The Best roads of Wales

On the Zed Thousand, in search of the very best roads in Wales. Mark Williams explains what makes Wales 'God's Own Country'

"WWWWOOOOSSSSSSHHHH...." Or something like that. 'That' of course being the phonetic rendition of what it feels like running a huge, powerful fuck-off motorcycle at dangerously illegal speeds through the series of perfectly tarmac'd twisties just before you hit Rhayader on the A44. (Trust me, I'm a behavourial engineer with a PhD in Self-Delusion). Spookily enough, it's also a fair approximation of the noise any decent huge, powerful fuck-off motorcycle makes in exactly such circumstances. And so, being an empathetic and hedonistic kinda guy, it's the salutation you'll be joyously bawling behind your visor when the adrenalin kicks in while replicating such antics this summer. Possibly not aboard a huge-powerful fuck-off motorcycle... but even a Ducati 600 Monster, a GPz500S or a big Supermoto will do nicely.

Because this, my friends, is Mid-Wales - home to probably the best concentration of great riding roads our sceptred isle can offer, and all within a modest trot of those major conurbations where your riding pleasure is severely hampered by the triple killjoys of Gatsos a'go-go, draconian traffic management measures and, well, tons of bloody traffic.

Okay, okay, someone with the girth of an elephant from eating too many deep fried Mars Bars (and who indeed probably rides an Elefant) is gonna email Bertie and point out that the B5763896702 from Unpronounceable to Uckmuckmurty is three miles of unfettered yahoo, but every time - and I do mean every time - I've made the five-hour plod up there from civilisation it starts sheeting it down the moment I wibble over the border and doesn't stop until I exit again. Indeed the last time I took a gurlie for a weekend of pillion pleasure by yon bonnie braes (whatever they are) she was so soaked and disgruntled that she insisted on being dropped at Edinburgh Station for the return bout and took up with the owner of a Citröen van shortly thereafter.

But I digress... The thing about the Welsh Marches - so-called because they cover a north-south swathe of Powys, Shropshire and Herefordshire through which our medieval armies trudged trying to conquer the truculent Taffs (or vice versa, if you please) - is that they occupy some of the most bucolic, least inhabited scenery in the UK through which some of the least inhabited but well-maintained roads meander seductively hither and yon. That's an awfully long sentence, the sub-text of which is come to Wales and enjoy motorcycling like you can nowhere else. And as I live here, for once I know what I'm writing about. I also know that not everyone wants or can afford to get their jollies thrashing around some superannuated airfield in a welter of Track Day show-offery, but here in God's Own Country you can ride almost as fast as you like in a largely speedtrap-free zone, with or without your mates and pillion pals and enjoy the sights, the scenery and the sandwiches as and when you damn well feel like it.

So, I've plotted three primary riding routes which can easily be accomplished in a day, and all within striking distance of the industrial Midlands, South Wales and Bristol. And with starting points approximately three hours fast schlep from the capital, Londoners can take in a B&B and try 'em all over the course of a short weekend. What's more, all three routes cunningly intersect at a crucial fuel stop-cum-nosherie, so you can mix 'em up to suit your mood and timetable. Be advised however that these roads really just provide a basic framework and perusal of the road atlas will suggest detours and deviations along both A and B roads that will invariably provide their own rewards. And I do like a nice deviation. Indeed just to whet your appetites, I've suggested a few of these as adjuncts to each of the following epic jaunts.

Mark's thoughts on the big Zed Thousand...

It's a great bike, but it's not the ideal tool for zapping round the Welsh Marches. First off, it lacks anything but a 'cosmetic' fairing so above 75mph you're buffeted to buggery by the oncoming wind. Secondly, this is not a comfy machine, and it's actually quite cramped for tall persons, too. The bike tracks superbly and handles like the beaut it is, but the mighty four vibrates nastily through the 'bars above 6-7000 rpm, which is a bugger. Torque a'plenty natch, but why is it so bloody low-geared? The engine's already quite busy at 4K when you're nudging 60mph, and with 14mph/1000rpm there's plenty of scope for stress-less cruising. As is so often so, Kawasaki choose to undergear the plot as a sop to lazy gearchangers. But, the Z1000 is a spunky roadster rather than a long-distance rocketship, and none the worse for that. Horses for courses. Mpg? 49.28 with a 150 mile range. Impressive.

Wales - Route 1


The Wild, Wild West 192.5 miles

A44 Hereford-Rhayader-Aberystwyth-A487 Aberaeron-A482-Lampeter-A40 Llandovery-A483-Builth Wells-A481/A44 New Radnor-Hereford

This mixes some fast, frequently deserted open road sweeps across the Cambrian Mountains between Rhayader and Aberystwyth with some equally fast and deserted well-paved corkscrews down, well down the other end of the mountains. You can accomplish this in a long half-day, but spend a day at it and you can take in the odd diversion and enjoy the sights as much as the ride.

