I had just completed a 50 mile challenging ride in the mountains of Eastern Spain and was wallowing in my cycling prowess having conquered mountain pass after mountain pass. That’s not quite reality but sets the scene better. I had returned from the ride through many a mountain pass but I’d got lost, was on my own in the middle of nowhere in the height of summer and running out of water. I’d done good though and made it back and was enjoying the inevitable banter on Strava as I sat in the local pub making use of their “free” Wi-Fi. It was costing me a small fortune in beers. After much banter and more beer my phone went “ting…ting” and the txt message I received led to some serious cycling! It was Simon Parkinson simply asking if I fancy doing the “Dragon Devil” the UK’s toughest cycling event. He needed to know ASAP as it will sell out and there were very limited numbers going up for sale. Beer talks! Beer gives you courage! Beer makes you think you’re something you’re not….I asked him the usual how far and how high and then said yes, go for it! About 200 miles he said and “silly” hills and lots of them. Before I new it he had all my personal details needed to pretend to be me and log on and register. I still say that was ID theft and deception.
Simon duly registered us both and was over the moon with getting in. I asked him who else was doing it with him. His reply was quite telling as I read it through the haze of my hangover in the unforgiving bright morning sun. “just you, as you’re the only one daft enough to do it” came the reply. It was too early to grab another beer.
Spurred on by the daunting task ahead of the now renowned “Wiggle Dragon – Devil’ 300k and 11,000 ft. of climbing my training began. I addressed this by progressively getting in longer and harder rides. Going beyond the 100 and further is testing and takes some planning particularly if you’re on your own. I managed a good few group rides of around 100 and joined in with a fellow club member training for an Iron Man and the Hollywell Avengers on a 140 odd mile ride. That was good to help understand the eating/drinking and efforts needed. I coped well with the longer rides as I progressed and was enjoying the benefits that the improved fitness and stamina was bringing me.
I had to up my game though as 300k is a long way and the Brecon Beacons are demanding. I looked at the profile in detail and decided I needed to push myself that little bit harder both mentally and physically so that I better understood how I would react. I was happy that all the training I’d done would stand me in good stead for my final training challenge.
I mapped out a lovely route starting and finishing in Rhyl, it was just short of 180 miles and took in the hills through the Denbigh Moors, over to Pentrefolas and into Snowdonia. Through the mountains and then onto Pen Llyn along the south coast through the hills and valleys. I planned to ride to the tip of the peninsula and stop in Aberdaron for a snack. I had plenty of food on board and had worked out exactly what I needed to eat and drink during the solo ride.
I got to Aberdaron in good time, average speed was around 18.5mph the conditions were good and the wind was light though in my face through Snowdonia as usual when you go that way. I stopped for a snack, ice-cream and cake included, then hit the hills to get as far as I could to the tip of the peninsula. It’s stunning there, truly stunning, we are blessed. The hills, valleys and coastal views are spectacular. Picture postcard. As I started back from the tip an RAF Hawk could be heard buzzing around, I caught sight of it a few times. I love to see aircraft flying around, always have, so my head was bobbing around trying to catch a glimpse of the pilot in training as he manoeuvred his black machine above me. I heard it behind me and it came low and close at it went past, a great sight and very loud. It was probably about 500 ft. above me and seemed to follow the line of the road that was ahead of us both. I was watching it with fond memories in my mind of watching the Red Arrows at RAF Valley as a kid when the Gnats used to buzz the crowd. The Hawk went high and almost out of sight but still in front, my gaze wondering between it and the road ahead. The aircraft then went into a steep dive, it was going really quickly, it was quite a way in front of me at this time and was more of a black dot. It levelled out very low, I’m guessing at about 300 ft, maybe less and I lost sight of it a few times as it traversed the landscape in front of me. I could hear it approaching and could tell it was slowing down by the pitch of the whining engine as it changed slightly. The aircraft came into full and unobstructed view directly ahead of me and was directly following the long road ahead of me. Every hair on my body stood on end as this fantastic flying machine hurtled directly towards me, my legs were not shaved so I got added extras. It was me and him, just the two of us going head to head. Bike vs Jet. It seemed to last forever but it was only a few seconds. As he was just in front of me and over the centre of the road he tipped is wings very quickly at me and then went into a vertical climb. I was was clearly in his sights and well and truly beaten. Bike vs Jet, I know my place! What an experience to become a moving target for a trainee pilot to play with, I was honoured and the pain of 90 odd miles cycling through the hills had disappeared, literally gone.
