bikebritain News June 27, 2015

Velothon Wales 2015

In the interests of transparency, let me first declare that I love Wales. I went to University in Wales, and there began a one-way love affair that has now lasted nearly seventeen years. I, ladies and gentlemen, am a Cymruphile. So, when I heard about Velothon Wales, I signed up immediately and was very keen for it to go very well, so much so that I am prepared to lie about how well it went for the purposes of this article.

It was certainly an ambitious event, designed to put Cardiff and rural South Wales firmly on the cycling map. I didn’t pay it a lot of attention between signing up and the week before the event, other than when they casually wrote to me to inform me that the route I would be cycling had been extended by 10 or so miles, a casualty of the closed roads that were one of the big event features. When I did pay some attention, I realised I would be one of 15,000 taking part across the 50km and 140km routes as well as the Pro Race.

Myself, Jonathan and Joe did a recce to the region in March and I struggled on The Tumble, one of the two big climbs on the route alongside Caerphilly Mountain, which I didn’t struggle up, principally because we didn’t go near it. So there was plenty to be worried about as the event approached... the weather was looking decidedly dodgy, I was in one of the last groups to set off, and I had visions of being picked up by the broom wagon as I walked up The Tumble. In a thunderstorm.

In the end, none of those things happened.

I arrived, in a rented van, into Cardiff on the Saturday afternoon, and registered with minimal fuss. There was a large Expo and lots going on, but I ignored all of that because parking was a nightmare and I only had 30 minutes in the Lidl car park to pick up my number and timing chip. However, let’s say the Expo was great, tremendous even. Well done Velothon Wales. Great start.

Checked into my hotel, I went and met an old Uni friend for a quick drink which quickly turned into more than is advisable the night before a long cycle and so, although Sunday dawned bright and clear, my head was dark and fuzzy. My mood wasn’t helped by trying to navigate to my start pen from the hotel. Along with several dozen other cyclists, we found that all routes were blocked by the event itself and we’d been boxed in. The stewards were unsympathetic to our plight, and it took a near mutiny to be allowed to get to where we needed to be.

We set off in bright sunshine and headed west along the coast on flat terrain. I was trying desperately to shake off my hangover, as dozens of cyclists streamed past me every minute and I overtook about three in the first hour. We passed south of Newport, joining the main A48 and then crossed under the M4 just east of Magor to begin heading north. The route felt quite functional; negotiating the M4 was clearly a big obstacle for a closed roads event, and we were a decent way along the route before you felt we were seeing the sort of countryside that the event was intending to showcase. Closed roads were proving hugely enjoyable though; that said, I did have to keep reminding myself that I did have a little more freedom, although you were never too far from a pace line steaming up on the right hand side.

It wasn’t too long before I heard my first mention of a word I’d hear and see a lot more over the next couple of days. Tacks. We were grinding to a halt on a narrow country lane and shouts of “tacks on the road” were being relayed down the ‘peloton’. We were off the bikes and either gingerly wheeling or carrying them along the road, peering inquisitively at the road surface. After a couple of hundred yards, it was deemed safe to continue though I, nor those around me, saw any detritus on the tarmac. I thought little more of it until after the finish.

Eventually we happened upon the first feed station. I can’t remember what I saw first: the signs for the stop, or the dozens of stationery bikes in the road queuing to queue to get in before, in many cases, abandoning their bikes in the verge and proceeding on foot. It was like a zoo, utter carnage. I made what progress I could through the melee, intending to just abandon any idea of stopping, but a nagging twang from both stomach and bladder meant I pulled up just past the stop to survey my options. My options were queue for everything or carry on. The only food I could see were bananas, I had enough liquid on me, and there were plenty of discreet places for a pee now we were out in the countryside. I pressed on.

The bladder twang was starting to become a full on guitar solo and I was starting to look furtively for a good spot to hop off when suddenly we swung left onto a road I recognised. My heart sank. It was Tumble time, and I was going to do it with an aching bladder. The scene ahead of me was one of disarray from the moment the road headed upwards. Bikes all over the road, with plenty of weaving as the front-loaded gradient immediately bit. Quicker cyclists were trying to find a route through.

I knew this was the hard bit. I didn’t weave; I got into granny gear and navigated my way up the twisting initial section. It wasn’t long before there was a walker’s lane on the left hand side of the road. I strapped myself in and ground it out, keeping an eye out for those about run out of gas in front of me. I knew from the recce where the respite would come. My bladder screamed. My legs screamed. My mouth may have screamed, but I don’t think it did. I found some energy to go round a few people and picked up some space on the road. The gradient eased. I had reached the top of the climb and I hadn’t wet myself. It hadn’t been fast, and it hadn’t been pretty, but it had been done.

There was another feed station at the top of the hill. I flung my bike into the verge, stomped past the toilet queue and found a quiet spot to relieve myself. I perused the selection of snack options. Hmm, to go for the banana followed by the energy gel, or the energy gel followed by the banana?

There was only one choice. Well actually, there were literally only two choices. I went banana then gel, and grumpily set off. After the descent, we took the direct route to Pontypool (rather than the more picturesque back route we’d explored in March), and headed west, largely on main roads. It was generally flat, with the odd nasty incline. Reaching Ystrad Mynach, we headed south toward Caerphilly. I was getting hungry and low on fluids and feeling fairly weary. I knew there was another feed station at the top of Caerphilly Mountain but I was also 99% sure that it would be another banana-fest and I was 80% sure I wasn’t getting up the hill without some sustenance. It was playing on my mind as much as anything.

