The Great Farchynys Cycle Ride

Cycling at Farchynys

Stephen Law

Former Pupil, Master and Warden Of Farchynys

Following a successful expedition to Iceland in 1982, two of my fellow tour members noticed me cycling to work. Not long afterwards, late in Autumn term, they with another student collared me in a school corridor and asked if I would lead a cycling weekend to Farchynys.  Caught unawares, I could only think of the problems that such a weekend would create, not least attempting to transport 15 bicycles up to Farchynys. I didn’t say no to the small delegation, but I didn’t say yes. However, a seed had been sown, and I went away and thought about the idea. I could cater for the boys, and a fellow member of staff would accompany me to help. I planned a route: one that was not too long and not too short, covering a variety of terrains, and which, most importantly, would be a challenge. 

It was the transport of the bicycles that was the problem. Then after two weeks, Geoff Hall, one of the instigators, stated that his dad had access to a van that could transport the bikes to Farchynys. I rang his dad and then talked it over with the Headmaster and Warden of Farchynys. No one gave a negative response. So I launched the weekend with the usual School Assembly announcement but limited it to 4th-year boys and above. That decision was crucial as the route proved to be all of the challenge we intended. Fourteen eager boys came to the meeting, so the first Great Farchynys Ride was launched.

A date was set for January 1983; we crossed our fingers for good weather. Under today’s rulings and risk assessments, we’d never have made it to the start line. I remember very few boys wore any semblance of a helmet. They were provided with a rudimentary sketch map of the route; there were no checkpoints or fuelling points; they were each given a Mars bar and told to take a bottle of water. I insisted that their bikes be roadworthy and have lights that worked. They all complied. That may seem negligent by today’s standards of safeguarding and H&S, but in 1982, none of this had yet become a restricting necessity. It made the event all the more exciting as the boys would be responsible for their own well-being, and at the end of the weekend, they were absolutely exhilarated. They talked of the enjoyment, the sense of adventure, and above all, the satisfaction of completing something most had never attempted or completed successfully before.

Bike check on the evening prior to the ride.  Yossi Brain testing his saddle height

The evening before the Ride, the boys checked their brakes, tyre pressures, talked gear ratios and possible times for the 43-mile distance. Some boys had never undertaken such a ride before, and I think that innocence may have helped them. The experienced cyclists were relishing the challenge to test themselves. I mentioned some of the parts of the route which might challenge them, but I couldn’t give them first-hand experience of all of the ascents and descents as I’d only driven the route in a car or the school minibus on previous non-cycling trips. My eyes were well and truly opened after completing the Ride myself that weekend. Future rides over the same course would be better explained and the strenuous parts described. On the first trip, I was grateful to Stuart Holtam, who drove the minibus around the course acting as Safety Vehicle and also to Mr Hall (in later years Mr Joe Miles) for following the last bicycle and rider. 

Startline at Farchynys January 1983

We set off on that Saturday morning in January in bright, winter sunshine, thankful that it was calm, but it was cold. We set off together, but it didn’t take long before we were strung out along the road that parallels the Mawddach on our way down to Barmouth. It was here that the sketch map didn’t prove adequate for some. The leaders flashed past the Las Vegas amusements instead of turning right to cross the railway line into Barmouth town centre.  this preventing them from picking up the coast road northwards to Harlech. They ploughed on ‘til they reached the end of the promenade. Years later, whilst staying at the Hendre Mynach campsite, I discovered the route they found to cross the railway and gain access back to the main road. It is a very steep, narrow path. No wonder I saw they were pushing their bikes. As I went past, I remarked rather cruelly, “The shortcut didn’t work, then?” But they soon overtook me, and I never saw them again until the finish.

The views north along the coast road were quite stunning, and with a following wind, it was enjoyable. Much of the route is gently undulating from sea level to the lower parts of the raised beach section. This all changes at Llanfair. The Llanbedr Slate Mine is located on the right, and you have an easy view of it as there is a pretty steep hill to pedal up. Most boys didn’t have too much trouble; the heavier riders…. This ascent, of course, is balanced by an exhilarating descent back to sea level and past Royal St David’s Golf Club and over the railway tracks of the Harlech level crossing. The route didn’t go up into Harlech. 

From there, if you’re cycling with someone, you can “draught” each other and motor along the flats of Morfa Harlech towards Llandecwyn.

After leaving Harlech Castle behindGary Turley taking a drink past Harlech

you can enjoy the stunning beauty of the steep-sided, drowned valley of the Afon Dwyryd in the Vale of Ffestiniog. Just past Maentwrog, you arrive at the fast road of the A487. I say fast because in a car it can be. On a bike, after 22 miles, you are faced with what one boy said was the nearest you come to an alpine-like climb. Over the next five miles, you climb steadily and take several sharp bends up to Gellilydan and finally Trawsfynydd. During one Ride, a faux castle, stabling and other sets were erected on the flattish land on the lakeshore of Llyn Trawsfynydd for the filming of ‘First Knight’, which starred Sean Connery and Richard Gere. If you watch the film, you may catch sight of the surrounding countryside but never the Nuclear Power Station which was then being decommissioned.

