Steven Williams celebrates winning the masters race at the Aberystwyth Cycling Festival. Pic: Owen Morgan.

The Wheel Has Turned . . . Wales Is a Cycling Nation

New mum Elinor Barker may have grabbed the attention with her recent selection for the Commonwealth Games, but there’s plenty more happening in Welsh cycling at present. Owen Morgan sampled two events either side of selection for Birmingham, which both underlined how the sport in Wales is currently enjoying a boom time.

Wales once again this week showed off what a wonderful cycling venue it has become.

From Wrexham in the north to the Black Mountain in the south – with Aberystwyth and Welshpool enjoying starring roles in between – the nation showed off its finery.

The action started last weekend with the welcome return of the ever-popular annual Aberystwyth Cycle Festival, following its Covid-enforced absence.

Midweek witnessed the naming of Team Wales’ cycling contingent for this summer’s Commonwealth Games.

The list of riders nurtured on Wales’ tracks, lanes and roads, featured the likes of Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and World and Olympic gold medallist Elinor Barker – just three months after giving birth to her son, Nico.

And the week ended with north, mid and south Wales once again hosting some of the world’s top female cyclists on two thrilling stages of this year’s Women’s Tour – televised by Eurosport and ITV.

Typically wet Welsh weather welcomed the riders as they lined up for Stage Four of the week-long Women’s Tour in Wrexham on Thursday.

Elisa Longo Borghini takes the win at the top of the Black Mountain. Pic: Owen Morgan.

And the stage would throw further typically Welsh elements at more than 100 of the world’s best riders as they wound their way southwards to Montgomery and then back up to the finish in Welshpool.

The route featured more than 2,106 metres of climbing as the peleton tackled a number of Queen of the Mountains (QoM) sections including the climb up to the stunning Lake Vyrnwy.

The closing stages saw Australian Grace Brown, of FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope, move into the overall race lead after sprinting to victory in Welshpool.

Third placed Elisa Longo Borghini, of Trek-Segafredo, was impressed by the challenge set by the first Welsh stage of the week.

“It was a really lumpy stage, there were some really hard QoMs in the middle of the stage and then some more, let’s say, flat parts in the end, but still uncategorised hilly parts. It was really, really hard. I like the stage here and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

“It’s going to be nice to finish up on the Black Mountain.”

Carmarthenshire’s Black Mountain (Y Mynydd Du), between Llangadog and Brynaman, would certainly be a challenge for the riders in this year’s Queen Stage of the race.

Only the second mountain top finish in the tour’s history, the final climb would also be one of its toughest ever challenges.

The ascent measured 7.2 kms with the Black Mountain averaging a gradient of 5.3 per cent, ramping up to 21 per cent in places.

A Women’s Tour spectator take time out to admire the view from the top of the Black Mountain. Pic: Owen Morgan.

Not only did the cyclists face the ominous combination of the mountain’s incline and hairpin bends, including the famous Tro Gwcw (Cuckoo Bend,) but also the Black Mountain’s very own microclimate.

The gusting wind at the summit, where the skies alternated from azure blue to slate grey in the blink of an eye, was blowing straight into the faces of the cyclists as they reached the literally breath-taking summit.

And all this at the end of a 106.6km stage which had started on the shore of Carmarthen Bay at Pembrey Country Park.

The peleton meandered its way through the Gwendraeth and Tywi Valleys, passing a string of primary schools whose pupils had been given a break from lessons to provide a colourful and cacophonous chorus as they passed by.

The riders would have welcomed all the encouragement they could get as they headed out of Llangadog and travelled the tree-lined roads along the banks of the Afon Sawdde river, with the Black Mountain looming ahead.

Perhaps the biggest indication of the challenge facing them came from the race’s mountain-top commentators who compared the summit finish to some of those faced by Tour de France riders.

As it transpired, Longo Borghini had been right to look forward to finishing on the Black Mountain when she had been interviewed 24-hours earlier.

As the leading group approached the summit – passing the poignant memorial to David Davies who died on that spot in 1884 when his horse bolted and the 22-year-old fell under the wheel of his cart laden with lime – the Italian road race champion made her decisive move.

Elisa Longo Borghini celebrates her win in the traditional style with Carmarthenshire councillor Glynog Davies. Pic: Owen Morgan.

Out-sprinting Kasia Niewiadoma, of Canyon//SRAM Racing, and race leader Brown, Longo Borghini took the victory on the Brecon Beacons National Park beauty spot.

“It was very windy up the climb and mostly a head wind, so it was really hard to make the selection,” said the stage winner afterwards.

“In the end, I just trusted my sprint and I went full gas at 150 metres to go. I just wanted to win because I wanted to pay off all the work that my team did – we were really committed from the very beginning of the race.”

“At the moment I want to relax and enjoy the victory, and then tomorrow is tomorrow. We will think about it tomorrow.”

And so the Women’s Tour headed out of Wales and on to Saturday’s final stage which would take the riders to Chipping Norton where Brown, Longo Borghini and Niewiadoma would be separated by just two seconds in the general classification as they set off for the finish at Oxford.

Once again Wales’ roads had tested some of the world’s top cyclists to the full  with their unique challenges and spectacular surroundings.

A week earlier, the Aberystwyth Cycle Festival may have attracted a less cosmopolitan entry, but the challenges set by the town centre and the surrounding countryside were no less varied and testing.

A wide range of events were on offer for riders of all ages and abilities across an equally varied choice of disciplines and distances.

Crowds enjoying a stunt cycling display on Aberystwyth’s sea front. Pic: Owen Morgan.

But perhaps the highlight of the festival was last Saturday’s Welsh Criterium Championships staged on the tricky Aberystwyth town centre course which has hosted a number of national events.

Faced with heart-stopping 90 degree turns contrasting with the long sweep of the sea-front promenade, the riders sped past the 19th century Old College, the 13th century castle and the town’s famous Victorian Pier.

A day of exciting schools and age grade racing was rounded off with the senior Welsh Championship events.

Highlights included men’s 40+ Masters winner Steven Williams, of the Army Cycling Union, letting out a thunderous victory roar as he pipped Ynys Mon Race Team’s David Parry to the title on the line.

The senior women’s race witnessed a hugely dominant performance from Eluned King, of Le Col Wahoo, who finished almost two minutes ahead of second placed Ella Barnwell, of CAMS-Basso.

The senior men’s race had to be restarted after one of the tight bends saw a crash which claimed a number of fallers.

When the race did get underway again, members of the Welsh Racing Academy called the shots as Joe Holt crossed the line first with him and his team-mates occupying the top four places.

 

Later in the week, at an event in Cardiff, King, Barnwell and Holt would all be named in the 27-strong Welsh cycling team hoping to mount a serious challenge for medals at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this summer.

All in all, a pretty impressive seven days of action and news from a nation putting itself firmly on the global cycling map.

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