoes! It’s very well-organised, as you’d expect from an event which has been going for over a decade. The choice of distances means that it’s accessible to a range of abilities too. We’ve already booked for the 2018 edition.
Up the Rhigos
Location: Margam Park, Brecon Beacons
Date: 11th June 2017
Distance: 143 km
Elevation: 2047 m
Course conditions: 6/10
Overall score: 94%
Until Velothon Wales came along a few years ago, the Dragon was the biggest ride in Wales. It’s part of L’Etape UK, which comes under the umbrella of the Tour de France. It’s a serious event. Again there are several levels of pain to choose from, ranging from the Macmillan 100k to the frankly insane Dragon Devil 305k. We “sensibly” chose the Medio Fondo, which at 143k with over 2000 metres of climbing, is a big challenge even if you’re very fit.
Ambience bonuses were provided by @Carwyn71 and Mr Davies of Whitchurch Cycling Club, along with Dr Chris.
The Dragon is actually a whole weekend of cycling events centred around Margam Park, with the climax being the Dragon Ride itself on the Sunday. Margam is very easy to reach from the M4, with plenty of parking space. Ride packs arrive in the post prior to the event so there’s no queuing for registration before the start; you can just turn up and go.
Once you’re out of the grounds of Margam Park, you’re on relatively quiet roads (it’s 7am on a Sunday morning) around Port Talbot before you turn north towards Pontrhydyfen, where the climbing starts. This is the start of the ascent of The Bwlch, which is my favourite cycling peak in South Wales. It’s a long drag, but the gradient isn’t too crazy. Once you’ve peaked the Bwlch, there’s a rapid descent down into Treorchy, and before you know it you’re at the bottom of the Rhigos mountain and starting a 10k climb to the top.
The weather was overcast and misty, so the views from the top weren’t great, but the descent down into Hirwain was exhilarating. Unfortunately the weather deteriorated as we got further into the Beacons, and as we went over Storey Arms it started to rain more heavily. This wasn’t great timing as the fabled “Devil’s Elbow” was just around the corner. Apparently the first hairpin is a 30% gradient. I’m going to cite that as the reason for me getting off and pushing. What a horrible hill. I hope I do it better justice next year, that’s all I can say.
It continued to rain as we spun down into Ystradfellte. It was a shame as the scenery up there is beautiful on a good day. In the darkness and rain, the mountains were brooding and the road was slippery. The feed station in the village of Ystradfellte was a blessed relief, with shelter and plenty of goodies (including those epic roast potatoes) to recharge us. At that point we were over the worst of the climbing, but the weather was atrocious. It wasn’t until we reached Neath that the skies cleared, just in time for the kick in the teeth: the Cimla climb. It’s nothing like the Bwlch, but it’s steep and long enough to wring you out at the end of a long ride. After that it’s a quick descent into Pontrhydyfen, back where we started.
The Dragon is definitely the biggest challenge I’ve faced on the bike this year, made worse by the bad weather in the Beacons, but I think I’ll be having another crack at it in 2018. Let’s hope the sun shines next time.
Location: Cardiff, Abergavenny
Date: 9th July 2017
Distance: 140 km
Elevation: 1372 m
Course conditions: 7/10
Overall score: 84%
We had two big events on the calendar for July. The first one, Velothon Wales, was very much a known quantity as we’d done it in 2016. We knew what the challenges were: the Tumble climb, the relentless dual carriageways of the Gwent Valleys and Caerphilly Mountain. For some reason I just didn’t feel the love this year, in spite of the good weather and an excellent and sympathetic set of companions in Carwyn, Andrew and Neil.
We made a brisk start, averaging over 29kph over the first couple of hours along the flat, closed roads of the Gwent levels. Maybe that was the problem; going off a bit fast. Anyway, I made it up the Tumble, and after a brief lie down (!) was able to continue downhill towards those dreaded, tedious dual carriageways. Words can’t express how much I hate those roads. If you could find a way of re-routing the section between Blackwood and Caerphilly, it would improve the quality of this event no end.
