Well an extended weekend break and now a further few days off on ‘the sick’ is helping me prepare for my forthcoming voluntary severance from my current employer and at least being ill gives me a chance to tackle writing up my blog and reflect on what may have brought about my physical downfall this time. Since Sunday evening I’ve been ‘opening the sluices at both ends’ on a fairly regular basis and shaking like a sh*ting dog. I’m still unsure where to lay the blame, the Friday evening overindulgence of Adnams Ale, maybe the pickled egg and caper chasers that followed, maybe the home distilled vodka, maybe the dreaded burger van, maybe just riding a smoking Ukrainian sidecar outfit for 160 miles across the Pennines, Cheshire plains and Snowdonia to sleep under canvas on a weekend when weather reports stated beware of dangerous road surfaces and travel only if necessary.
Yes it’s February and that can only mean one thing it’s Dragon rally time again! With snow falling on Eastern England in the days leading up to the event it looked like the 51st Dragon was to give us the conditions some of us had hoped for in 2011. I’d half packed my little 250 BSA the night before and was up like a child on Christmas morning, drawing the curtain in the half light to see a further light sprinkling of the white stuff covered the drive to the garage and as I sat on the bed pulling on layers of thermals watching BBC travel reporters freeze their bits off reporting from a variety of bridges over various motorways across the U.K. I made the decision to get out Boris!
For those of you who don’t know, Boris is a Ukrainian 650cc Dnepr motorcycle and sidecar manufactured just outside of Kiev in the days of the USSR. I have owned him for two years now really with the express idea of using him as a winter rally machine. Capable of carrying a fair amount of luggage and with the added benefit of a third wheel for ice and snowy conditions, however, a few technical problems at the outset of ownership and the fact that at present on a long run he drinks more oil than the annual production of a small middle eastern state had until now restricted my journeys to rally’s within a hundred mile radius of home until I had time and inclination to strip the engine and have a good look inside.
I load up the sidecar and slip down the snow covered street to get fuel before returning and awaiting the arrival of this year’s riding companions.
First to arrive is Brian who for some strange reason had removed the sidecar from his Kawasaki W650 the previous day!!!!
Next is Buckles on the Big Diesel Daihatsu engined Ural sidecar
Followed by John on another W650 Kawumph and Ravey Davey who was aboard Jan’s 125 Suzuki Van Van, feeling it was better suited to the conditions than his own 1050cc Suzuki Bandit, can’t say I disagree.
As we catch up and begin practicing the art of rolling cigs with frozen fingers the distinctive exhaust note of a little BSA can be heard approaching (maybe a mile away), it’s Graham on his 1966 250cc BSA C15 he immediately parks the bike jumps off and asks for tools, apparently part of the bikes charging system (the Zenor Diode) had fallen off on the short run to my house and is swinging down between the front wheel and engine.
I’ve travelled with Graham for over thirty five years and it’s nice to know something’s never change, yesterday should really have given me fair warning of what to expect as having trailered his BSA up from Oxfordshire (where he now lives following his return from Australia) to Rotherham he telephoned me to say the bike was packed and ready to go but did I have a spare helmet I could lend him as he’d forgotten to bring one! Anyway with a new Zenor diode bracket fabricated and bolted in place the BSA seemed ready to roll as Kevin and his son Ollie arrive on their Ural special.
Now what is it that makes my instructions of ‘be at my house fuelled up and ready to go at 10am’ so complicated? It’s now 10.45 and half the group still need petrol. So with this in mind we pull in at the first garage we pass, good job too as we wait for Graham who has stopped after the little BSA was making a ‘strange noise’ and had an ‘odd’ vibration. The cause of this is quickly diagnosed as a bow string tight drive chain, the new chain he had only fitted the previous morning!
With the chain quickly adjusted, tanks full of fuel and having being photographed by the garage proprietor we finally get underway.
Passing out of Sheffield we follow back roads through Bradfield and into the Peak District, here the roadside snow thickens as we climb before dropping down from the moors to Baslow, Ashford in the Water and along the A6 to Buxton.
‘Road Closed’ signs and numerous road cones block our access to the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ road, hmmm what to do now? Well ride round them obviously and continue climbing into the snow line. I check my mirrors and all the solo’s are following, we have snow gear, shovels, ropes, etc in the sidecars and there are enough of us to help each other along the route should the need arise but as it turns out the way is clear. Even following the road over Wild Boar Clough the odd patch of heavy ice on the centre line fails to slow our progress.
