Thursday 3 January 2013

Almost time for the Dragon Rally 2013...

Christmas is over, New Years has passed, the next great annual celebration is the Dragon Rally! 
For the uninitiated, here's my summary of the 50th Dragon in 2011 and also the 5th Dragon, back in 1967.  

This year was the 50th anniversary of the legendary Dragon Rally. The Dragon is organised by the Conwy Motorcycle Club, first held in 1962 and this was to be my third and final visit to the event. Last year was my second and final visit, I’ll see you there next year then. Nobody quite knows what it is that makes grown men and women make the trip in the depths of winter to the darkest recesses of North Wales to camp out for a night in what are often the sort of conditions that would have had Shackleton wondering if it might not be better to stay at home and have a nice cup of tea instead. The Dragon was held on the 12th February this year. Almost exactly 44 years previously, in 1967, I was being born into this world and a young man named Steve was on his way to his second Dragon Rally. Over 3 decades later I met this man when he filed into a lecture room at a University where I attempted to teach him the complexities of the Unix computer operating system. He was a biker and liked his beer, so we became firm friends immediately.
For various reasons which I won’t get into here, Steve now lives in Hungary where his goats have very little interest in Unix and Steve is more likely to be found re-programming a vegetable patch with spade than a computer. A keen lifelong photographer, Steve suggested that he might have some slides from the 1967 Dragon, somehow he found them and popped them in the post to me. They are reproduced here and what follows now are a few memories from all those years ago. 

“The first year I went was in 1966, on a Puch VS 250 split single. Last I heard it was in a barn in Dorset, very derelict. That was the year of the fine weather. I honestly don't remember if they had the headlight parade the two years that I went. If they did I don't remember going on them. (Premature senility!) The first year I very nearly broke the Puch on the way home. Flat on the tank down from the Llanberis pass with 80+ on the clock and a following gale I tightened it up. Fortunately I got the clutch in before it seized. It was never the same after that though. My camping gear was on the back wrapped in a polythene sheet upon which I had lovingly painted the Welsh flag, complete with dragon.”

“The second year (1967) I went on the 350 Velocette Viper, as in the pictures. As I recall it pissed down most of the way there. Some incidents along the way:
There were five of us. Barry took the lead on his Norton outfit. Mike was on a Brough Superior SS100, then the guy whose name completely escapes me on a Triumph 21 350, then me, then my mate Pete on, I think, another Norton. As I said, it pissed down until we got well into Wales.
I remember locking the front wheel up on the Velo when some dozy tart in a car in front braked for no reason on a wood-lined level crossing. Was only doing about 20, so a swift bit of leg paddling kept it up. Until then I didn't even know that it was possible to lock up the front wheel on the Velo. A while later Barry and Mike went round an invisible right hander that they knew about but us other three didn't. Mike and Barry went round, the guy on the Triumph 21 did an expression of a grass track expert around the verge that would have turned a grass track expert green, but not with envy. Pete and I realised that we had nowhere to go. Fortunately Mr. Farmer had provided a muddy little lane straight ahead leading to a field. We slithered to a stop in there.”
“The Brough conked out in Wales. The rain was so heavy that it shorted out the plugs, which just had the HT leads screwed down on the top. No plug caps. We all pulled up and Mike parked the Brough in the lee of a wall for a few minutes. It dried out and was fine after that.

We had a stop when we got to the top of Llanberis. The guy on the Triumph 21 was moaning about its performance. Barry got on it and disappeared in the direction we were going, only to reappear about a minute later with the Triumph at full chat in third. "Nothing wrong with it" was his verdict.

At the rally Mike's Brough attracted a lot of attention. Including Mr. Plod. Plod signally failed to notice that the tax disc for the bike, although current, was in fact for a completely different bike. I think Mike had about thirteen bikes then, all in the front room of his house. His excuse? "Well, I can only ride one of them at once so I only tax one of them at once" This was the guy that chopped a 650 single Panther into a trials bike. It wasn't a 650 "sloper" any more it was a 650 "horizontal"!”

