Etape Cymru 2011

Yesterday GB and I rode the inaugural Etape Cymru. Inaugural is a good word.  It’s a roman word, that implies that had I read the entrails of a recently dead animal, or paid better attention to the flight of birds, I would have been able to predict how it would go.  However, having left my soothsayer hat at home when I left here on Saturday, I, like the other 1600 or so other riders, was a on a Welsh magical mystery tour into the unknown.

The Etape Cymru starts from Wrexham, which is a good three and a half hour drive from here, so GB and I were staying with SK at his folk’s place nearby the night before.  Even had we lived closer, it’s not like we’d have had a lot of choice in the matter because they insisted on everyone signing in on Saturday either in person or by letter of authority given to a more locally located friend.  Normally I pick my sportives based on them being within 2 or so hours to avoid the need for accommodation.  Had this been the case this time around, and I was friendless, I’d have had a 4 hour round trip just to sign in!  Presumably this is supposed to make you stay locally and bring money into the local economy, but I’m afraid nary a penny was spent by us.

So, we turned up, and signed in.  Complete with our £5 refund for the £20 rrp gilet that was now no longer available, but which had been one of the ways that the £65 entry fee had been made to seem less exorbitant.  I spent mine there and then on Zipvit bars, since I’m still trying to find bars that I’m happy with, having eaten Torq bars for years and being increasingly unable to stomach either them or the thought of them (familiarity breeds contempt?).  We signed SK in too, GB having been duly authorised to do so, not that they checked.

Back to the house for carb loading and ranting at the X factor on TV whilst continually trying to figure out what to wear for the event itself.  The forecast was for 18C, heavy rain, and 18mph winds, which I’m sure you’ll agree was less than delightful.  I hate wearing waterproofs, especially if it’s not cold, as I boil in the bag.  However if it’s actually flinging it down at the start of an event it’s not really optional.  Having narrowed options down a little, and stayed up just to watch the weather forecast I got an earlyish night and decided to make my final decisions in the morning.

The day dawned.  Well it didn’t, because I was up before 6:00am and dawn arrives considerably later these days.  The house was cold, and the world was dark, and it was darn difficult to figure the conditions out.  However, sticking my head out of the back door ascertained that it wasn’t cold, that it had clearly rained heavily overnight but wasn’t raining now and the clouds were fairly high and broken, and that it sure as eggs was windy.  Cold I can do – just add layers.  Wet I can do – if I have to – add waterproof.  But wind?  Ick.  Wind means that if you do get wet, you get cold.  Wind means that for at least part of the ride you will be fighting against it, as if the route and the hills weren’t enough.  Wind means noise that saps your will, and ruins conversation.  Yep, not a big fan of the breezy stuff.

We headed off and got to the plentiful free parking with time to spare for further faffing around.  Final sartorial decisions were made, which meant the removal of my legwarmers, and the leaving of the waterproof in the car.  This left me, as if you cared, in shorts, short sleeve Etape jersey, my bolero arms, and my cycling mayor (jacket that converts into) gilet.  Layers, unsurprisingly.  A short ride later got us to the queue for the start.  I tried queueing for the toilets, but 7 into 1600 does not go and there was the risk that the ride would leave without me so I decided to give it a miss.  Mind you, I might just as well have queued since, after some promising signs early on, we didn’t actually get going until around 8:20am, twenty minutes later than billed.  By this point my gilet arms were already in the saddle bag as the day had warmed up considerably.

So.  Off we go.  1600 riders down narrow country lanes, with lousy road surfaces, covered in wet, mud, leaves and the like.  Traffic.  Slow traffic.  And I don’t mean the motorised variety, unless anyone was cheating, as the roads were closed.  The first hour was a drag, which is not a good way to start a long event.  Normally the first hour or so is a fast flying one which gets me off to a good start and motivates me, but not this time.  There was just no way for the riders to spread out and get any speed up or rhythm going, which was infuriating, not to mention slow.  When we hit the first big hill about an hour in, everyone was still together and it was carnage as people hit a wet and leaf strewn hill, failed to get their gears sorted, failed to unclip and dominoed onto the floor in various places.  I narrowly missed joining them at one point but managed to wriggle my way past as they were picking themselves up.  Unlike the couple of guys a little way behind us cursing at them loudly for being in the way and to get out of the way.  Charming.  The poor girl (and it was a girl in this case) has just fallen off and has obviously not yet recovered her sangfroid, and you’re shouting at her?  I hope someone’s as sympathetic to you when your turn comes – and believe me, with an attitude like that, it will come.  I got separated from the lads here, not really by the gradient, but by the traffic and chaos.