The snow thins noticeably as we head into Congleton and take a late breakfast / early lunch at the Bus Station Cafe.
From here we ride on through Crewe, Nantwich and Whitchurch, passing the large road signs directing people to ‘The Secret Bunker’ a place where I have sometimes been known to stop with tears of laughter in my eyes wondering how they kept it secret for so long with signs so big? Before deviating from our usual Dragon route to take in Ellesmere and the village of Whittington with its beautiful castle before arriving in Oswestry.
The mist begins to swirl around our small convoy of machines as we now ride narrow Welsh lanes snaking upwards towards Glyn Ceiriog, this feels like real boarder country, little cottages and old farmsteads scattered across the landscape, it reminds me of the film ‘Freebird’ and I begin to giggle, giggle a lot !
For those of you who’ve never seen the film, try to, here’s the synopsis.
Released in 2008 Freebird is an independent British comedy that uses the world of motorcycles and rock music as its backdrop. Fred (Gary Stretch), Tyg (Geoff Bell) and Grouch (Phil Daniels), three London motorcycle couriers, set off from London in search of an elusive hippy and his cannabis farm in the Welsh mountains. Fred has found himself making a promise to his old friend “The Chairman” (Peter Bowles) that whatever situations arise he will not return empty-handed. What was originally intended as a nice weekend in the country becomes a mission.
This time our mission is much more innocent, today it’s to reach The West Arms Hotel at Llanarmon DC,
a good call by Buckles who had found it whilst browsing the ‘Biker Guide’ web site and who had negotiated a cracking reduction over the list price, a tactic I have also seen him employ when buying his new BMW Adventure! On arrival we pulled into the pub yard to be greeted by the ‘kitchen porter’ a great guy with a cracking sense of humour and a vision problem, who on seeing Kevin said ‘it’s very good of you to be bringing your granddad with you on such a trip’, I guess I get his point on this one !
and ‘how lucky you are to be accompanied by such a nice young lady’, that will be Ollie, Kevin’s son then.Not quite so sure about that though!
After sorting gear in our rooms, its showers for some and the bar for me, a new barrel of Adnams Ale was on tap and I decided to see if we could empty it by the end of the evening. Around 7pm, Dave mounted on his Africa Twin and Rafe riding a composite based around a Kawasaki GPZ750 arrived having left Goole late in the afternoon.
The evening past sat around the log fire in this 17th century inn having a proper good craic,
good beer, then good food, more good beer and good whiskey, conversation flowed and Buckles ordered a ‘special’ dessert, yep the jar of pickled eggs from behind the bar served on cocktail sticks accompanied by capers, Mmm nice.
The night saw temperatures plummet and in the morning all the bikes were frozen to the spot, time to retreat to the dining room for a full traditional Welsh breakfast and to pick up a jar of locally produced Welsh honey as a prezzie to take home for Kathryn,
before breaking the ice from my saddle and bar muffs and being very surprised when Boris started around the 5th or 6th kick.
Riding up to Chirk, I noticed the Dnepr was lacking power and would run at little over a quarter throttle, carburettor icing I think or a frozen tank breather? No I’d left the choke on! Doh.
Back on to the A5 we head through Llangollen passing the usual bunch of crazy kayakers on the River Dee and start meeting other perfectly sane Dragonist on route to the rally site. Stopping in Betws-y-Coed for final supplies and to refill our wallets after the excesses of last night we meet some of the Z – Cred boys riding a mix of various small capacity 2 stroke MZ’s from Nottingham. From here it’s on to the rally check in at the T’yn-y-Coed Hotel in Capel Curig.
It’s only here were we are told the exact location of this year’s rally site. It’s to be at the north end of Llyn Gwynant, a beautiful lake off the A4086 on route to Beddgelert. These last few miles make every other mile it took to get here worthwhile, snaking along the valley with towering snow topped hills ringed in cloud and mist looking down on the convoy that grows as more bikes join, old Norton’s and BSA’s lugging sidecars, sports bikes, rat bikes, custom bikes, bikes from Germany and The Netherlands join English, Scots and Welsh on this winter pilgrimage.
