There’s a flood of light through the Velux window, and as I’m sleeping in the top of a bunk bed that light is just a few feet from my face. But it’s not the light that’s woken me, it’s the crash bang and wallop of a Frenchman (occupier of the bottom bunk) as he starts his morning rituals: a feverish search for the packet of 20 Chesterfields, the lighter… It’s the morning of day one of the 62nd Welsh Two Day Enduro. I reach for my watch – it’s not just the morning, it’s the dawn, it’s 4:15am…
“Carlo, Carlo, it’s 4am, go back to bed!”
“Non, I cannot sleep.”
“But Carlo you’ll wake everyone.”
“It’s okay, I go into town, I find somewhere, I’ll have a coffee.”
“Carlo, this is Llandid…, Llandrin… it’s bloody mid Wales, not Paris, nowhere will be open.”
“It’s okay, I will find something.”
Carlo has a severely messed up body clock. As editor of Enduro magazine in France he’s come to the W2D straight off the back of a killer deadline. He’d not slept for 36 hours when I rendezvoused with him outside Dover. He slept for two hours as I drove toward Wales, his head wrapped, like a mummy, in a cheesecloth shirt, rather freakily rolling back and forth across the passenger window. He woke after the two hours, requested a service station (“I must piss”), then downed a double-shot expresso and sucked on four Chesterfields before we drove on. When we hit roadworks he’d roll his window down fully and lean out on folded arms, as if on a slow train through beautiful country, and suck on more Chesterfields. Given that he has thick bushy hair and an even bushier beard he had the appearance of one big fur ball with a small glowing stick stuck in the middle – passing traffic looked on in amazement.
In fact over the three days together he never actually looked properly awake once, not even on the one occasion I let him drive through the Elan Valley. Carlo is probably the most heroically shockingly appalling driver still to have a pulse let alone a licence: hump backed bridge followed by a tight right with sunken rock-filled fields as run off (in the rain). When does Carlo brake? When we’re mid-air having leapt off the bridge at 60mph.
The Welsh is so special. With a fairly gargantuan 62 year history it’s one of a kind. And given that it offers something like a 165 mile lap, ridden in one direction on day one, in reverse on day two, it’s one of the last big lap enduros probably in the world. When we’re increasingly accustomed to seeing timecard enduros reduced to one-lap one-check multi-lap experiences, to set off with 12 time checks (spanning a near eight hour ride) taped to the cross pad – all representing different locations – with some severely unpronounceable names (‘second refuel at Pontrhydfendigaid’) then you know you’re setting off on an adventure. And yes it helps that this is epic countryside. Mid Wales is rolling, green, sparsely populated… and rather wet.
It’s one big adventure, too, given that 500 riders take part – and the entry is full within three hours of opening. The 500 include a brilliantly eclectic mix of types led off by sidecars (Carlo fell in love with these, it’s quite possible the UK is the last country to still run enduro sidecars) followed by Sportsmen, Over 40s, Over 50s, then Twinshocks, a few Women (chasing the brilliantly named Muriel Wardman Rose Bowl for ‘best lady solo’), then the usual Clubman, Expert and Championship classes. It takes a good three hours just to get everyone started, even at four riders a minute.
Even the event’s printed programme stands unique, always with the ever growing list of past winners, each year the list beginning with the same P.F.Richards, 350 AJS, who won in 1951. That’s just after WWII of course, Richards like many of the early participants probably saw active service. What a world away would the Welsh have been – and is today. The list marks time. In 1957 there was no enduro due to the Suez Crisis, in 2001 it was cancelled because of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. The bikes change with time too, starting with British iron – AJS, Triumph etc – then lightweight European two-stroke tackle starting with Jawa, then Maico and Husqvarnas, then there were the Japanese years – now looking like an interlude, at the time we thought the Japanese had the job nailed – and today back to European domination.
Past winners are of course the cream of British enduro, so many known internationally for their ISDT/E exploits and this is of course because the Welsh (a three day enduro back in the day) was the British qualifier for the ISDT. So there they are, Johnny Brittain, Ken Heanes, John Giles, Arthur Browning, Dai Jeremiah, Geraint Jones right through to the modern equivalents like Paul Edmondson and David Knight. And of course, delightfully, the list is peppered with misprints, Edmondson is Edmundson (Nordic explorer?), Tom Sagar is Saeger…
So this year’s entry, come 7am on Thursday June 27th, is camped around The Lakeside in the park at Llandrindod Wells – most riders simply call the place ‘dod’, which is much easier for the non-Welsh.
The day before had been sign on, scrutineering and placing of bikes in parc ferme. It had also been something of a wallet-emptying experience (always unnerving for journo types). £30 went to ‘Jock’ for his refuel service – he’d take your jerry cans to every service plus offer some tea, sandwiches and cake at the second (lunchtime) stop for both days. Ideal for those like us with no crew. Then a couple of quid to the team who’d pre-prepared our timecards saving hours of mental arithmetic. Hmm, then £18 for a special two-day insurance to make legal the dirt biking on the highway (poor Carlo got stung for a good £50 plus as he was French – it would have been more if they’d seen his driving). That was before we filled our jerry cans. Carlo asked, ‘does everyone here need paying?’ No, it just felt that way. A few more quid for tea and a bacon roll helped ease the process.