Up the very big hill we went.  And there were lots of very big hills, complete with the additional headwind to make things that bit more challenging.  I say bit, I mean lot, because this was not a breeze.  This was proper stop you in your tracks wind.  Particularly pleasant when presented as a crosswind over the moors at the top of those big hills.  The views may well have been stunning, but in between avoiding other riders, sheep, the state of the roads (gravel, potholes etc), trying to look where I was going, and going sideways, I may not have fully appreciated them.  I have to say my Etape jersey helped me up the hills.  I don’t mind big hills.  Once I’ve realised that’s what I’m on, then I can just hunker down and get on with it.  I didn’t walk once, which judging from what we saw, may well put us in the minority.  Even when the hill was horrible, I just thought, as I did on the day, that I’d just keeping making the wheels go round and hey, it wasn’t an Alpe, right?  You can’t be seen in a jersey that says you can go up Alpe d’Huez, walking up a little welsh nonentity of a hill, now can you? *grin*.  Mind you, in some respects the hills were worse – in that they were frequently that bit steeper, and some of them didn’t half go on…  The big billed, and timed, climb of the day was the Horseshoe Pass which, having not researched the event in my usual style, I didn’t even realise I was on until half way along the bottom stretch, slogging along at a snail’s pace into the relentless headwind, chatting to someone who told me that’s where I was.  It was very Galibier-esque.  A long slow exposed slog to the bend, then round the bend and up the second section with the wind now behind you, positively accelerating to the end of the climb and the food stop beyond.

Whilst I’m here, it would seem like a good time to mention the food stops.  They may as well not have been there.  When we reached the first one, after the depressing first 30 or so miles, which included changing a rear tyre puncture for GB, the cupboards were bare.  Right down to there being no water.  The presence of 3 portable loos was its only saving grace, and man were there some irate cyclists around!  The second food stop wasn’t much better, as one poor guy was pouring the last remaining water into bottles, which luckily included mine.  I even found a cupcake thing, and there was the odd banana when we arrived, but not by the time we, and the other cycling locusts, moved on.  Stop 3 was better, and I imagine a whole heap of ringing ahead had gone on, as I got water and half a chocolate zipvit bar to see me on my way.  But really  - poor, very poor.

From early on, I just wasn’t feeling the ride.  The wind was doing my head in, my tummy was dodgy, with extra stomach cramps thrown in (it’s a girl thing).  The route was far hillier than billed, and, courtesy of the traffic, felt far slower than usual.  Before I’d caught up with GB again, shortly before that puncture, I’d started having the kind of low, black thoughts, that I usually get around 60/70 miles into a sportive.  Not good.  It felt like it was going to be one of those days, and very long one at that, and it had already turned into a ride to just get home.  If there had been the option to opt to take a shorter route, I’d cheerfully have taken it.  As GB changed his puncture I was feeling quite wobbly and dizzy, and GB did suggest that if I wanted to bail and head for home he’d be happy to join me.  But I couldn’t bail.  I don’t bail.  Especially when I’ve paid £60!  Things did get a little better, especially when my second dose of painkillers cut in.  You gotta love paracetamol plus, it’s like having a cup of coffee half way ’round :)  Inevitably at some point the wind stopped being in our faces all the time and, courtesy of all the climbs, there were some awesome descents and flying along bits.  Those I can do :).  Having said that there were also some lethal narrow gritty dangerous descents spent entirely on the brakes, which seems very unfair when you’ve worked that had to get up there!

Which brings us back to the third food stop, at which we should, ostensibly, have had about another 30 miles or so to do.  However a rumour was circulating that the route had been changed to miss out the last hill (which would have been a repeat, albeit in reverse, anyway) for some reason.  A tantalising thought, and a seriously attractive one, since all I really wanted to do was to get it over and done with, having become bored with the ride quite some time back.  We ended up in a group of four or so trying to find our way home since, as was the case throughout, the signage was rubbish.  It’s all very well relying on marshals to do everything, but there were several junctions where there were neither marshals nor signs, which would account for the number of people that got lost at one point or another.  Finally, after a couple more uphill slogs, the roads were wide and flat, we were a group, and I got to do the kind of cycling I love.  A case of too little too late really though.  The rumour turned out to have been true, as was evidenced by the 10 miles to go sign that we came across, not long before we, and many others, got lost again.  Even the Mavic van who we coincidentally met at the junction was lost.  A friendly local in a 4×4 who pulled up behind what was now quite a group of us pointed us in the right direction, and a few miles down the road we finally made it back to the start with, in my case, a massive sigh of relief.