That year this was a minor distraction for the next section of almost dead straight road, which leads to the highest point on the course – 232m or 760ft. On some Rides, when the wind was blowing, this section could be brutal for the solitary cyclist. There was a gentle breeze on this first Ride, but it was much colder than at sea level. On this section, the hill climb begins to take its toll. Very little water is left and not much Mars Bar. After a number of gentle undulations, the descent back to sea level begins at Gelli-Goch and continues through and past Coed y Brenin. The road widening had not yet occurred in those early days, and a rather torturous road descent faced us. Luckily, everyone negotiated the tight bends bounded by dry stone walls without mishap. All the way down to Ganllwyd it is a fast and a lovely freewheel.

The painful memories of the hill climb were long behind and the air was quite deafening as it rushed past your ears. A short hill just before the turn for home at Llanelltyd nearly did for the author and some of those early riders. Trying to stand up on the pedals, both of my legs cramped up – straight. I nearly fell off and needed to take the rest of my water and attempted some deep breathing to ease my legs around the cranks and up the hill. I think you ride the last section back to Farchynys on adrenalin and determination. Some boys have been photographed pushing their bikes, resting by the side of the road or in a desperate sprint in these last four miles. Whichever it is, everyone is spent as they pass the finish line. Some wait there for their friends to arrive, having left them way back on the course. Early finishers, showered and changed, return to the gates to greet and cheer-in the later finishers.

In 1983, Richard Baynham was the first rider home in 2hrs 42 mins; last home was Robert Ball in 4hrs 12mins. In 1984 four riders failed to finish due to mechanicals. Baynham’s time was equalled in 1986 by Andrew Hipkiss.  This, in turn, was beaten by a massive 15mins by Bryn Reynolds a year later. I have never hit a time less than 2hrs 35min in my 14 attempts. The Ride has taken place in windy conditions, heavy rain, bright warm sunshine and gorgeous autumnal colours. Boys have ridden road bikes, mountain bikes & tandems. Staff as well. 

The riders muster at the start in 1989

Indeed, Peter Green holds the fastest time for a staff member, achieved on a lady’s road bike. Tim Swain as a young teacher, rode with a former 6th former – Matt Aston, on a tandem.

There have been several reunions. Geoff Hall, Chris Taylor, and I rode together on the 25th anniversary. 

Three of the original riders

On the 25th anniversary, Daniel Gambles and his dad nursed me around; two other parents rode without paying attention to the map and instructions and turned right back into Harlech instead of left towards Llandecwyn.  

Four staff members have ridden the Farchynys Ride and also completed the Farchynys Run – at separate times. Daniel Gambles recorded the fastest of all time: 2hrs 4mins in 1991. He was a phenomenal cyclist, encouraged by his cycling father, Phil. In the late 1980s, Mr Jack Aspinall, sometime Governor and a keen cyclist in his time, provided a magnificent trophy to be awarded on Speech Day for the first rider home. I wrote in the Farchynys compendium 1963-88 – “…it’s not about timings, it’s about the challenge that the Ride provides to everyone that attempts it.”

There are many memories of those weekends. Not all good, but I’ll bet that very few boys who rode on those weekends would think it was the worst day of their lives. That many boys returned to ride the course more than twice in their time at the School is testimony to that. Sunday mornings saw all boys riding around the Mawddach through Dolgellau, down to Arthog and across the railway bridge then back to Farchynys to loosen up stiff muscles before finally falling fast asleep on the way home in the minibus.

Author at the end in 1989.  Vowing gently this was the last time.

Sadly in 1994, the final Farchynys Ride took place. Fewer boys were riding road bikes, and mountain bikes were all the rage. Health and safety changes were taking place within the School and in outdoor activities; a “closely supervised” ride on public roads became a significant problem to organize. It was, to my mind, a great shame that the students would be prevented from spending time with friends indulging in a sporting pursuit that provided such a physical and mental challenge; and in an area of the country that provided such geomorphological interest on a spectacular course with stupendous views. So after eleven years, the finish flag came down for the last time on a weekend that had been originally inspired by the request of a small delegation of cycling friends; these had instigated a unique and challenging weekend experience and in a place away from the industrial Midlands. I’m sure Sam Darby and Kurt Hahn would have approved. 

I always hoped that the boys who attempted the circuit would go on to ride their bikes well after they left School and maybe even come back to re-experience the Great Farchynys Cycle Ride.

Author’s Note:

Over the years I have ridden the Farchynys Ride course solo and with friends but never beaten 2hrs 30min. I have also ridden other routes in the area, including circuits of the Mawddach and the Cader Idris massif via the Tal-y-Llyn & Dysinni Valley, all starting from Farchynys. However, a start point anywhere on these routes is appropriate. It just depends on where you want the main hills to be in the circuit.

And one last thing: In 1999, an obituary in The Independent caught my eye. It was for an Old Marian – Yossi Brain. He’d been killed by an avalanche climbing on the El Présidente range in the Bolivian Andes at the age of 31. After the initial feelings of regret at the death of one so young, my second thoughts were to remember that Yossi had also been a rider on the first Farchynys Cycle Ride in 1983.

Steve Law

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