Morning of day one we were met by a cheery rider who noted the French number plate on the van.
“Bonjour,” I replied.
“Comme ca va?”
“Ca va bien!”
“Ahh, that’s the end of my French.”
“Mine too as it happens.”
“I thought you were French.”
“No, the smoking fur ball over there, he’s the Frenchman, can’t you tell?”
Pushing Yamaha WR250F number 227 out of the parc ferme I realised I hadn’t actually looked at, let alone ridden the bike yet (save for sticking the numbers on). But I wasn’t worried as having been expertly prepped by John Begley at the Yamaha Off Road Experience (better known as Geraint Jones’s place) I knew it was tip top. New Dunlop tyres plus a pair of ‘soft’ mousses and with plenty of hours on the motor – despite looking brand spanking new – it promised to be a trouble free ride. And bike wise it would be.
For this, my first Welsh I was riding notionally as a competitor, but the intention was never to compete, rather to travel the entire course and shoot along the way. So I had three cameras on me. A Go Pro shooting stills mounted under my helmet peak, a wee super-compact in my pocket and a heavy old 1D pro-SLR in a rucksack. I wanted to shoot in every manner possible, but from the point of view (‘PoV’ in media speak) of a competitor.
Of course this meant I was one of the more heavily laden riders. Not helped by a suspect weather forecast which meant I was wearing an enduro jacket and carrying waterproofs for myself and the cameras. Plus a two-litre hydration pack. Oh, and a tool belt, just in case.
Our minute was 9:03 and sure enough the fur ball couldn’t start his KTM Freeride. Being so Gallic (although of Italian parentage) Carlo had opted to wear an open face helmet with mirror lenses goggles and as race faces go they don’t come much stranger. Eager helpers didn’t know whether to call a mechanic or the zoo.
Setting off in the morning cool we were of course mixing it with the daily commuters – the W2D takes place mid-week, probably to leave the countryside quieter for the walkers come the weekend. Few seemed to mind the intrusion of the dirt bikes and so many in fact were cheerily waving. All around the course we’d find locals sitting road side on deck chairs – wave number 425, wave number 426… Of course the children were most enthusiastic, at this time being on their way to school, the young one gave shy smiles while older boys of course gave either a solid thumbs up or that international gesture that means ‘wheelie!’
The first test comes just five minutes into the ride and its a slither over wet grass and slick sections of mud. Anywhere on this course you see people you anticipate trouble. And that was the case here, with a drainage ditch – good for a jump by the pros, but a good old fashioned paddle for the lesser sorts. The test was an excellent warm up before setting off on the course proper.
The size of the lap is mind boggling and clerk of the course Rowan Jones confirmed it’s too much of an undertaking for one man. In fact the W2D is run by a committee of 10-15 who then report back to their own motorcycle clubs to take charge of their own particular section. It’s the work of a collective of mid-Wales clubs, says Jones. With all the scouting and liaising with local authorities it’s still 10 months work for the team.
Reaching the first check after a good 30 mile mix of small lanes and smaller tracks we meet the first of the next band of volunteers – those manning the checks. With 12 checks there are around 50 enthusiasts helping the event keep on time. There are a good 100 others elsewhere doing anything from course opening and closing to sweeping up stranded riders, manning difficult junctions were trail meets highway and of course looking after the special tests. Mile after mile you’ll find another dayglo vest, another huge, encouraging, smile.
Shortly after the first check Carlo came a big cropper. There was a fairly big climb and while I was climbing it I was wondering how the hell the sidecars scaled it. Just then Carlo whipped by showing some of his old motocross skills. The skill was there but the energy quickly diminished so that as he tried to make the turn on the very crest he got it crossed-up and promptly stalled, diving head first into a 6’0” ditch. The bike landed on top if him so as to give him the appearance of some strange antipodean road kill. He didn’t look far off dead – although he might have been sleeping – and once I’d dug him out I got a pretty immediate sense the fur ball was going to struggle to reach the next check let alone the finish. My confidence in him ebbed still further when I noted his recuperative routine involved yet more Chesterfields.
“Eez the course like this all ze way?”
“I don’t know Carlo, I’ve never ridden it, but I doubt it’ll get any easier.”
“Eez best you go, I’ll be okay.”
“No Carlo – we’re a team, I’ll get you through mate.”
Of course I didn’t mean that. And just over half an hour later I did abandon Carlo, safe in the hands of two women spectators. There’s looking after a mate and there’s getting the job done. The job came first.
