Setting off in the warm Saturday sunshine we loaded the truck, sharing our expectations for the following day and debating best preparations ahead of the forecasted, biblical downpour.
We drove North along eerily quiet motorways before a change in bearing took us west sharply, the horizons of the north Welsh coastline opening up as we passed the timeless castles of Conwy and moved deeper into the foothills of the national park.
HQ for the weekend was the Snowdownia adventure park, a dystopian inland surf lagoon, enclosed by alpine huts and juxtaposed by the surrounding mountains and lush forests.
The “Gravel Rally promises to whisk you away into a deep rooted and hearty challenge…paying homage to the spirit and roar of the traditional motor rally scene that can be found echoing around the forests and mountains in Snowdonia.” and it was with this in our minds and a sense of building anticipation the clan members gathered to catch up over some refreshments and revel in the challenge that awaited them.
The 5am alarm rang all too soon and we drew the curtains to a grayscale dawn and a blanket of heavy clouds filling the valley.
Riders bustled around the teepee fixing timing chips to their forks and filling their jersey pockets with fuel for the road ahead.
Matt rallied the riders to the start for some housekeeping ahead of the start. The race would be split into timed sectors with neutralised zones on the road between, each sector bringing a different challenge and the rider with the fastest cumulative time over these crowned champion.
With the rain hammering down the riders left en masse, eager to get a head start on the bunch before the road ramped swiftly upwards.
A brute of a climb welcomed the riders into the first Sector, nerves dissipating as the blood rushed to screaming muscles. A 2.2mile drag up the Cym Eigiau climb with gradients in excess of 24% whittled down the peloton and a group of riders made an early break up the road, laser focussed, stamping ferociously on their pedals.
The second sector was a chance to bridge the gap and make up for lost time on the ascent.
The road flattened and riders barreled along the track to the first mountain of the day passing the old dam and forests that seemed to breathe in the damp air.
Pushing on at speed, the clan raced along the hard packed ridgeline, passing under ‘black pipes’ towards the Cowlyd, a moody deep of water set high above the valley below.
A rapid and flowing descent from Cowlyd was a test of nerve with the road surface awash with grease and debris, calipers howling a metallic warcry as the riders zipped down into the next valley.
After a short climb into the forest it was back on the power and they moved through fast gravel tracks, aquaplaning and squinting at views through mud caked lenses.
Crossing back onto the road, a brief transition section offered some respite and a chance to access the damage of the first few hours.
Riders made their way into the fuelling stop eager to throw down their bikes and shelter from the persistent downpour.
Smiles and grimaces were shared between weather beaten faces, some still in shock and some relishing the test.
After restocking on carbs and hot drinks they pushed on, most actually pushing their bikes up the jagged path of storm washed boulders and scree.
More epic forestry road and fast rolling gravel was an instant reward and time passed quickly as riders moved through the remote village of Dolwyddelan and along the roman road of Sarn Helen before heading back into the cover of trees.
More savage gradients and parcour that demanded total concentration as riders battled switchbacks and technical corners.
The longest sector of the race reared its head as suffering riders mustered what strength they had left. Eight miles of pure, savage joy, this section was unrelenting and a true reflection of the spirit of the race and why we ride our bikes. A true test of mind, body and soul.
Riding the wave of the last sector, riders pushed on, carrying as much speed as their nerves allowed gaining time on the descent and back through Gwydir for more hair raising, forest action.
A dash across the Pont y Pair bridge and riders were swallowed back up by the forest, this time for some nail biting single track, as tyre choice and bar width choices were tested by the Marin trails.
Sometimes it’s being on the wrong bike that brings the most fun as you let the wheels slide beneath you fast and loose.
Rolling back along the waterside it all seemed too peaceful and before long riders were cursing Matt and Toby’s names through their gasping breath as they ground their way up the final climb of the day, an almost vertical wall standing between them and the finish.
Pain turned to elation as they ripped down the final slate littered descent, numb and battered but driven with the desire for the approaching finish line.
With a final kick along the path, riders crossed the line (some in a heap) all questioning whether a tougher day out existed in these parts.
The mud on their faces cracked as smiles and delirious laughter took over and each rider took stock of the journey that brought them here.
Showers for tired bodies and battered bikes before some well earned refreshment and sharing of tales from the road.
What a truly epic adventure and a true embodiment of the spirit the race looked to evoke. The Gravel Rally is an instant classic and riders will savour these memories for many years to come.
As the saying goes, Wales never fails…