Friday 22nd April 07:30
Jez leaves the house (in Woking) trying not to wake his wife. He does not succeed. He gets on his heavily-laden bike and pootles down the road, heading for the petrol station next to St Crispins to meet with David for the journey to Golgellau (pronounce as best you can – heard three separate versions so far!).
We meet up, Jez fills up and we head off. Jez created a route – first stop Oxford Services (not on the M40) and we made good time to get our first cup of coffee. David had advised Jez that he’d be on a sportsbike and so could the route be less…gnarly…than his usual preference? Jez (surprisingly!) acted and had planned the route with no roads with green in the middle!
Next stop is at Chipping Camden and the Bantam Tea Rooms – excellent place for a cuppa and some tea-cake. Proposed lunch was at the Cob House Countryside Park, where we met some other TVAMers en route to Llandriddod Wells. We were still full from mid-morning and so we had a cup of tea and continued. We next stopped at Aardvark Books in Brampton Bryan for lunch. Here we first heard the alternative to ‘Dolgellau’. Caused much hilarity!
We continued west, taking the B4355 out of Knighton, following the A489 and then the A470 back on to the A489 and over the pass between Mallwyd and Dolgellau. In the process we encountered the slowest car-transporter I have ever seen – the traffic behind was fun on the bike! We arrived at the farm in Dolgellau that was to be our base for the next couple of days around 5pm
We arrived at the farm in Dolgellau that was to be our base for the next couple of days around 5pm – the last to arrive! We were shown our rooms and bathrooms and then where the beer and tea were kept – important items!
We got to know each other: Jez Brown, David Naylor, Danny Wozny, Jon Draper, Mark Ward, Mary Hatton, Jess Luscombe and Tony Turner. We were all relatively nervous about the following day apart from Jon – who had been away from this aspect of motorcycling for a while and wanted to get back to it.
We are introduced to the term ‘Dick of the Day’ and encouraged the following day to keep an eye out for when people accidentally do something dumb. Falling off into a puddle etc. The equivalent of the Wooden Spoon but without the spoon – just the title.
Saturday 23rd April 09:00
Briefing. Jack is the trail leader. Steph is the sweeper. Pete and Darren are the folk keeping the newbies going where necessary. Jack gives a demo of how to stand on a bike when on a trail – and all encourage us to learn this skill as a part of the weekend. Mention is made of the protocols surrounding trail riding – leave enough room between yourself and those in front / be courteous to others / offer assistance where you can / don’t be a Dick.
We are told that the bike can move of its own accord beneath you – for those of you that have been green-laning or trail riding you’ll know about this. We didn’t – and the thought of it made us nervous. We were told how to stay loose on the bike – a tense rider will not enjoy the ride. When standing, don’t grip the bars as if they are the only thing between you and a grisly demise – stand as if you are going to poo into a toilet bowl from 2 feet above the seat – that sort of thing.
We get going. Jez is on a Himalayan and it feels steady on the road, although the knobbly tyres make it feel slightly bumpy – lol – as if I needed them to make it MORE bumpy! We follow a short route and find ourselves on a rock-strewn path. We stop and get our first practical lesson. “Keep the bike moving – sudden throttle will make the back wheel skid and make steering difficult – and look where you want to go. The bike will do the rest. Power and momentum.” Danny goes first. He gets to a lovely slow cruising speed then looks left – unfortunately he is a good five metres short of the 90 degree corner we are meant to be taking. Danny has the first fall – a contender for the DOTD! The guys get Danny and bike prepped again and he makes it around the corner, keeping the revs steady and looking where he wants to go. We all follow and make it to the top of the hill, where we are able to get a stunning view over Barmouth.
The day continues – more rock-strewn paths and then we stop for a while to let some 4×4 cars crawl away from us. This is also a superb area for us to tackle our first ruts. “The bike will go where it wants – BUT you can encourage it to go in the direction you want it to” we are told. “When you are in a rut, keep your feet close in OR lift them above the rut and paddle your way along if you don’t have the confidence” – this is excellent advice, but doesn’t really get into the brain until you’ve tried it…we give it a go. There are some offs and Mark decides to try and throw himself across the way. Jez tries to help but is in no position to a) stop without dropping the bike b) help him get the bike back up! Jez makes certain that Mark is moving and then shouts excuses as he rides past…Jez still feel bad about this, Mark.
