Riding the Mach Loop: How does the RAF training ground fare on two wheels?

The Mach Loop in North Wales is used to hosting the top pilots of the RAF on low-flying training. Vern Pitt finds out how it feels on two wheels

Mach Loop
(Image credit: Getty)

As my back wheel skitters across the tarmac on some gravel following some over-enthusiastic braking I think to myself, “There aren’t many ways in which I’m like Tom Cruise, but we do both do all our own stunts.”

The diminutive Hollywood star is front and centre of Cycling Weekly’s mind because we’ve come to this western part of Snowdonia in search of a little Maverick inspiration. The release of a long-awaited sequel to the 80s classic movie Top Gun is due in cinemas in just a few months, and while we can’t get in on the fighter jet action ourselves we thought we might come as close as possible on a bike, here in Wales.

The roads we’re riding sit at the bottom of three valleys that form the Mach Loop; it’s one of only a few places in the world that you can see planes from above while still having your feet firmly on the ground (the other is Star Wars Canyon in California but sadly CW’s production budget vetoed that). The RAF uses this area for low-level flight training and fighter jets and other aircraft can regularly be seen carving through the valleys here.

Feeling the need for speed, we thought we’d see if the roads held the same appeal.

It’s with that in mind that I roll out of Machynlleth on a misty morning and head straight into the lanes. Riding north up the valley the road slowly climbs a bit so I’m looking down on the mist as it clings to the River Dyfi. The gentle undulations are the perfect way to warm up the jets. 

As I gently climb we come to the turning into the forest. The trees engulf me and it’s here I start to gain a little altitude. Gently at first before it dips down again bringing me to the bottom of the climb proper, the fearsome Cwmllecoediog. The road pulls up at what feels like vertical straight from the off – there’s no finding your rhythm on a climb like this, it’s mostly trying not to blow to bits keeping yourself just on the edge of the danger zone until you know it’s safe to dive in.

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It twists and turns its way up the mountain, with an occasional glimpse out over the landscape through the trees. Then suddenly it flattens out and we pick up speed heading towards the climb’s second act with gradients of over 20 per cent for far longer than is comfortable. As I wrestle the bike up I breathlessly shout to photographer Dan that the chance of me doing this again for his benefit is the same as the chance of us shooting a baby-oil heavy beach volleyball sequence, zero. I roll out of the trees, the gradient slackens, and I’m searching for the top; the effort is such there’s a distinct possibility that my stomach contents will become inverted. But I hold it together, no compression trousers required, as Dan almost mockingly jogs alongside to get pictures.

Fast and twisty

Mach Loop

(Image credit: Getty)

From there the fun starts as I nosedive back down through the forest. It’s a little more open on this side and you can see out down the valley as the altitude drops. The road is fast and twisty, putting my skills to the test as I bank through the sharp turns. But there’s few cars up here and although the road is narrow for much of it I can see well ahead. Towards the bottom it stretches out and unwinds in front of me and I zoom towards the village of Corris. My enthusiasm for the speed is misplaced though as I buzz past the towering sign marking the right hand turn that allows me to cut off some of the main road. Air brakes deployed and a swift about turn initiated, I’m back on course.

‘A’ game

Mach Loop

(Image credit: Getty)

The following section up the A487 is much nicer than you’d be forgiven for thinking. While local pro Gruff Lewis (see box) tells us it’s something of a “rat run” it’s wide and open and although there’s a fair few cars it never feels unnerving and everyone who passes me does so safely. It starts with another piece of high-speed descending before a steady pull on the stick sees the road climb up through the valley. It’s never a troubling gradient and I opt to just sit in and spin and watch as the scrubland of the valley floor passes beneath my left hand side. I idly wonder how close I could get to local Bahrain Victorious rider Stevie Williams’s personal best of 8.44, set days earlier, if I pressed on, but my time being four minutes slower tells me not very close at all.

The Tour of Britain and the Women’s Tour have visited the area before but haven’t come down these exact roads and with two Tour of Britain stages slated for Wales this autumn we only hope that that situation is rectified as it would provide a great show.

It barely feels fair that on the other side of the pass I’m once again manoeuvring through turns at speed as the bike rushes towards the hard deck of the valley. But it doesn’t last long before I take a right turn and climb once again into the third of the triangle of valleys and luckily Wales has saved the best till last. 

Cresting the Bwlch Oerddrws, one of the highest passes in Wales and a location once frequented by bandits, I come to a small flat section and get hints of what’s to come, the mountain ridges slowly unveiling themselves beyond the next ridge but as I hit it you see the whole Dyfi valley before you. It’s enough to take your breath away. The road snaking down and the drama of the mountains towering above. I know I won’t be going mach two with my hair on fire, but I’m going to come pretty close.

Jet set

Mach Loop

(Image credit: Getty)

Then it happens. We’d hoped to maybe catch a glimpse of a low flying aircraft but it couldn’t come at a better moment as a jet roars overhead. I look at Dan with a grin. “Don’t say it,” he says knowing what I’m thinking. “I feel the need...” “Stop!” I clip back in.

After the A470 catapults me down the first steep slopes it eases and I have to pedal to maintain the mach two my overactive imagination thinks I’m reaching. It’s a fast bend-rich environment and I hit the afterburners out of every one, anxious to keep the pace up as the slopes recede and the landscape becomes more dominated by farmland, the mountain peaks more behind than in front of me now.

It doesn’t take long to reach the village of Minllyn, a quaint little place and a good location for a cafe stop at The Mill – though I did not spot a jukebox with ‘You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling’. From there I press on retracing my steps, sliding left and right through the lanes above the river as we return to Machynlleth.

Having graduated from the Mach Loop itself I feel it’s only right to put it to some use in a hostile environment by climbing the mountain towering over the town to the east, Machynlleth mountain. It’s 10.5km and climbs 466m but that’s deceptive as much of the ascent is packed into the back half. After a gentle 15 minutes I see the road rear up into the sky and thinking it’s the end give it everything I have left up its 14 per cent gradient. It’s only coming round the right hand bend and seeing another steepening slope that I realise my ego is writing cheques my body can’t cash.

Into a vicious headwind up on the moor-like top my body does, however, scrape together enough to avoid a Goose-like fate. It’s worth the extra effort, you could see MiGs coming for miles from up here, it’s truly dramatic stuff to end an action-packed day. Unlike Maverick I won’t be leaving it 35 years before coming back.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.

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