This year’s Etape Cymru didn’t come with a large “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT” banner but it probably should have done because it was, and if it hadn’t been, after last year’s disastrous event, I wouldn’t have been doing it. However it’s been taken over by Human Race, who also ran this year’s Dragon Ride, and so I thought I’d give it a second chance, just as I did for the Dragon. After all, they pretty much got that right this year, right? However I wasn’t entirely convinced of the wisdom of this idea when my alarm went off at 4:50am and dragged me out of sleep and into the middle of the night. As I loaded up the car for the short drive to the start the moon and stars were still out, and they’re definitely not part of my definition of morning! It having been a clear night, and it no longer being summer, supposing we knew what that word meant in this country, it was not only dark out there but also distinctly chilly. The forecast was for sun and 22C+ but clearly that was going to be a while coming.
I forced down muesli and a cup of tea and, having both gone to bed in and woken up in considerable pain, took some paracetamol. I definitely wasn’t feeling 100%. The start was at Bangor on Dee racecourse, a ten minute drive away, and the sun was rising as I, and everyone else, started parking up. We’d all been advised to arrive an hour before our start time – mine being 7:00am, as was L2P Kevin’s, so we met up in the car park.
Looking at the list of entries displayed in the bar area, the start times were incredibly precise. 7, 7:02, 7:04…etc. As Tannoy Man got going it became clear that we were going to be going out in two minute batches, with the aim to get us all underway in a very short time. Quite a challenge I would have thought, but apparently everyone was away by 7:26am which is pretty impressive stuff, and probably helps with the whole keeping the roads closed thing.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself… Back to the racecourse. There was a toilet block on the car park side which you would have thought was adequate, especially as there were toilets nearer the start, but I guess maybe not enough people knew that as the “Ladies” definitely ended up being “Unisex” as the “Gents” got bored of queuing. Interesting…if not entirely pleasant. I’m not sure I do sharing 😉 I had more time than I wanted to kill and it was mighty cold out there with quite a breeze from time to time. Not needing to register, having done that before the day as required, we went off in search of coffee. The café/bar wasn’t open, and the burger van only had the ready made add hot water to variety which only came in white. White tea, white coffee. Coffee is black, everyone knows that! And as for what might be in the white that was pretending to be milk in the tea? Not worth the risk. So, no coffee for me. *grumpy face*. You know me and my coffee! We wandered around a little bit before heading back to the car park for that final get ready push. I added leg warmers to the gilet/armwarmers layering armoury, and huddled in my car for a bit.
Tannoy man started to get quite keen that we be heading for our pens and since mine was to be the first away and that was what I was there for, off I went. The Etape Cymru was doubly Cyclosport blessed today, with both myself and Sean doing it. Except he looks like a cyclist and I don’t. I think he’s probably got better legs than me too…although they may naturally be that smooth 😉 As we waited we were given a safety briefing by Tannoy Man, who was wearing the most amazing combo of brightly coloured board shorts and multi coloured trainers. Add his hi-vis vest and you weren’t going to miss him in a hurry! Maybe that was the point? We were slowly moved forwards towards the start line in fits and starts, to allow the outriders to get underway and out on the course ahead of us. Apparently it’s the “UK’s toughest closed road sportive“. If you didn’t know that before the event you did by the time he’d finished talking to us. Still, as he reminded us, nobody was forcing us to do it *grin*.