The lack of pain was short lived as I hit the testing climbs of the Northern road along the peninsula. It was tough getting back. Tougher than I had anticipated. It took a lot to keep at it and not to simply sit up and spin. I needed to push myself and condition myself for the ride that only I was daft enough to do with him.
The journey home was hard but I got back to Rhyl safely and in one piece as planned. It was 176 miles and 11,000ft of tough climbing and the average speed was above 17.5mph. I was happy with that but wasn’t prepared for how my body was reacting. My good lady wife, Debs, had cooked me the perfect recovery meal. Everything I needed which would be supplemented by my usual concoctions of powdered protein, carbs and home made isotonic drinks. When Debs opened the door I could not string two words together, I moved my mouth and knew what I wanted to say but a could just muster a mumble as I felt myself coming down off the high that had got me through the last 20 odd miles. I managed my supplements and a small drink, showered then sat down for my much needed and spot on recovery meal. I physically could not eat, I couldn’t chew or swallow the food, my body would not take it on. I left the whole meal which was wrapped up in cellophane and placed in the fridge. I crashed on the sofa and was then subjected to the most awful leg twisting cramps I have ever had.
The morning came and I was ravenous, I could’ve eaten a scabby horse between two dirty mattresses. The recovery meal was on my breakfast table after it’s visit to the microwave and it didn’t touch the sides. Then came the next unexpected reaction. Once I’d finished eating my body seemed to shut down as it just wanted to digest and nothing else. I sat at the table virtually asleep, I dragged myself to the sofa and was in the land of nod for at least an hour.
So, lots learned, a very valuable experience and one I fully debriefed withe Alan O. I wasn’t sure that I’d done things right or indeed my reactions on the ride and after the ride were right or to be expected. I was re-assured and the learning points were valid indeed. I was duly advised to think about curtailing the long rides now as the event approached so that I had time to recover and my body would be in a better place come the day.
I have never ridden my bike so infrequently on the two week build up to the event, I did the Ffesiniog 360 which was the biggest ride at about 63 miles and a few club runs and the odd hour here and there. Nothing like I had been doing. I did well in the 360 so felt that the training was working but that was nothing like the challenge that loomed.
The weekend soon came and Simon picked me up and we headed off to South Wales. I was full of trepidation and nerves. On the way we talked out the admission by, Wiggle that this was not their finest hour and they had in fact measured the mountains wrong and the Devil event would no longer be a mere 11,000 ft. of climbing, it was now 16,000 ft. of climbing. Yikes!
I’d never tackled that many hills in one ride, and they were big climbs, the profile looked like a magnified hacksaw blade. We both agreed we were daft but we just smiled and and looked to crack on with it.
The hotel was good, they geared it up for cyclists for the weekend. We could only stop the night before as Simon had a course on the Monday. Saturday night was tame, one pint of Guinness for me and a couple of shandies for Simon. We ate well though. Having done the London 100 Team Time Trial with Simon last year on fish and chips we decided we would go for something better. I went for steak and ale pie with lots of potatoes and pastry and Simon had the pasta. Not sure it was better than fish and chips but was was a good hearty meal. I’d planned my eating for the morning which was to start at 4:30 am.
