I gave my sportive virginity to Etape Cymru

Newbie gets crazy idea

I’d been riding a road bike for only about a month when I heard about the Etape Cymru. Hmm, I’ll have about 8 weeks to train, I thought – go for it! 100  miles of rolling Welsh hills with over 6000 ft of climbing, what’ s to be scared of?
As a sportive “virgin”, where better to experience my first taste than my homeland Wales, on local hills I’ve grown up around?

Luckily for me, parts of the route are right on my doorstep and I was able to go and rehearse sections of it over the weekends leading up to the event. Still, it was by far the longest and most challenging ride I would ever have attempted. Not bad for a first sportive, eh?

Having just completed the event yesterday, here is my personal reflection on the experience.

The big day

My day started at 5.30am with the adrenaline inducing, silence shattering of the alarm clock. As the brain re-boots, and quickly finds a bit of data which says “Etape Cymru”, there’s an instant conflict with the fact that it’s dark, cold and windy outside – what the hell was I thinking signing up for this?
After a drive of about an hour, I’m scrabbling for a parking space among hundreds of brightly coloured, lycra clad, skinny muscle bound athletic types. Am I in the right place? I’m just here to ‘have a go’ not break any world records. I’d like a trophy for simply not dying on the route please.

Influenced by some advice from an experienced cyclist colleague, I’m geared up in my posh new bib shorts and for the first time experiencing the delights of Assos chamois cream. So it was with butt-tingling excitement that I arrive at the start area to soak up the atmosphere. Having never ridden in a group before, it looks like I picked a good one to get my first experience.

The start was delayed by about 20 minutes which resulted in standing around shivering a lot, followed by a peculiar one-legged shuffle for the first 200 metres as the pace struggled to increase to the point where you feel confident to clip in both feet.

Being a newbie, I was keen to conserve energy and not get too excited too early. Fortunately the first few miles were on narrow lanes which made it very difficult for the pack to spread out and for the faster riders to get ahead. This enforced slow pace suited me, but would have frustrated many. Indeed there was “carnage” at the first hill, according to some reports, as those keen (and able) to get ahead were hampered by slower riders on the narrow roads.

The first “wow” moment for me was getting up to the panorama walk, heading towards Dinbren/World’s End. This is a stunning place and even though I’m a local, no contempt has been bred by my familiarity with the surroundings. I hoped that riders from outside the area had their breath taken away metaphorically by the views as much as physically by the hill climbing!

Up and over World’s End and I was surprised to find myself passing people walking up the hills. No hang on, I’m the newbie here – how come I’m powering up this slowly but steadily and you’re walking? This was encouraging, in a sort of selfish am-I-good-enough way.

The descent down to Minera had claimed a victim, who needed an ambulance (hope he was ok). Not long afterwards came the first feedstation. Great, I had no water left, and needed an energy boost. Picture a zoo where anarchy has broken out and you’re getting close. As I was setting off, I heard that they had completely run out of all supplies – food and water, with many riders still arriving. Seriously unimpressive.
In terms of the quality of the route itself, the next section felt quite unremarkable, and strong wind dominated. The second stop at Carrog sprang surprisingly into view around a sharp corner, and thankfully seemed better stocked than the first.

The next section took us around, up and over the mountain, which claimed a few more casualties along the way. Many people complained about the lack of appropriate hazard signs after the event. As a newbie, I’m unsure of the mindset here. Is it that in the absence of warning signs riders should assume that full on descent with no brakes is safe, or mandatory? I doubt it, though some people seemed to elevate its importance to a level where it displaces any sense of personal responsibility or care. There were also many reports of signs going missing, not enough marshals and riders getting lost as a result. I must have been lucky in that I wasn’t aware of being lost at any point.

Things that stick in your mind.