Enough with the talking, enough with the writing, time for the riding. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…and we were off. Over the timing mats and out into the chilly Welsh wilds. Oh man it was cold! I’d not met Sean before and we rode together for a while and chatted some, but keeping up with him was easier said than done, even though he did a very good job of hanging back as often as he could. At least the first ten miles or so were pretty flat, meaning we did actually get to warm up a bit before hitting the hills. Kevin had disappeared early on, and Sean now drew inexorably away, leaving me to pootle along on my own. This came as a bit of a relief in many ways because I was properly suffering. The painkillers weren’t working, my mojo was missing, and I felt like I was just slogging along. Then the hills really started, which was inevitable but not all that welcome, to say the least 🙁
It’s amazing the places your head goes on a ride. So much of how you’re doing is mental/psychological. In the frame of mind I was in at that point, with the pain levels not going down, I was seriously wondering if I should be carrying on at all. The first food stop, 17 miles in, came as a massive relief. I got off the bike and nearly fell over as it turned out I was a bit woozy. If anyone had been daft enough to give me a hug at that point I’d have burst into tears and even without actually doing that I was quite glad of the sunglasses to hide behind. I stashed my gilet & arm warmers, used the facilities because my insides were unhappy on more than one level, but completely forgot to get water or food so it’s just as well I always carry what I need, and that there were 6 food stops on the route anyway. I’m not sure I was thinking straight, if at all. However, and most fortunately for me, as I was trying to sort myself out Kevin emerged from somewhere, meaning that I had to pull myself together, and also that I would at least have someone to ride with for a while. As it turns out he stuck with me for the entire ride which is just as well as I don’t think I’d have made it ’round otherwise – not in that frame of mind – so thank you Kevin! 🙂
Time to head for the hills. With an advertised 9000 feet of climbing, this was never going to be a flat ride, and although the route had changed since last year, I did know what kind of thing I was in for. I was mostly worried how my new bike’s bottom gear would be. Gradient can be an odd thing. Sometimes you find yourself in bottom gear struggling to go along what doesn’t seem to be that much of a gradient at all, dreading the “real” hills. Then sometimes you’re on a steep section in the same gear doing just fine. How does that work? One of the advantages of long climbs is that my personal crawler gear comes out of hiding – it’s like my body just settles into plodding. It only happens on properly long climbs, and you don’t get that many of them over here. Wales and Dartmoor seem to have them in abundance though!
As I mentioned before, the route had changed, which meant the big named challenge of the day, the Horseshoe Pass, came much earlier in the day. I’ll have you know it’s much nicer in the sun than in the wind and the rain! There’s a big sign near the bottom telling you that the Pass is 3 miles away, and then there were timing mats shortly after that for those eejots who wanted to play the KOM challenge game. No point playing if you know you won’t win, so it was a bit wasted on me. I know I’m not a player ;). It’s a long slow slog of a climb as you might imagine – there’s a steeper section very early on that you don’t really realise is part of it, before the horseshoe curve has really started, then a long gradual slog to the steeper bend by the white cottage and then after the bend it’s easy. No, really, it is. Kevin and I were joined by another girl for company, as our pace suited her, and we chatted our way up most of it, though I think we’d dropped her by the time we flew over the top. The views were just amazing, and it’s always nice to see how far you’ve climbed, it adds to the sense of achievement :).
Having gotten that particular climb out of the way I was starting to feel a little better. The next food stop, 27 miles in, came after a very lovely and well earnt descent. In fact lots of the descents were lovely – all bar one, but we’ll get to that later. This particular food stop, complete with music and very perky cheerful staff, also doing the tannoy thing, was used twice as the route looped from it petal stylee. In fact you could have used it twice, as we darn nearly came back to it a third time… This time I did get water, and bananas, and so on, which was good because I was definitely thirstier than usual. The lad behind the table handing out water kept calling me “Miss”, which was…unusual. It was also time for the next dose of painkillers and I finally started to get that under control, which made a massive difference to the rest of the ride. Every four hours on the dot…and it finally did the trick.
The first loop from here was lumpy. There was a very long stepped climb in there somewhere which actually suited me quite well. Slog a bit, rest a bit, slog some more…you get the idea. It actually climbed as far as the Horseshoe Pass had, whilst being less obvious about it. At this point it was sunny without being too hot, and the scenery was frequently stunning, especially the higher you got. There was a food stop at 34 miles, same venue as one of last year’s but approached from the other way, but we didn’t stop, it being only 7 miles after the last one! Having so many well stocked food stations meant that none of them were too busy and that you were never too far from the next one. On top of that one of the motorcyclists on the course was checking on everyone and had water and gels if you needed either, which I thought was a nice touch.