Jez’ first gate comes up – we’ve been on relatively flat surfaces, but this is at the bottom of a slope and continues down. Jack pushes the gate back with his front wheel and leaves Jez to it…Jez tries to put the stand down on a patch of grass out of the way. Nope. Not happening. The angle of the slope is too steep and the bike will fall…Jez tries to turn the bike around and manages that, but now he’s in the way of everyone so hastily moves back to the left hand side and dig the stand into the soft soil. Jez jumps off the bike just in time to see Steph glide past me as I scramble back up the slope and shut the gate. Success! Now to get back on the bike and follow the others…
Next adventure is a downhill gravel (rock) trail. Whoever named this ‘green-laning’ seriously needs to update their naming conventions is all that can be said. The incline is a gentle slope but strewn – yes – with rocks. Again the advice is “Let the bike go where it wants – try not to fight it too much” Jez sets out on his turn – Jez is doing well. About half way down Jez experiences a sort of trans-dimensional twist as somehow Jez is immediately pointing left, whereas he’d been pointing straight down the slope literally a second ago. Jez manages to keep the bike upright and slowly potter (best word I can use here!) to the end where the others were parked. Jack flies down the incline and skids to a halt, nearly running into Darren’s bike and earning the potential DOTD award.
We stop for lunch – LUNCH? – we’ve surely been on the go for days, we feel, but no. Around four hours with plenty of water stops to keep us hydrated – feels like a lifetime!
We head to a petrol station to fill up the bikes – and as Jez puts the stand on the Himalayan down and gets off I hear a shout as it topples over. Jez is hugely embarrassed about this. The handle-bar is bent but nothing else appears to be damaged. Jez looks at the bike once more on its stand in disbelief. Jez has no explanation for this. Jack later advises that some Himalayans had been recalled since the swing arm gets stuck, not letting the suspension rise properly. As a consequence when I thought that the stand was down and all was well, the bike was literally balancing on its tyres. Jez felt better about this, but is still a contender for DOTD.
We continue for a few more miles then we start heading back to the farm and the thought of a shower and food warms us. A couple of the team decide that they will forgo the excitement and ask if there is a tarmac way back. Steph takes them back via tarmac – but we head back more or less the way we’d come cross country. Where we’d seen the 4x4s earlier we were advised to ‘stay right on the trail’ by Darren. Immediately three of the team decided that they knew better and started on the left! The way back was up rock ‘steps’ that we’d descended in the morning – they seemed bigger in the afternoon when heading upwards. These three all had difficulties and so we had some fun getting their bikes back upright and moving again, but we all made it to the top! Back down the other side and then to ‘Danny’s corner’ – this time heading downhill the skills we’d practised throughout the day made us feel good and we swept around the bend with nary a thought. Back into Dolgellau – more petrol for the bikes then back to the farm. Jack started repairing the bikes (those that needed it!). A hefty boot (apparently) adjusted my handlebars.
We all congratulated each other over an excellent days riding and had some first-rate conversation into the night, looking forward to the following day.
Jack was voted the DOTD as he was the most experienced rider to nearly crash into Darren’s bike! Phew! Jez escaped!
Note: Please be advised that you WILL fall off at some point as a beginner – this is all slow-speed stuff and the course is designed to help you get over the fear of dropping the bike – although preferably not onto concrete. It does not hurt! Pride may be damaged but in this learning environment with people explaining how things work and helping you back up this is one of the safest times I’ve felt on a bike!
Sunday 24th April 09:00
Briefing. Yesterday we’d gone south – today we were heading north. Jack again led the way and after 10 minutes we were heading down a fabulous single-lane – well, track – with over-hanging branches and animal tracks criss-crossing. Looking over the wall to the right we could see what appeared to be the trail we should have been on. We turned the bikes around (no mean feat!) and headed back to the last gap in the wall to join the correct route. Jack immediately gains nomination as DOTD. We continue through beautiful countryside and scorching weather (for Wales 15 degrees) plus of course picking up the occasional bike here and there and jumping on and off bikes to play the part of gate keeper. Fabulous!
