Toby WillisRider Stories2 Comments

Pan Celtic Race Team member Toby recounts how the race unfolded for him day by day as he cycled through the 3 Celtic Nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales during the inaugural edition of the race.

It’s 11am Friday 5th July. Rebecca has just rang to say she’s on her way. I shove the final few pieces of kit in my bag, lace up my GT’s and head out of the door. My heart races with excitement and my palms sweat with anxiety. Matt and the rest of the teamare already en route in the ‘Welsh Embassy’ team vehicle bound for Inverness.

Rebecca and I collect Tomás, one of our race Photographers, from the airport before hitting the road and everything begins to feel a little surreal. We’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point and it’s finally happening.

The journey is long but we chat and we laugh. We peruse social media and find a true sense of Gathering. It feels like a movement. There’s a lot of talk about the race and a great feeling of excitement. Clan members are posting photos and videos and I feel as though the whole world is descending upon Inverness.

We arrive and immediately draw plans to meet with fellow Clan members. The excitement is too much to contain. It spills over and the night disappears into a blur of handshakes and hugs meeting old friends and new. Already stories are being written and tales of foolhardy acts are shared.

It’s now 10am Saturday 6th July. We have prepared the Spectrum Centre and a small queue has formed. Riders gather ready to sign on. Our Official Race Partners have provided a musette bag filled with ride essentials and we hand these out with paperwork and GPS trackers. The response is overwhelmingly positive. Seasoned pros sit relaxed and comfortable while first timers fidget nervously.

Our organising team relish putting faces to names we’ve come to know so well over the past 12 months. There are more handshakes and hugs accompanied by smiles and laughter and everyone feels welcome as we feel humbled by the kind words that are spoken. Rupert, Tomás and Jordi capture the moments for us to share and remember time and time again.

The day continues as the last of the Clan arrive. We have 100% attendance. Wow. A full house. The Clan. Friends and foes. Ready to tackle 3 Celtic Nations powered by only themselves aboard steeds that have been tried and tested in the months leading up to this point. Velocity Bicycle shop are helping those with last minute requirements before all are required to return for our safety brief, the final instalment before race day and the adventure that awaits.

Sunday 6th July 2019 – Race Day.

I’ve slipped into my Albion kit, I’ve pulled on my Quoc socks with my Official race number, 84 stitched beautifully onto the label. My Enigma Etape is shining like a titanium blade ready to cut through the elements and I make my way to the start line where the sound of bagpipes are playing and a huge crowd has gathered. The nerves are gone, my family are here and we wait patiently for Race Director Matt to signal the start.

The Shorter Route riders are started first and head off out of sight to cheers and clapping amid air horns and celebration.

Matt drives the Welsh Embassy out in front 10 minutes later and we begin to roll out behind neutralised for the time being. I ride at the back and high five my family who are cheering at the roadside. It’s an emotional encounter and one I try and draw strength from.

We’re out onto the main road and the air horn sounds signalling a start to the race, the pace quickens and a small group disappear into the distance. The rest follow suit as riders chat and become friends. I’m in no hurry and am content to sit at a relaxed pace. I haven’t eaten and my legs feel weak. My stomach has been turning over and it’s not the start I’d have hoped for. I’ve just got to keep moving, the stomach will settle and my legs will come good.

The roads ebb and flow as we leave civilisation behind. The vastness of Scotland is already apparent and the routes first big climb draws near. Cnoc Muigh-bhlàraidh stands tall and over I climb with the sea air filling my lungs. The landscape opens wide and swallows me whole as I descend toward Bonar Bridge. The road is fast and the pleasure of gaping corners engulfs my soul. I’m immersed within the ride now and beginning to feel some focus.

I head north through Lairg and out past Loch Shin. The roads are quiet and long and there is an unrelenting headwind. There is no place to hide as the sun moves shadows along the ground and over the green lands that encompass the few riders I come across. I pass the Crask Inn and am almost tempted to take some refuge but decide to continue as I am drawn into the absolute beauty of the highland emptiness.