Now then I’ve stayed with fellow cyclists before and a good nights sleep before a big ride is a must. So in with the Calms and ear plugs after scoffing the pre-bedtime supplements I slept well and the alarm woke me for my first feed. I’m terrible without food so it was vital that I had my eating sorted for the morning. I started eating carb bars and cereals (not that refined rubbish) very early then we went down for breakfast where eggs and breads where devoured. My aim was to be on the line having had enough time for the carbs to start taking effect. It all sounds very scientific but its not, It’s what I’d learn’t about myself when training. I knew what worked for me.
We wore ‘Red’ cards on the front of our bikes. Red signified the “Devil”. We didn’t see another red card on any bikes in the hotel and there were lots. They were mostly orange cards which was for the shorter but still challenging 140 mile route. That “daft’ thought kept springing to the forefront of my mind.
Getting to the event was easy, about fifteen minutes in the van then kit up and onto the line for 6:50. There were no dramas and everything had gone well. The parking was well marshalled. We were being briefed on the line and the morning was fine. It was overcast but the cloud was light and high. Short sleeve jersey and bib-shorts were the order of the day. I wore the VC Melyd kit with pride. That said I was a worried about the shorts as I hadn’t tested them on a very long ride always being cautious and opting for the expensive tried and tested big brand kit. I needn’t have been concerned. We were told about feed-stations and asked to refrain from littering and urinating at the roadside. Just as the announcer was talking one fine looking yet clearly nervous cyclist promptly moved a barrier to one side and relieved himself of that morning’s tea and coffee whilst mumbling about pre-ride nerves. A good start met with a lot of shaking of heads.
Off we went in the second wave, a good few minutes behind the first wave of about 50 or so riders. The timing chip activated the bleep as we passed the start gate. We were off. the start was undulating and quick. Myself and Simon worked our way slowly to the front of the pack and started to pick off early stragglers in the first wave. As we approached the first climb I was feeling strong and we sat behind a group of about 20 or so riders as we made steady progress. There was a rider on the front who had been there a while, he was leading out well and setting a fair pace. As the incline increased and the tarmac continued to crawl below us the pace started to slow. I indicated to Simon that we would push up and increase the pace as it was too slow. Steady on to the front of the pack was needed and as I drew along side the lead rider he looked up in surprise and said to him “Hi, we are going to up the pace and do a stint on the front” he seemed chuffed that we we there. I sat on the front and upped the pace by a few mph whilst we continued up the hill. Myself and Simon alternated at the front at the now quicker pace and we soon had a large gap develop between us and the main bunch. The other rider who was on the front at first stayed with us but wasn’t for chatting too much. As I looked back down one of the many switchbacks it was clear that we were riding at a much quicker pace and that suited me a lot. Simon was happy for me to set the pace up the hills and we kept it sensible.
Now I can’t remember all the names for the climbs, well all bar two, which were plain nasty, but we were doing a nice figure of eight through the Brecon Beacons going up then down. Remember that magnified hacksaw blade? Well it was cutting into us. The first descent was long and fast, this is where I let Simon take over. Well, it’s not a case of me letting him, he’s off! Being an ex semi-pro downhill mountain biker it takes all my energy and wits to hold onto his wheel. I can’t always do it though as its hard work and I don’t have the technical skills he clearly does.
We soon hit another climb and we shared out the pacing and shelter. We worked well together taking equal turns and keeping a good pace. At the top of the second big climb there was a feed station. We had by now caught up with the fast riders from the first wave and there was about eight of us as we hit the summit and saw the feed-station. To limit our weight and because of the spacing of the feed-stations Simon and I only carried one bottle each and we’d only taken enough gels to get us to the first feed station which was 3 each. Wiggle always put on a good show and the feed-stations were sponsored by Powerbar so we were looking forward to a pocket filling experience. As the road flattened out with the feed-station on the left Simon and I pulled in as planned to get a re-fill and the gels. There were no gels, just water and some bananas and sweets. I asked where the gels were and where the energy drinks were. They assured us they were at the next feed-station. As we stood there in dismay filling up with just water my eating plan was going to pot. I needed to keep my head straight. I grabbed some bananas in lue of the gels as we saw the fast group disappear into the distance working a pace-line.
