Slaying the Dragon

Photo credit: AWOL Adventure

When Sarah Jackson broke her foot, she never imagined it would lead her to tackle the epic Dragon Ride - Devil Route.

As a relatively new cyclist (I had only taken up cycling about 18 months ago), completing the Dragon Ride was always going to be a challenge. It was something I had been looking forward to with a mixture of excitement and hesitation. It was definitely going to be a tough ride!

My road to the start

I have been a member of Serpentine RC since 2012 and am a keen trail and ultra runner. Unfortunately, two years ago I had a nasty foot injury (a fracture and ligament tear) which left me pretty immobile, in a cast and on crutches. As an avid runner, I found it incredibly frustrating not to be able to do something I loved. As I was making a slow recovery, somebody suggested I could try spinning – it wouldn’t have a high impact on my foot but would still enable me to keep active.

After a few months of indoor cycling, I dusted the cobwebs off an old bike and took to the outdoors. It wasn’t always straight forward. Buying my first cleats led to the inevitable stationary fall at a junction. My first attempt at riding 30 miles resulted in me demanding a taxi and cake at the half way point (I did eventually continue). I discovered bib shorts provided much needed added comfort. I learnt that cleaning a bike involves more than soap and water. And whilst a chocolate bar may help fuel a ride, on a hot sunshine day, it may not maintain structural integrity in a bike jersey pocket.

Somewhere along this journey, I fell in love with riding my bike. I signed up for the Dragon Ride at the start of 2018 and the training began in earnest.

What would it involve?

The Dragon Ride is often regarded as one of the most iconic sportives in the UK (returning for its 16th year in 2019), offering the same inspiring Tour de France riding experience to UK cyclists, with sweeping alpine-like climbs and timed ‘king of the mountains’ climbs. It takes place in South Wales, starting at Margam Park near Port Talbot. The route journeys through the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountain. Around 6000 riders take part and there are four route options to choose from (the testing Macmillian 100km; the challenging Medio Fondo at 153km; the extreme Gran Fondo at 223km; and the mind-blowing Dragon Devil at 305km). I had signed up for the Dragon Devil route and would join about 400 others for a long day in the saddle.

An epic day out

A start time of 6:45am required a 4:30am get up to try and digest a much-needed breakfast to fuel the rest of the day. The event village was fairly quiet when I arrived. The majority of the others would arrive later to take part in the alternative route options.

Contemplating the cut off times whilst waiting for the start time, I seriously doubted whether I could actually get myself to the end. The others looked like serious cyclists, and I felt very much like a newbie.

Photo credit: AWOL Adventure

Didi the Devil cheered at us from the start line and my wave rolled out. It was a pretty zippy start and I had to struggle with my desire to chase down anyone moving faster than me. Unfortunately, some glass on the road at the bottom of the first climb meant a number of riders had to stop with punctures. I was very lucky and immensely thankful to avoid it.

The first two climbs of Bwlch and Rhigos each provided fabulous plunging descents as a reward for making it to the top. Having reconnoitred these climbs in training, I had gained the confidence to enjoy the fast flowing, speedy descents. With fabulous views to enjoy, it was definitely an anticipated highlight of the day.

The first timed climb of the day was the Devil’s Elbow, a notorious double-hairpin bend, with an altitude gain of 620ft in just a mile. I managed to squeeze past a few riders on this climb whilst not smashing my legs to pieces. I chalked that up as a success.

The next timed climb was the Devil’s Staircase. On the approach you could see the almost vertical zig-zigs laid out above. This was the climb that filled me with dread and was the steepest of the day. After flying over a cattle grid, a sign to the left of the road warned of the 25% gradient and switchbacks for the next half a mile. With almost 100 miles already in my legs, I gritted my teeth and somehow managed to keep the pedals turning. Getting to the top, I would have cheered with elation if I had had any breath left to spare. After that, the rest of the remaining climbs didn’t seem as difficult.

There were six feed stations throughout the ride. All were well stocked with cheerful helpers. Whilst there was a variety of snacks on offer, the Jaffa cakes were particularly appealing and I must have eaten about hundred over the course of the day!

Completing the route in 12 hours 57 minutes, I was delighted to cross the line. A burger and chips devoured at the motorway services on the way home completed a very memorable day out in South Wales.

Where were all the girls?

Only 15 ladies had signed up to complete the Dragon Devil and 12 finished. In the last five years less than 50 ladies have completed the route. Although there weren’t many women in the field, there were some particularly inspiring women taking part including: Emily Chappell (the first female finisher of the Transcontinental race, a self-supported, ultra-distance cycling race across Europe of 3800km); and Carol Bridge (whose palmares include the 2014 Commonwealth Games). I hope that many more ladies will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.

The next adventure

Having really enjoyed it (I had a big smile throughout the entire ride), I can’t wait to plan my next long-distance cycling adventure. If anyone has any suggestions, please let me know!

Sarah Jackson joined the club in 2012 as a regular trail and ultra runner and is now a keen cyclist, as well as a cheese connoisseur and all round adventurer.

AWOL Adventure provided the photographs for this article.