Surrounded by mountains Ben Klibreck, Meall an Eoin, Meall an Fhuarain, and Creag Riabhach as I venture past Loch Naver and further north I find myself totally bewitched by the route and a complete sense of freedom. Even the wind cannot hold me back. I ride with fellow Clan members and we talk easily, passing the day with each pedal stroke. Again, I reach the coast and the narrow roads convolute and twist through stunning bays with white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and punchy climbs. The ride draws south at the peak of Loch Hope and descends through vast countryside littered with small houses that appear lost amongst sunbeams and mountain shadow.

Resupply is thin and water becomes priority. There is a small wooden sign signalling that there’s a cafe ahead. It’s Sunday and I worry that it won’t be open. Upon approach I see a collection of bikes parked outside and I feel relief. It’s a small cabin in Laid and a little old man is attempting to serve an unexpected number of guests. Sandwiches and soft drinks are consumed as talk of the routes already punishing temperament fill the air. I decide against the wait, fill up my water bottles and head off.

Time passes and I reach Durness, the routes most northerly point. There’s a restaurant open and I dive inside. It’s now late evening and a few more riders arrive just in time to order food. Chips and big glasses of coke fill empty stomachs as plans are drawn for the night ahead.

I decide to put some more layers on as the air is crisp and cold. I haven’t decided what I’m going to do apart from ride and see where it takes me. My stomach has settled and suddenly my legs find new life. I feel invigorated as the sky changes colour all around me. Low lying clouds form atop mountain ranges and I see the flickering of lights on the road ahead.

The sun begins to set and with it the end to an incredible first day on the bike. The pinks and purples reflected by lochs and sea as the coastline fluctuates in and out of view. I am now completely in my element as the excitement of a wondrous night ride lie before me. I will continue to ride until I reach CP1 in Ullapool and the chance to grab a bed for a few hours.

The sun never truly sets though and the sky grips firmly the daylight that cannot escape. Silhouettes of Stags stand tall against the mesmerising backdrop and I feel as though I am part of something truly special. I talk out loud of my love for Scotland for the entire landscape to hear. I round a corner and startle a couple of Otters who make a dash for the water, my smile now uncontrollably wide. I eat and drink and feel enriched as I pass through Drumbeg, Clashnessie, Lochinver and finally reach Ullapool. I recount the ride to anyone who’ll listen as I attempt to calm my emotions and grab some sleep. My adrenaline is masking the aching of my limbs, which will soon catch up with me, but for now I’m happy.

I awake as riders come and go. My Brevet has been stamped and I am ready to leave. The sun is shining and the weather is kind. The winds have eased but the forecast ahead looks grim. I know where my goals lie and after a great nights riding I am feeling part of the game.

I find breakfast and eat relatively quickly with the knowledge of turning weather ahead pushing me on. It’s important to take advantage when the conditions are so good. The views constantly excite me and still I find it hard to believe that I am truly here. I stop often but quickly and eat and drink as the sun beats down. A tattie and baked bean pie quietening my empty stomach. The roads rise and fall time and time again. I stare endlessly into the beauty and try not to think of home and the girls I already miss so much. The fine balance of emotion that climbs and dips just like the route I am riding. Tears fill up my eyes before a smile empties them again – a constant battle between head and heart.

I ride along Loch Maree for what feels like eternity. The roads are slow and my legs feel weak. My saddle is feeling a little solid today but that’s to be expected. I find a small cafe called The Tipsy Laird and am just in time to order food. I sit and check MAProgress and the dots in motion with the knowledge my good friend Lee and fellow Hells500 member is hunting me down. I am ok with that and our friendly rivalry will keep me pushing on. A wry smile etched across my face as I drive forward once more.

