Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Cresting the Bwlch - The Dragon Ride : Part 2

I was glad I'd been able to dispose of my rain coat, as soon afterwards the sun came out and I was tackling the first difficulty of the day, the Bwlch mountain road. It was a long climb by British standards - almost 2 miles, but the gradient was gentle. Across the wide valley you could see exactly where you had to get to.

For some, this was not a welcome sight as they struggled their way up. For others this was a chance to rise to a nice little challenge as they honked out of the saddle on the big ring. At this point I was passed by the young lady in Vlaanderen Capri Sonne sponsored kit that I'd seen at the start. She looked very comfortable and was in a group with some Kenilworth CC riders.
I kept a steady regular pace and rode with some guys from Southampton. They seemed quite impressed to see women riding this section without too much difficulty. We were only 20miles in, so it would've been a bit worrying if I had been struggling !

The descent from the Bwlch was long and sweeping. I really enjoyed it because I could see my line. With a good tuck you could effortlessly roll in excess of 40mph.

We were now into the Rhondda Valley, where we then headed north towards Hirwaun. Before reaching it there was the small matter of crossing Rhigos via another pass that was very similar to the Bwlch. It wasn't as steep, but it was deceptively long. A local man rode alongside me, pacing me up the hill while giving me tips about the course - "this is ok - just save a bit for the climb out of Neath, and also there's a climb just outside Bridgend. Apart from that this is ok really. What you really want is something like the Autumn Epic. That'll get your legs working !" My legs were already working just trying to do the ascent at his pace !

The top of the climb gave great views of the hills and valleys around, including the higher peaks of the Brecon Beacons. We weren't far from the former coal mining areas either. We saw many little villages with the characteristic drab coloured, box shaped miners houses, and old machinery signifying the vestiges of an old colliery town. Very Welsh. I half expected a Harry Seacombe character to come out singing !

At the bottom of the descent, at Hirwaun, came the intersection. I took the left turn direct to Glyn Neath for the short ride. The scenery became more tree lined as we headed back towards the Afan Forest Park, where Him Indoors was mountain-biking.

Along this road I bumped into Leslie from Archer RC. She was having a good ride. We both joked about how we'd chickened out of doing the long route for fear of the rain.

Very soon, at Neath, the road rose up in front of us. I didn't get the chance to read the sign board showing the gradient statistics, but I knew it was steep. Honking out of the saddle arduously as the sweat rolled into my eyes, I was determined to keep up a decent momentum. After a kilometre the road levelled off. There was now just the Bwlch to look forward to again ! Leslie and her group were probably still tackling their way out of Neath so I would have to either find another group, or fight the next beast on my own !

Cresting the Bwlch was not as straight forward as the first time around. I was beginning to feel it in my legs, and it was more a case of just twiddling in a low gear, and taking care not to get cramp. I'd ridden mainly in groups so as to keep up a good pace and hopefully finish in under 5hrs 30. But now I was getting to that graveyard period where the open valley was looking bleak, as a few spots of rain began to fall, and all the groups seemed to be moving slower. Everyone seemed to be suffering from the "twice up the Bwlch" syndrome. This was more about enduring it than enjoying it.

Once over that climb, there was then a long fast ride back to Bridgend. It wasn't plain sailing though. A stiff climb through some scrubland just outside Bridgend took us by surprise, and I really had to dig deep to maintain some speed. Also a number of sets of traffic lights stopped me in my tracks, which was really annoying. Many riders just rode through them.

The dual carriageway back to the event HQ became a de facto racing track with a bunch of 20 riders all sprinting hard as we neared the finish line. Funnily enough the person driving the pace was not some big male sprinter, but a mere slip of a girl in Specialized sponsored kit ! I just clung on. This was about giving my best effort, rather than winning any prizes. I rolled over the line in 5hrs 35mins for the 135km course. It turns out that the woman I'd seen at the start of the ride in Vlaanderen Capri-Sonne kit was international track cyclist Emma Davies-Jones. She'd done it in 5hrs 7mins. I was pleased to have finished within half an hour of her !

At the finish line my reward was a burger and a can of Coke from Him Indoors. It was nice to see familiar faces there - Sue and Justin who had done the ride on a tandem, Leslie from Archer, Sara my team mate from Pearsons, the Addiscombe CC contingent. I also saw De Ver's Maurice (Mo) Burton. Now around 50 years old, the ex pro still did an impressive 6hrs 19 for the full 200km distance.

This event made for a good day out - if I'm to do this race again they would need to run the cyclosportive on roads that don't have so many traffic lights, and probably with more interesting climbs. We will wait to see what the UCI Golden Bike verdict is.

Still, the rain stayed away. And that's always a bonus in Wales !
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