Off we went trying to catch them. We took turns on the front and put a lot of effort in chasing the out of sight group down. It took us about 40 minutes of hard cycling to catch the group, because of the speed and effort we had put in I ended up going straight to the front and upping their pace. Not the best move in hindsight but adrenalin had got the better of me.
We soon hit the next climb and we were off at the front setting the pace. This time no one stayed with us and the gap got bigger and bigger. We had some good stretches of undulating roads and Simon was in his element. I had started flagging and was clinging on at times as he weaved through the lanes. Clearly his strong point and didn’t I know it. Simon was good as I flagged hoping the next feed was around the corner. I felt my blood sugars dropping, I knew this feeling, I’d trained, I needed the food and drink and quickly. I had my emergency banana which perked me up and we got to the feed-station in good time. We were both feeling it by now. This was a special feed-station put on because of the extra climbing. There was pasta, potatoes, Powerbar bars, energy drinks, sweets, cheese on toast and biscuits. I was a different man inside of five minutes and we headed off at about 105 miles in.
The climbs were now getting tough, really tough, we hit the renowned Devil’s Elbow. This was a timed KOM. I was riding a compact up front and an 11-27 on the back. I had seen the climb and I knew I would need the high gears. Simon had a standard up front and an 11-30 on the back. The climb is like Gweany Hill on steroids. It was about 120miles into a ride where we’d done some testing and very long climbs through the Black Mountains already. It wasn’t funny. I had to use the 27 on the back for the first time, and boy did I need it. All my weight pushing through the pedals to keep my momentum especially through the hair pin bend. As we got towards the top of the climb I was able to sit down again and and relax as my quads felt like they were exploding.
More hills came and more hills went, climbing was the order of the day and we headed deeper and deeper into a valley. It was a descent yet steady, undulating even, quite deceptive really. There were one or two other riders around as our use of the feed-station to eat properly had allowed others to get around us and ahead of us. We came up to a rider in the valley and he said “my arse is killing and it’s the Devil’s Staircase next..haha” as we got level. I simply waved and said hello. Simon grunted something under his breath, I didn’t hear what he said and neither did the other chap. In fact I’m not sure he said anything but I asked him if he was ok. It’s fair to say it was time to have a sense of humour failure. We were now deep into the ride, must have been about 125 miles and silly amounts of tough climbing. Simon, with his best angry face looked at me and said “Well, it’s not even funny is it, why would you laugh….plus who cares about his arse” …. or something similar. I have poetic licence. He went on to tell me he was suffering and in pain, his feet were in agony and every up hill pedal stroke was starting to hurt his feet.
Devil’s Staircase I hear, right I thought, the Devil lives downstairs but we were now at the bottom of a valley with nice big mountains either side. I think we were about to climb up from Hell. Simon managed a small smile when I went through my reasoning. We continued on a descent and took a right hander onto a small road, a car was coming down but we had enough space. All I could see was vertical tarmac. This was no staircase it was a wall. So now there was two of us having a real sense of humour failure. We had a frank conversation with numerous expletives about the the sobriety of the people who designed the course. I was quickly back on the 27 and grinding away out of the saddle. The climb was tough, very tough. I was feeling strong though, stronger than I did during the middle of the ride. The food was being digested and was doing its bit. Simon coped well too even though he was clearly slowing and struggling with the pain. It was my turn to take the lead and pace the hills to bring him along. Our team work was paying off, we were riding to our strengths and taking the other one along when we needed to. We reached a hair pin and it looked like the top, Simon was behind me and put in an almighty effort to get past, which he did, though it didn’t last when he saw the wall continue with no end in sight. I assumed my position in front on the hill and carried on, quads near bursting and pedals being stamped on. We got to the top and didn’t say a word as we saw the very technical looking descent. Simon moved to the front. We were by now understanding what we needed to do for each other without talking.
