The grey light of an overcast day illuminates the room where we’d found ourselves a hot and humid sleep, surrounded by radiators adorned with drying clothes.
We moan but are reminded about our fortunate circumstances, things could have been very different. Riders quickly busy themselves readying for the day ahead. One or two just sit and stare. Roll mats are rolled, sleeping bags compressed, bikes packed, cereals consumed, brews gratefully drank. The rain is already falling outside but thankfully the wind has eased (for now).
The Clan take turns in testing Tony’s Infinity saddle before we get together for a group photo. Memories etched and friendships firmed through endless tales told and beers sunk gladly through the night. Ready to roll we head out with the thoughts of a breakfast and coffee already on the mind.
We leave Machynlleth behind and immediately begin to climb. The gradient is steady and gently warms our aching muscles. The pace is quick yet we are compact and uniformed. The forests that stand tall and high all around us are enveloped with low lying cloud and mist and the road veers and bends as we rise our way up through the valleys. We are served with a delightful descent that’s difficult to negotiate with such scenic wonderment and all eyes focus on the drenched tarmac and we plough through the puddles appreciative of the buzzing freewheel. We approach the Tal-y-Llyn Pass where we quickly work our way through the gears before settling back into a rhythm suitable to enjoy. Again we rise, and now the towering Cadair Idris commands our respect and watches as we disappear up between beautifully laid walls that define our path ahead.
Together we continue, descending into Dolgellau and reaching the Mawddach Trail and the road beneath us becomes gravel. The Clan enjoys the respite from traffic and revels in the stunning views across Afon Mawddach reaching over to the spectacular Barmouth Viaduct that has stood over two centuries. Its history integrated with that of the lands that surround it. We are sodden and cold yet well aware of the fortune that awaits us upon our arrival in Barmouth. We cross the bridge that rattles and shakes our bones and are caught by a sudden dip in temperature over the estuary and feel the first punch of the wind that forecasters had predicted. We push on and head for The Davy Jones Locker.
Jack and Rupert of Albion meet us with perfect timing as we warm our inners with hot food and beverage, as extra layers are adorned. We make plans for the next and final chapter of our weekend voyage. We’ve cut the route short due to intense storms that are heading our way yet still we draw up our invasion of Harlech Castle with the intention of taking it much like Owain Glyndŵr in 1404. It will not be easy with Fford Pen Llech standing between us and victory.
For the final time we mount those ever trusty steeds and head off into the murk, bound in the direction of the Llŷn Peninsula. The wind is at our backs and we make haste and consume the miles en route to (arguably) the steepest of roads around the globe. We pass along coastal drives and gaze as waves crash down on the beaches with the arrival of Storm Freya. Again we move on until the castle falls within our sight.
Nerves begin to jangle and heart rates rise in unison with what now looks like a wall of tarmac before us. It’s ripped and scarred from previous battles and as the Clan surge on ahead the road leans forward and riders begin to fall. Those who continue swerve and dodge while attempting to keep momentum, but still they fall. The Gathering is now but a few, there are only three who survive the insane incline and take victory atop this ridiculous climb. With shouts of triumph and congratulatory handshakes we wait as the others make their way up.
Jack and Rupert arrive, so those who conquered the climb heroically descend and defeat it once more for good measure. To tackle what might soon become known as the steepest street in the world, twice and with fully loaded Endurance bikes will forever live long in our hearts. Chapeau indeed.
We wave goodbye to Albion and wish them godspeed on their journey home as they wish us well on ours. The storm has now encompassed us entirely and we are keen to return home safe. We plough on through gorgeous landscapes, crossing bridges and thunderous waters arriving in Beddgelert and the foot of Nant Gwynant. We pass by the Sygun Copper Mine and find that the road has been closed up ahead. We identify a way through and must now negotiate a gravel path that avoids the road. The seasoned, technical route is tough on the legs and mind. The wind isn’t helping and the lashing rain is penetrating every layer, but again we battle on. We regroup at the summit where the road splits for Pen-y-Pass before making the final dash to The Swallow Falls Hotel, thankful to be back.
The Clan have come together and formed bonds that will last beyond the weekend and will likely rekindle on the start line come July. Friends and foes now for life, we shake hands and we hug. We part ways and already begin to dream about those days where paths will cross again.
Words: Toby Willis, Pan Celtic Race Team
Photos: Rupert Hartley, Albion Cycling, @ruperthartleyphoto