Hereford is easy enough to access via the lightly trafficked M50 off the M5 at J8, or north from the M4 and Bristol Channel on the rather more hectic A40(M) and the A438 from Ross-on-Wye. Zap round what passes for Hereford's ring road and peel off past Bulmer's giant chemistry set on the A438 signposted Kington. This is the busiest bit of road you're likely to encounter, but there are no real nasties and no Gatsos. At Kington you pick up the mighty A44 and then things really start to get fun. Within a few miles of fast swervery, you hit the mile-long New Radnor straight where you will be tempted to play drag racers before hitting a series of equally well-surfaced sweepers as you head up into the Radnor Hills. Be warned though, the rozzers have been known to sit around New Radnor with radar guns.

There is a problematic set of malevolent, Armco-clad bends descending these hills three miles later, some of which tighten up t'other side of a blanket of trees, but the cambers are in order and if you watch your apexes you'll be alright. A little further on you cross a cattle grid where dumb sheep wander into the road as if they own the place. Cool it until you're over the other grid and out of Penybont and you won't be murdering my future girlfriend. Then it's down into Crossgates where the eponymous service station offers a giant greasy spoon that acts as a mecca for weekend bikers. And this is where my three favoured routes meet up.

The rest of the A44 gets wilder as you rise North West through Rhayader, which boasts an excellent open-on-weekends bike dealer-cum-gas station, E.T. James (Tel: (01597) 810396) and a number of biker-friendly pubs, 'specially the Lamb & Flag. Then onto Aber through majestic mountain scenery where you can ride very, very fast for some 34 miles on fantastically smooth roads overlooking the Vale of Rheidol. Indeed if you're riding a big trailie or agile middleweight, hang a left on the A4120 toward Devil's Bride and enjoy 15 miles of lush riding along the Vale... you might even beat the narrow-gauge chuffer into Aberystwyth.

Aber itself is a seaside university town also known to thrift-conscious bikers as the home of Conti importers, Cambrian Tyres. Otherwise it's pretty unremarkable so hustle down the A487 coast road to Aberaeron as fast as possible. Turn left onto the A482 at Aberaeron which is still wriggly, but with precious little traffic all the way down through the hippie time-warp town of Lampeter (stock up on tie-died cheesecloth blouses for the missus) and onto the A40 just south of Llandovery.

It is almost mandatory to stop at Llandovery's West End Café and sniff around the opposition's repli-racers parked in a line outside before wazzing off to Builth Wells on the A483. This is another, truly fast bit of tarmac and, despite the signs, totally devoid of speed cameras. But give or take 20mph, I suggest you obey the restrictions applied to some of the hamlets you pass through, 'specially Beulah which has a nasty little kink in the middle that hides a T-junction exited by old ladies driving very slowly in Morris Travellers. And it's 15 miles to the nearest A&E.

Now if you like you can get back to Hereford, or go home to South Wales and Bristol by leaving Llandovery along the A40 towards Brecon. A spiffing route in itself, this road enables you to dive south at Sennybridge onto the mind-blowing A4067 towards Merthyr Tydfil and the M40... But that's another music in a different kitchen, and here it comes now...

Wales - Route 2


The north south divide 168.5 miles

A458 Shrewsbury-Welshpool-A483 Newtown-Llandrindod Wells-Builth Wells-A470 Brecon-A40 Sennybridge-A4067-Abercraf-A4221/A4109-Glyn Neath-A465-Merthyr-Abergavenny-A4042-Newport

You can run this one in either direction depending on where you're starting from - there's logic for you - but access to Newport is straight off the M4 at Junction 25 or, if you're coming from the north, Shrewsbury lies at the end of the M54/A5, itself effectively a spur off the M6. Anyroadup, I normally start at the top and belt along the A458 which traverses the start of Offa's Dyke just north of Welshpool (like we care about medieval landmarks trodden along by hordes of oldsters in anoraks), where you take the A483 to Newtown, a so-so road until you reach Newtown where it carries less traffic and features lots more amusing bends... 'specially the hills exiting the town where the cambers and surfaces are a bit piggish. The next 24 miles are a complete hoot in the bend-swinging department and so you'll arrive at Crossgates with lots of derring-do (whatever that is) to boast about.

Resisting the temptation to ride west on Route One (or maybe not), you then plunge further south towards Builth - also a nice exercise in highway fluidity, although traffic can be a bit heavy at times - where you face a dilemma.