Back at the second food stop, or the fourth as I think it was by now, and those who’d already done it were delighting in telling us all what the next loop held in store for us. I’m not sure that was helpful!… I usually get second wind around 3 hours in, but today it was only first wind! Talk about taking a long time to warm up… I even still had my leg warmers on as although it was getting warmer, descents and Welsh valleys were cold, and they didn’t actually come off until around half way through the ride. I do like that halfway point though – it’s so good for your head, and as I mentioned, my head had been needing a little help.
There were two big climbs I think, and I certainly remember going up a lot. The last of the two is World’s End. Lots of long slow slogging, and some quite steep parts as I recall, but at least by now I was feeling like I could do it and, probably oddly, that it wasn’t overall quite as hard as I’d thought it was going to be. There was a brutal wind on the moors at the top there though, as if fighting gradient wasn’t enough 😉
The descent from World’s End however was the exception to the lovely descent rule as mentioned earlier. It was narrow, wiggly, with a lousy road surface and no option but to do the whole thing on the brakes. No fair! I’d earnt some fun! To cap it off, there’s a ford at the bottom. You can ride through it…allegedly…but we were being advised not to as apparently they’d already had a lot of accidents there. Considering that I nearly fell over walking through the darn thing I think that was probably a good call, even if you don’t like being photographed doing it! 😉
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was all downhill from here, because it wasn’t…but we did know that the really big climbs of the day were behind us. The route took a familiar turn as we started to retrace our steps back towards the start. The scenery; castles on top of hills, rocky cliffs, wide valleys, was all just as stunning second time around.
The first foodstop became the final one, leaving us with 17 miles to go to the end. There’s a challenge for you, right? How fast could it be done? Although there was the odd lump in there, we were off and flying for home. A long sprint finish you might say. And, with the roads firmly closed, and all junctions open to us, it was an absolute blast. Just wish I could have done the whole thing that fast! In my dreams…*grin*.
One last flying downhill and we were over the mats, under the red arch, and back to applause and the tireless Tannoy man still doing his cheery best to keep everyone going :). I bet he’s tireder today than we all are!
Cycling time: 6:16:27 hrs
Official time: 6:57:17
Distance: 90.33 miles
Avs: 14.4 mph.
ODO: 337.46 miles
I didn’t enjoy last year’s event as I said, but I did think it had the potential to be a great event, given the scenery and the route. Scenery as good, if not better, than the Dragon but without the depressing urban bits. This year the Etape Cymru was everything it should have been last year. The new management did a great job. It was extremely well organised, with around 250 people involved on the day. Considering that there were around 1000 people who actually rode it, that’s a pretty impressive staff-rider ratio, no? Just in case you were wondering where your money was going… The signage was great, not that it needed to be with marshals on every junction. There were CAUTION signs, and mileage markers. There was more than enough food stops with more than enough food, ranging from the usual to boiled potatoes and welsh rarebit. But most importantly of all? The roads were as CLOSED as they were supposed to be – which is really what you’re paying for. It made for some far more enjoyable riding that you usually get in this country. I kept realising I was instinctively listening for cars…and not hearing anything! Bliss 🙂
According to Bella, it was a little under the 92 miles, and was more like 2300 metres of climbing than 3000. I do think it was easier than last year, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, and I’m sure the better weather helped with how I feel about it. However I’d definitely recommend it now. It’s a proper challenge without being stupidly difficult, the scenery is awesome, the route is great, and it’s all well organised. What more do you want? I was in such a good mood about it that I even treated myself to an official jersey afterwards. Well – it’s blue – it’ll look great on the new bike, and I’ll no doubt show you proof sometime soon 🙂
The official Cyclosport review by both Sean and I can now be found here :).