Join the big scramble for north-east Wales
Off-road motorbiking in Llangynog is a great way of getting close to the Welsh mud
The Ultimate Off Road Day offers an exhilarating, helter-skelter ride through the forest wilderness
“Belief in yourself,” remarked Mick, “that’s the key.”
His words echoed around my head as I stared at the hill, a 40-degree escarpment of sheer glistening rock, with a couple of rubble-filled gullies on either side. Cut deep into the hillside, it rose for about 100 feet and then veered sharply right, to somewhere completely out of sight.
It might have gone further up, or down, but either way, I couldn’t see which. Into that invisible void was where Mick was saying I had to go – me and my rasping motorbike.
Trust in Mick; believe in yourself . . .
A lot of my drive in life was to show people. I’m really determined and you can all do things. It just depends how hungry you are.
“Right,” said Mick, “good throttle now but not too much. Take it steady. I want you in second by the time you hit the foot of them rocks and start to climb. And don’t slow down; just keep going.”
Second! The instinct is to cling to first gear like a comfort blanket and open the throttle to max. Low gear equals more power, right? Enough to dig you out of trouble; or ride up a 40-degree rock face.
Ah, feckit, I’m 63. What the hell?
I let rip, hit second at the foot of the climb, didn’t open it full, like he said, and just kept going. Up she went, the Honda CRF 250x, scrambling with ease – exhaust-screaming, bone-shaking ease, but ease nonetheless.
At the top, around that lurch to the right was another twist to the left, then more shallow gradient climbing until at the top, after perhaps 100 yards, the gully that was for all the world like a dry riverbed of small boulders and rocks. It turned right again and careered along the shoulder of the hill.
Another huge vertical presented itself almost immediately. It was maybe 60 degrees but stopping wasn’t an option.
Cresting it, the bike took flight, crashing down the other side before rattling along further through two big, deep muddy pools, great sheets of water fanning left and right; down another ravine of rocky gullies and back to Mick – standing in the middle of the forest road, a big grin on his face, cheering on his latest, adrenalin-fuelled pupil.
We are somewhere above the tiny village of Llangynog in the Berwyn range, a mountainous and remote area of north-east Wales. Mick is Mick Extance, a seven-times motorbike veteran of the Dakar rally, the ultimate off-road endurance challenge.
He’s 53 but his boyish, round face exudes the smiley, energetic enthusiasm of a teenager.
“I have a job I absolutely love,” he says without hesitation.
A few hours in his company leave one in no doubt as to the truth of that.
Originally from Derby in the north of England, he worked for much of his life laying concrete driveways. But his heart was always in motorbikes – something he inherited from his father, an aircraft engine tester for Rolls Royce.
Mick bought his first motorbike when he was aged 15 and since then has been a champion rider at British and European level. Chronic dyslexia led to bullying at school and low expectation from teachers, but he channelled his reaction.
“A lot of my drive in life was to show people,” he says. “I’m really determined and you can all do things. It just depends how hungry you are.”
His great motorcycling love is enduro – long-distance biking, much of it off-road. The Paris Dakar Rally, known now simply as the Dakar and run in South America because of security concerns in Mauritania, was an inevitable draw.
You have to be at least half mad to do the Dakar.
“That crazy race just came up on the TV and that was it,” he says.
He’s entered seven times, completing five of the gruelling rallies. The 2017 Dakar ran for 9,000 kilometres and saw 97 motorcycles, 22 quads, 63 cars (including 5 SSVs) and 38 trucks, 220 of 318 vehicles that left Asunción in Paraguay on January 2nd, complete the course, arriving 12 days later in Buenos Aires via La Paz in Bolivia.
Mick has never won it but was twice placed 26th out of a field of about 250 – in 2006 in Africa and again in 2009 in Argentina. An accident in the 2007 rally saw him stranded for 17 hours in the west African desert.
“I’ve chased the dream,” he says slightly wistfully and, with a wary eye towards his fiancee Andrea, lets slip that he’d like to have another go at it.