I spotted a local shop, and pulled over. Enough was enough. A pasty, some crisps, some jelly tots and a drink. This was hardly ‘taking the pro road’ as the event slogan insisted I was, but the pro road could sod off. I virtually inhaled the food and, feeling much better, carried on my much merrier way. However, it turned out that I was a lot closer to Caerphilly Mountain than I thought, or hoped. I’d gone up The Tumble with a full bladder; I was going up the 15% mountain with a full belly.

‘Mountain’ conjures images of icy peaks and switchback roads. There’s no time for any of that rubbish in Caerphilly. It’s a big hill, and you pretty much go straight up it. ‘100 Climbs’ says 1.4km at an average of 10%, and who am I to disagree? Once again, there was a carnival of pain all over the road. We were 125km into a 140km ride, and there was not a lot left in the tank. One gentleman kept going until he was pedalling squares, had no energy left to come to any kind of safe stop, and simply fell over. I knew better than to try anything other than dump it in the bottom gear and grind it out, alternating between sitting and standing according to gradient and how much my stomach hurt. There was pain, but the ordeal was brief and I knew, once at the top, it was a fairly easy ride in. I reached the top: feed station, queues, bikes, bananas, brevity. I wasn’t bothering. A brief rest and I was off.

From there, it was an easy ride into Cardiff and time to relax. The hangover hadn’t beaten me, the hills hadn’t beaten me, the tacks hadn’t beaten me, and the chronic lack of non-banana-based grub hadn’t beaten me. I finished 140.1km in 6:02:39 riding time, with 1419m elevation gain. Apparently, with a total time of 6:24:01 including stoppages (about 80% of which was concerned with the pasty pit-stop) gives me an overall position of 7322nd out of the 8777 who completed the 140km course, which seems quite low to me given how late I started and how many people I passed (many of them walking their bikes up the hills), but it’s hardly a shock of seismic proportions. I took the pro-road, and I Kenny van Hummel-ed my way round. Somebody has to.

It turned out, checking the social media later on, that tacks on the road had caused some pretty horrific accidents for at least a couple of riders, and a good number of punctures besides. I’m still confused as to where they actually were and whether I carried my bike over these unseen dangers or just got lucky, but it goes without saying that if your response to being inconvenienced or angry about a bike race is to endanger lives (some tacks were apparently placed on steep downhill sections, where a sudden puncture is not going to end well), then you probably need some perspective.

That said, it does seem that the organisers were a little economical with the information given to local residents and businesses, not that this is an excuse, but it is the kind of behaviour that might antagonise the easily antagonisable. Some of the organisation did seem to suggest that the event was king, and the participants and residents were just people who happened to be there.

Which brings me to the feed stops. I get that this was a high level sportive and not a mess about, I really do. After all, it does seem I was dangerously close to coming last had I actually utilised each rest stop. We were ‘taking the pro road’, and the pros do not stop three times in 140km for a sit-down, a selection of snacks and a proportional number of portaloos. However, if we’re really pretending to be professional, let’s go the whole hog and have no rest stops. We can pee in a ditch, snatch a musette from a handy volunteer and, whilst we’re at it, shoot up a load of EPO to give you the edge over those climbs.

The feed stops were just not fit for purpose. Bikes were strewn everywhere as soon as you got in sight of the stop. The race pack authoritatively told you there would be a clear pull-off lane to the left and, to stay right if you wanted to pass on through, but none of that was possible. Even if you love banana so much it’s all you wanted to eat all day, the volunteers couldn’t cut it up fast enough to keep up with demand. And apparently putting out whole bananas wasn’t an option. If I wanted a whole banana, I had to compete with a bevy of ravenous, lycra-clad monsters until I had my three thirds.

It seems that most of the entry fees went towards compensating local business and keeping the road closed, because it wasn’t clear what you’d paid for beyond that.

Still, enough moaning. The cycling element of it was impressive. 140km of closed roads in and out of one of the largest cities in the UK, going over two testing climbs and through some beautiful countryside is nothing to sniff at. I really enjoyed myself. There was a good atmosphere and camaraderie out on the road, and some typical Welsh wit on show. Apart from the ones putting tacks on the road, the locals were out in force to support and there was great noise and encouragement around most of the route. The organisers thought big and, for the most part, delivered. There are lessons to be learned, but I’m sure they will be, and Velothon Wales will return stronger next year. There’s plenty more great scenery to explore, so I’m hoping there’s scope to vary the route. Either way, I’ve already pre-registered for 2016.

So in summary, this was a great event where everything almost sort of went right and everyone should do it next year. 62% is a travesty; I can’t believe the idiot who gave it that score. I love Wales.

Category

Score

Website Information

8

Quality of event venue

8

Sign-in process

8

Quality of event road signage

7

Route options

9

Food quality at rest stops

2

Rider support services

7

Event product testing

4

Freebies

2

Timing Accuracy

4

Participant friendliness

8

Ride-it-again-ability

7

Overall value for money

7

Total

62%

Words and Slider Image – Lukey

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