Black mountains, green valleys, broad smiles

Three hundred riders enjoy fifth Tour of the Black Mountains

Approaching the top of Llangynidr Hill on Saturday’s Tour of the Black Mountains sportive, a vintage open top Bentley driven by a Mr Toad-like figure passed us going in the opposite direction. Resisting the urge to shout “Parp! Parp!” we simply hoped his brakes were in good nick.

The ascent had seemed interminable – long enough to cook the stoppers of a humble bicycle, let alone a couple of tons of classic British motor. It was just one of the many challenging climbs that featured in an event which, now in its fifth year, appears to have secured a niche on the British sportive calendar. It can’t compete with the Dragon Ride for participant numbers –  a plus point for many –  but it outdoes its bigger neighbour as a physical challenge, and arguably betters it for the scenic nature of the course.

We enjoyed the day, but in common with every other sportive we’ve ridden this year, this one was not without its issues. Forking out £3.50 for parking before a wheel has been turned is never the greatest start to a day, even though we knew about it in advance. However, it was the dearth of toilet facilities for the 300 plus starters at event headquarters in Abergavenny Rugby Club that was perhaps the most obvious failing we noted. A bank of Portaloos should solve that one for next year. Out on the course, the offerings at first feed station were, in our opinion, distinctly average compared to benchmark sportives like the Dartmoor Classic, while some riders complained that the energy drink there tasted awful.

Filled bread rolls were available at the second food stop, though participants we spoke to felt that a third stop should have been provided considering the distances and terrain being covered. Fortunately, cool, overcast conditions and even a spot of rain meant the danger of dehydration was less of an issue this year than it has been in the past.

The finish area timing mat in the corner of a busy car park was set against the flow of pedestrians leaving a horse show in the neighbouring park, and therefore not ideal. Anecdotally it appears that some riders simply missed the mat altogether. Organisers Pendragon are hoping to have access to the Bailey Park itself next year – an arrangement which works well for the IronMountain sportive.

Apart from the above, the event was generally well-run, with clear signage, plenty of motorbike marshals in evidence, and a choice of courses that had something for almost all regular riders in terms of the physical challenge they provided, and the technical skills they demanded.

But not everyone got round safely. We passed one rider who had come off second-best in a collision with a car on the fast, narrow descent of GospelPass. He was taken by ambulance to hospital in Abergavenny, where he was treated for shoulder ligament damage.

With a choice of three routes being offered for the first time - 63, 101 and 120 miles - the course had been altered from previous years to include the full ascent of Llangynidr. It then carried on to the World Heritage site of Blaenavon, with its post industrial slagheap-dotted landscape – an area that was perhaps not as easy on the eye as some earlier sections.

Despite the omission this year of the superfast plunge from Langynidir into Crickhowell, many riders would have recorded top speeds pushing 50mph elsewhere on the route, in particular on the final descent into Abergavenny. 

One nice touch, and something other sportives would do well to emulate, was the way in which Pendragon’s Nick Bourne drove alongside riders out on the course, checked they were alright, and offered a word or two of encouragement. It was a gesture that was no doubt appreciated by many a suffering rider.

Back at the rugby club, BikeRadar spoke to a number of tired but happy sportivers, including Ian Farrow and Bruce Taylor from Greenwich in London. Ian, who goes by the moniker Pizzoferro33 on our forum, was completing his third Tour of the Black Mountains.

“I wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t well organised,” he said. “It’s more testing than the Dragon Ride, and even the short course was tough. There’s great scenery, some scary descents, but a nice, relaxed feel. One of the highlights was seeing the Rapha team going past, but there was no way I could keep up with them!”

It was Bruce’s first time in the Black Mountains: “I like the fact that it’s a smaller event,and it was good to see the organiser out there on the course,” he said. “The feed stations had a good variety of food, and there was still plenty left by the time we got there.”

Paul Littlechild had travelled all the way from Cumbria to take part: “I’d read about the event in Cycling Plus and it captured my imagination,” he said. “There were a lot of interesting climbs, and it’s comparable to the Fred Whitton in terms of the amount of uphill. The climbs are different to those in Cumbria and none the worse for that, but the road surfaces here are better!”

Hayley Bullen from London took on the short course for her first sportive and declared herself pleased with her day: “It was a tough challenge, but it was well organised and I enjoyed the scenery,” she said. “I’ve walked in the Brecon Beacons so I knew it would be tough, but everyone was very friendly and I would definitely do it again - but maybe go for the longer distance.”

For Ben Tucker from Wolverhampton it was also a first visit to the Black Mountains: “I did a Google search for a hilly sportive somewhere near Wolverhampton and this came up,” he said. “I wasn’t disappointed, the scenery was great, the route well-marked and the riding was challenging. I’d come back.”

His work colleague John Hanson concurred: “It’s a friendly, enjoyable event,” he said. “I’ve done the Fred Whitton, and while the climbs here are not as severe, they are still tough - especially the last one!”

Brothers-in-law David Baker from Suffolk and Lindsay Dean from North London were very impressed with the day: “The signage was excellent, we had no problems with the route, and the camaraderie out there was great,” said David. “I was disappointed not to hit 50mph after reaching 49.7, though!”

Lindsay had to alter his plans to do the long course after a mechanical: “I liked the route, but the cattle grids were a bit hairy!” he said. Like David, he was a first-time sportive rider, but said that based on this experience he would definitely do more.

Paul Drew and Simon Fry from London were another pair of riders who were pleased with their day’s riding: “I’ve done this one three times,” said Paul. “The course is ideal, mostly quiet country roads. The savouries at the second feed station really hit the spot, but I was disappointed there were only two stops and not three. For me this sportive is like a well-kept secret, and I don’t understand why more people don’t do it.”

While Paul went for the 101 mile option, Simon went for the big one: “It was incredibly hard, harder than I thought it would be,” he said. “I thought I was done at about 70 miles. It’s enjoyable now that I’ve finished, but it didn’t always seem that way out on the course!”

Organiser Nick Bourne told BikeRadar that, town council permitting, next year’s event will be based in Bailey Park itself, and take place on a Sunday. He said: “We are always looking out for better locations, and we try to improve our events within certain parametera. But it seems as though everyone loved the route this year.”

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