Monday, 13 January 2014

Dragon Ride 2013. Fondo recollections

Dragon Ride 2013. Welsh roads coated in pain.
“Where are you?”
“Five minutes away Neil, chill out.”
“Ok if you’re not here when it starts …. In five minutes … I’m leaving the safety pins under the start flag and going.”
“But Neil, wouldn’t you like to ride with me and Rob? We’ve just driven hundreds of miles and it only happens once a year…?”

Beneath this conversation, and wrapped around it like a Boa Constrictor, was fear and barely concealed panic, caused by the imminent start of the 2013 Wiggle Dragon Ride which we were riding for the third time in four years.
You may wonder how a bike ride can cause such dread  …. The Gran Fondo is 210km (over 130miles) in length. This distance is hard to imagine riding on a  bike, So let me try and explain…
Imagine being sat on a bike for 8 or 9 hours, your butt planted on a thin strip of plastic. After a short while, you’ll feel discomfort. Get out of the saddle if it makes you feel any better, but your legs will start burning after a few minutes so choose whichever position is less painful. Now get your heart rate up to an average of 150bpm for the entire duration. 150bpm was my average for this year, I’m guessing that would be catagorised as “frenetic exercise”… and then sustain that for longer than the final season of “Breaking Bad”.
Now turn up the heat. Crank it up to somewhere between comfortable and scorchio. You can add some sunburn this year. Then mix in some disconcerting leg twinges; They make your muscle and sinew feel like rope, being pulled on by imps. If you’re uninitiated, you can add full blown leg cramps, and they literally disable you. Dozens of riders litter the Dragon every year massaging their legs in tortured consternation.
On top of this, sprinkle some rather excessive dehydration. I’m going to assume you are sensible and stop at every rest stop on the route and partake of the refreshments. Even so, you’ll resemble Spongebob Squarepants in a desert after the ride is done. From a personal perspective, I’m going to throw in numbness to the nether-regions this year, a numbness that lasted until the next day… and pain when urinating.
It’s fair to say there’s also a dash of danger to squeeze over the top; Riding down mountain sides at 40+mph is never going to be “safe”, and this year was no exception. I went past three riders who were lying on the road holding their bloody faces together, dazed, pale and completely unable to finish. I must add that they were in each case being attended to by other riders, all of whom appeared to know exactly what to do whilst waiting for the ambulance. In each case the crash had occurred on a bend on a fast part of a mountain descent. Marshalls can marshall, and rules can be explicit, but humans will be humans. There will be crashes on mountain descents, it’s a risk you take when you enroll for these events with thousands of other enthusiastic amateurs.
I’m not finished…. Take that 210km and add some elevation. This year the organisers went with three major ascents (four if you count the Devil’s Elbow … but I’ll come onto that). There is the Black Mountain to begin with;  a seemingly endless grind through bleakly impressive topography. A mountain that silences all who ride it.
Then put the Bwlch and the Rhigos in there, the trademark ascents of the Dragon. Climbs generally amplify whatever pain a rider has at the bottom. Listen carefully and there is more than a funereal silence; the slopes are filled with the hitching sound of tortured chests and the occasional death rattle.
Then throw in the Devils Elbow. Here the organisers dispense with the trademark 6% mountains that people flock to climb and out of sheer “assassin-like” temperament, throw in a wall of pain with a photographer at the top to capture whatever rictus of strained agony your skull displays. To make sure riders don’t “slack”, they made this a timed climb.
Due to attending a wedding the day before, Rob and I were travelling from the South East of England and had got up at 0230hrs in order to make Port Talbot in Wales for the 0730hrs start. Neil on the other hand had travelled from the Midlands and had arrived at 0530hrs, giving him ample time to worry. I’m sure if you were to read his article on the event you would see that he was very organised and realise I’m the gibbering idiot, unfortunately for him he doesn’t write articles, so take it from me …. Neil was a panicking mess.
To make matters worse, when we arrived and rolled the 100 metres over towards him at the Start/Finish line, Rob got a puncture. This didn’t bode well for the remaining two hundred and ten thousand metres in front of us. Neil stripped the wheel and had it repaired in less than five minutes whilst Rob went to find a track pump from one of the stalls (triggering his helmet timing chip as he walked beside the starting line). Whilst we watched Neil fixing the tyre with frenzied efficiency, the first block of riders departed, and the second. We mustered with the third block, considerably flustered.
And that is how our third Dragon Ride began. Normally we’re late and start near to the back of an impossibly long, CGI-esque queue. This year the organisers staggered the departure times, giving each rider a recommended slot. It meant no queuing, a massive improvement on previous years.
Having projected an optimistic finishing time when I enrolled on the website, we found ourselves with a herd of T-Rex’s; riders with enormous legs and tiny arms. The pace was ferocious and the conversation non-existent. However, climbing up our first serious climb it became apparent that the best rider in our bunch was a tiny woman who’s chiselled calf muscles and diminutive dimensions resulted in excellent power to weight ratios. She started to drop our group.
On the descents my [excessive] weight assisted in regaining our position in this depleted group, as we scrambled back onto her wheel. But after several miles of climbing we had to slacken the pace slightly and she slowly, inexorably, disappeared up a mountain, never to be seen again.
My main aim this year was to make Rob suffer and to take Neil down on the timed ascents. I’m not sure if this is how everyone motivates themselves, but I find great strength in seeking to DESTROY!!! Rob is a super-fit martial artist. He doesn’t carry excess weight and he knows how to shut down pain. However, his legs haven’t got the cycling miles in them, and his aim was always to finish the ride and stay with us for as long as possible.