The narrow road that now passes Loch Clair twists and turns and the spectacle before me leaves my mouth open and wide. The Wester Ross area of outstanding natural beauty giving scenic splendour of mountains and coastline. It’s harsh, brutal and unforgiving and yet I can’t help but fall endlessly in love as my aching legs wrestle up climb after climb.

I pass through Annat and Shieldaig heading for Applecross. The road veers south and I am greeted with a headwind I’d been sheltered from for the previous 50 miles. It’s strong and has me cursing as the sight of the road heading into the distance is endless. I ride through herds of Highland Cattle and nod and say hi as I leave them behind.

Finally, I am startled as Lee appears beside me having spent the day chasing me down. He’s looking strong and it’s great to have his company on this lonely stretch of road leading to the infamous Bealach na Bà.

We reach Applecross and find refuge in a small restaurant. There are other Clan members enjoying the riches on offer as the rain that was promised finally begins to fall outside. We eat and recharge and we talk and we share before committing to take on the high pass of the cattle before darkness sets in. The thought of a hostel on the other side drives us forward and we take on the roads steep inclines.

Draped in drizzle the climb begins immediately as the road disappears upwards and out of sight. Our cold limbs quickly warm as we lay siege upon the mountain. It steepens and then eases before steepening again. I unzip my jacket and try to take control of my breathing, working through all of my gears until there are non remaining. I sit and I stand and sit and then stand again, varying my position and working every muscle that I can find, it’s tough going but onwards I climb. I round a corner believing it to be the summit only to see that road snaking further up into the distance. What a climb. Finally reaching the top I am greeted with the most dramatic of cycling theatres I’ve ever been witness to. The descent before me spirals down to the coast with large hairpins hemmed in by giant rock faces. It’s a cold harsh place and the rain is falling hard being driven by the winds, I stand and admire for as long as I can before zipping my jacket back up, gripping my brakes tight and following the other flashing lights down the mountain side.

It’s now morning on day 3, I wake on a couch in a hostel after an interesting nights sleep. Snoring and vibrating alarms keeping me awake half of the night. The sky outside is heavy and the morning light has struggled to penetrate the blanket of cloud shrouding the tree line outside. I make a move and head out alone as Lee and Bryn ready themselves.

Forests of beautiful pine stand eerie and still and waters flow mesmerisingly down the roads as my airways are filled with smells reminiscent of days spent mountain biking in North Wales. The rain is falling hard and there’s no sign it will ease. I circle another Loch before climbing out of its valley and over to the next, a pattern that has developed across the whole of Scotland. It’s peaceful in the early hours as I glide along open roads with only the sound of splashing water and my hissing freehub to keep me company. Huge mountain passes vanish into the sky between huge landscapes and thunderous waterfalls and still I ride on.

The road narrows past some houses and bed & breakfasts and I wonder if I’m passing other riders who’ve decided to shelter from the rain. The road ends and I find myself at the point where three great sea lochs meet. Across the water on a small island stands Eilean Donan Castle guarding the wondrous scenery stretching all around for centuries gone by. I am briefly taken back through time and I appreciate the extremely well thought out route before us.

The day continues and the rain falls heavier and heavier. It’s treacherous at times and it’s taking its toll on the Clan brave enough to take it head on. The route takes a dramatic and fortunate twist as we’re forced onto a gravel section better suited to mountain bikes. It’s flooded in places and navigation becomes a little difficult. It’s a far cry from the main road but I’m glad to have escaped the buses and heavy loads that have waited so patiently behind me. I pray that my tyres hold firm as I struggle to enjoy the views.

Back on the main road and into Fort William, the rain is now torrential and I find shelter in a McDonalds. It’s packed and the windows are steamed up. I order more food than I’m capable of eating but I do not care as I try to eat as much as possible. It’s been a long morning of insane conditions and I don’t feel like stopping yet. I’m hoping to reach Glasgow before the day is finished. I’d caught Joan and Mark before stopping and now Lee has caught me. I feel embroiled in the race and it’s getting my blood pumping. The competitive edge I never really knew I had is showing it’s true self. I finish my food while Lee orders his, I know that gives me 30 minutes on him at least as I hunt down those ahead of me.

