Back on the Bike (Film)
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Back on the Bike is a heartfelt new film from Samantha Saskia Dugon that chronicles a bikepacking trip through Wales with her mom, who hadn’t ridden a bike in more than 20 years. Over the course of three days, she watched her mom push her limits and challenge her notions of what’s possible, ultimately revealing a more confident and adventurous version of herself. Watch it here, accompanied by a written recap of the trip…
Words, photos, and film by Samantha Saskia Dugon (@saskiadugon)
Last autumn, I had the idea to take my mum—who hadn’t ridden a bike in over 20 years—across North Wales on a bikepacking and camper van adventure. Why, you might ask? I’ve been trying to help get my mum back outside and exploring again for a number of years. Having suffered multiple family grievances and battling cancer, all whilst bringing up teenage me as a single parent, it’s safe to say that her confidence and her adventurous and inquisitive spirit had taken a hit.
As her daughter, I like to think I know my mum better than anyone. We’ve always had a very close relationship, and after my dad/her partner died, that relationship only got closer. I know how her mood and outlook on life changes when she is outside embracing every culture and new place she comes across. Having tried to push her to do more of this, I knew it wasn’t going to happen until I made it happen.
When planning trips, many people instantly look beyond our borders, usually somewhere warmer, with a culture they’ve not experienced yet. It’s true that the pandemic has made people rediscover the amount of adventure in their metaphorical backyard, but that wasn’t the only reason we stayed close to home for this trip. My mum, born in Swansea, had never been to North Wales. As a mountain biker with a profound love of North Wales myself, the fact that my mum had never ventured that far north seemed almost absurd to me. I knew it had to change.
With an eJimi electronic mountain bike from Islabikes lined up as a loaner for the trip, all we needed was for the firebreak lockdown to come to an end. November 9th, the first day of freedom again, would be our start date. Our route would start off in Llangollen, visiting the breathtaking Pontcysyllte aqueduct before heading over to Bala, where we’d stay the night in a quaint little Welsh cottage hidden away in the hills behind the town.
As we set off, it was clear that my mum loved the electric motor system on the e-bike and that whizzing along the canal path from Llangollen was her new favourite thing—so much so that I struggled to keep up whilst trying to film her. My mum had gotten so into the ride that she didn’t realise when we had finally arrived at the aqueduct, which led to a lovely little surprise when she turned around and saw the amazing feat of 19th-century engineering.
After some time spent learning about the aqueduct, we rode back towards Llangollen, to source some midday snacks, ending up with some good old faithful sausage rolls from one of the local bakeries. In the afternoon, we headed towards Bala, and as she’d never seen a bothy before, I thought I’d try my luck at getting her up towards the Llyn Arenig Fawr reservoir and the Arenig Fawr bothy that sits next to it. However, the gravel climb up to the reservoir began to test her limits. Struggling to get to grips with riding over loose terrain and feeling stressed by the steepness of the climb, we decided to head to our cottage for the night and prepare for the following day instead.
The original plan for day two was to ride from the western tip of Lake Bala over to Bronaber via the mountain road, but with the weather against us, we drove to a lower point of the road to cycle some segments that weren’t in the clouds. Again, however, I had seemingly picked one of the steepest parts to get started on, and so followed the biggest stress-induced breakdown I had ever seen from my mum. After finding her limits, and pushing them a bit more, we headed further towards Bronaber, where it flattened out a little. I say flattened, but “slightly less steep” might be more accurate. After spending the next hour cycling and filming alongside Afon Gain in the wind and rain, we went back to our vans and continued west, but not before being astounded by the Trawsfynydd power plant.
With its soviet-esque architecture, the view of the power plant set against the natural beauty of the Snowdonia National Park was breathtaking. As my mum aptly put it, it was a physical oxymoron. Too intrigued to simply drive past, we pulled in and got the bikes out. To our surprise, not only was there a lakeside cycle route but the Sustrans Cycle Route 82 also skirts around this astounding structure.
We arrived at our hotel in Harlech just as the sun had set, where we found out that not only were we the only guests, but the first ones since the lockdown firebreak had eased. It was very strange staying at hotels and dining in restaurants straight out of lockdown. It was eerily quiet, but with everyone coming together to support one another and recognising the strangeness of the times, there was an unspoken sense of comradery between the local businesses and communities. Just one of many reasons why I love Wales.
Waking up with a view over Harlech Beach, we ventured down to the sea before breakfast for a quick dip. It was anything but a calm day at the beach, with winds howling, sand blowing around our feet, and waves crashing on top of one another. If we were sleepy before we got in the water, the adrenaline of it all made sure we were wide awake by the time we got back out.
After breakfast, we took a whistle-stop tour around Harlech, where we came across Ffordd Pen Llech, once the world’s steepest street before New Zealand got wind of the news. Still, riding the world’s second steepest street still seemed like a good challenge, so I grabbed my bike out of the van and went for it. After figuring out just how to keep the pedals turning and the front wheel on the ground on the steepest parts, I got it done and met my mum up at Harlech Castle. I pointed out where Snowdon would have been had the clouds wanted to show us.
In the spirit of the trip, our plans for day three also changed as we went. After our Harlech tour, we headed towards Portmeirion, a place my mum had wanted to visit for over 40 years since seeing the cult classic TV series “The Prisoner” that she and my dad had connected over. But thanks to some naive planning on my side, the place was closed due to COVID-19 and wouldn’t re-open for another couple of weeks. To say my mum was devastated would be an understatement.
Instead, we headed towards Porthmadog and cycled around the coastline, stopping in Criccieth for some warming hot chocolates and a cheeky bit of cake. Whipping out her trusty binoculars, my mum enjoyed sitting by the beach looking across the Bae Ceredigion to the hills and coastline of Llandanwg. We took the long way back to the vans in Porthmadog with a nice long descent leading us straight back into town. Whilst the trip may have only been three days long, it felt like a much-needed week-long adventure.
Witnessing my mum become more confident over those days, both in herself and on the bike, was such an incredible sight after seeing her struggle for so long. To show her that the confident version of herself is still there, as are her adventurous and inquisitive sides, made me, as her daughter and friend, more proud than I could have ever imagined.
So, where shall we go next?
About Samantha Saskia Dugon
Samantha Saskia Dugon is a professional photographer, currently living a Normadic lifestyle in her Ford Transit van with her dog in tow. She can often be found photographing mountain bikes, music festivals, and weddings. Away from the camera, Sam enjoys heading out on two wheels for cycling adventures on all kinds of bikes. Find her on Instagram @saskiadugon.
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