The Ffestiniog 360 is a bit of a local legend. It is neither long, or high, nor is it delivered by one of the big brands with a highly polished experience. What it is is honest.
The ride itself covers 63 miles, and around 4,500ft – with funds raised going to Ty Gobaith / Hope House – a local, and worthy charity. Marshall’s, tea, biscuits, water, support en route, and brews / cake all come as part of the deal…. oh, that and some of the most fantastic scenery as you head in and out of Snowdonia with a tour of the Ogwen Valley. The ascent is within reach of all, and the distance presents either a challenge, or a faster paced proposition… it is a Goldilocks of a course.
The route changes direction each year – but the route remains the same. It is either the lung-busting-leg-burning-fresh-from-the-car-park-start ascent up the short side of the Crimea Pass, or the eight mile approach from the other side in the closing stages of the ride (the last two being particularly ‘noticeable’). This year saw the latter.
We had rallied together quite the group as a club. We had the classic intermediate and long / hilly Sunday groups and then others – some of which were new… new faces, new names, same colours, all good.
We had opted for a later start than the penned 0830 official one – we are an hour and a bit away – getting sorted – meeting up – and so on – it seemed to make sense. Even more so today as the rain had been hammering down since sun up.
We arrived and the car park was full. We started the crawl around the unfamiliar back roads of Ffestiniog looking for somewhere van sized not a million miles away. On finding a spot, we de-bus to find not, one, not two, three, but five familiar cars and accompanying faces.
Getting our game together was now becoming more of a familiar ritual. The leaving the house with a bag-of-options early morning with that inescapable feeling of ‘what have I forgotten?’ still lingering until the last pocket is packets, shoes are on and you are rolling.
The wet rock and scree spoil walls that hem in Blaenau Ffestiniog are equally corralling in the clouds. They sit there like quiet giants willing their way out. The rain has stopped, the world is a wet one, but moments of sunshine are now starting to peak through from time to time. The van door slides to a close, and we pedal slowly uphill (always), and along to the start.
The start. No, of course I have not brought my confirmation email with me – yes – it may have said to – but that was then – this is now – and no… I am just happy to be here with two shoes and enough gloves… now you want me to print an email from last year? Oh. Panic over – there are lists sorted by names – great success. I am presented with a card to get signed off along the route, and a fluorescent green square of self adhesive vinyl for my helmet. This is not the best – no one likes that. If it was a flat thing – sure – but it is full of vents (for a reason), and ridges, and stuff – not ideal. I see some others have theirs stuck to their bikes… better… but… ahhh – bottle – there we go. Sorted. A brief toilet stop – and I am good to go.
The VCM assemble – we really do have some numbers out here this morning. The lightning fast Jnr’s are keeping themselves to themselves to one side while the rest of us oldies gather together and chat.
Before too long it is time for the off. Now Sundays usually dictate at least two road rides – an intermediate and hilly/long – but no this was a rolling start for all. A fantastically mixed group rolled out resplendent in our red black yellow and while. A right turn and the first descent and suddenly the group was already starting to split. Even with the wet roads, the group clearly went downhill at different rates, and within a few minutes the group around me had thinned down and looked a little more familiar.
The second descent was more memorable. I had clipped the side of a wet manhole cover while braking on the first – and I was now up for ALL of the caution. Wet roads, and a winding descent with stone walls, and the occasional hairpin – what was not to like… it certainly had my attention warmed up if not the rest of me. Somewhere around this point I heard the noise that turned out to be Vic’s over exuberance into a corner followed by wheels in the wrong direction, a sketchy moment where it all looked a bit bleak – and then the most epic of recoveries. Kudos. This was not the day for heroics – you have to be on the bike to ride the course.
The course was the reverse of the last time I rode it. I was glad to be going down what was up before. However – for a “mostly flat” course with a big climb at the end – it was not flat, a bunch of noticeable ascents dug into us presenting with unanimous surprise. Particularly that first steep one.
