Words I&A Staff Images Courtesy of Malle London by Amy Shore
IRON & AIR: Why did you and Jonny start Malle?
ROBERT NIGHTINGALE: In 2012 Jonny was living in London working in automotive engineering and graphic design, and I was living in New York working with industrial design. Jonny was riding a’67 BSA, I was riding a ’69 Enfield, and we started thinking about luggage, or rather the lack of suitable luggage for vintage/British/custom/café racer motorcycles. So we set out to make something that didn’t exist, a bag that you could sling over the motorcycle or your shoulder, something robust and durable enough to cross a continent and smart enough to carry to work and travel with every day, on and off of the. One of our first-ever designs was actually featured in one of the first issues of Iron & Airmagazine. When we designed our first set of Malle adventure luggage, Jonny and I embarked on a 10,000-mile expedition from New York to LA, via Canada and Mexico, riding, camping, and testing the 15 pieces of Malle luggage and apparel. We didn’t want to just test our prototypes, we wanted to destroy them. After 37 days of rain, snow, scorching sun, and a few near misses, we knew intimately what motorcycle luggage needed to be, where the stress-points are, and the limitations of fabrics, leathers, and hardware. That has inspired our design process ever since.
I&A: Tell us about Malle’s newest products and the ethos behind those products.
RN: As part of our mission to protect the earth and sustainability, we avoid the use of plastics in all Malle products, using tried-and-tested natural materials, like waxed canvas and leather. Even our packaging is made from up-cycled or recycled paper and recyclable, water-activated paper tape. We also offer a lifetime guarantee on every Malle product and offer a complimentary service to repair any faults. The best-selling pieces are our universal panniers, our hybrid backpacks, and our expedition jackets.
I&A: Why did you start hosting motorcycle events?
RN: We were working late in the Malle workshop one cold December night in 2015 and had an idea about hosting a race where every motorcycle that arrived had to race each other (Malle Mile). It was initially about creating something to look forward to in the summer and for us to race each other with friends, on anything with two wheels. Over the last five years the focus has shifted and become about hosting the greatest motorcycle race in the country, period. You don’t need any professional sponsors or an expensive race track ... put a dirt tire on the back wheel, race all day, and party all night.
I&A: Can you describe the “Malle Mile” and other events Malle is working on?
RN: That first year of The Malle Mile we had 37 motorcycles racing on the lawn, with a really varied mix of Honda Cubs, old Triumphs, and Vincent Black Shadows rolling up to the starting line of our 1/8th-mile grass track sprint race. Over a few gins, we convinced a guy (now a dear friend) to let us host the race on the lawn of his 17th-century Manor House in South London, where it’s been held every year since. Each year it’s escalated into something new and exciting, with 500 motorcycles racing in 2018. In 2016 we introduced the Hill Climb Slallom, then MotoPolo in 2017, in 2018 we launched the Malle 100, a one-mille off-road enduro race for 100 motorcycles, 10 at a time, 20 hair-pin bends, and a Le Mans-style running start. In 2019 we’re launching “The Midnight Mile” for electric motorcycles and a full Trials Course with an obligatory mid-course car jump.
I&A: What about The Great Rally? What compelled Malle to organize and host the UK’s longest motorcycle rally?
RN: In 2017 my wife and I were off-roading across Mongolia, and we came across these long-distance horse races called naadam, where everyone races fat Mongolian ponies across wild landscapes and parties in the yurts each night. The camaraderie and excitement in the yurts each night was contagious and my first thought was, “Imagine this for motorcycles!” I convinced the Malle team to host the longest “inappropriate motorcycle rally ever attempted in Great Britain,” from the Northern tip of Scotland to the Southern tip of England. The rally takes 100 riders through over 1,250 miles of the Scottish highlands, the Lake District, Wales, Devon, and Cornwall. The rally has become as much a celebration of the British wilderness as it is a serious motorcycle challenge, and a six-day, non-stop motorcycle party.
I&A: How has the “Great Rally” changed and evolved over the past few years?
RN: Somehow it’s become more fun with every year. Each year we create a different route, which is secret and only unveiled to the riders at the rally briefing the night before the next stage. This year we’ve flipped the rally to start at the southern tip of Britain and complete at a castle at the northern tip of Scotland, 1,250 miles between and five checkpoints a day. With a few years of experience, we now know how to prepare for almost every eventuality, with gas-fired drying tents in case of wet weather and back-up bikes, mechanics, marshals, chefs, and sweeper trucks . We make custom rally duffels for each rider, so their kit is waiting in the rally tents before they arrive at camp each evening; the limited-edition, hand-painted rally duffel is shipped to riders one month before the event so they know size limit of what we’ll carry for them between stages.
I&A: What is one of your favorite memories from a past rally?
RN: In the 2018 rally, I arrived at the final checkpoint of the final day two hours late, having had many mechanical issues on a ’57 Triumph; pretty much everything that could have fallen off the bike fell off. As the sun set, the bike and I limped into the final rally camp, where the party was in full swing ... riders cheering and loudly sharing stories around the fires as the wind howled over the top of the Cornish peninsula. A beer was immediately thrust into my hand by a rider, with a massive grin. Motorcycling can be quite solitary, but to see so many people, with oil-stained hands and muddy boots and faces having a great last party together was really special.
I&A: What are you looking forward to most this year?
RN: Spending a week on a motorcycle without phones, meetings, or distractions is very therapeutic. There’s only one mission each day: get to the final checkpoint with your rally team. Through any shared experience or team adventure, you’re bound to make some great friendships, and that was one of the surprising byproducts of hosting The Great Malle Rally for 100 people that all share the same two passions; motorcycling and adventure. Who knows what will happen after that first rally flag drops!