Wednesday, June 14, 2017

From Greehorns to Dragon Slayers - L'Etape Dragon Medio Fondo – 11th June 2017

Just as the post L2P (London to Paris) blues were striking last September, Uthi suggested the Wales L'Etape Dragon race. A number of new members had joined DCC, a lot of us hadn't done distance more than 20km at a time, and certainly no one had done any big mountain climbing before. Dragon was a daunting prospect - 153km, 2400m climb with long endless climbs one after the other.

However, bravely or foolishly, seven of us decided to take on L'Etape Dragon Medio Fondo - route

Immediately, the gravity of the challenge was clear. We kept the rides going throughout winter where people started to slowly build up their mileage and stamina and getting a hang of technique and pacing.

First meetup to discuss the training plan happened in Feb at Matthew's Yard. People started getting to hear slightly technical jargon such as hill training, speed sessions, heart rate zones, chainset configuration. Discussions became more serious.

A minimum of 3/4 sessions per week were needed, however, given varying time pressures, it was difficult to co-ordinate during the week. However weekends, people generally rode together.

All this while, people were also helping new DCC riders getting started with their slow/steady rides. The club is geared towards beginners and amateurs, so helping people to ride regularly takes precedence over serious training.

Sanjay was also training the kids and their parents for the Big Foot Croydon to Brighton challenge. That was one amazing accomplishment.

In April and May, our mileage and elevation soared - all the major climbs around Kent, Surrey, and Sussex were shortlisted and scaled. However, nothing of the magnitude of dragon ride was still attempted. We remained sceptical!

Matthew dropped out after a medical diagnosis. And then just a week before the event, Ganesh had to drop out and travel to India due to family emergency. Magnificient Seven became the Famous Five. New dad Uthi was also unable to train due to parenting duties. In general, our training left a lot to be desired. Many were looking at avoiding the DNF status rather than setting time goals.

All throughout the last week, all eyes were on the weather. The weather in London was awful and that in Wales was worrisome. Saturday (D Day - 1) showed heavy rains, but Sunday showed 16 degree with 50% chance of rains... and significant winds.

The forecast was spot on. It was raining incessantly throughout the day. Before reaching Cymmer (where we were based), we took a detour along the start of the route (Margam Park going towards Tata Steel works in Port Talbot). The climb started almost immediately going until Cymmer and beyond.

Our cottage was awesome – rustic, well equipped with cyclist friendly facilities. We had a lovely dinner in the converted station pub. Venu, Sanjay, Pankaj decided to recce the first big climb. I had seen enough on the way to Cymmer and didn't need more putting off.

D-Day - Thankfully, the overhead taps were off in the morning and it looked cool and calm. First setback was encountered when I tried to fill air in the tyre however the pump head saliciously took my virgin tube's top off. And to reaffirm its lecher credentials, it did the same with Sanjay's tube. Thankfully, both tubes were replaced soon and we headed to the start location.

We all started together at around 9.30 am, but soon I, Sanjay and the rest spread out. First big hill Blwch started immediately after Cymmer (our base). About 7 km of climb with 5% gradient. All the cyclists ahead were looking like ants reaching up to the sky in search of nirvana. We were back of the queue.

The descent were extremely treacherous due to the gradient and weather. Wind and rain were really taking a hold now. There were some causalities who lost control due to the slope and cross winds.

The second climb Rhigos was 9 km with 4% gradient. Again non-stop spinning, but still the legs were fresh so no major concerns at this point. Also, the first feed station was at the other end. The station was well stocked with Jaffa cake, baked potatoes, and nut bars. With stocks replenished I set on my way. I met Sanjay on the way who needed help with wobbly camera mount, so lent him my rubber bands (always handy). Few meters down, however, I got cramps so stopped. Sanjay stopped to help but I had the cramps in control, just needed some rest. And then he stopped with the same problem ahead (remember the tubes).

We caught up at the second feed station. This one had lovely wraps, sausage rolls, banana etc. Again, well stocked and staffed. Rains got heavy, so the break was longer. We started together, but Sanjay slowed down again due to cramps, but not aware, I kept going. The big one Devil's elbow lay ahead.

Devil's elbow is the only timed segment in the race. From the bottom, it looks like the way to the top is made of steps. On closer look, realised it was a road with cyclists riding at almost walking pace (and some actually walking). I paused before the climb, got some liquids. Sanjay passed me by again. As I started riding, realised that the only way to complete this is to not look too far up. First hair pin gone, looked down and wondered how the hell I climbed so high. Kept going after that, desperately trying not to get blocked by two abreast riders, else I would be off the bike with no chance of getting on until the top.

After that, it was fairly easy for a while. Then suddenly, two long stretches of unexpected climbing (thanks to not studying the route + focussing too much on the Elbow) came up in the closing sections. Shoulders and back was sore, and legs were heavy, but finish line was closer, so I gritted my teeth and kept going.

Was so glad to cross the finish line. Sanjay came a few minutes behind. We got some pasta and (non-alcoholic) beer. Took photos at the podium and with the Devil (who was put off by the weather to be standing as usual at Devil’s Elbow cheering the riders).

After a while, Uthi, Pankaj and Venu came one after the other. They had done the entire 153 km ride in a group. Incredible to stick together in such awful weather conditions.

More photos at the podium opening Spanish ‘champagne’ to celebrate many months’ worth of hard work culminating in a very memorable achievement!

Here’s hoping for more rides and races!
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