2020 didn’t turn out to be the year we were expecting. Just typing this makes me realise how much of an understatement that line of thought is.
The reliable normality we have come accustomed to in recent years has had a big shake up. Much like British weather, you never know with predictable certainty what is going to come next. A degree of complacency had crept into our subconsciousness’s and the last 9 months have been a wake-up call for many. An opportunity for us all to reflect on how we lead our lives and hopefully focus on the important stuff.
During the lockdown period, we’ve had to make the difficult call on to whether or not we should run this year’s Pan Celtic Race. Last year was so much fun; so much crazy stuff happening, we wanted more and the Riders wanted more. Those who rode the 1st Edition and those signed up for the 2020 race – the calls for more Celtic wanderlust odysseys was deafening.
However, as organisers of an event involving well over a 100 people, we have to let our heads rule our hearts and as much as we wanted the race to go ahead, we opted for postponement. Looking back, this was the only decision we could have made and I am glad we did for the certainty it gave everybody.
What lockdown did for me is to realise how much I need interaction with people to give me contentment and purpose. I’ve been told I am a people person but never fully recognised it or understood what that means. However, an imposed solitude from work with a broken shoulder and social distancing left me feeling out of sorts.
What was needed was a Gathering but with restrictions of movement and groups sizes, the possibility of having one was looking, more and more doubtful. After a couple of possible dates slipped by, victim to the ever-changing pandemic landscape, we settled on a weekend in September and nailed our colours to the mast.
Word went out and soon we had 22 bold and intrepid soul’s joining us. For some, this would be the first time on a Pan Celtic ride. For others, it would be the first time they had seen each other since those heady days back in the summer of 2019. The Revival start point was the same place the race finished last year (my house!) and it was so nice to see genuine friendships, bonds of kinship that had been forged on the road, renewed once more. Warm smiles and elbows of affinity were shared and a vibrant buzz of anticipation was in the air.
With the current guidelines, comes a new way of organising group rides, so along with a brief overview of the route and general safety considerations, Covid specific rules had to be laid out. No hugging, no shaking hands and certainly no human pyramids! With the number of riders joining us, we split into two groups, with Pete heading up one and myself the other. With a staggered start of 5 mins or so, we headed to our first arranged port of call – our LBS.
My local cycling club (Rhos-on-Sea CC), of which I have the great honour of being the current Chairperson, were holding an open day. Tombola’s, Guess the Cost of a Bike and free membership were on offer and a few lucky riders managed to bag themselves a prize. After a brief natter with the volunteers and a last-minute fettle, we were back on the bikes crossing over Conwy river, swinging by the 12th century castle and heading into Snowdonia National Park.
The Celtic gods were smiling upon us and gifting us fine cycling weather. As we started to head deeper into the Welsh countryside, layers started to get removed and the smiles broadened. It was good to be out together. Knowing the area well, I took my group on a brief diversion to what I consider to be the hardest road climb in the UK (it took me 3 attempts before taming the beast).
Not particularly long or steep (around 35% at its steepest), it’s the psychological toughness of an unrelenting climb and ability to maintain traction that make this so difficult. The notorious reputation of the climb was maintained with only 2 out of the 10 seasoned ultra riders managing to top it. Pledges were made to come back another day for round 2.
Leaving the leg and reputation destroying monster behind us, we carried on headwards into the national park. Passing by the massive indoor surfing lagoon in Dolgarrog, we soon reached the small village of Trefriw, where the 2nd diversion of the day happened. Local knowledge is a valuable asset and knowing what was instore for the riders with another climb of 20%+ to our 2nd pre-arranged stop points, we stopped for some provisions.
Margaret is the proprietor of the small butchers and food shop in the village and her homemade pies and sausage rolls are stuff of legend. Much like the Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey, it takes a person of great strength and persuasion to cycle past her place and not stop for food. Initially, just one or two pies were ordered but as people saw the tasty treats being handed out by Mags, orders for extras were shouted down the side alley of the shop and soon enough everyone had a hot pie tucked down their jersey.
We were heading to Llyn Geirionydd and the climb out from Trefriw is known for its vicious kicks. Fortunately, it’s not too long in length and the road soon levelled out to something more palatable. Reaching the llyn (Welsh for lake), we were greeted with a spectacular vista of the lake, set amongst the lofty heights of the Carneddau mountain range and a distant Snowdon showing its face through the haze of a late morning sun.
Having arranged to meet Pete’s group here, my impromptu diversions had delayed our expected arrival and they had decided to continue on to meeting point 3. However, with the luxury of a fluid timetable, fine weather and even better company, we opted for a relaxed elevenses and tucked into our still warm pies while watching people at play in the water. It felt like the beginning of summer all over again.
With our tummy’s full and energy levels topped up, we set about trying to catch up with the front group. Descending to the Ugly House and then onto the A5 to Capel Curig, we were soon into Dyffryn Mymbyr and the climb towards Pen Y Pass (known locally by cyclists as The Windy Road). Once more the gods were smiling on us and we were gifted with a rare tailwind that swiftly blew us along. A couple of small mechanicals later and were descending down the famous Llanberis Pass, home to stages of the Tour of Britain.