I struggled up Caerphilly Mountain and went through the motions on the descent into Cardiff, but I was there in body only: my mind had gone dozens of miles earlier.
Another gripe I have is the quality of the food on offer at the feed stations. More cakes, pastries and POTATOES please!
I know lots of people love the Velothon. My review is mostly subjective and may be based on a bad day at the office, but I just didn’t get into it this time. It’s a big
event; at times the sheer volume of riders makes it difficult to keep your line, and the closed roads seem to encourage reckless riding in some people, which may explain why there are so many crashes. I’m sorry if this doesn’t match your own experiences, but I’ll be giving this one a miss next year, and will try a new, smaller event instead.
Whitehall – 1k to go
Location: London, Surrey
Date: 30th July 2017
Distance: 160 km
Elevation: 1487 m
Course conditions: 9/10
Overall score: 96%
This was the big one. I was lucky to get a place through the ballot, along with Carwyn and Dr Dan. I was really looking forward to riding past the famous landmarks of Central London, through Richmond Park and tackling the Surrey hills.
It’s on another scale even to the Velothon. Tens of thousands of riders tackling a 100 mile course which starts at the Olympic Park in Stratford and ends on the Mall outside Buckingham Palace.
Dr Dan had registered for me earlier in the week, which saved me a schlep across London to Excel Docklands on the Saturday afternoon.
Getting to the start was … interesting. Transport for London had laid on special trains to take us to Stratford from where we were staying near Richmond. The 4am start was a bit of a cold slap in the face for a Sunday, but we made it to our allocated train by 5.30am, and less than an hour later we were disembarking in East London. The starting pens snaked around the Olympic Park, and after we’d dropped off our bags we took our places and waited. Luckily there were toilets in the starting pens. We edged slowly forward towards the start line, and it was at that point that the sheer scale of the event became apparent.
You couldn’t fault the organisation. The marshalls were very helpful and there were plenty of feed stations along the route. My only complaint would be that the treats had to be paid for. I’d be happy to add a couple of quid to the entry fee if it meant I didn’t have to worry about getting my cash out to buy a cup of tea or a bacon roll en route. Maybe I’m just spoilt by the quality of fare on offer at the Tour of Pembrokeshire and the Dragon.
Once you’re rolling, the first few miles are on dual carriageways and underpasses through Docklands. It’s a treat if you like skyscrapers. Before long you’re passing the Tower of London and are rolling along the Embankment. The support was terrific, even at 9am on a Sunday. Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly flash by, and you’re soon crossing the Thames at Chiswick, heading for Richmond Park.
Unlike the Velothon, there are no boring bits. The parks are beautiful. Towns and villages in Surrey are picturesque. The view from the top of Box Hill is wonderful. The run back into town from Kingston is fabulous; I put the hammer down and logged some very impressive segments in the final 20k. I was also pleased with my efforts on the hills. The steepest climb of the day, Leith Hill, was a stop-and-start affair due to the sheer volume of cyclists on what is very narrow road. No matter, we laughed and joked as we waited for the peloton to move again. The scenery was lovely.
I’m not going to pretend Box Hill and Leith Hill are the Bwlch and the Rhigos. Wimbledon Hill is not Caerphilly Mountain, but this was the longest ride I’d done this year and I was very pleased to do myself justice on those climbs.
I’ve already entered the ballot for RideLondon 2018. If I don’t get in then I’ll probably try for a charity place. I can’t wait to ride this one again. Definitely the highlight of my cycling year.
My resolutions for 2018
I’ve already earmarked the Wiltshire Wildcat, Tour of Pembrokeshire and RideLondon. I’ll probably do the Dragon again. There are several new Sportives I want to try too: the Malvern Mad Hatter, Mendips, Wye Valley, Snowdonia, Dartmoor Demon and Cotswolds Classic. I may even try an Audax! I’m looking forward to some new scenery… and fewer dual carriageways.