11 October 2011

Etape Cymru: cycling the north Wales hills

 After a week without doing any proper training, other than commuting to work, time had come. We got on a Saturday morning train bound for Chester, where Duncan parents lived, and where we would spend the night before the event.

Once in Chester, we made a start on our very English (culinary speaking!) weekend. Sausage rolls, custard cakes, and a sweet that reminded me of roscón de reyes were eaten within seconds. Also managed to get a thimble for mum (always good to keep her happy!). Duncan showed me around, took the silly picture and soon we were off to his parents, some km away from central Chester. The lanes over there are fabulous, you're in the countryside after 10 min of riding!

Chester seemed pretty...
 In the afternoon, we got a lift to Wrexham, where we had to register for the ride. This seemed to be one of the major complaints for people, since having registration the day before meant you either drive there and back, or spend a night in a B&B or similar. Surely registering ~1000 cyclists is not easy on the day of the actual event, but come on, posting the entry packages would have saved a lot of headaches! We had a massive, yummy dinner and went to bed ridiculously early...earlier than I ever remember! The weather forecast seemed unclear at this point: 18C, heavy rain and up to 29 mph winds (50 km/h).

The alarm went off at 6 am, and I was suprised it was completely dark until past 7 am. Autumn is kicking in. We devoured a massive bowl of porridge with berries, and some bacon, and felt ready for the ride. We decided on our clothing: I wore shorts and short-sleeved jersey with arm warmers. Duncan would do the same. High clouds and warm temperatures predicted a warm and probably dry-ish ride. At least before we hit the mountains. Upon arrival to Wrexham industrial state, we started to spot plenty of lycra and fancy road bikes. Most people wore full lengh lycra, and some even overshoes. Being from Spain, I thought I had made a major mistake and was going to freeze. Oh well, too late. Amongst those, I saw lots of titanium and even more carbon. I think Duncan and I were in the minority, riding old-fashioned aluminium framed bikes. Some folk had converted mtb, convenient for the steep hills that we would face later on. It was 8 am and everyone seemed ready, except the organisers. Apparently they were still sorting out the road closures...and that's because this was meant to be a closed-roads, traffic free event. Well, not quite, as we later learnt first hand! 8:20 am and off we went.

Smiley faces before the start
 The start was quite slow. Riding with another 1000 cyclists is not easy, and requires a bit of handling skills. I saw a tyre blow-up (scary stuff!) shortly after we departed, and plenty of punctures. The peloton rode at an easy pace (well, at least in our peloton!) up until the first hill "The Garth (16%)". On top of being quite hilly, it proved very challenging to filter through people, some of them already walking. I was surprised to see extremely good bikes being walked up. It's all about the rider, I thought...! At this point I felt incredibly strong and tried to emulate Contador. I reached the summit in good spirits and no pain. After that, we had some steep descends. The roads were quite slippery due to the overnight rain and mud. I nearly had a fall in of the downhills, although managed to control the bike. Even got congratulated by someone riding behind me! All those years riding mtb paid off I guess!

Narrow lanes were common

 Without even realising, we were climbing up "World's End". We knew that there was a ford (water flowing over the roads) so were extremely careful here. This hill was quite steep at places, reaching 20% apparently. Despite the UK not being very high, the steepness of the roads make it very challenging. Also, the roads were covered by mud and water, so standing was not a good plan either, and was tricky to get good traction in certain sections. The climb became a narrow road towards the summit, and again, I felt strong and went for it. The scenery was extremely beautiful and reminded me of the north of Spain. I managed to take some pictures at the top, which show how pretty this area was. The wind was blowing incredibly strong here, so could not hang around much. We saw an ambulance and what it looked like a crash by one rider that went straight through in one of the sharp turns. Hope (s)he is ok!. After the downhill we had our first feeding stop. I was quite surprised, they seemed to have plenty of food and drinks. I always go for the traditional bocata de jamón or some pita bread instead of artificial glucose mixes, but gave them a go this time. As I had predicted, I threw them out immediately as were completely disgusting. Pretty much anything tastes good on the bike, so they must've been really bad. It seems that we were lucky to get there early, as they run out of food shortly after we left.
The Worlds End I think...beautiful scenry, tough hills