It seems almost crazy as I head off outside into the rain. It’s like nothing I’ve ever known before. Ben Nevis towers over me but I’m oblivious to its presence as the sky is dark and pummels all below. There doesn’t feel like much option but to ride and I’m grateful that it’s not cold. I navigate the busy roads and drivers are kind, up ahead a cycle lane provides me with great relief. I get my first puncture, change the tube quickly and continue. I pass other Clan members, some aren’t having a good day and others are scratching. Lee passes me and disappears out of sight. The race is heating up at least.

I reach Inveraray in the early evening and pull into a small garage. I fill my water bottles and buy some coke to wash down a share bag of After Eight mints. The loch is tranquil and pretty with the countryside luscious and green. The roads climb gently at first as they twist and turn before rounding a sweeping bend and disappearing into the sky once more. Rest and be Thankful divides Glen Kinglas from Glen Croe and provides stunning views even with the weather hanging so low. It’s dramatic and windy and at times I find myself pedalling downhill.

I pass Loch Lomond as the sky darkens and my road ahead is illuminated by only my front light and the occasional passing wagon. Moths fly into my light frequently and I make haste. I pull through Dumbarton and begin to make plans to sleep. It’s been another long day and I’m aching to rest, a hot shower and a bed consume my thoughts as I spot a hotel just off the canal tow path I’ve been struggling to navigate for the past hour. Wet and tired I roll into bed.

A quieter day ahead on day 4 eases my mind. The ferry terminal is a relatively close 100 miles away. I make plans to catch the afternoon crossing and leave slightly later than I’d planned. It’s still pouring with rain but the warm bed and shower have helped me enormously. I catch breakfast at another petrol station forecourt and am back on my way. The route is slow as it leads through housing estates and cycle paths. I grab a second breakfast to quieten my rumbling stomach and climb up and out of Paisley into rolling countryside. The roads are punchy and hurt my legs as I struggle to find rhythm. Up and down the roads undulate and I battle on along the rough surfaces and down narrow lanes. It’s now clear I’ve been optimistic with the ferry crossing and I’m going to need to change my plans. Lee has pushed hard and will put hours into my ride today catching that afternoon ferry. The race for me is neutralised now as those behind me will join me on the later crossing. I take the opportunity to enjoy the views and take much needed rest stops for ice-cream in the rain as I approach the desolate Galloway Forest.

I find myself riding through an endless assortment of tranquil valleys encompassed by heather clad hills and rugged rock faces. The winds push me back and the rain soaks my face. Pinks and purples cascade across the areas ancient and unspoilt woodland – highlights on an otherwise grey backdrop. From mountaintop to seashore the road becomes convoluted and I am thankful to begin my descent toward the ferry. Another twist takes me down a gravel section and I’m kept company by the small Black Loch visible through the trees. It’s an unexpected but beautiful little trail and before long I am back on the highway and bound for the ferry terminal where I can catch some more much needed rest.

I take the opportunity to dry what kit I can underneath the hand driers in the gents toilets. The buzzing air warm as it envelopes my wrinkled palms. I’m chaperoned by a cleaner with a mop following my every move as I leave a trail of puddles across the shiny floor. I find a plug socket and rid my wallet of all my change in the vending machines. It’s nice to take my shoes and socks off and give my feet some breathing space although I’m not sure the other passengers would agree. Other Clan members arrive in a similar condition and the crossing is filled with tales of woe, misfortune and pleasure. Those who travel have stories to tell.

Day 5 begins in the race’s second stage, Ireland. Exploring more Celtic lands and charm as the race unfolds further with each passing day. The weather promises to improve with only heavy showers forecast and intermittent sunshine. I indulge in a large breakfast and head north along the coast. The road is flat and hugs the shoreline as a rainbow dips across the road ahead. The smell of sea air again fills my lungs and I feel totally free as I eat up the miles early on.

