#12 Dragon Rally 2020

I never imagined this trip to be something I’d do, and it was almost what I expected it to be, just worse. Much, much worse.

My friend Laine started it. He’s done the trip several times and after a few years missing it he wanted to go again, brought it up in conversation and I said I’d totally be up for joining him. At the time I had the Husqvarna on loan, and I decided this trip would be the perfect way to get exciting experiences and content with the bike if I was able to borrow it again. Unfortunately when the time came, the bikes weren’t ready to go out on loan, and the other bike I wanted to use wasn’t available either. Rather than bail a week before the trip or use a local demo with a high excess, I decided to use the R1. It was only 300 miles away, and only two nights – how hard could it be really?

Laine was going in his sidecar, so he took my tent and sleeping mat on his bike, and we managed to get throw over panniers and my sleeping bag on the back of mine. With enough bungee cords it was sort of secure, just a bit lopsided.

How did you fit all the camping equipment on the R1? – Once you’ve put side panniers on any bike, you can pile everything else on top of the seat, try to keep it even and build a bit of a pyramid shape then use bungee cords to secure them, then a net over the top. Laine took my tent and sleeping roll, but if I had my pillion pegs on the bike we probably could have got them on mine.

I don’t own any winter riding gear, my work colleague let me borrow his Dainese winter jacket, I wore fluffy leggings under a pair of Bull-it protective leggings and my waterproof horse riding boots. My gloves are Gore-Tex, but they aren’t lined, so Laine attached some handlebar muffs to my bike which looked ridiculous but probably saved my fingers. I packed as little as possible, some spare leggings, a hoddie  and pyjamas, extra socks, some cooking utensils and some homemade chilli con carne, two battery packs, some torches, toilet roll, wet wipes. I packed my alarm and cover for my bike, and we had a jump kit with us because my bikes battery is on its last legs after two years of its useless existence.

Did you get wet feet? – Eventually I got wet feet. Waterproof products only need to stop water for 20 minutes to be marketed as waterproof, so although mine were ‘waterproof’ they eventually leaked and started to fall apart from the inside. My recommendation although I don’t have them, is to get Gore-tex products if you want good waterproofing.

Day one was Friday, we met at a petrol station for 10am. Riding the bike loaded up isn’t a challenge, it’s weird when you first do it but this isn’t my first time with luggage and I’m ok with it. If you haven’t done it before it’s only a case of knowing you’re bit wider at the back and to be careful getting on and off, but unless you’re carrying tonnes it makes no difference when you’re moving. It didn’t rain until we got into Wales, we rode about 100 miles to Gloucester on motorways, stopped in a cafe for lunch and moved onto smaller roads into Wales and up north.

How do you rate the HEL callipers? – They’ve been on the bike for a week, I’m comfortable and have total confidence in them, I’m waiting to use them on dry roads and track to see what they’re really like. 

IMG_0941

The location of the campsite is kept a secret until Saturday morning. So we arrived at a pub where the check in tent would be in the morning, and stayed the night in the on-site hostel. There were about 30 bikers who had stopped here to do the same thing, somehow I still ended up with a 4 bed room to myself.

How many bikes in total roughly? – I’m not sure of the exact numbers but maybe 500ish?

Day two we got up at 8, had a breakfast and went to the check in tent to get the location of the campsite and our ticket stamps and bike stickers. The campsite was 20 miles away from the pub, right at the top corner of Snowdonia, on a big hill. We rode through the mountains in the damp morning, and ended up at the start of a long mud track to get into the field where the campsite was. I got halfway down the mud track on the R1 and bottled it. My confidence completely ran out and Laine got the bike the rest of the way up. I tried to move his sidecar which he abandoned to help me, but just blocked the track even more. Not a proud moment for me.

Is an R1 good for off road riding? – Laine didn’t seem to have any trouble but I’m not going to recommend anyone try.

We left my bike near the entrance to the campsite, and the wind was picking up so it was nice to know it was in a little cocoon of vans, somewhat protected. Laine rode his right up to where we put up the tents.

It’s worth noting at this point that the forecast of weather for the weekend was ’Storm Ciara’ which we of course ignored because this time of year the forecast is usually just scare tactics. It was supposed to be the biggest storm for a lot of years. The words ‘life threatening’ were being thrown around and my Mom was messaging me telling me to come home. It was a little bit blowy.

What possessed you to do it during Ciara? – The dates are set several months beforehand so we didn’t have a choice, and we didn’t believe it’d be that bad.

IMG_1033

We got the tents up and went for a walk round to see all the bikes. At this point more people were turning up and the field was full of bikes getting stuck and people on C90s bouncing across the mud at full speed clearly on the best bikes for the job. Once we’d unpacked we went back down the mud track, me in the sidecar, to go and explore the mountains.

