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Taming the dragon and the devil at L'Etape Wales

The devil's in the detail, and the distance, at L'Etape Wales

Emily Chappell
20 Jun 2018

I’ve long been suspicious of claims that British landscapes can be just as sublime as their Alpine equivalents, even whilst making them myself. It smacks too much of a small nation’s inferiority complex, and I can’t help but worry that somewhere, up a much bigger hill, the Swiss are laughing at us.

But when I found out that Wales now hosts an Etape all of its own – Dragon Ride L'Etape Wales – I couldn’t resist.

And as I struggled round the first switchback of the Devil’s Elbow, thankful that no other riders were close enough to hear my laboured breathing, wondering when I’d dare release a hand to wipe the rivulets of sweat that were tickling my upper lip and dismayed that, only a few hours in, my quads were already heavy and sore, I discovered that I was perversely glad I’d come.

Unlike the Continental cols, where switchbacks lessen the gradient, in Wales they tend to be an indicator that you’re in for a hard time.

Ahead of the devil

The Devil’s Elbow was new to me, but I couldn’t help but liken it to the Devil’s Staircase, which those of us who’d opted for the 305km Dragon Devil route would meet at the most northerly point of our ride, and whose famous 30% right-hand hairpin even Simon Warren (of 100 Climbs) describes as 'almost unrideable.'

Sensing a theme, the organisers had flown in Didi 'The Devil' Senft, cycling’s most recognisable tifoso, to set us off, and then to cheer us up the first timed climb.

I’ll admit that getting a photo of myself riding uphill alongside a hyperactive bearded German brandishing a trident had been a significant factor in my entry, so I was slightly disappointed to reach the Devil’s Elbow before he did, but I contented myself with the selfie I’d managed to obtain before the ride started, as Didi bounced and grinned and cheered his way around Margam Park, seemingly as delighted to be there as everyone else was to have him.

I wished I had Didi’s energy as we descended through warm, blossoming lanes towards Glynneath, completing the second of four crossings of the Brecon Beacons.

The temperature was rising ominously, and I doubt I was the only one who’d been caught out in my assumption that a ride in Wales would necessarily be cold and rainy.

I mentally gave thanks to the kind gentleman who’d lent me his sun cream at the start, and morosely tucked into the next climb – this time a long dull A road at a relentless 6%, any visual clues to the height we were gaining blocked off by the overhanging trees.

Welcoming locals

My mood was partially salvaged by a small knot of cheering spectators halfway up. I couldn’t quite tell if they were locals or some riders’ family members (if the latter, why had they picked a spot halfway up this unimpressive climb, rather than at the top of something with ‘Devil’ in the title?), but I was grateful for their smiles and cowbells.

It made a pleasant change from the drawing pins that some disgruntled local had scattered across the road twenty minutes from the start.

I’d managed to ride through unscathed, but several dozen others weren’t so lucky.

Out here in the wilds of southern Powys though, inhabitants were distinguished by their friendliness and their scarcity. Vehicles were rare on these narrow lanes, and even the cyclists thinned out as we passed the point where our route split from the 223km Dragon Gran Fondo.

This was where my morale briefly touched rock bottom. I had no reasonable excuse to wimp out and take the shorter route (other than my lack of energy, everything seemed to be working as it should), but by now it was so hot that my head was pounding, my skin virtually sizzling, and my gloves and sleeves already crusty with the sweat I was constantly scraping from my face.

Up the staircase

The Devil’s Staircase is notorious but, despite Warren’s gloomy pronouncements, just on the edge of rideable. I’ve learned to treat it with respect (humbly beginning the climb in my very lowest gear), and even a certain grudging admiration, since its gradients and corners seem to have been cleverly designed to stretch cyclists to their limit.

First there’s a long straight ramp that doesn’t look too bad when you approach it head on, but any attempt at big-ring heroism quickly and literally grinds to a halt as the gradient creeps imperceptibly upwards.

Then the first hairpin, devilishly tilted, offers riders no recovery or respite whatsoever before ushering them reluctantly into the next stretch, where the tarmac seems to close in on you, its unreasonable angle bringing it a couple of claustrophobic inches closer to your nose as you approach the coup de grace – a second hairpin whose inside edge is so steep that you’d laugh at it if only you could muster the breath.

But now I knew I was going to make it, and as the marshal at the hilltop timing station passed me a Snickers bar, I felt my glow of triumph begin to set in.

All downhill from here?

It most certainly would not be all downhill from here (the route profile showed something resembling a pyramid about 60km from the finish), but the Dragon Devil’s biggest psychological hurdle had been crossed, and I knew that if I just kept pedalling, I’d get to the end.

I soared jubilantly along the banks of Llyn Brianne, swooping in and out of the green folds of the Cambrian Mountains as the vast blue lake glittered down to my right, and indifferent sheep regarded me from the hillsides.

Bare grasslands gave way to overgrown country lanes, and we whirred back through the sunshine to rejoin the Gran Fondo riders, just in time to chase them up the slopes of the Black Mountain.

In aspect and stature, this hill resembled Alpine passes more closely that anything else the day had had to offer, and we gazed out over the retreating hilltops of Mid Wales, while down below us a long line of colourfully clad cyclists puffed and panted their way upwards.

The Dragon has a sting in its tail though and I continued to admire whoever designed this route for the way in which they paced riders, pushing them harder than many probably thought they could go, rewarding them with sweeping descents and quiet lanes, but constantly foiling any expectation that the worst might be behind them.

A short urban climb on the outskirts of Neath turned out not to be so short after all. It rounded a corner, kicked up to 10%, and carried on for longer than seemed entirely plausible, whilst I marvelled at whichever ingenious road builder had managed to wring so much ascent out of a relatively modest suburban hillock.

Finish in sight

And then, finally, we raced each other back along the empty dual carriageways towards Margam Park, alternately energised and exhausted by the final upward push.

Didi was nowhere to be seen at the finish, but we were handed cold pints of (alcohol-free) beer as we crossed the line, and the sky faded towards twilight as we drank and refuelled, congratulating each other on what, in many cases, was our longest ride to date.

I continued to review my mental map of Wales, instantly forgetting the dread and struggle of the Devil’s Elbow and Staircase, and instead noting that an extra northward loop, to take in Devil’s Bridge, would only add 100km…

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