It’s late morning when I reach Torr Head, the remarkable headland of the Causeway coast with its rugged limestone cliffs and insane inclines. Pitch by pitch the sharp climbs slice through my legs as the route rises and falls again and again. I’m riding with my bib shorts folded down to ease the pain of sores I’ve developed in the rains of Scotland.

The early morning rainfall fizzes in an eerie mist rising up from the scarred tarmac as dark clouds roll across the skyline. I push forward eating from my stem bag and passing through wild landscapes and into the afternoon.

I’ve passed Lee who despite pushing hard and riding fast has fallen ill and has had to call it a day. I feel a huge part of my race depart along with him. My emotions take control and my fight is now firmly against the negative thoughts that attempt to thwart my ride. I push the pedals and find a supermarket in a busy town where I take shelter from another shower and fuel the rest of my day.

It’s a long difficult day journeying through idyllic countryside as winds whip across the huge Lough Neagh keeping the horseflies at bay. Hours pass slowly as the afternoon light fades and I find myself riding along stunning rural paths enduring canals and into Newry. A cobbled road reminds me of the pains I’ve managed to mask all day long. The day is coming to a close as I head over the Ring of Gullion and I’m happy to be back amongst the mountains again as they bask in the sunset light with cooling air heading in from the coast. The descent is long allowing my legs an extended rest and my freehub screams with delight. It’s cold now and the sky is dark once more. I’m riding with Bryn from Llanberis and it’s nice to share his company as we talk about plans for the night and the day that awaits us tomorrow. I spot a pizzeria and slam on my brakes waving goodbye to Bryn. It’s past 11pm and the occupants give me funny looks. I’m asked if I’ve come far. A question asked on so many occasions and one that when answered leaves people speechless. I order a pizza and take two cans of fizzy pop before wheeling my bike inside and sitting in a corner to devour my reward. The kind folks offer me chips and I’m chuckling to myself as I find that they fit perfectly inside my stem bags allowing me to ride on with the joy of chippy chips and greasy fingers for the next few miles. A perfect end to a challenging day. I find a small community centre with a well lit car park and head around the back out of sight where I roll out my matt and sleeping bag and steal some sleep.

Day 6 shrieks into the life as crows squabble loudly in the early morning light and I rise quickly from my slumber. I nervously check MAProgress and see that Bryn and the ever closer Scoot are already on the move. Another race develops and I feel my motivation returning after yesterday’s loss.

I search for food and somewhere to brush my teeth and freshen my face before moving on to find a full Irish breakfast in a small cafe in Navan. I take my time and soak up the local atmosphere as people on first name basis come and go. I take stock of my needs and sort out my things ready to ride onto CP2 located in the Wicklow Mountains. The roads are never ending and at times I wonder if I’ll ever arrive. The horizon is flat and it plays on my mind.

After what feels like an eternity the roads begin to climb again and I move across valleys through narrow lanes. It feels as though I’ve stumbled into a lost world as the Wicklow Mountains now bear down on me and civilisation is left behind. I pass signs for Sally Gap and the wilderness welcomes my aching limbs. I grumble and complain as I’m enveloped in beauty I’m unable to enjoy and appreciate. I long for the checkpoint that continues to keep me waiting. The route is breathtaking and I should be revelling in what would normally be my element, but the truth is I feel done. It’s a dark place mentally and the harshness of the brutal climbs and high chilling winds are scarring my every move. Tree tops roll in every direction and this area of remote beauty tries its very best to lift my spirits but instead it seems to crush them as I pass a signpost for Glendalough and feel dejected with the realisation that it is still at least an hour away in my current condition.