Rob channels every spare process into ignoring pain. Does it hurt ninja-boy?

Neil on the other hand rides 40 miles a day on his commute. He’s as thin as a Crystal Meth addict (let’s not stray from Breaking Bad for too long) and he wants to make me suffer. I know this because we’re friends, and I know how he thinks. I want him to cry tears of blood when he sees my padded ass powering away from him. He wants me to climb off my bike, a broken man, snot bubbling out of my nose. If asked, he would deny this primordial urge to destroy me. But I know. I know…
We arrived at the Devil’s Elbow in good spirits, completely unaware of the nature of the climb. The Dragon is typically all about long drags and the Devil isn’t. We soon realised this when the road appeared to disappear from view, only to find it had doubled back on itself and was much, much higher than expected. The gradient ramped massively and the riders in front appeared to have hit a wall of treacle. I noticed that Rob was suffering as we went through the timed start, so I decided to put the hammer down. That’s a relative term, it was a felt-coated hammer inside a piano that I put down, but still I made some distance on Neil and Rob, and neither showed any interest in catching me.
This was a massive mistake for Neil as clearly I would relive this climb with him dozens of times over beer, and regale him with tales of my brilliance, again and again. He must have sensed this because when I looked over my shoulder down the hill, a small black and white dot was climbing past the other riders. When he’s tired Neil rides like a geriatric chicken, pecking at the road, his head bobbing up and down listlessly. When I looked back all I could see was his shiny, sweaty eyeballs, staring at me, his head locked. He reduced the gap with about 100 metres of the climb remaining.
Unfortunately for Neil, he’d spent every ounce of strength catching me and so I opened up the gap at the summit, claiming a rather hollow 2 second lead on him. He’d neutralised the climb with that come-back, and my victory was tarnished as a result. He would pay.

After my initial burst, Neil (in black and white) managed to close the gap up the Devil’s Elbow

The Rhigos is where the final battle took place. By now Rob was in his own reality, far from the Dragon. He’d crawled inside his head and taken up residence away from all the hurt, his legs on auto-spin. We left him at the bottom of the Rhigos, climbing at his own pace, and unleashed everything at each other. You would never confuse the ensuing battle with a couple of pro-riders going head to head. We are middle-aged mamil’s, not superhuman freaks of nature. However, it was close, and we both wanted victory so badly it was emotional. We rode the mountain side by side, nudging the pace up from time to time. Sweat pouring from our noses we pushed each other further than I think I’ve ever been pushed. We took the battle right to the top, and with metres to go realised that neither of us would give in. We rode the summit together and for once this felt good.

Break damn you! BREAK!!!

Rob reached us moments later, his Dragon ride a total success. We finished the final 15 miles at a relatively fast pace. The organisers know how much that 15 mile steady descent is loved by the riders and along with the Bwlch and the Rhigos it’s a permanent feature of the Dragon Ride.

For every hour of pain there's a moment where you look around and enjoy the scenery.
This year I am coming back on my own, having signed up to attempt the Devil Dragon, a mere 300km of pain. Neil is competing in a run on that date and Rob just laughed. I’ve never ridden anything near as long, it’s genuinely daunting.

An example of the body saying one thing and Rob’s eyes saying something completely different.

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