Cycling time: 6:11:46 hrs
Distance: 88.3 miles.
Avs: 14.2 mph (max 41.7!)
ODO: 10543 miles

We sat on the grass and ate free pasta for a little while, to discover that SK had had an awful day and gone home hours earlier, which made our day look positively pleasant by comparison.  But only by comparison.  So, was it a good event?  Nope.  Not really.  GB and I had hours in the car on the way home to go through it all, and I think we concluded it was possibly a 4/10.  The main reason for doing it was the roads being closed and since there were still occasional cars on it, and more than that later on when they may or may not have been re-opened, you rapidly lost confidence in the roads being clear and could never be entirely sure that as you hurtled around that downhill bend there wouldn’t be a car coming in the opposite direction.  Stunning scenery, when you can see it, does not make up for the scarcity of toilets, the late start, the lousy roads, the cars, the lack of food, the bad signage, and the lack of information.  You have to wonder what your £60 bought you.  Yes, I know it included British Cycling membership, but I didn’t want that anyway!  On the upside there were plenty of lovely Welsh folk out clapping, rattling cowbells, and generally cheering us on, which was nice.  The weather was also a lot better than billed as, other than some drizzle, we did not get rained on, I had the right kit on, and my layers went on and off as necessary, so that was a result.

Looking at the stats, as it turns out, although I may have been making heavy weather of it (yes, still talking about the weather), it turns out that I was actually doing just fine.  Considered there was probably well over 8000 ft of climbing – someone on twitter has it at 9154, GB’s Charlie had 8000+ – my average speed is pretty good, and I’ve done less hilly events slower in the past.  I got to spend my Sunday riding the bike, which is always a good thing.  But I just didn’t enjoy it overall.  So I’ll not be doing it again.  The organisers of the Etape Cymru had better do some damage limitation quick, as there were some very unhappy cyclists out there, and they won’t be spreading the word in a good way…

UPDATE: official provisional time is 6:56:45 – but I’m down as male.  If I hazard a guess at working it out myself, out of the 50 or so women, I was probably around 10th, which ain’t bad.  And 394th of the 977 finishers.  However it would appear there are quite a few inaccuracies in there, so we’re talking ball park at best.


11 thoughts on “Etape Cymru 2011

  1. Tom

    Great write-up, thanks.

    Look, I don’t want to sound too harsh. The wind wasn’t their fault and lord knows, anyone trying to organise one of these complex closed-road events deserves support. That said, having done the likes of the very well-run Etape Caledonia a couple of times, the deficiencies in this event were too numerous to mention frankly.

    Popped into nearby Co-op after the ride. Manager was livid about road closures and lost trade, claims she hadn’t been warned beforehand, another major PR failing.

    I could go on all day but won’t right now. Good piece, though. Suggest forwarding it to the organisers.

  2. Alberto

    Well done on completing the Etape Cymru in under 7h. Nice write up also. Completely agreed with everything you said, poorly organised, some big £££ made by the organisers with very little in return to us. Not even water!

  3. David

    Good accurate, interesting report into an event that was a template for bad organisation. Only the given elements (weather, scenery, spectators, hills, etc were good. All else was mediocre to very poor.
    Running out of water at the feedstops, as happened at all three in my experience, is simply unsafe. Running out of food (2 out of 3 ime) unacceptable. Loved the Mavic guys though. £60+ Never again.

  4. Robin

    Sounds like it wasn’t your best day out this year, but hey, its October in Wales. Yet again the basics have been missed – route (for October conditions), signage and food/drink; plus a bit of a dubious closed road claim. Gilets, memberships, hats, fishnet stockings etc. are not what attracts most people– ok perhaps the stockings–. How can so many events seem to get this wrong?. Could you publish a list of your anticipated events for next year, so I can make other plans*larf*. I had a nice ride round Cheddar area on Sunday, same quality food stops (none) but 60 quid cheaper * belly larf*

  5. Nigel

    Well done for finishing – it was a tough course. No doubt that the organisation could be improved and hopefully it will be next year, so long as all the naysayers don’t kill it in the meantime.