The trails seemed a little harder this day – whether because we’d got used to the trails from the previous day or because we were tired from the day before or these were more advanced trails we don’t know! Travelling up a slight incline with large rocks in the middle Jez decided to try and make it over one of them (not intentional – bike decision) and ended up on his back on the right-hand side of the trail, laughing like a loon. Darren looked concerned until he heard me then helped me get back up and get the bike back upright. Confidence and skill improved for the whole group and we made (we thought) good progress. We came to a lovely trail sloping down to a bridge and on the other side of it we dismounted at the bottom of a 180 degree turn followed immediately by a 90 degree turn. Covered in small rocks and gravel, of course.
Darren and Jack made us walk the turns to get an idea of the way that we should go and then one by one we try to get up. “Stick to the inside of the hairpin then look for your route to go around the next bend” we were told. “Keep it smooth and steady”. Jess ‘You’re not the boss of me’ ignored all advice and revved around the corner, only requiring a small amount of push from Darren to make it through. Mary was similar. Jez was lucky and did not need help! Jez’ bike went where he wanted it to! Danny – well. The hairpin was good. Then the revs stopped as did the bike. As he toppled off the bike back down the hill we could see that the bike was good but he had rolled back down to where he’d started. Jez was videoing him at this point if you’d like to see it – but had to stop videoing because he was laughing too much. Danny looked to have the DOTD spot firmly in his grasp. We all made it to the top of the slope and rested for a moment. We’d been promised that a decision would be made as to whether we’d be going up ‘Tarmac Hill’ – a 200m stretch of gravelly/rocky/steppy incline that entices you to head for the only bit of tarmac at the top…but this hairpin/turn combination had been a test for us and we’d been found wanting. We had a chat and although disappointed that we wouldn’t do it this time, it would give us something to aim for next time we came trail riding in Wales. Safety first and a wise decision. Thank you Darren!
After this we trekked across some lovely ruts (not) and Mark tried to throw himself into a gate post. He seemed dazed but physically OK and we continued towards lunch. This was not a DOTD contender since there was genuine concern that Mark had damaged himself – however, he continued and so did we. Across the valley we were shown our next destination – a hill with winding paths – it looked awesome. We got to a very sharp left hand corner where immediately after I had gate duty. After the last rider was through Darren waited for me and we confidently set off along the trail. Beautiful scenery / side of a hill / slightly deeper ruts than I’d like but manageable. Puddle. Appeared to be about 20 feet of water in the left rut – no visibility of what was below the surface. 5 feet of water in the right rut with clearly visible tyre tracks from some of the other group. I tried to get onto the right rut – failed. “Ah well” I thought as I plunged into the puddle, giving the bike a bit more oomph to keep momentum. As the front wheel dipped into what appeared was a hidden dip, I went over the handlebars and landed on my back, luckily on a very soft piece of ground. Since I landed in a pile of weeds my new nickname was born – “Tumbleweed”. Definitely DOTD material if anyone was watching, that is. Unfortunately, Darren was keeping a very close eye on me! We struggled to get the bike out of the muddy rut – well, Darren struggled – I helped where I could. We re-joined the group and since my Himalayan had the engine light on we went through a few ‘resets’ to get the light off. Nothing worked, so Jack asked for all of the strong folk in the team to tip the bike upwards to drain any water from the exhaust. This done the engine light went off and the bike started and continued to run – hardy beasts, these bikes!
Without further ado we meandered to lunch.
Steph re-joined us for lunch and then left making her way back to the farm to sort out the running of business as usual. Jack and Darren finished off the day by taking us across a farmland area, then down what appeared to be a walking trail (!), then back along the road to Barmouth where we got the toll bridge across to Dolgellau and back to the petrol station before heading back to the farm.
Much singing and dancing was had in the evening celebrating our successes and commiserating any falls. Jez was indeed given the new name Tumbleweed and did get the DOTD award! I’ll say nothing of the entertainments for the evenings we were there, since to describe them will not do them any justice at all.
A few questions to myself…Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I enjoy the way the course is presented to us? Yes.
Did I fall off more than once? Yes! Will I go again? Damn right!
A HUGE thank you to Steph, Pete, Darren and Jack – we definitely would not have had that best weekend without you.
Jez aka Tumbleweed
First published in Slipstream July 2022