Closing roads to traffic for cycling events is a tricky thing for organisers to get right. If they do, it’s a riding experience like no other. If they don't, it creates a situation arguably worse than if the roads had been left open. So it was a shame the inaugural Etape Cymru, held earlier this month in North Wales, ended up squarely in the latter category.
The day didn’t get off to the best start, after I came across an email from organisers saying they were no longer able to supply the £20 gilet promised with entry. Instead, I’d be getting a £5 note back at registration. While I’m loath to turn my nose up at hard cash, it was unlikely to keep me warm atop the Horseshoe Pass.
After a lengthy drive from Lancashire down to the start on a Wrexham industrial estate, I signed on, took my place with around 1,500 others and readied myself for the mass start. Staggered starts are the norm in sportives, so for many this wait – similar to that prior to a running event – was a novel experience. The heatwave of early October was long gone, in its place a mixed bag of gusts, gales and showers. The last thing anyone needed was a delay, but that’s exactly what we got as we departed 15 minutes behind schedule.
The starting gun sounded and, being pretty far back in the waiting pack, it was some time before I crossed the line. When I finally clipped into my pedals, it was frenetic stuff. For many, entering an event like this is all about getting to the finish as fast as possible. I count myself in that competitive number, so being penned in like cattle for the first 20 minutes was frustrating. What didn’t help was that the route immediately gave way to singletrack farm roads that just didn’t seem suitable for 1,500 adrenaline-fuelled amateur cyclists.
Early warnings that the roads wouldn't be totally closed came not from a car, but one of the event’s own race support motorcycles, which weaved its way fast through the field and threatened another Jonny Hoogerland incident. It wasn’t long before I encountered my first vehicle and it became clear this was a ride I should treat like any other.
The promise of no traffic may have caused some to be complacent and take unnecessary risks round tight corners in the belief there was no chance of a collision. At the finish line, a spectator who'd watched the race at the bottom of Horseshoe Pass told me he'd seen motorists simply swerve round road blockades, while a marshal looked on passively. Worried that somebody could be seriously injured, a local resident had taken matters into his own hands and started to direct traffic. Not exactly ideal.
Signage also proved a major problem. Ideally, you’d have a marshal at every junction to direct riders but failing that, you’d at least have a sign sprayed onto the road. Instead, the Etape Cymru used tacked-on signs, which could be tampered with easily. It was no surprise that I ended up getting lost. It took a fair amount of luck to get back on track but with 60 miles to go, and my momentum shot, the goal was to just make it back to Wrexham.
I got lost another two times, on both occasions running out of marshals, signs or both. According to organisers, problems with signs being removed or switched caused them to ditch the entire hill pass of ‘The Shelf’, meaning century hunters would be left disappointed by the 90-odd miles they’d clocked at the finish (distance was dependent on how many wrong turns you made).
Other gripes included a missold parcours and empty food stations. The route, advertised as 100 miles with just over 6,000ft of climbing, shouldn't have been an issue for me, even with the 36-25T bottom gear I was running. But by the time I'd limped back into Wrexham with just shy of 10,000ft on the clock, my thighs were screaming for mercy.
It wasn't just a faulty GPS either; it felt like 10,000ft and other Etape Cymru participants venting their grievances on the BikeRadar forum backed this up. Many of the roads were also totally unsuitable for the volume of riders that would pass through as a large bunch. I recall seeing one guy on the deck during a section of the route that can only be decribed as a stream.
The other big issue was the feed stations. While it didn't directly affect me, judging by the forum, I was one of the lucky ones. Running out not only of food but water is pretty unforgivable and bearing in mind organisers were looking to attract almost 2,000 riders more than they eventually did, showed just how badly they'd misjudged things.
That's not to say the ride didn't have its good points. The North Wales countryside was spectacular, as was the support from many spectators on the day (a man dressed in full jester get-up, madly ringing a cow bell, pulled my day back from the brink). However, both came in spite of the organisation, not because of it.
Organisers are already accepting registrations for next year's race, but I'm not sure many who took part this year will be in a hurry to part with £65 again (this has been reduced to £55 for 2012, presumably because they've ditched the gilet). The event needs a lot of work, both in terms of an appropriate route and its ambition. £65? Really?! And does it really need to be held on closed roads? They could learn a lot from challenges such as the Fred Whitton, held on similarly filthy B-roads but open to motorists. Better to know there's a car around the corner than to mistakenly believe there won't be.
Did you take part in the Etape Cymru? How did you find it? Let us know your thoughts below...