Funny how certain things resonate at the time and stay with you. Here’s a list

  • The smoothness of the tarmac on the panorama
  • the rollercoaster-like descent just after Eglwyseg
  • cowbell people
  • high fiving little kids
  • 2 compliments on my grateful dead shirt from fellow riders
  • the almost desperate look of panic on the face of an older guy who was told there was no water left
  • hitting a speed bump doing about 35 and having a bit of a wobble
  • wishing the person in front of you on the descent wasn’t so heavy on the brakes
  • knowing that I did the horseshoe pass 12 minutes quicker only two weeks before
  • realising we weren’t going up the shelf with equal disappointment and relief
  • the very kind people who clapped and cheered us onwards, they made a huge difference.
  • Managing to get up every hill without having to get off and walk
  • feeling extremely lucky not to have had a puncture
  • feeling sorry for the dozens of people in ditches fixing flat tyres
  • overtaking loads of people on the steep hills, only to be overtaken by them again later on the flat. wtf?
  • the soul destroying headwind on the horseshoe pass
  • having to pedal to go downhill on the top of Carrog mountain because the wind was so strong
  • listening to Ryan Adams’ new album on the ipod, in the bath when I got home. bliss

There has been a lot of very negative criticism on twitter and facebook about the organisation of the event and to their credit, the organisers have responded well in recognising the issues, and have created a feedback form to gather opinions. They seem to be making all the right noises about making significant improvements for next year, but many people have already declared that they won’t be back.

Personally, I want them to make the necessary improvements because I love this part of the country, and would like to see an annual event like this grow and become a highlight of the cycling calendar. Our Welsh countryside is undeniably glorious. I’d like to think that the customer experience of Etape Cymru 2012 should be equally so.

I will be back next year to thrash my time of 7:31.
I expect the organisers to tighten up their understanding of the value and importance of the customer experience, and to deliver an event Wales can be proud of.

What is Twitter saying about it?

The animation below pulls in the most recent tweets about #etapecymru

Other Etape Cymru links:

The official Etape Cymru website

The official Etape Cymru facebook page – much discussion here

Official Etape Cymru Twitter account

@thecyclingmayor’s blog post

@ScottyOB1OBrien’s map of the route

@andy_thommo’s map of the route (spot the difference)

@iantaylor2uk’s blog post

@MarkGarnish’s ride report

Wrexham.com article

What do you think?

Please feel free to leave a comment

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100 miles
  • http://thecyclingmayor.com Jennifer

    Saw you out there! Hard to miss that top :)

    • Alan

      Thanks Jennifer :-) what’s surprised me most since the event is how little I’m aching. Must be fitter than I realised, or I just took it too easy! Need a springtime event to keep me training through the winter. Any suggestions?

    • NeilT

      Keep an eye on Wiggle – they are organising a lot of events now. Or browse a copy of Cycling Active which publishes a monthly list of events. Well done on your first long ride – I have yet to attempt a 100 miler, but have done a few 100k rides.

    • Alan

      Cheers Neil, as it happens though the ride was cut short and I since discovered that I was among a group which was diverted the wrong way, meaning we missed out a 6 mile loop. I clocked it at about 86 miles, as many others did, whereas many (who did the extra 6) clocked it at about 92. We’ll have to meet up for an event one of these days and then I won’t be the only one in a GD jersey 😉

  • Cooks

    Hey, saw you out on the road a few times, may have even had a brief chat to you! Im local too, if you ever fancy having another crack at the route, give me a shout!!

    • Alan

      Sounds good. Are you on twitter ? i’m @alanthompson71

    • paul

      Sure am. @pauladamcook

  • peter

    Well written piece Alan. My experience of the ride was very similar to yours, really enjoyed it and will probably enter next year. The organisers clearly had some issues but much of the criticism is unfounded IMO. See you next year

    • Alan

      Thanks Peter, yes let’s hope everyone has a more positive experience next time.

  • http://thecyclingmayor.com Jennifer

    Mad March Hare on March 4th http://www.madmarchharesportive.co.uk/great event doesn’t cost much and gets the season off to a good start. sells out pretty fast and entries opened today so if you’re up for it i’d sign up now. a lot of events haven’t published their dates for next year which is making planning a nightmare! I’m also not achey but I was a bit sleepy for a day or so :)

  • http://fishneedsabicycle.blogspot.com/ Mendip Rouleur

    Saw you out there on Sunday, think I was one of those who passed and was passed by you a few times. Great blog, and great attitude too, all the negativity is a bit of a shame.

  • chris WXM

    Great blog Alan…..I too really enjoyed the challenging course and find all the negative comments a bit over exaggerated. How it was a big surprise to people that Wales has really slippery, muddy, narrow country lanes in October, beggars belief!

  • http://skinnymuscle.com/ Dien Carrew

    “listening to Ryan Adams’ new album on the ipod, in the bath when I got home. bliss”

    nice, i like this :)

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