Sunday, 13 March 2011
I’d been waiting for this one for some time now, in fact since October 1st 2010 the first day tickets went on sale for the 50th Dragon Rally and the day I ordered 14 of them for the South Yorkshire contingent. It was a good job I ‘booked early’, as Fred Pontin used to say, as in just three weeks all the tickets had sold out and on Friday 11th February as we set off there were some on ebay around the £60 mark and climbing. Work and money had conspired against me to get to any rallies in January so this was to be my first of 2011. The Dragon is always held in North Wales, organised by the Conwy Motorcycle Club it is a Saturday night only rally but as this was the 50th we thought we’d do something a bit special and make a full weekend of it. The idea being to split the journey of 150 miles from Rotherham to Beddgelert and stop somewhere in the Welsh boarders, it seemed a good idea at the time and after much trawling of internet and phoning contacts, Micky Wheeler sent a txt, “I’ve got us somewhere sorted, it’s in the Welsh boarders but a bit further south, it’ll make a good ride.” “I’m in” I text back without looking at the map !.
Up till the day before departure I still hadn’t decided which bike to take, on the big BMW it’s just too easy, I like my Dragon to be a bit of an adventure so it was down to either the Dnepr sidecar outfit or the old faithful BSA 250 Starfire which I have used for many past Dragon trips. With no snow on the ground I plumped for the little single and with a quick adjustment of the chain and just a ride to fuel up, the first time she’d been out for 6 months or more, I loaded her up.
I’d arranged to ride over with John on his Kawasaki W650 and Chris on her Guzzi Breva meeting Manny on his stripped Guzzi California in Congleton.
Micky and the BMW mounted boys were setting off from Tickhill an hour after our supposed 9.30am start. By 10am we were on the road, Sheffield took an hour to get through but we were rewarded by a great ride up Ringinglow Road and into the Peak District National Park before descending into Hathersage then very slowly climbing Winnets Pass and on through Buxton before negotiating Wildboar Clough and dropping into Congelton for a late breakfast / early lunch. There outside the cafe stood Manny, we were only an hour late but even the women serving thought he’d been stood up. If you’ve seen Manny this is something you could easily think.
As we were remounting the first of many Dragonists passed by, ex army BSA, old BMW outfits, MZ’s a plenty and others rolled past and then just as we were leaving, Micky, Pete Wheeler, Tickhill Chris and others rolled past on their loaded GS’s. The little Starfire rumbled on through Crewe, Nantwich and on to Whitchurch where we deviated from our usual route and headed south on the great B5476 , it was here on one long climb as I slipped down to second then first gear that a grinning Manny kindly pulled alongside and gave the BSA a helping hand to crest the rise. After battling with Friday afternoon traffic through Shrewsbury we joined the A488 and with the mileage already around the 130 mark we continued south passing Bishop’s Castle and into Knighton were my myopic signpost reading put another 15 miles on the journey.
With 175 miles now under our belts, or should that be under my arse ( 1960’s BSA saddles are not the best ) we pulled into the car park at The Lion Hotel at Llanbister.
After an hour or so the Wheeler posse arrived, their lateness owing in no small measure to Ivan throwing his BMW GSA down the road after getting it wrong on one of the gravel and mud strewn corners that we had encounted over the final miles.
Bent crashbars and a few dents were the least of our worries as Ivan is still recovering from a major operation on his neck !. Micky was mounted on his new 650XC which drew some admiring glances even from the KTM enduro guys who were also staying the night.
Now I am sworn to secrecy over the price we paid for our lodgings as Micky had swung the deal with his mate and landlord of the Lion, Ray. We were treated to excellent food, superb ales and all served by Ray and Janet’s daughter Laura.The latter could explain why Pete didn’t leave the bar till sometime in the wee small hours.
Accommodation was superb and anyone wanting to explore this area of the country couldn’t go wrong spending a few days using this hotel as a base.
I’ll be back with Kathryn later in the year that’s for sure.It's got to be better than sharing a room with Micky !
Saturday morning dawned bright, warm and dry and after we had fortified ourselves on a full breakfast it was time to push Manny’s Guzzi up and down the road a few times, it helps clear the head ! and sometimes even creates a spark !.
The faster lads, led by Micky, headed west to Devil’s Bridge before following the coast north whilst our group headed off towards the A470 and the heart of Snowdonia, this was rewarded by stunning views and clear roads with the little BSA thumping merrily along. I don’t think this was quite the view some of the car drivers stuck behind me would have had as I crawled up some of the steeper inclines but sod it I spend most of the year trying to get past slower moving vehicles and they never pull over for me !