We carried on and Simon did good turns through the lanes whilst I paced up the hills whilst trying to give him some shelter to repay him for keeping the speed up through the undulations. Mile after mile passed and we ended up back at the extra feed-station having done the top part of the figure of 8. More food was needed though I was feeling good and strong. I was looking back to my training rides and I knew what I had to eat and what pace I could go through the hills. I was happy with how I was feeling.
We had about another 50 or so to do and looking at the Garmin and the climbing we’d done already we had a fair few climbs to get to 16,000 ft. I can’t remember the numbers but I remember quickly working it out and thinking about the Black Mountains and the length of the climbs. Simon was sitting down resting his feet and eating. I didn’t mention the climbing so we just chatted about general stuff. That was best for both of us. We may have mentioned the sobriety of the organisers again an few times though.
The last leg was upon us with one more option to stop for water. As we went with a one bottle strategy, formula one tactics, we were going to have to stop to refill. As we rode we joined in with the “orange” label riders. The sensible ones. The ones that weren’t so daft to do the “red” route. Simon was by now in agony and it was taking some determination to work through the pain. The soles on his new Sidi shoes were too thin and he could feel the pressure of the pedal stroke and his feet screamed with every downward stroke. I could see he was in pain. Simon is a machine when it comes to riding, a beast in fact, and to see the pain in his face like never before was worrying. We never even mentioned stopping. How dare we.
We pinged off the orange riders like Mario on acid bouncing over barrels. It felt good. We had done so many more miles and climbed so many more hills yet we sailed past people as if they were stationary at times. This helped us a lot. The adrenalin was flowing and we had the end in sight.
The last big climb was in front, I could see the road winding up and switching back ahead of us for as far as I could see. The roads over the Black Mountains are lovely climbs. As I looked up it was easy for me to see the route and assess the climb as there were worker ants dotted all the way up steady making their way to the top. There were Giant ants, Specialized ants, Cannondale ants and even Pinarello ones. Simon was swearing quite loudly by now but we were still managing a good pace. It was time for me to be strong and set a steady pace for the whole of the climb. I took up my position without us talking about it, I set my gear and went into auto-pilot. No-body, not one rider over took us on any hill so far during the day, we had set the pace and we would continue to do so. It was time to play Donkey Kong and get to the top level.
We pinged passed riders all the way up. Some looked on with detest and some cheered us on with “go-on lads” other just swore under their breath with single syllable swear words as that’s all they could muster. We got to a switch back and Simon shouted, “you’ve another gear” I turned and saw the pain in his face as the gap grew. We weren’t too far from the top and I knew if I slowed so would he. I remembered the beast in him and I knew he would fight the pain to try and keep up. I signalled for him to hurry with the usual flappy hand by the side movement. I’m sure that must have wound him up. Simon had dragged me for miles through the middle section and I needed to encourage him now to climb, climb, climb. The road levelled slightly and what I thought was the top wasn’t. I heard a woman shout to riders behind me “come on you’re almost there”. I had the benefit of seeing that wasn’t the case as there was at least one more switchback in view. I ploughed on determined to keep my pace and not change gear. I had found my rhythm and was keeping it.
I got to the top and riders were stopping and putting on jackets and gilets for the descent ahead. I didn’t need such luxury and my sweaty body was about to get cold, really cold. Simon quickly caught up with me on the descent and assumed his racing position after he cursed the woman spectator. “What’s with these people, nearly the top my arse, why would you do that to people, we were nowhere near the top”. Okay, he wasn’t happy.
I slotted behind him on the windy and steep road down whilst occasionally popping up and out into the wind to take a bit of speed off save over taking. I learned quickly that drafting him downhill then over taking will only end in tears as we get faster and faster. I know my place. We both soon recovered and warmed up as small hill followed small hill and so on. It was the order of the day and we took turns helping each-other along.