With a camping space found adjacent to the lake, tents and tarps are erected,
then the fun and frolics begin as the sound of horns, whoops and hollers make us all turn as one to be faced with a gentleman wearing a very small green mankini riding around the sight on a Honda C90, this is quickly parked up as he then strips naked and dives into the near freezing lake. Oh what fun, it could almost turn you to drink. Time to meander up towards the bar when on our way who should we see coming towards us but ‘Tarka’ a fellow Eastern Bloc motorcycle rider here from the Wirral on his Russian 650 Ural, I’ve known him for a number of years now and we keep in touch via forums and the odd email but it is often only our yearly Welsh gathering when we get to meet face to face.
We continue to the control building and collect our prized rally badges together with a commerative slate drinks coaster, hot soup and a roll before being forced to try out the bar.
This is followed by a tour of the campsite, meeting more old friends and taking in many interesting, wonderful and some crazy machines.
At the top of a hill we come across the MT Riders Group showing the off road prowess of their ex-forces bikes by camping on the most inaccessible part of the camp ground.
Pete Wheeler arrives on his BMW R1150GS following a quick morning ride over from Doncaster having declined the invitation to stay over the night before he treats himself to a luxurious abode for the night in his bivy bag.
Pete was to be accompanied by Martyn (his brother ) with Jan on pillion but unfortunately only a few miles into the ride over Martyn had to turn back feeling ill and he swears it wasn’t from any previous evenings overindulgence.
The beers flow and hip flasks pass around the campfire whilst Buckles prepares dinner.
Time for a quick nap before some of us wander back to the bar and to take in the band, if anything this was my only criticism of the whole weekend, the room was simply too small and after five minutes of trying to elbow my way through the crowd to find any area of empty space to stand in I give up and return outdoors to chat with others about bikes, kit, journeys undertaken and trips still to be planned.
Back around our fire I finish a burger I seem to have bought somewhere on route before retreating to the solitude of my tent, hip flask in hand and ear plugs at the ready, Pete is just warming up and I know Buckles will be back from the bar soon, for me it’s time to shut down and prepare for the long ride back.
The morning dawns grey and misty but much warmer than the previous one, although we are all up and around by 8.30am it takes till 10.30am for us to hit the road.
Kevin’s feeling a little rough round the edges and says he’s had a shocking night with tummy troubles!
The ride back along the A5 is uneventful and we soon reach Llangollen and pull into our usual breakfast stop at the ’Bookshop Cafe’
the tables are already full of helmets and the chair backs creak ominously with the weight of leathers, scarves and waterproofs, the conversation on every table is about the rally, people not seen for years, exotic machinery, new friends made and a comparison of hangovers. Kevin orders a full breakfast takes one look at it and takes it to the waste trolley, he really is feeling ill. It’s only as I’m half way through my own food that I casually ask where Graham and Pete are? Buckles says he thinks they may have got lost over the last few miles as the Dnepr had been laying out a James Bond style smoke screen that was causing most of the following vehicles to lose all sense of direction!
Just as I’m starting to worry the phone goes it’s Graham on Pete’s phone apparently the BSA’s gear lever had dropped off and after a hasty repair on pursuing us they had carried on through Llangollen and were now fast approaching Whitchurch! We agree to try and meet further along the route. On returning to our bikes I think Buck's remarks about Boris's smoking problem may have hurt as when Buck tries to start the Big Diesel there is nothing, it appears a terminal had come off the starter solanoid, a problem easily fixed but i swear I saw a smile flash across Boris's headlamp !
After a fuel stop which comes as a great relief to Davey as he has been running on fumes for the last few miles we push on and start riding into thick fog as we climb back onto the south Pennine Hills. The site of the Wild Boar Clough pub rising from the murk is very welcome and after watching Graham and Pete ride past in happy oblivion we pull up chairs at the fireside and enjoy a good coffee. If anyone needs a break or wants to stop longer on the campsite round the back of the bar ,this is a biker friendly moorland stop over only a few miles from the Cat and Fiddle route and I can recommend it.
Another hour and we are home, a quick call and a few texts later confirm that all have landed safely; it’s time to unpack and wash the salt from Boris before a hot bath and tea for me. Hmm, maybe I’d better pass on the tea seems like Kevin has passed on his tummy troubles, then again it could have been the beer or the pickled eggs or the burger or the vodka or just a symptom of doing another Dragon.
For the complete Dragon Rally photo set go to