Around 1pm, Manny and myself arrived at the rally check in caravan but without John or Chris who we had lost over the past few miles of small twisties and with no phone signals available we had little choice but to push on to the site, pitch up and wait. This year the Dragon was to be held at the site of the Sygun copper mines a mile north of Beddgelert, we approached the site with caution as the gate marshals told us to take it steady over the wooden approach bridge as one rider had already broken an arm and sustained other injuries loosing the front end on the slimy boards, once over we followed the tarmac lane until the turn off into a muddy field entrance, I expected no less this is the Dragon after all. I see Tarka’s Ural outfit parked up beneath a fluttering red hammer and sickle flag but with little room for our party I push on into the depth of the bog. After a few minutes of slipping, sliding and digging myself into ruts that the BSA just manages to free itself from I decide to head away from the swollen river and wet flood plain and find a spot on higher ground. Now normally 10 yards behind the marquee is not the best place to camp when there is a party going on but needs must and given that we are still waiting for another 10 or 12 motorcycles to turn up it seems the only place that will fit us in.
Much to mine and Manny’s relief John pulls on next, apparently Chris’s Guzzi had been a bit slow at starting from our last stop and they had dropped behind. Chris waits at the gate to get a hand guiding her Guzzi through the mud as Buckles on his Big Diesel sidecar pulls in
bearing new and unfamiliar markings !!!
followed by Kevin on his Ural outfit.
The pair of them having just returned from a 1500 mile trip to the Elefant Treffen in Bavaria a week earlier had ridden over from Rotherham in one hit on Saturday morning. Next GS mounted Daz and Ivan arrive, followed by Tim on his Harley 350 ( Armstrong ) and over the next hour or so all the rest of the team pull in safe and sound. I sit and watch the arrival of bikes, Vincents and Velocettes, BSA’s and Brough Superiors, Urals with engines from BMW and Reliant, Honda’s and full dress Harleys fight through the mud.
I can’t believe this is the Dragon as I strip down to a shirt and sweat as I put up the tent, it’s times like this when I love global warming but it does give the Dragon a very strange feel, for some reason I think we all expected the 50th Dragon to throw something special at us in the way of impassable snow drifts or at least freezing fog and ground so hard you can’t get a tent peg in. Well as usual the beer and whiskey flows followed by port and more beer.
After collecting our prized rally badges, slate coaster and 50th anniversary woolly hat we all head round to Tickhill Chris’s basher camp as he is trialling his new handmade stainless steel stove and it is superb, fitting on the pannier of his GS with telescopic sectioned flue pipe, damper, grate and all, it kicks out some heat. Jan who is a top cook had ridden over on the pillion of Martyn Wheeler and very soon steaming lamb shank stew is being handed round. It’s not long before it’s not just the stew that is steaming. We listen to the band, dodge Chinese lanterns that try to set the tents and the surrounding woods alight and try copious quantities of the special Dragon 50th ale, meet up with Tarka and others we know from various forums and past rallies before finishing the evening with Steve’s Welsh Whiskey ( should that be Whisky) and I retire around midnight. Buckles is already tucked into his Bivy bag underneath a very sorry looking basher sheet as I zip shut my tent and listen to the strains of conversation that float by on the breeze, a breeze that grew stronger through the night and is soon accompanied by heavy rain.
I’m awake at 6am with the rain still hammering on the fly sheet and manage to doze until 7.15am when the Dragon wake up fireworks go off. I’m amazed, the rain has all but stopped but Buckles certainly looks like he’s given his Bivy Bag a thorough testing, I think really I should be glad of the rain as it’s then I notice that his paraffin lantern has been burning all night perilously close to the flapping tarp sheet adjacent to my tent !.
I still find it hard to believe that this is the same sleeping arrangement he used in Bavaria the week previous at -10 degrees, but that does explain his frost bitten nose.
After fresh coffee and orange juice we are packed up by 9.30am and begin to drift away from the site. After a few interesting diversions in search of lost riders and open petrol stations and after being passed by Micky and the GS’s we arrive in Llangollen and take breakfast at the ‘Bookshop Cafe’ our usual stop. Here the rain returns in anger and we are joined for our return ride by the outfits of Buckles and Kev who took a ‘secret’ route to get here.
We refuel for the final part of the journey at the little petrol station at Acrefair and are immediately welcomed by the owner who recognises the little red BSA from previous years expeditions, he won’t forget this year either as on remounting Manny’s Guzzi decides to pour clouds of black smoke and sparks from under his saddle as his wiring harness burns out. You should have seen the look of real concern on the garage proprietors face as Kevin un holsters a replic hand gun from the sidecar and aims it at Manny and the bike !!! 10 minutes with black electrical tape and no lights working and we are off.
The BSA decides to show sympathy for the big Guzzi as only a mile or so later as the rain still pours and the sky darkens my bike too decides to save on electricity and the headlight goes out, I’m sure it’s an earth wire come loose so push on. John and Christine drop back a little on the wet and greasy roads as we retrace our route from Whitchurch, my heart is in my mouth as we leave Congleton and pass the site where I crashed Bertha my GS in 2006 ( I think ) then it’s on to Buxton and into the Hope Valley, Sheffield and home a little before 4pm. A quick ring round the troops confirms all made it back o.k. and Buckles explains he’s been riding the last 25 miles on the diesel with no throttle cable and hand operating the governor unit. Well no snow, no ice, two sunny dry days but at least it pissed down on the way home. The 50th Dragon Rally, phew what a scorcher.