How many bikes tipped over? – Several, one bike in particular – another sports bike rider (new Fireblade) had left his pretty upright on the side stand yet it somehow didn’t fall over each time I checked on it, the next day a video surfaced of this bike being ridden out and falling into the mud with the rider on it. 

The mountains were beautiful, eerie, and I totally get the whole dragon thing now. There could be dragons hidden behind the hills chilling, with plenty of sheep for them to snack on. Sadly no snacks for Laine or I, despite the fact that it Saturday, nowhere was open for indoor food, we found a little outdoor tea shop in a car park then carried on. On one of our photo stops we met some people with search and rescue dogs spending the day training the dogs for an assessment; some people go and hide in the mountains and the dogs have to find them.

How dirty is the R1? – It’s covered in mud, but the rain washed some of it. Until I wash it I won’t know exactly how bad it is, or if the wrap has been damaged. I’m sure it’s fine.

I got to experience riding Laines bike for the second time – I’d done such a bad job trying to move it on the mud track that Laine decided to teach me. He got in the side, told me it doesn’t ride like a bike and to physically steer rather than lean. Get on the road, speed up a bit, should be easy. It was not easy. The bars started shaking like mad and I crashed into the pavement, bounced off, went into the middle of the road and then back again to avoid an oncoming car and skid to a sideways stop in the middle of the road. The people in the van behind me were wetting themselves and I have a new respect for sidecar riders and racers.

Did you have an accident? – Only the sidecar, it’s fine, Laine’s fine. Never again.

IMG_1061

After refuelling and a failed attempt to find eyeliner we went back to the campsite. It had started to rain and it was windy. One of the poles in my tent had popped out and water had got into all my stuff, so I was now sharing with Laine in his giant teepee tent, we had my chilli then went to join in the fun in the marquee at the entrance.

How long did your tent last? – About 5 hours.

The organisers arrange live music for the evening, a bar, and during the day there’s tea and soup. The marquee was completely packed with damp bikers, and by the stage were people trying to mosh to the soft rock music the band were playing while repeatedly requesting ‘Ace of Spades’. We met some people, a couple who Laine helped get down the track that now wanted a sidecar, a man who was excited about the R1, some Dutch moshers flinging beer everywhere and dragging anyone within arms reach into the middle. We went back to the tents and it was really raining and the wind was making it difficult to walk. My tent was now flattened and the top layer had disappeared, Laines was looking a bit lopsided but he managed to tighten it while looking a bit concerned. Earlier that evening we pegged my bike down with three tent pegs and a tow strap through the yoke and exhaust hanger – I couldn’t pull it over so I was happy it wouldn’t budge.

How did you secure the bike against the wind? – Park it close to some cars, and tent peg it down leaning it into the side stand. I didn’t use the cover in the end because it’d just blow away.

IMG_1111

How scared were you about the bike falling in the wind? – Once it was pegged down, not very. Most bikes were just left on their side stands and although some fell, most stayed upright. If the bike were to fall, it’d land in soft mud and be protected by my crash protection and panniers which were left on.

We kept our kit on just incase we needed to bail, and almost immediately after we put our feet in our sleeping bags the centre pole down the tent collapsed tearing a hole through the roof. Laine held it up while I put my boots on, then I held it while he did his, we found our phones and after a blind scramble to get the zip opened we threw important things out the tent into the rain before abandoning it. Everything we could salvage was stuffed into the side car and we went back to the marquee for some tea. It wasn’t long before others started moving their bedding into the marquee as more peoples tents were blown away. We took a spot leaning against the bar trying not to think about the state of the floor. My sleeping bag was soaked, but Laine had some emergency dry blankets from the bottom of his bike. The wind steadily got worse and every time the roof blew, water would shower down from the ceiling. More people came in, someone started cooking sausages. It was an unusual atmosphere, kind of ‘this is our own fault so we won’t be mad’ – forced smiles and hysterical laughter. The night lasted forever, it was like January all over again, and because I wasn’t asleep I kept needing to pee, I’m not even going to talk about the portaloos.

Did you sleep during the storm? – Not even a little bit, it was super uncomfortable, freezing, and very loud in the marquee.

IMG_1165

After about four days it was morning – Day three, we started to hear bikes going outside, it was raining on and off and the wind was non stop. The view out the marquee was carnage. I couldn’t see our tents, they’d gone forever. It took 4 of us to roll Laines bike onto the metal sheet pathway that had been left by the entrance, I pushed behind the back wheel and got covered in mud from head to toe. Laine took his bike to the road then came back to help me with mine. Miraculously after a few tantrums the R1 started, and 3 men dragged it to the entrance and Laine rode it up the mud track for me (my confidence hadn’t returned from the day before…). I ran behind him while praying, God came through because the bike stayed upright.