Six years ago, he teamed up with Bridgestone tyres to create the Mick Extance Off Road Motorcycle Experience Centre in Llangynog which he runs with his son Adam (a Speedway racer), buddy Rich Benfield and Andrea. They have the run of 1,500 acres of privately-owned forest, provide all equipment, bikes and insurance included, and take all-comers – no experience necessary.
Which is just as well because my off road experience is limited to an afternoon near Laragh about 10 years ago.
Halfway down the mountain at Mach II is not the way to wipe your goggles
“We’re going to go right up to the top of the mountain and then come back down again. Very fast,” says Mick, standing in the disused slate quarry that is base camp: a clutch of mental containers plus a sort of men’s shed-cum-office, a breezeblock and corrugated perspex-roofed hideaway with a sofa, heater, coffee machine and walls festooned with off-road posters and some of Mick’s Dakar-worn memorabilia.
His pre-biking advice to us – myself, Belfast biker and travel writer Geoff Hill, and two lads from the Stoke Sentinel – is succinct and simple to understand: sit forward, crotch up against the tank; use both feet to maintain balance when things go wobbly; if you stand on the pegs (foot rests), keep your knees in and lean forward, shoulders parallel to the handlebar, body centre of gravity forward, over the petrol tank.
And don’t try to steer clear of ruts on the trail – ride inside them. Seems counterintuitive but it works.
“Let the bike do the driving,” says Mick helpfully, though not altogether convincingly, advising simultaneously against adjusting goggles while in motion.
“Halfway down the mountain at Mach II is not the way to wipe your goggles.”
The following five or six hours are an exhilarating, helter-skelter ride through the forest wilderness, bursts of speed mixing with careful application of brake and clutch to negotiate steep inclines, where a controlled mix of power and legs used as stabilisers keeps one upright. It is surprisingly exhausting.
The forest, much of it smothered in heavy frost and freezing low cloud, was “an easy place to get lost”, noted Mick, adding, “there might be something around the next corner you’re not expecting so don’t wander off because you might fall off [the mountain].”
We careered along circular trails threaded through the frozen woodland – sometimes narrow, icy water-filled gullies running along the side of the mountain; other times hair-raising boulder-strewn trails up the side of the mountain; yet other trails were tracks that plunged off the rough forest roads deep into the trees along squelchy, boggy ruts that were no wider than the bike’s tyres.
“The magical world of mud,” said Mick as he surveyed a wide expanse of chopped-down forest debris through which ran a muddy, boggy trail that twisted and turned, holding out the delicious prospect of filthy, noisy mayhem.
The trail was called the Dark Side. We dived in – no hesitation, full throttle, legs flailing, mud spattering everywhere . . .
A pheasant stay by the lake
The Lake Vyrnwy (pronounced vern-we) hotel and spa is a place apart.
Purpose-built in 1890 with a commanding view of the then just-completed reservoir supplying water to Liverpool, the beautifully maintained building (stone exterior with original windows and cedar shingle) oozes plummy old-world charm with baronial interiors – all parquet flooring, pitch pine doors and beams, and hunting prints.
As you walk on thick carpets, the floorboards emit a satisfying squeak.
The bar stocks craft beers from several parts of Wales and the gin list offers no fewer than 27 varieties of old mother’s ruin. There’s a good selection of wines, starting from a very drinkable £22. The menu (two courses £27, three for £35) includes delights such as pan-seared drunken scallops, smoked sirloin of Welsh black beef, rack of lamb and pheasant (hardly surprising as 80,000 are reared annually and strut around the countryside like they own the place – which they do, until the shooting season) and spiced black pepper plum tart.
The hotel is also a spa and the area offers a wealth of outdoor activity, including mountain and lake-side walks, fishing and cycling. And you will wake refreshed to the sound of owls and pheasants.
High-end pampering (not to mention the jaw-dropping setting) comes at a price. B+B is between £154 and £269 per night, depending on season, day of week and position of room. (lakevyrnwy.com)
Peter was a quest of Bridgestone Tyres and Mick Extance (mickextanceexperience.com). Courses there range from £175 per day for Girls Only Days (“They don’t smash the bikes up and they listen to you,” says Richard. “Men ask questions but not until after its all gone wrong.”) to £225 per day for Enduro and £235 for the Ultimate Off Road Day.