Steve told me that in 1967 the Dragon was held on the site of a disused slate mine, the ground was so hard there was absolutely no chance of getting a peg in, so he had to search about to find lumps of slate heavy enough to hold the tent down. It was a little different this year. If you happened to place a peg on the ground, within a few seconds it would have sunken into the oozing mud without trace. More mud discussion later.

Fast forward forty four years further on and we find intrepid, modern day Dragon goer “me” with no ticket and only a few weeks left before the event. The 50th Dragon had sold out only a few weeks after the tickets first went on sale, many months previously. My normal ruse of saying “I’m a journalist, let me in please” just wasn’t going to cut any ice with the Conwy Club marshals so I used my fallback position which was to sit back and hope. Sure enough, a few days later, my Rally mate Tarka, who I met 5 years ago on a gravel track near the top of an Italian Alp, told me that he knew of a spare ticket and I probably wanted it as I hadn’t been doing my usual thing of nagging him about going to the Dragon. He was of course, quite right and the ticket was mine.
The day of the Dragon dawned and was uncommonly sunny and pleasant which unnerved me slightly as more often it’s either snowing or as Steve says, “pissing with rain”. I wasn’t about to let a bit of sunshine stop me, so armed with an excellent windy route through the Cotswolds and up into Wales, through Snowdonia via what is known locally as the Bala Pass, by Llanwyddn and the lake formed by the damming of the Vyrnwy river, created to provide Liverpool’s water supply. Of course, you can’t actually see the village of Llanwyddn, as it’s been at the bottom of the lake since 1889. The Bala Pass is spectacular if not a little dangerous, locals advise not to use it during inclement weather; advice that has been ignored from time to time, resulting in various people going over the edge to meet their doom. This superb route was given to me by a chap called Chris who I completely failed to meet at the Dragon due to a complete absence of any phone signal and having no idea what he looked like. Thanks Chris, you’re a superstar and thankfully my own doom will have to wait for another time to meet me.
It really was a memorable ride, I took my XJR1300 and Motopodd sidecar, which was filled with all manner of things that I would never use, all lovingly protected by superb “Aquapac” waterproof bags and rucksack against the rain that never came, or so I foolishly thought.

Sun is unusual on a mid February day but warmth is asking a bit much so I wore an excellent, if oddly named, Oxford Chillout windproof thermal shirt and some glorious and equally oddly named Held Freezer gloves. The shirt didn’t chill me out and the gloves didn’t freeze my hands, so I was dead happy with that. Photographs were taken by my compact Nikon safely within the confines of it’s “Aquapac” waterproof camera case, a truly wonderful piece of kit which I highly recommend.
Actually getting to the Dragon is a bit of a rigmarole, you get sent a vague destination by post, which is usually a lay-by somewhere near the actual site. Three Welsh chaps in an ancient caravan then give you a ticket and some more vague directions to the site in exchange for the piece of paper they sent you. After quietly observing some bloke necking a bottle of whisky in the lay-by, you then proceed to the site. And immediately wish that you hadn’t.

This year the Conwy Club promised something special for the 50th anniversary, what they didn’t mention was that the something special was about a million gallons of liquid mud. Presumably because they thought this might put a few of the less deranged rally goers off. In their infinite wisdom and from all of the potential sites available in Snowdonia, they chose to hold the rally in a natural bowl with a river running through the middle of it. I am now very conversant with the term “FLOOD PLAIN” and can describe exactly how one works in practice. They described the site as “back to basics”. I describe it as lunacy. Upon entering the site, a marshal stopped me and enquired as to whether or not I would be camping. Since this seemed to be the whole point, I replied in the affirmative and he gave me a look as if to say “Really?”. He pointed at a muddy slope and told me to go that way. I passed a paddock area that was especially provided for the type of people that pay for a ticket, go in and get their Dragon Rally badge and then mince off to a nice warm B&B. Off down the muddy slope where various riders of solo bikes were having a splendid time throwing their bikes into the mud and picking them up again only to drop them again mere seconds later. I blessed the God of sidecars and rode grimly on past them. Into the FLOOD PLAIN. Oddly enough, at this point I seemed to lose traction, possibly due to the rear wheel sinking up to the axle in liquid mud. Small teams of helpful souls are never far away though, and one led by an excellent fellow named Adge, soon had me over the far side of the FLOOD PLAIN where it was clear I would be camping as nowhere else was available, the Germans and Dutch having arrived at dawn and stolen the only dry land on the site, plus the minor fact that the bike had sunken irrevocably into the mud again. I got off and was immediately surrounded by a flock of people all wearing identical green woolly hats who started questioning me about the sidecar. I smiled wryly and reached for my emergency cider which was stowed in my pocket for just such eventualities.