How many bikes did you push out of the mud? – Everyone was helping everyone, I’m about as strong as a twig so I helped a lady with her gloves while Laine did the pushing. 

We had a plan to ride through the mountains south, and head back the way we came and jump on the motorway near Shrewsbury. Once on the roads we hit a huge diesel spill that had saturated the roads all the way to the service station, I have no idea how I kept it upright, I’m going back to my new God theory. We stopped at a service station, a grand total of 2 miles from the campsite and I had a go at wimping out of the situation by calling my recovery services. Sadly ‘I’m scared to ride on diesel’ isn’t a good enough reason for either company to come out, so I had to suck it up. I was able to change into some damp but clean underwear and leggings, wash my hands for the first time since Saturday and re-do my makeup.

Did you get any sunrise or sunset photos? – No. I tried to capture as much of the trip as possible, but I didn’t have any opportunities on Sunday to photograph things – it was raining so much, I needed both my hands, and I didn’t want my phone to be damaged by the rain. There were no pretty sunrises or sunsets – just clouds, rain and flying tents.

A few other riders had the same idea to come to the service station, and we found out that our route was closed because of a landslide, flooding AND a fallen telegraph pole. The only way out was to head north to the coastal road and keep going until we were near Manchester, then go south. The coastal road was going to be a death trap, but I had to work the next morning so there was no getting out of it – we had to get home. With our shiny diesel coloured tyres we gently hit the road, back through the diesel and onto the highway towards the coast.

Would you do it again? – Once I’m over the trauma I might think about it, but I’d need to invest in proper winter gear, a proper hiking tent, maybe some knobbly tyres, heated grips, heated clothing, a hotel…

That road was like the disaster clips you see on Youtube where peoples cars get dragged away into the sea. Waves were hitting the walls and spraying into the road, the rain was so bad I couldn’t see anything except faint tail lights, the wind was blowing me all over the place, there were tunnels and corners round rock faces that caught the wind and pushed me out towards the edge, at one point I honestly thought I’d lost the bike, I knew there was a tunnel under the sea and I thought once we were through that it’d be calmer but it wasn’t, and Laine pulled us into a service station to rethink.

How did you handle the gusty wind? – I had very little control over the bike when the gusts hit us, I made myself lower on the bike, stuck my elbows out and tried to react to the gusts quickly and lean against them, keep my eyes ahead and hope for the best.

We found a route through town the cut the coastal route in half, so we took that road which turned out to have three floods down it followed by roadworks. I haven’t ridden through floods since my 125, the first two weren’t too deep, the third I had water splashing up over my head so I couldn’t see the end, or what direction I was going in, somehow I made it through, drenched, but upright. Finally we were on a motorway heading south.

How did your bike handle in the conditions? – Honestly, aside from being blown about the bike handled fine! They tyres didn’t slide at any point aside from in the diesel, and found grip under the water on the roads. I kept it in C mode for the whole weekend, so it was manageable. The water on the roads washed the mud off so that wasn’t a concern.

Bits of motorway were flooded so there was a lot of traffic, the wind went from being terrifying to just unpleasant, and the rain kept doing its thing. We stopped for fuel and to check the rest of the route. The second 100 mile stint was easier, the rain stopped and the wind dried us off. I exceeded the limits of the borrowed jacket, it was soaked by this point so some wind without rain was welcomed. We stopped again 110 miles from my home for a final fuel up and some food. The final stint was as scary as the first. It got dark very suddenly, started raining again, and the further south we got the winder it was until I was unable to see anything except tail lights. I blindly followed Laine until we hit a traffic jam on the A34 and had to split up.

How much did it cost in fuel for the weekend? – It was about 600 miles total, my bike will do 100-ish to a tank for £15, so about £100 total for fuel.

I was desperate to get off the motorway, so when the A34 finished I took the A272 to my usual country road route home. It was a mistake, the hills were extremely windy, and there was mud and debris all over the roads. I had to slow down and look carefully at what I was riding on, there was flooding everywhere, and at one point I overtook the police dealing with a fallen tree in the road. It took longer for me to get home using this route than it did for Laine to get home after sitting in traffic. We made it though! No feeling was better than stripping off my soaked clothes and knackered boots and stepping into the shower.

Did you enjoy it? – Yes, it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever experienced, yet no one was miserable despite the conditions. Every little bit of the camping experience sucked, but we were happy and laughing the whole time along with everyone else. Even though bits of it were terrifying, we made it home in one piece and nobody gets to call me a summer rider ever again. 

Where’s your tent? – I’m not sure.

2 thoughts on “#12 Dragon Rally 2020

  1. Jason

    I was there, it was all you said and more. I have only just plucked up the courage to look back on it, it took hours to get back to Oxford, but it’s about the ride not the destination, yeah.

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s