Checkpoint 2 finally arrives as I see Tomàs with his camera in hand. I’m struggling to ride as I hold onto sandwiches and coke I’ve just purchased down the road and I roll into the car park to a welcome from the team that lifts my weary spirits. I’m desperate for the rest and have some decisions to make. I’d originally planned to ride through the night and catch the early morning ferry from Rosslare to Fishguard but I decide to take an extended break. It gives Bryn and Scoot the advantage but at this point my only concern is to finish the race. It feels good to spend time with the rest of the team and Richard from Enigma who has travelled to help. We enjoy a few beers and I eat and rest and laugh and forget about my problems and soak up the atmosphere of a checkpoint for the second time.

Day 7. I leave the hostel and round the valley on a gravel track through heavenly dappled sunlight before I am led up and over another climb and the vast mountainscape that now surrounds me is seducing and mesmeric. I head for the coast on flowing roads punctuated by towns and villages as I travel to Rosslare and the second ferry crossing of the race. I’m in no rush at all even though I’m now finding myself being caught by more riders. It’s irrelevant as once again the race is neutralised by ferry times. It’s a welcome respite and I stop frequently to eat and rest. My knees are in pain and I worry about the route I’ve created through Wales.

Arriving at the terminal I meet the Lanterne Rouge Pair – Wyn and Neil, from the Shorter Route. Rui is also here, followed by Jason. We board the ferry and find some comfortable seats to grab some sleep while we can. Ryan Flinn is en route but I doubt he’ll make the ferry in time. I nod off quickly and begin to dream.

I am woken by a gentle whisper as Ryan taps my shoulder, he’s got a cabin and is rounding up the riders to enjoy a bed and a shower for a few hours. A true gent of ultra-endurance racing. He’s also spotted my knee support purchased earlier in the day and enquires about my injury. He prods my hip and explains that my hip flexor is over tight and in need of various stretches. After a short sleep I proceed to heed his advise and work on eliminating my knee troubles.

We eventually disembark from the ferry at Fishguard after a crazy half hour where we are knocked awake by ferry staff explaining we are the last ones onboard. The faulty tannoy in our room means that we’ve missed the calls and it is only when they come across our bikes that they realise we are missing. We are thankful that we aren’t returning to Ireland blissfully unaware.

Fishguard is glowing in the last light of day as the sky fades across a lovely blue medium to the sea. The Moon is full and crisp with cool air defining every detail. A few stars twinkle as do the town’s lights ahead. I roll toward them feeling reassured that I’m on home turf and miraculously my knee feels fine. I find pizza and take time to adorn plenty of layers as I sit on the window ledge of a small chip shop and smile about the journey that lies behind me and the route that lies ahead.

As I ride through the now dark lanes the Moon attempts to keep my wheel but is forever falling further and further away. Night riding perfection on a stunning night in Wales. The silhouettes of trees rise and fall with the roads continually changing gradients and each valley is filled with a freezing cold mist that I am happy to climb out of each time. The landscapes below illuminated by the soft light from above. I stare out occasionally from under the peak of my cap to gaze across the stars that are faint in the hues of the night sky.

Suddenly Ryan coughs loudly from behind and startles me, as he’s hunted me down like promised. We ride together and I chat loudly and without control as we pass by darkened houses in tiny villages as the clock ticks on through the night and I forget the world sleeps while still we pedal. It’s not long before we notice the telltale flashes of another light up ahead, it’s Jason and now there are three of us. I’m beginning to flag and my search for a place to sleep has begun.

We pass through Lampeter and as dawn begins to break, the temperature in the Welsh valleys tumbles once more. The cold damp mist that lies thick and heavy ahead forces my hand. A large brick bus shelter appears ahead and after a small conversation the three of us decide to bed down for a few hours. Jason is keen to continue but it’s Sunday and we’re only a few miles out of Tregaron and I’m a little concerned about re-supply with the Desert of Wales ahead.

I wake to the sound of bags being packed and Ryan asks if I’m ready to leave. It’s cold and I’m shivering but it’s still early and the sky is clear with the sun already rising. Our spirits are high and we constantly laugh and joke while Ryan performs and entertains us with his quick wit and humour. Jason heads off while Ryan and I take our time to prepare for what lies ahead.

