Phil Steinhardt

Riding The Mach Loop On A Triumph Speed Triple RS And A Thruxton R

Sharing canyons with fighter jets in Wales


here aren’t many things faster in a tight canyon than Motorcyclist Senior Editor Adam Waheed on a Triumph Speed Triple RS. The signs say araf—“slow” in Welsh—and the roads are a perfect inky black, freshly cleaned by rain and draped through the contours of steep green hills. Waheed is on a burn. Stone walls resonate with the bark and echo of the 1,050cc triple and the thump of my Triumph Thruxton R, its narcotic swell hot on his heels. We’re as bad as any combination of man and machine that has turned into the little parking lot above the perfect blue lake the locals call Llyn Myngul. The world is in rare alignment; the weather is crisp and fine. We have half a second to enjoy it before the thunderous ripping of jet-ignited air turns the pastoral reverie inside out. Out of nowhere, a pair of McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagles descend, sharing the same curving canyon for just an instant.

motorcycles on winding Welsh roads
Winding, tight, and perfectly paved, Welsh roads are among the finest in the world, so long as the weather is on your side.Phil Steinhardt

They stand on their wingtips, condensation curling frantically off the sharp trailing edges as the jets seem to do the impossible, twisting and sliding between the narrow canyon walls with scant feet to spare in any direction. Just like that, they’re gone, over the lake and aimed at another slot canyon, their incredible racket fading to laughter—Waheed’s and mine, incredulous and uncontrolled and totally chastened. Nothing pulls you down a peg or two faster than an outside pass by one of the burliest aircraft ever built.

This is the Mach Loop, an extreme low-level circuit through beautiful Welsh countryside where NATO pilots practice their nap-of-the-earth flying skills.

Gwesty Minffordd Hotel and Restaurant
The 450-year-old Gwesty Minffordd hotel and restaurant is a welcome place to wait out the rain; it sits directly under the path of jets flying the Mach Loop.Phil Steinhardt

We’d been at Silverstone for the MotoGP and witnessed the first premier-class rainout in my lifetime. England’s summer was long and glorious, but the blowout slammed the brakes on our dreams of riding under a warm English sun. We’d come looking for an ecstasy of speed and sound, the precise perfection of Grand Prix followed by a top-shelf road ride. The want for decadence pointed us at Welsh roads and Triumph’s range-toppers. Of the latter, there’s a handful, so we picked the sharpest knives in the lineup.

Triumph builds machines for miserable drizzle, machines with fairings, heated accessories, hard cases for luggage, and shelter for frozen torsos. The Hinckley factory is located a hair north of Irkutsk, so the company should. Instead, we plucked a Speed Triple RS for it’s absurd inclination to wheelie out of corners, and the Thruxton R for its tantalizing good looks and buckets of character.

Triumph Speed Triple RS and Thruxton R
The Speed Triple RS and Thruxton R are perfect company, each as distinctive as the Welsh coast.Phil Steinhardt

Every time we stop, the Thruxton R draws attention. It’s a five-figure firehose of nostalgia, everything you can ask for from an English machine. It starts up with a rude grumble. The 1,200cc twin pulls perfectly and effortlessly from low revs, vacuuming the Thruxton up out of deep corners. The riding position is athletic and low, and every minute spent riding makes you feel as if you’re doing something selfish. It’s a machine that makes a grand show out of a milk run.

The Speed Triple RS is so dissimilar as to be shocking. The British character is there. The same perfect fueling, and similarly effortless pull and swell of revs. But where the Thruxton R is elegant, the Speed Triple RS is modern and brutal. It sounds of sportbike and stinks of burnt rubber and lost licenses. But for all its hooligan reputation, there’s an effort at coddling the rider that the Thruxton doesn’t bother with. There are heated grips, and its seat is all-day comfortable, never mind that the Speed Triple RS is still inclined to leave the injudicious riding the bench at a local jail.

highland longhorn blocking two motorcyclists
An affable, if slow-moving, highland longhorn blocks our route through the hills south of Snowdonia.Phil Steinhardt

There’s no easy way across the middle of England into Wales. The scant highways give out soon, and the tarmac gets ever tighter. You’ve seen these roads before. They’re perfect when the weather’s on your side. Bike rags and car rags and everyone else can be found shooting and testing around Snowdonia National Park, and a handful of manufacturers run off-road schools out of the foothills. In the summer months, it seems like the entire British moto-journalism community has decamped for Wales. One of those expats, photographer Phil Steinhardt, bought a handsome old house in the valley and runs an adventure bike-tour outfit there, and because we arrived on a slow day, he agreed to show us around.

The revolution that’s turned London into one of the world’s better places to eat hasn’t washed across Wales yet, but there’s signs of the tide swelling. You’ll still see mushy peas on menus, but the peas are fresh, at least. Other little boutique industries flourish. A distillery called Pollination sells marvelous, dizzyingly nuanced gin that rocks our socks at dinner.

the dam at Nant-y-Moch
Minutes later, the road crosses the dam at Nant-y-Moch.Adam Waheed

We chose a hotel right in the middle of the flight path, a pretty little place called the Minffordd, and arrive through the clouds hoping that they let up. Jets plying the Mach Loop are no sure thing. Like the MotoGP, conditions have to be in their favor. It’s not uncommon for visitors to travel hundreds of miles and wait a week to see the low flyers, only to be skunked by the weather, but our luck turns as we settle in.

