The Great Malle Rally, previously known as The Great Mile, is a Castle of Mey (Scotland) to The Lizard (Cornwall) rally for classic and modern-classic motorcycles. Organised by Malle London – adventure motorcycle accessory makers – we get a first-person account of the event by rally host Robert Nightingale.
“I decided to ride my late-father’s 1957 custom Triumph Thunderbird,” Robert says. “I got it working earlier this year and it turned out to be the oldest motorcycle in the 2018 rally.”
Through stunning Scotland and very wet Wales and down into even stormier Cornwall, it’s a story of great company, stunning bikes and true British grit.
“I bent the mudguards out a bit…”
The day before the rally, like most of the riders, I was scrambling to complete the bike in time, finding last-minute spare parts. On the forecourt of The Classic Car Club in London (the collection location for any London-based bikes being shipped to Scotland), bits of the Thunderbird were littered around the bike. More and more custom/classic rally bikes were being dropped off every hour, which only added more pressure to the impending deadline.
I managed to fit a new oil-feed pipe and ‘new’ custom California handlebars. I bent the mudguards out a bit to accommodate the larger off-road trials tyres, fitted race plates and gave it a fresh oil change. After a quick lap around the backstreets of Shoreditch, past The Bike Shed, to test the brakes and the oil flow, the bike was pretty much ready to go.
The boys at Ace Classics helped me fill my tool roll with some more extras (seals, plugs, strange bolts, more cables, levers, etc) and advised me to take it really easy to make sure the bike survived the rally. Ideally, I’d ride on alternate days, giving the old bike a rest day between stages… at least that was the initial plan.
“Toothbrush in one hand and spanner in the other”
After 24 hours driving north from London we finally reached the top of the country in the support vehicles and set up the rally camp at the northern tip of Scotland. The camp overlooked the North Sea from the Castle of Mey, with the glow of the refineries on the horizon behind the islands of Stroma and Orkney and seals playing in the bay beneath us. Up there the coastline is pretty harsh and jagged with few buildings on the land. The weather can do a full 180 in minutes, turning from sunshine to blizzard.
I woke at 5am and Tom and Will from the Nomadic Kitchen were slaving away over the fire, knocking out a hearty cooked breakfast for everyone. Rally mornings are always the most rushed and the first day was the most chaotic. Bikes and kit everywhere – riders running from tents to bikes, half dressed in leathers, toothbrush in one hand and spanner in the other, trying to find some odd component they were sure they’d packed.
We had a quick briefing with the rally marshals at 6am and minutes later they tore off on bikes, which in that moment felt like we were about to play the largest game of hide and seek in the land. With a two-hour head start, the marshals headed out to set up checkpoints and report back on any route problems. We threw our rally duffels into the support vehicles and headed to the start line at the castle. Luck was already on our side; not a cloud in the sky and it was beautifully warm. When Scotland is good, it’s bloody great!
“The Thunderbird was pulling strong”
Logbooks out, stamped and the flag dropped – the rally had begun. Teams departed in five-minute intervals. My plan was to ride out as soon as the last team had left and catch up with them.
It felt so good to finally be out on the road after the months of planning. I was riding with Team 7, two couples on a mix of modern Triumphs and Bobbers. We barely saw another vehicle for the first few hours of the day, hugging the coastline that rises and twists along the hilly coast, one of the best parts of the North Coast 500 route.
The Thunderbird was pulling strong and running like clockwork. We made great time, across the Tongue Bridge, through checkpoint #2, on to checkpoint #3 – stage 1 was pretty easy going. We only needed to turn right about twice. The rest of the day was following one gorgeous yet tiny B-road down the entire western side of the Scottish Highlands, through truly wild countryside. In places the sea was a turquoise blue. If it wasn’t for the fact that we knew we were in Scotland, the white sand beaches could have been in the Caribbean.
“… an impromptu Highland Games”
Faster than we realised, the seven-hour ride was ended as we reached the rally camp at the grand Torridon Estate. Torridon did not disappoint. The estate is run by a wonderful Scottish/German couple that served up ‘tartan tapas’ with local scallops and fish from the sea loch. After the rally briefing and the whisky pairing, the instruments were out, Scottish music started and we somehow ended up in an impromptu Highland Games. After we were thrashed at tug of war, I turned to something I was slightly better at: bike tinkering. The bike seemed to be doing well, it was keeping up with the modern motorcycles and she was in her element on these tiny twisty roads.
Stage 2 was definitely a longer day, about eight hours of riding in total. We arrived at checkpoint #3 at the start of Glencoe – the Great Glen. It was a breathtaking ride through the monstrous valley, with imposing mountains on every side and stags grazing up on the heather and granite foothills.
“I really had to press my chin on the tank”
By day four you could start to feel the toll of three solid days of riding. With nearly 750 miles and two countries behind us, we crossed over into Wales. A couple of times we stopped to throw on wet weather gear, but most patches were just light showers, so we rode as a pack through the winding roads of Snowdonia National Park, down the infamous A470 (voted the most beautiful road in the country) around the back of Mount Snowdon and down through the valley.
By checkpoint #3 we were joined by another team with a fast Triumph Thruxton leading the pack. To keep up with them I really had to press my chin on the tank, tuck elbows in and try to get another 10mph or so out of the bike. Somewhere in Snowdonia my key must have rattled out, so I borrowed a small teaspoon from the cafe, which seemed to do the trick of starting the bike.
“My last pair of gloves were soaked”
The last day of the rally was supposed to be the shortest, but the motorcycle gods had other plans. We woke to good news that the storm hadn’t broken yet, but big dark clouds hung menacingly on the horizon, full of water – I guess on the last stage of the rally you need a little drama, you don’t want everything to be too easy. For the last day we had arranged for the press marshal Rachel Billings, who was writing about the rally, to ride with our team to shoot 35mm film from my bike. However, we had a slight problem. The bike wouldn’t start.
After 30 minutes of tinkering and some kind words whispered, she suddenly roared into life. By that time, all of the teams were 30 minutes ahead of us. I was determined to complete this rally on the Thunderbird, but the rain really set in, my last pair of gloves were soaked, and the bike then started to misbehave. Again it only ran at full revs. Then I lost the lights and the front brake gave up. I saw the sign for Helston and The Lizard… only 17 miles. I wasn’t giving up.
Hunched on the saddle, I was trying to keep the water out, watching the odometer count down the last 17 miles and shouting out at each mile marker for a morale boost ’15… 14… 13′.
Finally, the sign for Mile End appeared, the last mile south on mainland Britain. I arrived at Lizard Point just after sunset, 9pm, four hours late to the final checkpoint and the finish line. No one in sight and the rally flags had long since been cleared away. It was so good to be there gazing over the sea at Lizard Point. I turned to get back on the bike. The lighthouse lit up the horizon and I looked at the silhouette of the Thunderbird, reminding me of the view north from the lighthouse at the northern tip of Scotland, just a few days ago, but it seemed like an age ago.
The poor bike with its bits missing, bad smell, no lights, exhausted and in dire need of lubrication – the bike and I had a lot in common in that moment.
The 2019 Great Malle Rally is kicking off next week, take a look at this year’s route on the Malle website – starting in Cornwall and finishing in Scotland – and follow the trip on Instagram @mallelondon. Also, take a look at Triumph’s Modern Classic range, to see the bikes many of the participants will be riding.