We refuel in Tregaron and warm our bones in the rays of the ever brightening sun before heading east into and up through the Abergwesyn mountain road. The slopes are scattered with large colourful foxgloves and dragonfly buzz about with purpose. The treeline shade is providing refuge from the now hot sun as we climb continually with the evergrowing presence of Easgair Gors that now towers over us. We skirt around River Towy and the glistening Llyn Brianne appears below. Its jaw dropping beauty astounds us and we stop to admire. The road fades into gravel and now the wilds of Wales encompass us while we laugh and enjoy the route that bends and snakes around these historic lands. We climb over cattle grids and gates and rumble forward over loose stone and dust. I imagine grand weekends around campfires enjoying the solitude of this place in the near future, again I fall in love with this race and the places it has taken me.

The Desert of Wales is embarrassing me with it elegance and its alluring riches and as we cross the dam and back onto paved roads we spot a coffee barista beside a vintage truck in a car park. It’s not as desolate as I’ve made out. We take advantage of the opportunity and order a drink while applying copious amounts of sun cream.

Back on the road and the paparazzi have arrived. It’s a friend I’ve never met but whom I feel I know quite well through years of social media chat. This is his favourite cycling arena and with very good reason as the race takes us north on the finest of cycling roads this great country has to offer. The climbs are frequent and steep while the descents have us swooning and leaning into endless bends and freewheeling heaven.

The day wanders on through perfect countryside and torturing gradients but we laugh and we joke and enjoy our adventure.

We pass through Abbeycwmhir and afford a few minutes to doff our caps in the direction of a man to whom this sport owes so much. I am reminded how lucky I am to be here and for the experience it is giving me.

Jason is still somewhere ahead and now Rui is in constant pursuit. I attack Ryan on climb after climb with a cadence that frustrates as he grinds away to reel me in before disappearing on each descent. It’s a battle we both relish as we show our hand time and time again.

The route is blessed with countless miles of wonderment and tranquillity, broken only by the sound of our freehubs as we circle around the Elan Valley watching as Kites soar, roaming the skies above. We cross reservoirs that shimmer in the late afternoon sun and as the evening draws near and the warmth of the sun begins to fade, we head out into vast emptiness traversing Afon Rheidol that rises from the headwaters of the Nant-y-Moch reservoir that stands proud in the distance.

Hours roll by and the air cools again as we near the coast, views that stretch out over rolling mountain tops and wind farms are bathed in an orange glow as the sun sinks beneath the ocean far out to sea. We enjoy a long well deserved ride down to sea level where we find a Chinese restaurant before settling down for some sleep in Borth.

It’s been only a few hours but I’ve slept pretty solid under the glare of a bright light in a small disabled toilet with room enough barely for one let alone two and their bikes. It’s incredibly humid and we can’t help but laugh at the condition we find ourselves in.

Today is the final day of our race as we aim to complete by early evening so we ready ourselves and roll out into the cool air of the west Welsh coast. A few hundred metres down the road I spot the bright colours of Jason’s jacket appearing from the sand dunes where he’s been sleeping. We laugh and joke as Jason joins us and we head toward Machynlleth in search of food and coffee.

Together we follow the coast and round Corlan Fraith before riding along Afon Dysynni and past its source Tal-y-Llyn and onwards through the Mach Loop and up Tal-y-Llyn Pass that is surrounded by the towering peaks of the huge Cadair Idris and hemmed in either side by uniformed stone walls. The climb is gentle allowing time to enjoy the views while riding along on the silky tarmac road.

I am on home roads now and feel invigorated again with the knowledge that my family will meet me at the finish line later on today. It pushes me to ride on, even when I ache and tire in the burning hot sun. We enjoy the descents and give rest to those limbs before we are forced to climb again. We skirt the edges of Dolgellau before leaving the road behind at Penmaenpool for the rough of the Mawddach Trail that heads towards Barmouth and its famous timber viaduct that crosses the estuary. As I rumble forward I look back over my shoulder to see the sunbeams cascading down over the glorious mountains that lay slain behind us. I’m sad that the race is almost over but happy that a finish is within my grasp.