Shafts of light penetrate the thick cloud cover and play through the trees and across the windows, illuminating the hulk of Cadair Idris. The glacier-carved mountain seems like the only thing that could be older than the Minffordd; its bones date to the 1500s, and its floors creak and groan like the ghosts of good company.

F-15C fighter
Spectators dot the ridgelines as F-15C fighters roar through the canyons of the Mach Loop.Chris Cantle

Waheed is weirdly in his element, holding court and accosting anyone that comes in to warm their hands. The owner, Gordon, a wonderful curmudgeon, pours us each a cold beer dragged out from the farthest reaches of his fridge. Seconds after he sets them down, they’re rattled on the table by the Learjet-like screech of a pair of Royal Air Force Hawk trainers tearing through the late evening air just above us. We sleep well and hope for good weather. The fog returns in the morning.

Steinhardt comes up with a mad route. It follows the roads the fighters do, in and out of the mountains, tracing the vacant loop, then bends through the wet valley roads south. Every village name tests the boundaries of phonics. Machynlleth and Llanymawddwy and Cwm-Cewydd. The road signs are Welsh before English by law, the Welsh assertively proud of their language, which is as soft and pleasant in practice as it is unmanageable for an American to read.

Men relaxing at Cregennan Lakes
Just above the coast, Cregennan Lakes is a staggeringly pretty place to put up your feet.Phil Steinhardt

Our guide leads us God knows where. Transcendent green ridge roads plunge into river valleys in the Cambrian Mountains. Country lanes get smaller and tighter, and long-tailed sheep stand in the deep shade watching us pass without a hint of curiosity. Riding a motorcycle—any motorcycle—is heavenly on roads like these. The pair of Triumphs thumping and twittering along makes the riding impossibly perfect.

We cross the dam at Nant-y-Moch, and the still water reflects a staggering mottled sky. Then we turn west to the coast, toward Borth and then Barmouth. There’s a creaking railway bridge that spans the Mawddach just outside of town, with just enough timber to fit a train and a thin cycleway for bikes and pedestrians. It takes sucking in your gut to believe both can fit at once. On Steinhardt’s advice, we take the bikes into Barmouth on the old wood planks—it’s all legal, though it doesn’t feel even remotely like it—and idle them, thumping across the timber past pensioners and young families on holiday. The road back toward the Mach Loop runs along the Mawddach estuary and flows with the water toward the Irish Sea, passing old stone estates on the way. It’s fast, and we’re eager. Finally, the clouds are on the move.

V-22 Osprey
A V-22 Osprey, low and slow in the canyons.Chris Cantle

We follow the road to a gunsight canyon, looking for a ridgeline just north of the Minffordd. Innkeeper Gordon has told us we’ll find a thread of campers and photographers and plane spotters and geeks who have climbed the slippery slope to look down into the canyons and bucolic valleys. In moto boots we can hardly make it up the sheep path, it’s so slick with mud from yesterday’s rain. But we keep struggling upward, because somewhere up the damned hillside there’s the promise of an eye-to-eye view of outrageously hard-assed hardware.

Waheed has 20/20 vision, and he spots the jets as they turn toward us over the Cross Foxes pub. The fighters are on you almost instantly. There’s no roar, no notice, no nothing. And then you’re looking down into the cockpit of a $30 million jet fighter as it tears up the air and turns you inside out.

Svelte Hawk trainer
Svelte Hawk trainers cut so close to the rocks that you can see into the cockpit.Chris Cantle

They fly by in pairs. F-15Cs, then the pretty little Hawk trainers. A massive tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey thump thump thumps through the valley, lower and faster than anything that size has any right to fly. It’s dazzling. If they weren’t so fast, we could count rivets. As it is, we can scarcely spin our bodies to track them through the air. It’s awe-inspiring, so much so that Waheed is convinced he’s chosen the wrong career. He cackles. He shouts at them, goading their drivers lower. Finally, resigned, he stabs his phone at the sky, Instagramming madly.

We have a long day on the bikes ahead of us, and the fresh memory of our long ride through the rural midlands isn’t far off our minds. It’ll be a grind in the dark and the cold. Great swaths of the countryside stink of meat-making, and the going will be slow.

We feel like fools, wet, muddy, and earthbound while spectacular machines roar untethered over us, in front of us, below us, gaspingly close to the wet rock walls of the canyon. We can’t tear ourselves away. Waheed runs out of steam; he wants to be in the air so badly, and his cautious hike down to the bikes looks dejected. It takes little more than throwing a leg over the Speed Triple RS to set him straight. It’s a long way back to England, and in every canyon but this one there’s nothing faster.