I confess I hadn’t planned on entering. I don’t do sportives much anymore having done most of the Welsh ones. I had my sights set on something more chic, more European and with more hardcore climbing. Though I am lured by the promise of closed roads it’s possible to get a little blase about riding in your own backyard and it’s difficult to fork out for something that you can do every day. Or so I thought.
The Sportive industry is now big business. That’s certainly the case for the 14,000 strong entry field to the Velothon Wales with its #ridelikeapro hashtag. Big road closures means big money is needed. In all of the numbers it’s big. In scenery? It’s pretty nice actually. It’s not dramatic, but it’s lush and verdant. There are two very decent climbs, both lungbusters. There’s a bit of post industrial heartland at the beginning but that soon passes.
And then there’s the elephant in the room. The sheer scale of the number of people trapped, neigh, imprisoned in their own homes, being held hostage even, because of the road closures and the trillions lost to some parts of the economy while the City of Cardiff rakes it in. The evocative language of Facebook and Twitter is resplendent with the plight of those who are inconvenienced by this most trifling of sports. But, you know what, this paragraph was originally going to be a bit longer so that I could rant and rail a bit more. I won’t and you’ll understand why later.
This year my very good friend and hugely talented lawyer Paul asked me whether I wanted to ride with the Eversheds solicitors team. I’d been doing some decent training but with no sportives planned thought I’d better stick some long ones in. As the event approach I actually got a bit excited and I’ve not felt that way about organised sportives in a while.
In the week running up to the event the weather forecast was changeable. At one point I’d contemplated doing it on my flat bar commuter with some narrower tyres. I was pretty seriously thinking about taking the CX with it’s 1x gearing at one point. As it looked better and better with only the threat of a shower, the venerable Cannondale Supersix looked like the only choice. Oh, you want to know what kit I wore? Well, that’s to be expected. Eversheds jersey (excellent) and Assos S7 Equipe shorts. Review of those coming soon to this site.
The event itself starts with the Expo. It’s not an overwhelmingly huge experience but it’s slick and well managed with just the right amount of stuff available if you’ve forgotten some kit, need an espresso or fancy a beet-it energy bar. The charities are present as well. The grass is green, natch. The Expo on a sunny Friday in Wales is professional and pleasant experience. For those that attended on the Saturday it was a slightly damper affair.
Registration took me about 15 seconds. There were minimal queues and enough (volunteer) staff and space on offer to ensure that it all went slickly. One envelope with stuff and some discount vouchers for the expo. The one thing I REALLY like is the race chip. It’s incorporated into the race number on the bike. And the race number is the right size. It will fit between your cables and not look ridiculous. I don’t have to cut it to size. Cable ties are included. Kudos to the organisers. There’s a jersey number and safety pins, it’s a nice fabric effect paper which should stand up to some rain. All good.
Those volunteers are amazing. It’s a well oiled operation and they get it all done with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of efficiency. Without them it would all grind to a halt. So from the people at the registration desks to those of you out there marshalling the course, hats off to you, you did a grand job.
So race day arrived. The sun was out, the roads had pretty much dried out and Cardiff at 7 am on a Sunday morning was throbbing with cyclists. It’s a grand sight to see.
We left our base at Eversheds Solicitors Cardiff (the main race sponsor) and headed off to the start line at about 7 am. The Velothon is sorted into start pens with start times. Pen A got off bang on time at 7 am and we were in Pen F ready to depart at 7.20 with about 1400 other riders. Getting to the pen was seamless and yes, we got away exactly on time. It takes a minute or so to cross the start line but that’s the price you pay for mass entry. I’ve read nothing to suggest that every other pen didn’t get away exactly on time either and by 9 am all 14000 odd entrants were out on the roads.
There is literally no point during this ride where you don’t have the company of other riders. It’s a seamless procession of being passed and then dishing out the passing to others. It does mean that you have to be constantly alert to what’s going on around you and while you may not be racing per se, it’s a good idea to maintain your concentration. Make sure you shoulder check, shout if you’re coming through a small gap etc. Generally the riding was impeccable from all concerned. There were a few spills and one of them did look a bit serious. So if you’re that rider I truly hope that you’re well this morning and back on the bike soon.
The route is pretty good actually. You do have to exit Cardiff and get to Newport. There’s no truly spectacular way of doing that but as soon as you’ve cleared the Blade Runner dystopian behemoth that is Cardiff’s enormous recycling facility it’s out into quiet, well surfaced lanes. Narrow in places but again the standard of riding was very high. There’s very little climbing in this section. Indeed I measured about 100ft by the time we’d got to Newport some 15 or so miles in. For context I’d climbed that by the time I’d commuted a couple of miles this morning. If you want to put a fast average time in for a sportive this is the boy.
Eventually the flatness is broken by a climb past the famous Celtic Manor resort. It gets a bit congested but it’s pretty easy finding a way through. A swift downhill follows and then it’s just a case of riding the route to the Tumble. It meanders a bit, lanes into main roads and back again. It goes from isolation to small communities many of whom were up early on a Sunday morning to get the street party started. While the route wasn’t exactly thronged at this point the support was excellent and spurred you on a bit.
Then the rain came. You could see it in the distance flirting with the Tumble. You hoped it would go North as you went West. No such luck. While not bouncing of the roads it was pretty grim for a while. Stops were made for jackets and gilets. No such stops for me as I hate carrying anything I won’t need for a considerable period of time. So, hardcore bibshorts, jersey and my one concession to the cold, a base layer. Though I did deploy some Rapha deep winter embroication earlier that morning, just in case.