A brief respite now proceeds along the road toward Snowdonia where views out across the Llyn Peninsula continue to astound me as they do every time I pass by. I smile at the thought of other Clan members enjoying these places for the first time knowing that they will leave lasting impressions of a ride so special. The route heads for Harlech and its short stinging climbs of which we have options. My legs feel good so we decide to tackle what will soon become the steepest street in the world with its 40% gradient and crazy reputation. I reach its top and breath heavily amid relief that I’ve managed to haul my fully packed bike up its insane slopes.

We stop often for water and food as we attempt to finish strongly with a race for the finish in our thoughts. We continue to attack one another playing on each other’s weaknesses again and again. The cat and mouse games have begun as we test each other’s resolve. The constant climbs of Snowdonia continue to test every ounce of strength we have remaining but we have the bit between our teeth as we relish each challenge put down before us.

The sun reigns down as we battle the majestic Stwlan Dam with its twisting hairpin bends and rugged bleak exposed road. The views are sensational as the air hums and shimmers in the afternoon heat. Its followed instantly by Crimea Pass but wedged between ice cream and cold drinks as these back-to-back climbs take their toll in the heat. Luckily we are gifted a brisk tailwind that carries us for miles through wooded mountainsides lush with summer greenery towards Betws-y-Coed.

We ride on toward Snowdon and the Llyn Gwynant descent into Beddgelert where we meet the Welsh Embassy and members of the team that cheer us on for the finish. Snowdonia treats and tantalises with its stunning charm and rugged looks as the final few climbs attempt to break our spirits. It’s not to be though, as the rewards of unspoilt views give the race an unmistakable end that will leave so many wanting more. We climb Llanberis Pass and the heat is hard to take even though the sun has fallen long out of sight. The rocks that line each side of the road beam with the heat of the sun, baring down on them all day long and it’s cooler in the centre of the road. We summit and are again gifted with the same tailwind we’d enjoyed just a few hours earlier. I’ve eaten a bag of cola bottles washed down with a bottle of cola and the sugar is rushing through my veins giving life to my legs and allowing me to push hard for the finish.

I can taste the finish line now as we soar down through Capel Curig and head for Nebo where I’m excited to see the ranges of this magnificent area lie behind me with a race I’m thrilled to have finished. The sun sets and the sky gives up one last treat as we round the corner atop a beautiful climb and head for Llandudno and a lap of the Great Orme.

The country lanes ebb and flow for the last time today and small climbs punctuate the otherwise downhill roads to the coast. Ryan and I chat excitedly about what’s been achieved and what comes next as again we attack one another before the final straight. The seaside appears into view and the water glistens as the town’s lights flicker gently ahead. We ride the promenade before heading out onto the Great Orme and enjoy the panoramic views out to sea and back across the land we have just crossed.

We round the streets and on to the finish line. There’s a huge crowd cheering and the horns and chimes of the Welsh Embassy sound loud. I can hear Izzy screaming for us to sprint and after a quick nod in each other’s direction we go for it and race down the street and over the line where family and friends are waiting with hugs and kisses and cold beer and burgers. It’s an emotional end to a truly astounding bike race and memories have been created that I will cherish forever.

Thank you.

To view some of Toby’s footage during the 2019 Pan Celtic Race, please watch the video below.

Words: Toby Willis, Pan Celtic Race Team

Photos Credits:

Tomás Montes

Rupert Hartley

Anthony Pease

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  1. Beautifully written Toby. I cursed those cobbles in Newry! Can feel the chill in the night through Wales. And the rumble of the wooden bridge at Barmouth still. Wish I could articulate on paper as well as you have. 👊🍀

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