Steep and technical descends
 After the 10 min stop we were, again, riding uphill. I was amazed at how disgusting some cyclists are, throwing all their gels/bars' wraps all over the place. I even counted three inner tubes on the road. Do people think that they're real pros and that somebody is behind them collecting their rubbish? It really does not help us to have idiots dumping their crap on the roads, honest! Anyway, the ride up to the second feeding station went by pretty quickly, as we gained some speed going downhill and people seemed to have found their own little pelotons. It got very windy on the flats, but we found some riders that were keen to work together, and the km flew by quickly. It really helps a lot to sleepstream, especially if it is windy. I went up in the front several times and it was knackering being there, which made me think of the poor domestiques of the Tour de France. In no time we reached the second feeding station. Or should I say...the second NO food NOR water station? The organisers had not planned for enough food or even water - they had run out by the time we got here. I was quick and made it to the local pub's toilets for a refill, but as I was leaving, there were dozens of cyclists queueing up... Really pathetic organisation. On top of that, I heard something coming out of Duncan's tyre. He had a massive crack on his front tyre, that even compromised the integrity of it. We patched it up on the inside and asked the not-very-friendly mavic mechanic to pump up the tyre for us (he had a track pump and was doing nothing). When I politely asked him for the pump, he said I should've had one...!? Aren't these people meant to help in cases like these or what?! Anyways, we got it pumped up and left.
Atmosphere at the second stop while Duncan patched up his tyre
 The third climb of the day, which name I have forgotten, was challening. My legs had started to complain, despite the rest of me feeling fine. Not sure why, I guess it was lack of hill training. So far the local support had been fabulous, people cheering us on from their houses, ringing bells, some even dressed up! I can imagine why people love the Paris-Brest-Paris so much. Having local support really gives you a push on the hard moments! The downhill sections were incredibly steep and technical, with sharp turns and slippery, rough surfaces. My wrists were in pain sometimes because of the vibrations coming from the road. Apparently there were plenty of falls here. The organiser had not put up any signs or marshalls, and sometimes we did not have a clue as to where to turn in some intersections. It turned out that someone had removed the signs showing their annoyance to the closed roads. Still, organisers could've done a lot better.
Rolling hills past half way
 The Horsehoe Pass was the highlight on the day, at least on papers. It actually was not that bad, despite the long 6.1 km climb. The problem was that we had already gone over ~65 milles and the legs were burning. Only some sections were very steep, about 20% according to the road signs. At that point my right quad was in pain and I had this great idea of stretching it while on the bike, climbing up. As I was going to pull it, a cramp on the opposite muscle warned me that it was not very smart to pull any further, so I kept pedalling uphill. I met a nice chap who said that it would get a lot easier a few meters further up the road. When we were talking, my computer did register double digits. I kinda fancied a break, but I had to push or else it would have been bad for my sore muscles. He happened to be an Italian living in Wales for some ~40 years. You always find the charming mediterraneans in the most unique places! And he was right! The last 2 km were very easy going, I even put my big chainring on and had Duncan in sight...Overall, it took me 32 min, Duncan 29 min, whereas the pros made it in 14 min! The fastest Etape Cymru rider completed it in 19 min, not bad either. Unfortunately the weather had turned quite nasty, and it was incredibly windy all the way up and at the summit. Rainy as well. And of course, the food was completely gone and so were the drinks. Another example of terrible organisation and many £££ in the organiser's pockets that should have been spent on the feeding stations. No smiley photos atop the Horshoe Pass due to wind, rain and cold.