Reaching the next village of Llanberis, we found our fellow Clan mates relaxing next to Llyn Padarn, home to a 20ft high iron sculpture of King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. A picnic was luncheon of choice and we joined them for some local produce from the village Spar (note – a reputable establishment, but not as good as Spar Llanrwst!). Accounts of hills climbs, sights and sounds were exchanged and after a tranquil break, we continued our adventure.
The roads and paths were quiet from this point on and the last and highest climb of the day awaited. However, before we could tackle that, we had to traverse the idyllic and dead flat old railway-line-turned-bike-path along the shore of the lake. Dappled sunlight blinking through leafy canopies, with the sight and sounds of people enjoying the last of the summer in the lake, it is one of the nicest stretches of tarmac around.
Marchlyn Mawr and the surge pool are a ‘must do’ climb whenever you’re in the area. Closed to traffic, these two cols are reached via newly lain tarmac and provide unparalleled views of Anglesey and Snowdon. High switchbacks and white-knuckle descents, with the occasional trespassing sheep, all add to the high drama. Some riders opted for an expedient run to the pub and bypassed the climbs, whilst the grimpeurs and slightly masochistic riders went up both climbs.
It felt like summer was playing her last cards as we flew along the coastline towards the old town of Conwy. The sun’s rays were bouncing and tripping in front of us as we arrived at the final RV point at the quayside, where cold beer waited to be downed along with chips drenched in salt and vinegar. With the sun reaching its last high point before beginning its dip to the horizontal and the ushering in of the witching hours, we jumped back on the bikes for the last stretch back to my house to collect camping gear.
Now, it is difficult to explain fully what happened on the way back to my house, without the acceptance of maybe a little Celtic mysticism and the ability to talk in tongues. One of the many qualities a clan member shares with their follow brothers and sisters is the want for adventure and their desire to often pursue this in unorthodox ways, no matter how small the journey. So, rather than sticking to the road, I opted to lead the lively gang through the local golf course.
And this is where it got strange. Waiting to greet us was a very irate and animated golf course owner. Fist in the air and expletives and curses ringing in the air, he promptly headed to cut us off. I managed to slip past but looking over my shoulder, I saw he had the rest of the Clan cornered. We never leave anyone behind. I turned and headed back to the owner who was firing a barrage of questions at the Clan. I intervened and held up my hands in admission, telling the now red-faced and incensed guy it had been my idea. He spun to face me, letting loose a tirade of fiery discourse but midway through the turn his whole manner changed and he grabbed and hugged me! Like long lost friends reunited, he clung tight and a massive smile erupted on his face. We separated and with a pat on the back and warm wishes, he waved us off as the Clan all shook their heads, wondering WTF just happened!
Night time had arrived as we headed to the final climb (I promise) up the Victorian tram tracks on the Great Orme and on to our wild camping spot. A good friend of the PCR and all-round nice guy, Dan Jones is the farmer on the National Trust farm near the summit. He was super keen to get involved when he heard we were planning a get together for the Clan and he offered use of his land for the camping. With the wind picking up, we moved closer to the farm house and were soon raising bottles of beer, celebrating a great day out on the bikes. After 6 months of social distancing and exclusion, it was so good to be around friends, even if we were 2m apart.
The last surprise of the day came in the form of our tea (dinner for those with a southern heritage). Dan farms sheep, which feed on the Orme grass and unique mixture of herbs that grow up there. The sheep and lambs have a good life on the mountain side and Dan is a very proud and compassionate farmer. The welfare of the sheep is his top priority and he only sells them locally. He wanted to give everybody a taste of his produce and so had made up 60 lamb burgers (and some vegan burgers). To top it off, he had a vintage burger van to cook them on. Always willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in, we were treated to some fine chef-ing by Nathan and Danny from Restrap.
Bellies full and music playing, night quickly became early morning before the last of the Clan settled in. The next morning, we tucked into croissants and copious amounts of coffee. Some had long journeys home and so opted to head off, while others, still hungry for some more miles, headed back in the Conwy Valley and tracked down an open café for 2nd breakfast.
All in all, it was possibly one of the best weekends of the year. Everything fell into place, as is often the case when we put our hearts and souls into organising something. That guiding hand from above. The weather was good, timing with lockdown restrictions was fortuitous and the availability of the farm was the icing on the cake. The PCR team would like to thank everybody for coming along. The good times are often the sum of many parts and once again the Clan delivered. People prepared to travel many hundreds of miles (Jason Hayles rode back to the Isle of Wight), to meet old and new friends, to experience the moments and to cherish the memories. At the end of our days, these memories will be our most valuable commodity.
Never stop chasing them.
Season’s Greetings to you all and we look forward to being able to get together more in 2021.
Matt and the team
Words: Matt Ryan
Photos Credits: Matt Ryan & Toby Willis
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