If the weather's hot and you're riding summat big, fast and nasty, then you'll probably prefer the A470 along the banks of the Wye towards Brecon (complete with a slew of bogus Gatso warnings), but should you be aboard a nimbler mount, then take a hard left at the end of the (one-way) high street up onto the B4520. This rises up through hill farms and woods onto the somewhat bleak Mynydd Eppynt military range where the road offers truly sensational vistas and considerable riding pleasure, but it can be a tad bumpy and there are some lairy corners. Further along as it descends into Lower Chapel, the surface smoothes out though a few errant blind corners remain.

Into Brecon town centre 17 miles later and hard right over the Usk Bridge, a coupla hundred yards beyond which you might want to savour a fabulous home-made ice cream at Llanfaes Dairy before continuing along the A40 towards Sennybridge where the aforementioned A4067 (pay attention) dives off at Defynnog, beyond which there's a mighty tempting uphill straight. This quickly turns into a glorious series of long curves descending through the Black Mountains, down past the majestic Cray Reservoir into Abercraf. A short skidaddle along the A4221 and A4109 brings you to the (in)famous Heads of the Valleys Road, the A465, which at the time of writing is bedevilled by roadworks. If you want to see even more reservoirs, but also more traffic, ignore the A40/A4067 option and take the A470 from Brecon straight down to Merthyr.

If you're in a hurry to get home to Cardiff, Bristol or points east on the M4, then zip straight down the dual-carriageway that is the A470, but otherwise keep going on the A465, past dead coal mines and dour-looking quarries 'til you reach Abergavenny, a nice town with nice restaurants (eg the Michelin-starred Walnut Tree that welcomes bikers provided they ain't got Satan's Slaves tattooed on their foreheads). Then you can nip down the utterly pleasant A4042 through Pontypool - at which point it gets dual carriageway'd and boring - and onto Newport. Or, if you live oop norf, take the A40 at Abergavenny and soon you'll be on the M50 and home in time for crumpets with the missus. Or, indeed, crumpet with the missus. Lovely stuff.

Wales - Route 3


Northern soul 126.5 miles

A528 Shrewsbury-Ellesmere-A495-Oswestry-A483-Welshpool-A490-Churchstoke-A489-Lydham-A488-Knighton-A4113-Ludlow (Brimfield)-A49-Shrewsbury

This is the most heavily trafficked of our routes, but it offers some of the best detours.

North on the A528 from Shrewsbury the A528 is a fast belt with some nice, clear corners and a surfeit of strange place names like Myddle and Cockshutt. From Ellesmere down through Oswestry to Welshpool on the A495 and 483, you'll encounter more blue

rinses in MPVs, all driven atrociously, plus a lot of speed restrictions, especially in the appropriately named village of Pant. But if you get bored with this, you can take the entirely engaging B4393 at Four Cross 12 miles back towards Shrewsbury, spend a few miles going south on the city's inner ring road until you see the sign for Longdon and Annscroft.

Take a right here along an unclassified road for one of the greatest rides of your life on and on and on until the signs start saying Bishops Castle. This road swoops up and down along lush hills and hidden valleys, but it does have some tight, hidden corners and the surfaces can be iffy, so it favours smaller, point'n'squirty bikes. Once you hit the A489 at Plowden, you're back on track for the route that left Welshpool on the A490 and turned right at Churchstoke... which is a very fine road indeed although on Sunday morning beware of families in MK 2 Granadas waddling off to Harry Tuffin's mammoth boot sale at Churchstoke. Which is where you take the A488, 14-odd miles of fine, fast, twisty road which eventually hits Knighton where you take the A4113. This is a nice wide jobbie with numerous gushing sweepers until you hit Leintwardine, where you might want to lunch at the Jolly Frog, a brilliant pub/ restaurant run by a laconic Aussie which serves some of the best fish dishes in the Marches. Then it's off up a series of challenging twisty hillocks until you reach the A49 north of Ludlow.

My 'personal mechanic' Martin Leach operates from a large shed just off the A49 here and will come to your aid on Sunday as he's a committed biker himself and an all-round Top Chap (Tel: (01584) 876943), thereafter the A49 is a mixed bag of long bends and hilly straights - interrupted by the irritating mini-roundabouts of Craven Arms - until you reach the Lazy Trout Café just south of Church Stretton which has a nifty '50s interior and the best faggots'n'gravy'n'chips you'll ever eat. Also on the A49 you'll find Church Stretton M/cycles, handily adjacent to the town's petrol station, where Ian Forbes sells, services and fettles an interesting selection of keenly priced machinery (Tel: (01694) 723546).

And then it's ever onwards to Shrewsbury, stirred and hopefully not shaken by the experience. Even more so if you've made the aforesaid detours, or a similarly skidaddled sideways west from Knighton on the A488, a blinder of bends and steep ascents which accesses both Routes One and Two when you hit the A44 just east of Crossgates. I mean how much adrenalin d'you need to unleash of a sunny weekend ?