We put our raincoats on and made our way down the Pass. Or rather, we battled against strong head and gusty winds. Legs were starting to recover and we felt ready for the very last climb of the day. Apparently the World's End via different route. However, the organisers, blaiming it to the weather, decided to cut that bit off the route and direct us straight back to Wrexham. Oh well, we will not complete the 100 miles. Weather got better as we made it down the mountains, and we dried out quickly. Again, we bumped into yet another ridiculous and unexpected hill. We were boiling and had to take our rain coats off before climbing up the hill. You could see how everyone was struggling at this point. After this last hill, it was all gentle dowhill back into Wrexham.

We pressed on and averaged >30 km/h for the last 25 km or so. In some of the latest sections we joined roads that had traffic in either direction. Again, we thought this was a closed roads event? Maybe the organisers had a different opinion? Here and anywhere else on the route, we saw various cars. Some riders had crashes and problems with them, and we were at all times aware of the possibilities of cars coming towards or behind us, which was not the point of riding such an event. Before we even realised, we were crossing the finish line. The weather was quite pleasant (for English standards) and we chilled out on the grass with a plate of pasta. No drinks or anything else offered by the organisers!!! I still remember when I did mtb rides back home...5 euros would get you proper feeding stations and a massive bbq upon arrival. Good old times.

Blanquita needs a thorough clean

At the finish. This must be a yoga move or something...
 Overall the stats said:

- 6 h 52 min moving time
- 50 min stopped time
- 148 km
- 21.4 km/h average
- Max speed 59.6 km/h
- Average heart rate: 138 bpm (max of 175, min of 88)
- Ascent 2636 m and descent 2632 m (difference due to changes in atmospheric pressure?)
- Highest point 477 m, lowest 83 m
- 8 bottles of water (6 litres)
- Countless wees (as usual)

In general, although we had a challenging day on the bike, through beautiful countryside, and lovely locals, I was very dissapointed at the organisation, especially given the £60 price tag. Something likely to be found in a £10 event for sure. The major complaints that I have can be summarised as below:

- Cars let through the closed roads?! We even rode on completely open sections towards the end! Completely unacceptable and potentially dangerous (as others' reports are proving!)
- Feeding stations run out of food AND water. Not acceptable.
- British Cycling membership included on entry? What if you are already a member of LCC, Audax UK and CTC? Why do I need a membership that I do not want when I am covered by three different insurances?
- Advertised as 6193 feet climb, when it actually was >8500 feet, not including the last pass. I would imagine lots of people could not cope.
- No signs, no marshalls at critical points. No GPS files available beforehand either.
- Goodie bag contained nothing but rubbish and publicity
- We only got a bowl of pasta upon arrival. No drinks, of course not. They surely run out of water too.
- £5 refund for a gilet that we did not get and was advertised as £20 rrp? dodgy

It was my first and last "sportive" event. Definetely not worth the money. Someone must have made a fortune out of us fool cyclists though. Wales has so much to offer, for free, so we will surely be coming back in the near future. Saw plenty of mtb-ers, and will probaly take the "fat tyres" ones next time.

The route back was uninteresting, with a rewarding smooth ale and a some good sleep on the train...

Bed time

I also found other interesting write ups on the net:

And a news story where people seem to put their comments:



  1. Congratulations on finishing - I'm sure a lot didn't. I finished it too but probably about 30-40 minutes after you (need to get fitter ! + the fact I'm 48 probably doesn't help). I live in Chester so often cycle on some of those roads - if you come back in summer and do World's End you generally do not see many cars and it is usually much better weather. The Horseshoe Pass is pretty good to cycle up too even with open roads.

  2. Congrats too Ian! Have linked your report to my post as well. Weather was much better that I had anticipated to be honest...Definetely in our plans to come back in the future, probably to do a light touring trip starting from Chester or thereabouts. May ask for you advice then ;). PS: that last hill 10 milles to the finish line was a real killer!