Coming into the wonderfully named Strata Florida the weather was anything but the sun and warmth we associate with that American state. The cloud came lower, everything turned grey and then, of course, the rain started. The passage of over 200, maybe 300 by then, bikes had turned the water crossings that make this section so famous a very turgid brown. Which meant there was no knowing how deep they were. However, enduro logic says if there are no bikes on the far banks (upside down, being drained) then the crossing must be safe. And that worked, albeit there were times when the water got close to the bottom of the tank that you just started to wonder. And there was no way I wanted to try swimming with three cameras strapped around my torso.
The Strata is a great section all the same. You follow a stone track that wends it way this way and that over what looks a bit like moorland (hard to tell in the gloom) and every now and again you’ll either have to make your way across a whole flooded section, or an actual river, or make it up a series of rocky steps. With all the rock being wet you accord it some respect. The tracks you can but wonder, must be hundreds if not thousands of years old and it would be easy to imagine some 14th century horse, cart and peasant emerge from the mists, heading to market.
Following Strata Florida was a great grass test on the site of an old rally circuit. With the rain it was super-slick and it paid to keep the rear tyre spinning to clear the knobs and have any chance of directional control. It was mega fun and if crossing the concrete road from time to time caused a few hilarious wipeouts that was as nothing to the final descent of a grassy hill. Here riders were lawn darting right and left, leaving gravity alone to finish the job of getting bike and rider – typically separated by a good 50 metres – to the bottom. It paid not to use the brakes, and not use too low a gear and just figure what to do when you got to the bottom.
Despite the rain the riding was magnificent. After the test came a long section that threw up at intervals sections of forest, moorland and country lanes. The forest work was by now becoming quite testing as the trail became dominated by ruts, slippery ruts at that. Interspersed, of course, by bogs. Not the proper, bottomless and never-ending bogs the old boys remember back from the old days, but shorter ones that are just tricky enough to cause you a moment or two (especially if you were neglectful of your line choice). One guy on a two-stroke – a kid, I could tell by his slim hips and motocross style – came whipping past me before one such bog and just threw his bike into the middle of it only to come to an immediate and fairly secure stop. As I approached I could see a firm line just a foot to his right and took this, coming out the other side clean. I could hear his curses as he frantically pushed and pulled. And yes, I smiled.
THE FINAL TEST
The last test on the course was another grass one, again across a hillside and yes, given the rain it was a bit slick. It was also a bit long and while I’d dropped my cameras at the start and charged into it pretty gung-ho at about the two-thirds mark I was hit cramps in one thigh, then both. It would pay to get fitter, it really would. Riding with both legs straight out the back of the bike, head over the bars just isn’t ‘factory’ – although curiously when I got to the technical muddied section that the hawkish spectators were favouring, the lack of options other than just to gas it and hope to reach the far side worked wonders.
There was a cheeky climb with bog exiting the location and I only just made it out, which was a relief as after six hours I wasn’t high on energy. But this little test was as nothing as to the penultimate check. This was a tight one, and given we were riding to the ‘A’ (dry) schedule in the pouring rain, it was even tighter. The ruts through the trees became agony and my thighs burned. I wasn’t helping myself by having to ride with the experts at this stage and was having to be doubly careful not to overly impede their progress. At one point, having had to ditch the goggles, I got a face full of mud and the grit of course found itself behind my contact lenses. That’s its own kind of agony and I simply had to stop and clean them. Not easy in a muddy forest, so I ended up sucking the mud off my fingers, then sucking the grit off the lenses – it must have looked a bit odd. It did the job though.
Once through the check at the end there was only the liaison back to the finish and while the rain made this cold and uncomfortable it couldn’t diminish the pleasure of having come through such an amazing eight-hour ride. Incredibly I didn’t hour-out. I’d lost some ridiculous amount of time with the fur ball at the beginning of the day and lost so much more later when hanging around to get photos but by checking in early at some subsequent checks – costing even more penalties – I bought back time. So despite having penalties that accumulated to over 1:05 hours I was technically still a finisher. Result!
Talking of the fur ball, I found him at the finish. Curiously stood bare-chested in the rain. Figuring this was some kind of French macho statement I enquired where his shirt was. It was wet, he said, from the rain, and he hadn’t brought any dry clothes with him. He later gave into spending more British pounds for a T-shirt from a stall.
IT’S THE BEST
Dare I add that day two wasn’t ridden but driven. The fur ball needed chaperoning if he was to get his story and a review of the images from day one showed the rider PoV job had been successful.
It was cool to again be the journo looking in from the outside. To enjoy a latte and brioche between tests, rather than hammer a weakened bod though yet more forest. But I missed the adventure that the Welsh Two Day really is. It is an incredible event that is hugely enjoyable – something you can see in the eyes of every rider who competes in it. This is enduro as it was back in our fathers’ and grand-fathers’ day – properly man and machine against nature, rather than man and machine against small wood and farmer’s field.
Even the fur ball loved it and has vowed to return, with more of his countrymen – although they’ll have to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals for an entry. Yeah, the Welsh is something very special. Long may it continue.