    Its October, its rural Wales and you are going up the steepest/longest hills they can find and you are surprised the roads are not pristine and are a bit muddy? Getting round on a bike quickly requires skill as well as fitness, I loved the additional challenge of the dodgy surfaces.

    I don’t ride many sportives as I see little point in paying to ride a route that is no more challenging that a club run and then to listen to the endless droning of sportivistas who think they have been in a race.

    This was a fantastic course, all concerned (including the local authority (perhaps we’ll see a closed road sportive in Somerset?) should be commended for their ambition and encouraged to make the improvements for next time. I, and my fellow bimbler, will definitely be back next year – I hope.

  6. Pingback: I gave my sportive virginity to Etape Cymru | Scarlet Fire

  7. cyclingsheep

    While I agree with the comments about food stations, road closures and route marking I do think complaining about the road conditions is a bit harsh. If you don’t know the route (and I didn’t) then you ride within your own limits concerning speed of descending and sharp corners. If you ride on unfamiliar roads and it’s not a sportive (open or closed roads) do you expect warning signs on corners? I for one did not have any issues with the descents and was taking them faster than most (usually). I would definately do it again if assurances were made that issues had been addressed but fear that the current bad feeling towards the event will prevent it being held next year. I too suffered horribly from a dodgy tummy for the first 60miles so want another crack at it when I’m healthier. All credit to the supporters roadside too

  8. Herbie

    A very different day to mine, though one thing is consistent – bad organisation! As I had the 2 punctures in the first 10 miles, I didn’t get caught in the taffic as others did, but did get to even the first feed station and it was out of everything! Free pasta at the end? None by the time I got there. We also had a comical moment when 20 riders standing around an unsigned junction were caught up by a motorcycle marshall, who took 20 mins to work out which way we had to go. By that time there were 100 of us, and a second M/C marshall! All moved off in the chosen direction nly to come to another t-junction unsigned, and then another, and finally on to one with a marshall and arow happily signalling the way as if nothing was wrong. Strangely only about 15 people finished after me, as there were loads I passed after the punctures, and then at least 50 down behind me on Horseshoe – I say strangely, I can understand them all turning straight for home. Then on the moors before Horseshoe and the pass itself we had howling gails with lots of wet in them! At one point the guy in front of me went down on a flat bend just because the wind disappeared for a second!

    It was something tough to be endured as a route, and that would have been fine, but the bad organisation just added so much misery to an already hard day. In some ways to me it seems like a good sportive trying to get out. maybe with some serious rework it can be good.

  9. DM

    Intersting mix of opinion. Thank you for the article as it helped me realise one aspect that I strugged with – The first hour of back lanes and ity bity slow riding also demoralised me, which obviously wasn’t a great start. There were some positive aspects, the local support was brilliant, there was easy acess to the event and there was registration available on the day. Weather was pretty good, given the forecast and the fact that it was Wales in October. Admittedly the wind was draining, but part of life really. My dissappointment was the course, having riden the Dragon ride inSouth Wales earlier in the year I had hoped for similar- long ascents and big open descents with some riding in big groups (but with added bonus of closed roads in Etape Cymru). In other words the things I don’t have around here in Warwickshire and the Cotswolds, which is why I parted with £65. However, most (certainly the first half) of the route was on muddy, lanes and descents that I didn’t enjoy. Others have said that this is all part of riding in Wales and some have written that they enjoyed this challenge. Which is fine, but this wasn’t what I had wanted from a closed road event. I enjoyed and appreciated the Horse Shoe pass despite cramping (its a lack of fitness thing), but otherwise I could have searched out some crap filled twisty lanes and routes to go up and down on all day in the Cotswolds just down the road.
    I don’t think I’ll be back to Etape Cymru, but the fact that the last section was left out, does mean that it is slightly unfinished busiess, but that start section has to change to entice me back.

  10. Matthew Anthony

    Great write up. For far too many reasons to mention here, this was the worst sportives I have ever ridden. I can only hope that for those new to cycling who ‘took the plunge’ and entered this, it didn’t put them off cycling forever! #neveragainatthatprice

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