A slow and gradual ascent was upon us. Accompanied by the labouring of a steam engine with the occasional whistle we made our way as still quite a large group of riders up the ramp. Passed by two riders, it was noted by my partner in crime at this time that they would probably not be off the front for all that long and we should just settle in. Fat chance. Slowly the speed crept up, and then a little more, until the two by two went to a single file, and then that stretched further until ….snap… I was off. Off what I thought was the back of our group.
Sadly I watched the group of comrades move away from me (cue exit music from The Hulk) – but glad the burning sensation had ended, and I could go back to not trying to hide how hard I was pushing. I wiped the fine rain from my glasses – promptly knocking out a lens and hearing it bounce on the road. I stopped to retrieve it to be joined by David and Justin who apparently were spat out a little earlier. Vision and company returned we set about taking back the places lost.
Never knowingly under greeting – we actually did as intended, riding back up the now shallower grade far more suited to us, with a constant stream of good morning, hello, nice weather… as we went. At the top there – the familiar form of Alan – who had stopped to get us back to the main group.
Downhill now, another train visible chuffing across the hillside ahead of us. Our group of four now making good progress, and before too long at all back within the fold, and most importantly now infront of those earlier passers. It is the small things. The pace now good, comfortable, but we are not hanging around either.
Trying to picture the route in our heads it is apparent that we are all agreed that we have no idea however it ends up on the A5 and heading through the Ogwen Valley, Capel Curig, Betws y Coed, then Crimea Pass and into Blaenau Ffestiniog to finish. The weather is already easing up – and the gillet off before I started is now a fine choice.
Climbing up and then down through woods with some bends that caught our attention it is on and past what appears to be the first check point.
At this point there is a bunch of shouting backward and forward, and blank expressions. Do we want to stop? Do we need to stop? Should we stop? The latter was the right one, we looped back (from now quite some way up the road) and headed down to get our little books initialled.
One man, a van, a bridge, a river, a rock, some large bottles of water, and a lot of riders.
As it turns out – we stopped, hassled the very busy man for his signature (15 mins of fame didn’t seem to be all that much fun), and ate, filled bottles, toilet, and laughed. Today was a good day.
Curiously revived from the few moments off of the bike we headed back onto the route. Now a gradual climb – which before too long rewarded us with the now wonderfully well travelled “Where’s Wally?” that is the sizeable VC Melyd banner (that has a delightful habit of turning up en route of so many events, in so many countries). More smiles, and encouraged we started to up the pace… meeting more traffic, some without engines – some with.
We are faced with the insecurity at the turn of riders coming the other way (which transpired to be a member of their group missing with a flat) – then catching back up as a group before a junction and on again.
Our still quite sizeable group is now starting to pick its way through the much narrower roads of riders…. and who should we find – much to my own surprise – but the ‘youngsters’. Clearly they were taking an easy day of it! Much mocking for being caught for the fat / old boys – and then on.
Skip forward to the A5 and the horizons darken as the scenery starts to scale up. It’s all good, but it is starting to put a strain on the group.
In my head I can see the Glyderau, Y Garn so it cannot be far.
It is – they are just big – and I am just small.
The road goes on for what appears to be an eternity. We are still passing more than passed – so in my head we are in a good place.
The scenery is stunning. The sky is that kind of blown out highlights of sun through clouds, and the road is wet enough to see but not hiss, you can smell the wet. Alas it is scenery tainted with “where is that @#!??$ lake?!” as the elastic started to stretch.
As we reached Llyn Ogwen, we were now two groups. With a visible gap. Even throttling back from the effort of the climb we were now really starting to make progress, on the front group, through and off. This was what I had pictured. It was now pretty much downhill to Betws y Coed – or so my brain was now telling me. This was strong medicine, and the VC Melyd pain train was now reaping riders at pace.
I didn’t have the best of views. You can hear the noises of others over the wind, and the occasional face as you take a turn, or as they come through. One thing you can sense is the joy. Smiles, yelps, shouts – this is golden.
As riders came into site the odd shout of “DESTROY THEM!” came from behind me somewhere. Laughter as I pulled out a camera to take some pics while the scenery was a-blur. I could do this all day – tyre noise, air noise, scenery, big gear hauling, the occasional tap of brakes, the occasional extra input – like being on rails.
