Billing itself as ‘the UK’s toughest sportive’, The Monster is a 195km ride in beautiful southwestern Wales with 4,200m / 13,000ft of climbing, much of it by way of sharp ramps on tiny roads that kick to 25 percent. As I was in the UK visiting our home office in Bristol in early July, I borrowed a bike and gave The Monster a go.
For most of our Horse for the Course features, we pick a bike specifically for an event, usually selecting components and definitely tires we believe best suited for the task at hand. For The Monster, my selection process consisted of an email: “Hey, Jonny, do you have a 56cm bike I could borrow, please?”
Jonny Ashelford runs The Shed in Bristol, an ever-shifting bike rider’s dream of dozens and dozens of test bikes for BikeRadar, Cycling Plus, What Mountain Bike, Mountain Biking UK and Procycling. Jonny’s patience is clearly wearing thin with the likes of me asking for favors, but he pulled an S3 off the top rack.
“This is probably the raciest thing we have in 56cm right now,” he said.
At the time, I had not yet even heard of The Monster, and was just planning on riding the bike around Bristol.
I gave it a quick check, mostly to make sure the saddle and my backside would be on friendly terms. Shimano Ultegra 11-speed with a 52/36 Rotor crank, a 3T cockpit, and some skinny-looking Mavic clinchers on Mavic Elite wheels with an 11-25 on the back rounded out the aero frameset.
“That’s great, Jonny. Thank you.”
Then I heard about The Monster.
- The course: 195km with 4,200m / 13,000ft of climbing on quiet, narrow and sometimes rough lanes in Wales
- The Horse: A Cervélo S3 with Shimano Ultegra 11spd, Mavic Cosmic Elite wheels and 23mm Mavic Yksion Comp clinchers, Mavic Zxellium pedals — 6.91kg / 15.23b all in
- The equipment goals: Efficiency, comfort and stability on a tricky course — and low gearing for 25 percent climbs!
The Devil’s Staircase tilts at 25 percent
Meet The Monster – and watch out for sheep
Three days after borrowing the bike in Bristol I found myself standing in a small gymnasium in the tiny village of Llangadog, Wales. As promised by the humble website, road traffic that damp morning was virtually nonexistent, the primary noises punctuating the quiet morning air coming from sheep.
While many UK sportives draw thousands of riders, event organizer Matt Page capped The Monster at 100.
My friend Richard and I collected our number plates while Matt explained the rules, and warned us to watch out for animals on the road.
With the group broken into two-minute waves to prevent clogging the narrow roads, we set off.
Is 36/25 low enough for steep grades on a long day?
After a brief ramble down a flat road, The Monster showed its ugly face. We turned off onto a tiny, pebble-strewn lane that tilted upwards at a comical degree. Within about two minutes of grinding slowly up the 22 percent grade, heart rate pegged, I had the sinking feeling that I was in over my head. On what looked to be an eight- to 10-hour ride, we had been in the saddle for 10 minutes – and people were already walking.
This is going to be a very, very long day, I thought.
An equally sharp descent down what felt like semi-paved singletrack funneled us into a cobbled ford. (My riding buddy Richard may or may not have gotten spooked and put a foot down in said ford, leaving him with a sopping shoe for the day.)
These days I mostly ride 25mm rubber, if not 26, 28 or even 30mm. In part, that’s because they are trendy, and test bikes and sample items show up in these plumper varieties. But in part, it’s because fatter is more comfortable on rough roads and, I feel, a bit more stable and planted on sketchy descents.
Bringing 23mm clinchers into deepest, darkest Wales on tiny rough lanes felt a little silly. Similarly, I was apprehensive that the 36-25 would not be low enough to haul my carcass up the coming walls like Devil’s Staircase, a 12 percent switchbacked 1km gut-puncher that starts off at 25 percent.
Sheep, triathletes, and more sheep. But not a single traffic light all day
When is the last time you did an eight-hour ride without encountering a single traffic signal? This being my first visit to Wales, I have no idea how representative of the country The Monster is, but I can tell you it feels awesome to ride and ride and ride in quiet countryside without ever having to put a foot down.
Don’t get me wrong – I put my foot down plenty at each of the four feed stations where homemade cakes and breads and fruit covered the tables.
Being an American, I was amazed at the narrowness of the roads. By narrow, I mean like ‘a single small car takes up the whole road’ narrow. Cars were few and far between on the day, but whenever one passed, the driver would invariably pull to the side and slow if not stop to let us roll past. At one point we topped a hill to find a car parked in the skinny road – with its driver standing atop the thing taking pictures. With barely enough room to get past, we ducked around the rear-view mirrors and carried on. Not much traffic out there in southwestern Wales.
Rush hour in southwestern Wales
Occasionally we merged onto a double-lane road. I kept telling myself ‘left, left’, both to stay on the correct side of the road and to remember the configuration of the brake levers. There were no self-propelled endos thanks to me grabbing too much right (front) brake, thinking it was the rear — but I certainly thought about it a few times when sheep darted across the road.
Now when you bill your event as ‘the toughest’ anything, you’re going to get a certain type of knucklehead showing up. Typically the type who wants to challenge themselves, and then bore others later by yammering on about it. (Hey, you can skim this, you know?) As such there were more than a couple Ironman tattoos on the legs around Richard and me.
But I noticed another thing: the knuckleheads who sign up for such adventures can generally ride their bikes. As this was the first (and therefore toughest!) sportive I had ever ridden in the UK, I can’t speak to the cross-section of typical sportive riders, but I can say that that typical US equivalent gran fondo or century rider isn’t always well versed with group riding skills. In our little group that coalesced over the course of the day, I appreciated being able to ride in a sheltered group of competent riders. And yes, that included a few triathletes.
Finding a good group goes a long way
Battered but not broken
Despite my fears on the day’s first climb, I was able to drag myself up all the steep tarmac on the 36/25. On a few spots the rear end slid out, but the Yksion Comps generally held enough purchase for me to slowly leverage the bike side to side out of the saddle, like the world’s slowest, ugliest sprint, up pitches like the Devil’s Staircase.
The day ended up being dry, for which we were all grateful. I am positive many more cleats would have touched tarmac were the climbs wet.
Aside from the questionable grip, the narrow clinchers had me concerned about a rattling ride. I set them at 90psi, but borrowed gloves from Richard for a little more padding. The 3T Ergonova Pro handlebar proved a gracious host, with the wide top distributing pressure across the palms.
With its substantial aero tubing, the Cervélo S3 would not have been my first choice for The Monster — I would have picked more of an all-rounder like a Cervélo R series bike, and with plump tires — but with the contact points all sorted and with race geometry that felt like home, the bike delivered mightily. I would happily ride the same bike again for The Monster if I could swap the cassette for an 11-28 and put some 25s on there.
See you in Llangadog next year?
With heaps of well-modulated power, Shimano’s new Ultegra brakes are excellent and frankly difficult to distinguish from Dura-Ace, at least without a scale