The Tale of the Dragon Ride: a 20th Anniversary Special

All the greats have their origins; their humble beginnings which shaped their future success and legendary status. The Dragon Ride is an event whose past is a treasure chest of aspiration, ambition, untold tales, and fond emotions. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fierce sportive, there was no-one better to speak to than the Welsh-born founder himself Lou Lusardi, who delved into the history of the Dragon Ride in its formative years from 2004 onwards.

Our conversation shines a light on the rough-and-ready beginnings of the Dragon Ride, and how the appetite for this challenging sportive enabled it to grow in scale and success. It also shows how Lou’s passion for the event led to this growth and continues to leave a fiery legacy.

A conversation with Lou Lusardi, founder of the Dragon Ride

In 1990 a man bought a bike. Not your carbon-frame, Di2-geared ‘innovative technology’ bike that you might see about nowadays; this was a hard-wearing, chromoly mountain bike with a Shimano grip shift that had just hit the market. It looked exactly how you picture a ‘90s mountain bike to look like: gorgeous.

“Like many, I came into cycling because of injuries through football. It was a good way to continue to keep fit and still enjoy sport”, recalls Dragon Ride founder Lou Lusardi. “As with many cyclists, I soon discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and in 1999 I did my first participation ride.”

It was this event which planted the seeds for the future Dragon Ride. Going from Rochester to Southsea in Portsmouth, the joy Lou felt doing this event stayed with him long after the finish line. However, so did another feeling…

“I kept thinking that there was nothing else like this in the UK before. I’d seen sportives in Italy and in Europe, but not much in the UK. There was such a market for these events, judging from the turnout of riders at Rochester to Southsea.”

So, in 2000 Lou decided to combine a holiday with his Italian relatives with his first ever sportive. The ‘Gran Fondo Barilla’ (sponsored by the pasta company) was a breath-taking event, taking place in the beautiful, mountainous setting of Parma.

“That was something really special. So much so, that I kept going back. Each time I entered, I thought ‘these events are just fantastic’ – but why aren’t they in the UK? So, in 2003, I decided to give it a go!”

Throughout that year, Lou created the sparks that would eventually kindle into the first ever Dragon Ride in 2004.

“It was always going to be in Wales, as I live close to the Brecon Beacons and know the area well. It was also pretty easy to decide that the event name would be the Dragon Ride, with the Dragon being the symbol of the country!”

Lou did all of the planning and marketing of the first Dragon Ride himself, with the original logo being a dragon and a wheel. He used his knowledge of the roads and hills in the Brecon Beacons, which he likens to climbs in the Alps.

“We picked the date in June as this was a few weeks before the L’Etape du Tour de France’ event through the Alps. Many of our riders in the first years used the Dragon Ride to train for this, although now the tables have turned, and many participants go to the Alps to train for the Dragon Ride!”

On Sunday 6th June 2004, around 280 riders showed up for the first ever Dragon Ride 120km Gran Fondo sportive. There was no Event Village – just a very simple start line and timing system – but plenty of passion and determination.

Every penny raised from entry prices went to the Noah’s Ark Appeal (a Children’s Hospital Charity) in Cardiff. The event was a success, with riders enjoying the easy accessibility of the event (by car and train), the challenging nature of the course, and the Alpine-like scenery along the way.

However, Lou was determined to make the event grow and continually improve rider’s experience. In the following years, he visited sportives across the world including Cape Town, where he observed the professional level of organisation which the Dragon Ride came to emulate, in later years.

“I was never afraid to ask people what made their event exceptional or be afraid to try to implement this myself. That’s how the best events become the best!”

Within 4 years, the Dragon Ride had over 3,000 riders signing up. It was attracting serious riders, less serious riders, rugby players, Paralympians, news broadcasters and… Tour de France legends!

“Geraint Thomas interviewed me!” chuckles Lou when re-calling the notable people attached to the Dragon Ride. “He was in his late teens, laying the groundwork for his future success, but at that time, I was possibly better known than him!”

In 2011, the Dragon Ride was voted the best sportive in the UK by Cycling Weekly readers for the third time in a row. However, Lou’s proudest moment occurred in 2012 when the Dragon Ride hosted the British round of the UCI Golden Bike Series “That was prestigious. It was a pretty amazing event to be a part of.”

It hasn’t been all plain sailing though; Lou re-called some stressful mishaps which he can only look back and laugh about now!

“There was the year we ran out of salt for the roasted new potatoes. They were one of the things that rated the highest on our feedback – riders always love them – but we completely under-ordered on the salt, which was key for riders replacing the sodium they lose through sweat.

So, we got a volunteer to drive down into the nearest town and buy all the salt available in the only shop there! We completely cleared them out.”

“Then there was the time we included a bike wash sachet in the goody bag, and exhausted riders were gulping it down thinking it was an energy gel . We’re lucky nobody was sick! The worst we got was bubbles when someone broke wind…”

In 2010, the Dragon Ride was passed into the capable hands of Nick Rusling, former CEO of the Human Race Ltd. However, Lou was still very much a key player on the scene and when asked how he stayed so motivated with the Dragon Ride, he said the following:

“Speaking to the riders kept us constantly working towards pulling off a great event each year. You chat with them before, during and after the event, meet some amazing people and hear some great stories.”

“This has also always been a very hands-on event – the staff work extremely long days, and don’t rest until the last rides comes over the finisher line, very late at night. Despite this, there’s a sense of teamwork and comradery that is engrained out on the course, at the feed stops, the Event Village and very spirit of the event itself. It’s the staff at the feed stations keeping spirits high and engines full. It’s also in the hand on the back going up a particularly hard bit of the course – or words of encouragement to fellow riders. And the cheering for the final rider, respect to him or her, as they cross that finish line.”

It turns out the man who forged the beast of the Dragon Ride has a soft spot after all.