I accidentally ended up doing the Dragon Ride Gran Fondo yesterday. Having found I could get a free entry on Friday afternoon, I put out a tweet on asking if there was anyone in London driving over, expecting nothing of it. However, within an hour or so, contact was made, and before i knew it, it was Saturday morning and I was sat in a van being driven out to South Wales. Here’s how it went, and a few brief reflections / lessons that could be useful for you.
As you can see above, the Dragon Ride is no walk in the park. The Gran Fondo is 230km and around 3600m climbing (per the official elevation estimate).
The elevation is probably not the obstacle here. It’s the distance. And the nature of that climbing. Admittedly, there’s 5 or 6 big climbs lasting anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes each that take up a big chunk of that 3600m, but those remaining meters are made up of rolling, twisty, draggy / heavy roads that are rarely flat and never easy. There’s little opportunity for fast easy miles. You even have to push hard on the descents to gain decent speeds. Andn a lot of the ride is across awesomely bleak moorland, which attracts brisk buffeting winds, further throwing off your rhythm and momentum
I was well aware of the gruelling riding to be had in Wales, having ridden Dragon Ride in 2012 and 2013, and been on a training week there. However, in all of those rides I felt fresh and rested. Yesterday, I did not.
As soon as I started riding, I could tell it was going to be a long day. Perhaps not fully recovered from a big weekend at the Tour Of Wessex, having had an absurdly long and slow journey in the van the day before, and a very poor sleep on the hard floor of the back of a van, my legs felt heavy and alien.
On top of this, a ‘picnic’ breakfast was the last thing I needed. although my pre-packed bircher meusli and uber peanutbutter, banana and jam sandwich was a decent brick in my stomach, i really needed something hot. And a proper coffee. Furthermore, I’d brused my ribs in the week, making me feel permanently just a bit uncomfortable. Although the power was just about there in the legs for the first few hours of the ride, it took a lot of work to get it out, and my head felt foggy and slow.
And this leads on to the lesson / learning from the Dragon Ride; how to stay strong in the head when you know you’re on a shit one. Thinking ahead to my Haute Route, or indeed yours, if you too are all signed up…. over those seven days there will inevitably be one where mental and physical fatigue grinds away at your mojo, and you need to be able to manage this. The below may help.
The first point…
I was riding with Paul, another Haute Route ambassador, a strong rider of similar ability to me. We stuck together throughout the day, pacing each other up hills and doing our best to take turns and share the work through flatter sections (although on those roads and that terrain, it wasn’t always that effective). Having that company was invaluable. I really flagged in the middle of the ride and Paul was there to spur me on and perhaps do more of the work. I rallied in the final 40 miles where Paul started to suffer, and I was there to keep him on it and drag him around as much as possible.
If you’re suffering, try to find company. The shelter of a friendly wheel, and the chat and motivation of a fellow rider, will do you far more benefit than any amount of gels, bars and drinks.
The next point…
As mentioned above, the wheels started coming off for me around the middle of the ride. Paul and I stopped at three of the feeds, the first being at around 60 miles. It was at about 50 miles, battling the winds on a heavy and grinding moorland stretch, that I suddenly realised; once we stop, there will still be 80 miles to go. I feel far from great now, so how will i get around the rest? Even after a quick refuel, these thoughts were still nagging at me. Still 75 miles; still 70 miles etc. The remaining time in the saddle til the end was boggling my sleep deprived mind.
The picture to the right shows the stem sticker I made mapping the main obstacles and ‘events’ of the ride, with ‘F’ denoting feed. My renaissance, (probably mentally more than physically) came as we approached our second feed of the day on 86 miles. In my head it became this: ‘OK, once we’ve stopped, it’s around 15 miles to Black Mountain (perhaps the hardest climb of the day). Once I’m over that, it’s 12 miles til we get to stop. After that stop, it’s 15 miles til the final significant climb. Then… it’s the final 13 mile push home. Then… we’re done.’
So, essentially, I broke the ride down into mentally fathomable chunks. Like I do on the turbo (see my discussion of this here), you can’t think of how long it is til the end of the ride, you must only think about the immediate future. Having the spur of the next ‘rest’ on a descent, or opportunity to pause at a feedstation to stop, stand up, release your legs and refuel your body, really helps.
So that’s it really. Both of the above points, about company and compartmenting your day, are about mental approach. Cycling is as much about mental as physical strength. If your mind cracks, the legs will go. If the legs have gone, but the mind keeps its shit together, you can get around the day. And I think that I just about kept it together in the ‘top 3 inches’ on the Dragon Ride.
If you’re having a bad day in the saddle, break it down, find friends, and stay strong up top. If you don’t, you’re going to have a real bad day.