Woah – woah – woah – people gathered at the side of the road ahead. Hands up and “stopping!”. Thankfully another checkpoint (which could have been clearer to be fair) as opposed to anything unpleasant. More food, a few photos, card signed, and bottles for me again – vainly going with smaller bidon’s – as my blue 500ml ones match my frame better…. the prices we pay huh? Downside meaning more refills. The incessant dripping from the peak of my cap now no longer being rain – no one wants cramp.
Having watched a bunch of people skip the sign off, and others sign and go faster than ourselves… it felt great to back on the road again, and now REALLY making progress. As we headed into Betws y Coed from Swallow Falls, we are spinning out in the big gears at 50… as a car slowly rolls out of a junction and progresses at this pace – giving us time to get organised, form up, and head safely through the buzzing town, before a right after Cotswold Camping and through the leaf arched lane beside the river. The familiar overly bark-ee dog on (an overly long) chain (of all things), and back out now to the foot of the Crimea Pass.
The Crimea Pass takes you out from just below Betws y Coed up past up through a few small towns, before breaking ground, into Snowdonia on both sides of you and the final kick.
Eight miles in all, with the last two steeper. The rapid pace slows to a meaningful one, and there is a rider, black Castelli Gabba – ahead. You know the sort. I am glancing across now at Alan. Nothing to prove, yet, unspoken – he clearly is not having that. The pace is not increasing – but its not slowing as the climb continues. I am starting to hurt a little more than I am good with and drop from the front into line, and then notice our group – again is no longer a group – but a break away – and I am about to get stuck between the group behind (somewhere I cannot see them), and infront. This – by this point – is no surprise, however it doesn’t stop it from being a lonely place to be – especially if it means no shelter.
The road wanders on, and I am caught between groups. Easing back to just uncomfortable seems to be working out just fine. I get lost in a little world of my own for a bit and I drop back to Gary and Vic as we pass through some villages, then as we gain more height and pass Dowyddelan – I am chatting away to them – to find that the rider… the riders behind me are not Vic and Gary – just some unknown free-loaders sitting in. I say nothing, and ride on.
“HOW DO!” and “GOOD EFFORT!” rally from behind me – Vic is back sans Gary this time, stamping his control on the situation as we are now onto the last two miles of the ascent … I am losing my patience here – this appears to be going on … For. Ever.
Soon enough the top as I remember it is in sight, the false plateau seeing you chunk through the gears, to scrub them off again for the last push. Vic has moved away to now sit and wait. Jolly nice chap…. until I pass then I realise hes proving he can catch me up and down hill…. we shall see about that. As I wind up the gearing I am met with a wall of air and buffeted about as we go over the top and take in the view of the slate mines and quarries below, and Blaenau Ffestiniog sat amidst all the spoil.
As the speed ramped up heading around the bends descending into the town, I catch sight of a coke can rolling down, and across the road – like a slow motion unguided missle its going to connect – so its on the brakes – and back off again … pointing it out I see Vic is right on my shoulder. Back on the gas and down down down into the town, passing other riders, and to the roundabout and through.
Suddenly it seems a bit out of place to be on the drops pushing hard to … a car park … opposite a station … no numbers … no timing … point … we are done – we sit up and coast into the car park, and lean our bikes up on the few spare bits of wall before heading over to the desk to swap our signed cards for T-shirts, slate coasters – and probably the best tea and cake I have had in a car park.. and so the debrief began with the rest of the group.
What a fantastic day out.
– Signage last year was a bit of an issue – this year – bigger – which is great.
– Despite the course being clockwise and thus turns being right handers – it felt good – felt safe.
– Marshalling was great.
– People en route despite the rain in front gardens cheering us on – great stuff.
– Fantastic scenic route rain or shine – local or otherwise.
– Water in wide necked big containers (no 500ml bottles here) available at signing stops.
– Despite the A5 having an “A” in it – roads are not too busy.
– Entry fee goes to charity.
– Superbly organised given they are not a big sportive-co but a charity – hats off to them.
Same time – next year? Hell yes. See you there.
*In fact I will let you know when they open for sign ups.