MCN joined in the soggy fun at the 60th Dragon Rally

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This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Dragon Rally, one of the UK’s most enduring meets.

Traditionally taking place on the second weekend in February, this extreme event sees up to 2000 hardcore enthusiasts ride all day in order to gather at a remote campsite in North Wales, then spend the night under canvas in conditions likely to be damp, cold and muddy.

To celebrate this milestone in the history of British biking bonkersness, MCN’s roving reporter Justin packed his tent and thermals and set off on his Triumph Sprint ST, hoping to find out just what it is that motivates these motorcyclists to put themselves through such a test of endurance.

The Dragon Rally is one of the oldest biking events in the UK

‘Tea and a wad’

The Dragon Rally has been on my biking bucket list for a while, so after all that’s gone on over the past 24 months, I decided 2022 would be the year.

I strapped my camping gear to the back of the Sprint, ignored the forecast and forged northwestward to the land of dragons.

The Dragon is organised by Conwy MCC, which – having been formed back in the 1940s – is one of the longest established clubs in the UK. Upon arriving at the rally’s control point, the club’s HQ in Conwy, I ask Dafydd Owens, the man tasked with running this year’s event and himself a longtime Dragon veteran, how it all began.

“The inspiration for the inaugural 1962 event came from Germany’s Elefantentreffen or Elephant Rally, which had been established as a winter rally just a few years earlier in 1956,” says Dafydd. “Donny Williams was one of the originators and is still serving as our club president.”

Plenty of riders at this year's event

At 89 Donny is as enthusiastic about the rally as ever, especially as he recounts the early days. “A chap from The Motor Cycle called John Ebrell came to visit us,” says Donny, “and he proposed this idea for a primitive winter rally, what he called a ‘tea and a wad’, where we would provide the location, a hot drink and a bun.

“We hired Bryn Bras Castle for that first year and it was quite a success, including a spectacular headlamp parade around Lake Padam in the evening. It just grew steadily from there into what it is today.

“The biggest rally we held was at Gwyrch Castle, where ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… is now filmed,” continues Don, speaking of 1964 when almost 5000 attended. “The location was fantastic, with good weather, plenty of parking and a massive bonfire.

“In contrast we went to an ex-RAF camp in Llanberis for 1969 and that was a real hardship due to snow and heavy rain, where you had to battle through the elements just to get there. Those were the classics for me, but everyone has a rally to remember based on the problems they had to overcome!”

Secret destination

Successfully arriving at the event earns you a pin badge

The challenge in getting there has always been a big part of what the Dragon is about – complete the journey and you’ll get the pin. Before the days of motorway services, the annual pilgrimage was such that soup kitchens would be set up en route to thaw out those intrepid individuals from such far-flung places as the south of England, not to mention the irrepressible European contingent, inching their way to North Wales between rest stops and breakdowns.

The spirit of that bygone era is still burning bright among many Dragon-goers, those who choose to ride ‘inappropriate’ bikes such as mopeds, Honda Cubs, random Chinese 125s and a whole host of classic machines not necessarily designed for distance work.

In order to prevent people ‘cheating’ by arriving at the rally early, the exact location for the Dragon changes every year and remains a secret until the day of the event. To get that information participants must first visit the designated ‘control’.

This year the folks at check-in were club secretary Pam Owens and treasurer Graham Bradshaw, the latter solely responsible for ticket admin from the late 1970s right up until the previous event.

“Graham deserves special recognition for the huge amount of work he’s put in over the years,” says Dafydd. “He used to keep the records of up to 5000 annual entrants handwritten in an exercise book!”

Taking shelter in the tent

Flying tents

The weather conditions for my Dragon were ideal for a first visit – gusts of 60mph driving horizontal rain from across the adjacent lake, and an ambient temperature factored for wind chill at just 2ºC.

The ground was already waterlogged and just pitching my tent was challenge enough, especially in full winter riding kit including helmet.

Perseverance paid off though (unlike some riders who just picked up their rally pin and turned tail and headed for home) and once that little victory had been achieved, I could check out the contents of the welcome goody bag in comfort.

Aside from the coveted rally pin and club stickers was a commemorative slate coaster bearing the legend Er cof am Kenny – ‘In memory of Kenny.’ Kenny ‘Plank’ Davies was one of the principal members of Conwy MCC and was involved in every single rally from the beginning.

Monkeying around on the Dragon Rally

He sadly passed away in March of last year, but together with his brother-in-law, Bomber Thomas, he was instrumental in ensuring that the Dragon always went ahead, even funding it out of his own pocket when the coffers were low.

Although their number is in decline, there are still many other veterans of the Dragon about and these old hands are not hard to find, dotted around the campsite in small groups beneath leeward facing tarps, safely settled on camping chairs with a brazier on the go to warm their wet bits.

There may well be a well-stocked bar and DJ to help people party into the night, but it’s these guys who are the real entertainment and you could happily spend the whole rally just dropping in on their cosy gatherings, listening to stories and laughing at jokes.

Colin Baker and Dave Barlow from Blackpool are two such seasoned gents, 69 and 72 years young respectively. They call me over to join them and I ask why they’re here.

“You only have to look out there,” laughs Dave, gesturing at the maelstrom around us. “We’ve been coming since the mid ’80s. One year we lost both our tents and had to sleep in the marquee, but it was memorable rather than horrendous. You could see tents flying past all night!”

“The key to surviving the Dragon is years of experience,” adds Colin. “The first year I came, 1985, it was almost called off due to snow, but I figured it could only get better so I keep coming back in the hope that it does! The atmosphere is so friendly as we’re all in the same boat.”

The spirit of misadventure

Riders attend the Dragon on a range of motorcycles

It’s true that the Dragon is a great leveller, and that resilient community spirit is what brings everyone together. Everyone you pass has that same knowing smile and glint in their eye, a look that says so much without a single word. People start talking to you as if you’re old mates – it’s definitely a special place to be.

Midlander Barrie Mansel-Edwards is another long-time veteran with over 30 rallies under his belt.

“Back in 2020 we got hit by Storm Ciara and I was washed out of my tent at three in the morning,” says 72-year-old Barrie, “although most years it’s like this and that’s why you come – it puts life into perspective to know you’re just a mere blot on the landscape.

“What motivates us is the spirit of misadventure and the camaraderie which that brings, it’s not something that you can find sitting down the pub with your mates.”

And that’s really the point – the only way to truly understand the Dragon is to do it. By the morning I had muddy boots, soggy kit, a filthy bike and 250 miles to ride home, but it felt utterly fantastic to have stuck it out and my grin said it all.

It may sound like hell on Earth to some people, and at times it is, but you’ll meet some amazing characters, make some great memories and leave with a sense of achievement that is hard to quantify.

You only get one go at life, so why not take a chance and do the Dragon – you might just enjoy it.

More winter warmers…

The ‘Elephant Rally’ (Elefantentreffen) is the daddy of all winter rallies. It takes place in late January/early February deep in Bavaria where it’s pretty much guaranteed to snow.

Strict rules are applied to ensure it stays suitably spartan. Two weeks later is the ‘Old Elephant Rally’ at the Nürburgring, and both see a regular attendance of up to 5000.

Norway’s mid-February Krystall Rally is another popular one, although it’s hotel based, so more about the journey, but if you want to go full hardcore look no further than the Primus Rally at the end of Feb where temperatures can dip as low as -30°C.