I couldn’t face the prospect of putting the tent up immediately so decided to call my girlfriend who had wisely chosen to spend the entire weekend on some hellish work assignment rather than accompany me, but the natural bowl formed by solid Welsh granite very effectively screened all three mobile provider signals that I can normally avail myself of, so I was unable to do so and imagined her back at home wondering if my doom and I were having a pleasant meeting. I bravely put the tent up on the sea of mud whilst fending off teams of sidecar questioners and wandered off with several ciders about my person for a bit of respite. I waded over to the marquee and collected my “free” packet soup (give it a bit of a stir now there’s lovely), my Dragon badge, free green woolly hat (ahhh, now it makes sense), chocolate bars, commemorative slate coaster, miniature bottle of whisky, breadmaker, cuddly toy and speedboat.

 Weighed down with all this booty, (and realising that I’d essentially paid £20 for a mud bath and a woolly hat) I soon bumped into my mate Nik, who was wandering about having parked up a huge Boom Trike that he’d blagged for the trip and was scouting out a dry place to pitch his tent. I absconded with his lady friend before we got roped into another mudbath tent disaster  and ushered her into the marquee to get her “freebies”. There was some debacle over whether or not she deserved to get a badge and she was interrogated as to exactly how much she had paid for her ticket, which I felt all added to the general bonhomie and spirit of the rally that I was now basking in. We had more success at the bar however and for some reason it was quite a long time before we saw Nik again. By which time he had his tent up, which worked out well for me and for him as he’d found the last bit of dry land on the site. But the fun wasn’t over yet, Nik asked if I had an air pump he could borrow. I admitted that I did. It was situated in my tent, some 5 nautical mud miles away. Several hours later I returned with the pump having met and chatted to various friends old and new and bestowed upon them a complimentary gallon of liquid mud each, as it ran off my clothes and boots into their tents.

Things looked like improving even further with the addition of some delightful Welsh sunshine. Or torrential rain as we know it. This really loosened up the ground well, which must have pleased everyone immensely. I wandered back over to the bike and wondered if it would have sunken without trace by now. It was just about still visible, but the thought of leaving in the morning after several hundred others had churned up the land even further, filled me with dread, not to mention the fact that my girlfriend would probably have the air ambulance out in the morning if she hadn’t heard from me. I decided to call it a night and had a fabulous nights sleep on an air mattress floating on a sea of mud with tiny streams of brown water flowing through the tent. If you haven’t tried this, I can highly recommend it as a way of overcoming narcolepsy.
In the morning, whilst trying not to think about the horrors of packing up and leaving I wandered about looking at the bikes. I spied a 1967 Suzuki T20 Super Six which fits in well with the story and could well have been one of the few early Japanese bikes that attended back in 1967. I couldn’t get a picture of it as my camera had mud in the lens mechanism from when I briefly took it out of the case to swap the battery. I spent a happy four hours throwing myself into the mud whilst pushing various bikes off the site and after pouring 10 gallons of mud and some brown nylon into the sidecar, I was ready to leave. I just wasn’t sure how to. Various theories about a hidden stone path under the mud were bandied about, but I didn’t fall for them. After a while a fresh team of woolly green hatted people including my mate Nik, managed to get me up and out of the site. A sleep deprived ride home in the rain was marginally less enjoyable than the trip up, but at least my girlfriend had made me some proper soup when I got home rather than leaving me in disgust, so that was good. Nik left for Australia shortly after the Dragon, I can’t say I blame him.
I am not going again.

Words and Pics by Rod Young and Steve Welsh. 

See Steve's fascinating daily blog about his life in a Hungarian village:

1 comment:

  1. Not going to the Dragon again, ever? Surely a misprint or maybe a hacker edited your writing