Velothon Wales 2016 – Sportive Review

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After a successful inaugural year (save for the minor grumblings of a few locals about road closures), Velothon Wales returned to Cardiff this month, boasting a field of 18,000 riders, a 140km route including two of the UK’s Greatest Road Climbs, and the main draw: closed roads free of traffic.

The thought of cruising along in a pack and railing around corners on the wrong side of the road was mouth-watering, and I had heard positive things from friends who had ridden the event the year before, so I duly signed up.

Studying the elevation profile beforehand revealed 5300 feet of climbing over 86 miles. A relatively flat route compared to my usual local rides, save for two impressive vertical spikes: (1)  The Tumble, as featured in previous Tours Of Britain, and (2) Caerphilly Mountain. The Tumble looked toughest on paper, but I knew from speaking with repeat riders that it was Caerphilly Mountain that was the true tester, peaking at 20% in places, and more importantly coming after 70 miles had taken their toll on the weary legs.

Registration the day before was a straightfoward affair,  although the lack of goodies was disappointing. Also, the jersey race number was a bit on the large side. It did fit over my jersey pockets, but only just. There were a few stalls selling the usual merchandise. Due to the huge number of riders, the start times were staggered, with everyone allocated a start pen designated with a letter of the alphabet. You can give a team name when signing up to make sure you start at the same time as friends, but the organisers won’t let you change this close to the event (I speak from experience). The  pens were clearly labelled and the organisation of the event was excellent overall (perhaps a bit too organised, as overly zealous marshalls checked every rider number to make sure no-one was sneaking into a pen they shouldn’t have been in-a minor issue for one of our group who hadn’t given our team name initially, quickly resolved by him jumping the fence a bit further down the road).

Cardiff To Abergavenny

Before I knew it we were off. Resisting the urge to start my Garmin before I was up to a decent speed, I spent the first twenty minutes jostling around in the large pack of riders before things evened out and I had a bit of room to manouevre.

The first thing that struck me  was the relentless pace. The first 40 miles towards Newport and then up to Abergavenny are pancake flat, and coupled with the lack of traffic and not having to stop for traffic lights, I clocked my average speed at nearly 21 mph at one point.  By far this was the fastest I had ever gone on a bike, and for the first time in my cycling life I got to really appreciate the benefits of drafting. Despite the lack of anything resembling a gradient being mildly depressing for a lover of hills like myself, blatantly ignoring traffic signs and going around roundabouts the wrong way never got tedious throughout the day.

One thing I hadn’t fully anticipated was the poor etiquette and lack of riding skill on display from some of the participants. Perhaps due to overexcitement at not having to concentrate on the presence of other vehicles, some riders pedalled with reckless abandon, weaving in front of my wheel without warning, and descending with little regard for the road. Often I heard a shout of “To the right!” only to find not enough room on my right to pass but a rider trying to elbow his way through there anyway. Needless to say, before I had even been riding an hour I witnessed the aftermath of  a few crashes, including riders knocked out and receiving First Aid at the roadside from passers by. A sobering sight, and one that reminded me not too get too carried away with myself.

The Tumble – 4.6km, 10% av. grade

The weather had been kind so far, but as we ate up the miles and approached Abergavenny, the skies darkened (as they often do in Wales) and the heavens opened on us. Cursing my decision not to pack a jacket, I suffered on before a fellow rider lent me a gilet in a show of camradarie the sport is known for. The road had started to pull upwards at last, which took my mind (somewhat) off my cold wet feet. The Tumble appears at the 50 mile mark, and does a good job of disgiusing itself with an inconspicious start until it kicks up to 10% and you realise you’re actually on the climb itself.

The climb got congested fast. Gears clunked down and laboured breathing was heard all around, as people settled in for the slog.  Surprisingly,  a lot of riders didn’t even attempt the hill, and were pushing their bikes up it (I guess not everyone has learned to appreciate the beautiful agony of hill climbing). Fitter riders weaved in and out trying to find a path through the masses…Not the best day for a PB on the climb. The perils of a mass ride were hard to avoid even when going uphill, and I watched one rider whose cadence dropped so low he came to a complete stop and fell over, wiping out two other riders like dominoes.

I would describe the Tumble as tough but overrated. Maybe I’m spoilt living so close to classic climbs like The Black Mountain, Rhigos, Bwlch, and Devil’s Elbow, but they all seem more interesting to me than the Tumble. It maintains a constant grade of 10% most of the way up (some say the gradient eases after the cattle grid…lies!) but trees overhang the road and it doesn’t really open up until near the top, when you get a scenic view of the Black Mountains on your right. The climb just keeps going up without much variation in grade or direction.

Ignoring the feed stop at the top (part of my game plan, they were chaotic) I began the descent towards Blaenavon. It didn’t last as long as hoped, and taking risks was not worth it due to the number of riders descending at the same time. Once the main descent was over though there were a good few miles of coasting down gradually descending roads, which my legs appreciated at that point.

Caerphilly Mountain – 1.4km, 10% av. grade

As we rode through small villages fast approaching the second big climb of the day, I was impressed by the great turnout of locals cheering us on (this was a common theme throughout the day). People rang bells and shouted words of encouragement from the roadside, and they were well received at this point. You could see the result of the early fast pace taking it’s toll on riders’ faces, and I felt myself fading a little as we rode up gradients on a dual carriageway which felt far steeper than the 5% my Garmin kept telling me they were.

As we approached Caerphilly I rode alongside an older rider in a local club jersey, and asked him what the upcoming climb was really like. “When you see it…It just goes straight up”. Confidence inspiring. “Yes but what is it like? Is it short?” I asked. “I don’t know, I avoid it” he replied. So much for local knowledge.

Some more downhill coasting took us into the town and past Caerphilly Castle where the gradient kicked up and stayed up. Definitely shorter and steeper than the Tumble, I found I enjoyed it more. The pain was short lived, and the crowds spurring us on by ringing bells and shouting ‘Allez!’ were the best we’d seen all day. As the road flattened out and my heart rate began to drop back down , I knew the climbing was pretty much done for the day and all that was left was a quick blast back to the finish line in Cardiff.

The final miles passed by quickly and before I knew it we were speeding over the finish line and the Velothon 2016 was done. We were herded away from the line and given a medal along with a bottle of water and a packet of salty crisps. The medal itself was a bit cheap looking compared to the previous year, which was a bit of a shame.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Velothon. The novelty of riding on closed roads is worth the entry fee, and despite the lack of goodies, the actual organisation of the road closures and signage (which must be a logistical nightmare) was excellent. I would do it again, especially if they varied the route.

The Good

  • Closed roads
  • Friendly atmosphere
  • Good support from locals
  • Well organised
  • Quick response to mechanicals and crashes from what I saw
  • Despite being busy food stops seemed plentiful (oranges, salty crisps, jelly babies, bananas)

The Bad

  • Huge number of riders – Route always felt crowded, perhaps capping the number of riders would be better
  • Some boring roads – The organisers clearly chose wide roads like dual carriageways to accomodate the number of riders (which is fair enough)
  • Only two real hills – Plenty of other opportunities within striking distance
  • Medal was a bit underwhelming

The Ugly

  • The lack of respect and etiquette from a minority of riders

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