On the lanes, as before Simon was in his element and he dragged me along like I was on a lead to the last water stop. It was very busy so we didn’t stay too long. We wanted a fast ride back to the finish so off we went, both of us doing long hard stints pushing our way through traffic. The heavens opened. It chucked it down. Big heavy nasty rain drops that hurt when they hit you. The roads became saturated and there were big puddles very quickly. We were soaked through to the skin but there was nothing we could do. I had a small jacket in my pocket but before I could even think about stopping it was too late. It soon stopped and we battled on.
A few tagged on though were not doing their turn. I left it a while once we had done about four turns each and Simon was on the front when I did my waggly come on hand gesture to signal for a rider from behind to come forward. I wanted a chain-gang. No such luck, so I shouted “Do your turn, come on from behind”. One rider came up when it was safe to do do and slotted in front of Simon. At last we had help and he held our speed well. The three of us alternated but wen I came to the back again I saw the forth rider with us, well there were four of us by now, he was not wanting to move up and take a turn. I wasn’t going to let this happen as we were all very tired and sore so I did my hand thing again. Nothing, no reaction. Simon was on the front and approaching parked cars and oncoming traffic so our usual hand signals and shouts were relayed down the line. We are very good at that having had a sound education riding with local clubs and learning from the best. The rider behind me though didn’t take any notice of the signals, the shouts or the traffic and decided he would do his turn on the front at that very moment. He went passed me as we slowed and Simon was moving out to make a safe distance between us and the parked cars whist being aware of the oncoming traffic. I now was second in the line and the rider was overtaking me and was heading for the space Simon needed and was moving into. As loud as I could I shouted “Si, on your right!”. He knew what this meant and deviated slightly to his left whilst then holding his line. It was like Marsh Tracks for him I thought. The rider got to the front without saying a word but with a bit of saddle shuffling. It was a posh bike and he had tri-bars. They are not usually permitted on road events but hey, he was there and was taking his turn. I was behind Simon when the rider went to change gear to put the power down. I could see that’s what he wanted to do, we all do it, a nice steady increase in power whilst it’s your turn on the front. It was about time too I thought.
My happy thoughts were very quickly shattered as I narrowly missed Simon as he narrowly avoided hitting the tri-bar rider. The rider in front, in haste to put the power down on a smaller cog at the back had used the wrong lever and was suddenly spinning on the small chainring. Nightmare. We were on a busy road, we couldn’t end the ride like this. Quickly composed the three of us managed to get passed him and there wasn’t a collision. We didn’t shout, curse or swear, we simply carried on towards the finish line taking long turns on the front. We crossed the line to be greeted by thousands of people in the events enclosure and were presented with our finishers medals and packs. We shook hands with the mystery 3rd rider. we were all as grateful as each other for the help we had received in the last drag to the end.
We’d managed 188 miles, 15,427ft climbing with an average speed of 18.5mph. We were happy with that. It was pasta time then back to the Bipper van for a wet wipe show down and hit the road. We were doing this in style. We had some healthy and meaningful discussions about never doing it again, about questioning our own sanity and about wondering why we do such daft things. I told simon he was no longer my friend. Well, I used more words than that, and they are not printable but suffice to say we had a good laugh.
The banter and chat all the way home was good humoured and we recalled in detail our failures, goals and achievements. We rode to each other’s strengths, it was strong teamwork and my training had paid off and Simons sheer determination to get through the pain was amazing. We stopped for dinner on the way home, a lovely hotel in some town on the route. We walked in there like a pair of John Wayne lookalikes who couldn’t find their horses. I had to explain why we couldn’t walk and the waitress’s smile soon returned.
Looking back it was one hell of a ride and very aptly named. The toughest Sportive in the UK? it most definitely is the toughest ride I’ve ever done. It was brutal. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. Maybe.
— Words from, and massive kudos to, Darren Wareing.