The rain continued for a while. Then the car on the course arrived. At first I thought it was a motorbike. Then a car passed on the other side and seemingly ignored all attempts to bring it to a halt. Once again well done to the Marshalls who tried their best. I understand that the car was brought to a stop somewhere along the line and that arrests have been made. It was a blip. Not the organisers fault and one of those things.
And then, let’s get ready to Tumble! I’ve never done the Tumble. It’s a bit out of the way for me so I don’t get over there that often. I’ve seen it bestowed with mythical status. And yes, it’s a bit hard. Harder than the Bwlch and Rhigos in my view. It was also a bit damp still so climbing something that peaks at 16% with hundreds of others was tricky. But, once again, I saw nothing other than co-operative riding from all concerned. As a climb I rather enjoyed it. It’s quite closed in but doesn’t have the grandeur of the southern approach (from the Ogwr) valley of the Bwlch. But as tree lined ascents go it was great. There’s a lot of fun to be had threading your way through the field and aiming for a good time to the top.
Top of the Tumble duly despatched I hung around at the top to wait for the rest of my team. The organisers have moved the feed station from the top of the Tumble down the valley. That’s a plus in my view. It’s just the wrong place for it and it keeps littering down to more manageable levels. But, riders, there’s still too much. If something falls out, ok. Don’t drop it. Worried about the gels making your pockets sticky? You’ll be washing your jersey. Cut it out and get a grip, preferably of your litter.
Back on the ride and there’s a fast descent to Blaenavon. While the Tumble is a harder climb than the Bwlch or Rhigos the descent is not as much fun. The subsequent descent down the Valley was hard and fast. The roads were excellent and the sheer width of the space available for overtaking was an amazing experience. It’s here that the closed roads really come into their own, the ability to take a line that you could never otherwise take. Oh, and going the wrong way around roundabouts is amusingly top fun.
We pulled into the feed station for a bit of a top up and took a bit of time here. It was busy but the queues went quickly and the organisation was top notch. I’ve no strong view of food on sportives as it can be very personal. But fig rolls, oranges, crisps, jelly babies etc is a good mix. There’s water, High 5 gels, tabs and powder. There are no jam tarts or pasties (my personal pick me ups) but there we are. There were many bins for the clear up and many marshalls sorting people out.
Back onto the road and it’s a bit of a slog now. Your only thought is Caerphilly mountain, a mercifully short Category 4 climb. The flat section approaching Maesycymmer was quite tough despite being flat. I looked down at the Garmin and found myself doing 10 mph. So I put the hammer down and kicked on. The route rolls up and down towards Caerphilly county mainly now on main roads. There are a few gentle dual carriageway ascents (and descents) which pull on the already tired muscles a bit. It’s decently pretty but perhaps the most forgettable section.
Then you hit Caerphilly. It’s arguably better to know nothing about Caerphilly mountain. Arguably better. When my mate Jon and I did the Tour of Wales Sportive a few years back he knew nothing about it. I did. We raced the final section together and I let him eke a few yards out ahead. As he turned the corner to see the gradient his face was a picture. Jon won’t mind me saying this. It does come as a big surprise. There are two parts to this climb, you first climb up the hill out of town. It’s fine. You turn a right hand corner and wham, welcome to 18%. Not all the way, obviously, but enough to make you question whether you can do it. It’s not long, not at all. But it’s a nasty little thing. I twiddled up in 36/28 and stuck in a sprint finish on the final bend. I took in a cheeky latte at the top, from the Cafe, while waiting for the lads to re-assemble.
Once we were back together it was a downhill sprint to the finish. And what a downhill it is. Down the other side, past the thronging crowds, through residential roads with claxons and cowbells, barbequess and high fiving kids. Cardiff was alive. And then a Greipel-esque sprint down the finish straight to collect a finisher’s medal. Job. Done.
It’s a great ride actually. I liked it more than I thought I would. In fact, I loved it. To the organisers, kudos, you nailed it. It’s worth every penny of the entry fee in my view because it’s different. Paying for road closures, signage, and all that goes with it does not come cheap. But it’s the organisation that was incredible. Not a fault, not a hitch. Chapeau.
And the riders. You were great. You rode well and rode strong. As a group you were ambassadors to your sport. Kudos to you as well. Let’s deal with those gel wrappers though.
But the real stars were the people of Wales. Those facebook and twitter whingers don’t represent you. Those of you who were out there with your banners, your flags, your cowbells, those who’d made it a day to remember for us and for you, hats off. You embraced what this is about. It isn’t about cycling. It’s about humanity. People do, people support. A nice sunny day in Spring and you chose to do something that perhaps we should do more often. A day of going nowhere. A day for family. A day to talk to your neighbours. You got it, you got what this is about. It isn’t about us and you. It’s simply about us. Thank you for your contribution. You did us proud.
And a word about my team. Eversheds solicitors were the main event sponsor. I rode for them yesterday in my rather lovely Eversheds kit. You may have seen a few of us, we were hard to miss. A big thanks to Richard Franklin for organising it all, it was a brilliant experience. The Eversheds charity this year was Maggie’s Centres who provide support for the families of cancer sufferers. If you do fancy chucking a few quid at the charity to reward yesterday’s team effort then the link is here.
The Welsh Government have worked to ensure that the Velothon is part of the sportive landscape in Wales for the next 3 years as well. Will I be there next year? Damn right I will.