The object is simple: riders compete in teams over a predetermined course and against the clock. Each team is separated by two-minute intervals. Teamwork and navigation are emphasized above all-out speed, and riders should arrive at each stage without disobeying any rules of the road. This is the Great Malle Rally, the longest rally in the United Kingdom winding 1,250 miles from the most southwesterly point of the UK at Lizard Point, Cornwall, to the (al)most northeasterly point at Castle of Mey, Scotland. Saddling up at Lizard Point, jet-lagged and wide-eyed, Iron & Air co-founder Gregory George Moore, myself, and our new friend Charlie Boon have no idea what to expect.
Malle London founders Robert Nightingale and his cousin, Jonny Cazzola, brought this event to life after a trip to Mongolia, where by chance they witnessed a raucous horse-riding rally. It inspired them to create the Great Malle Rally, which provides the rare opportunity for 100 lucky riders to attempt the five-day rambling run along A and B roads; Malle arranges food and lodging and hires a support staff of mechanics to help keep the bikes running.
Billed as an "inappropriate" motorcycle rally for classics, café racers, choppers, scramblers, and all other custom motorcycles, it was the perfect trip for Iron & Air to partner with Malle London on. Together, we awarded one lucky winner “The Last Ticket to Ride.” UK resident Charlie Boon was our guy and we become fast friends as we wait for our signal at the starting line. Aside from the all-expense paid trip, Charlie's steed for the rally was the 'Malle Rally Royale,' a custom Royal Enfield 650 Twin. Not a bad way to spend the next five days.
DAY ONE: When we arrive at the Rally’s starting point, we all make a toast to “The Ride,” and teams are announced. Rolf Meis — a German guy we rode down with from London — is bummed to hear he’s on another team. Charlie proves to be an easygoing guy, which isn’t guaranteed in a random draw. The mastermind and enthusiastic host of this event, Robert Nightingale, tells me, “The key to a successful Rally is to start drinking early, be in bed by 11, and get to the start line on time.” At 0800 tomorrow, teams will leave Lizard Point in two-minute intervals; our team, Team 3, takes off at 0806.
In the morning, we find out Rolf is on Team 3. It seems we made a good enough impression on him to prompt a midnight email to the Malle team, requesting a transfer. With more lifetime riding under his belt than Charlie, Greg, and me combined — and two GPS units on his KTM 990’s handlebars — he’s a valuable free agent to have acquired. Inside the windscreen of Rolf’s KTM are a few pieces of masking tape reminding him to “Stay left” and “Look right to go right,” which becomes our five-word mantra for the coming week.
The Malle map says Stage 1 is 211 miles. It heads up through Cornwall, approaches the Welsh border, and ends at the Aldwick Estate to camp for the night. There are three interim checkpoints along the way, and there are no stated times to adhere to, but there is a secret time standard the Malle team has identified as the ideal balance of riding well and enjoying the trip. For each minute over or under that secret ideal, a team is given a point, and the team with the lowest point total will “win” the Rally.
The first day is a blur of green fields, Harry Potter-esque towns, and a nonstop battle between our Malle stage map and the GPS’s myopic “fastest route available” style of travel. At one point we find ourselves on a ferry. It’s unclear if we should be on one, or even where we’re headed, but we all welcome the break to stretch our legs and rest our asses. The last checkpoint of the day is Cheddar Gorge near the Welsh border, a stunning cut in the earth where electric green flora frame imposing stone cliffs. We photograph Charlie on the Rally Royale Royal Enfield Interceptor while Rolf enjoys a hand-rolled cigarette, then we continue onward to the Aldwick Estate, ultimately covering 256 miles on Day One.
DAY TWO: Today is the longest at 299 miles, taking us up through Wales then back into England somewhere north of Liverpool. Ivy leaves smack my shoulder as I squeeze through a left-hand turn, inches from a centuries-old stone wall; we’d been warned that Wales has entrancing ivy-covered walls abutting the edges of many of its beautiful, but narrow roads. Snowdonia National Park and Snowdon Mountain are the day’s highlights, and keeping my eyes on the road instead of the scenery is no easy task.
At the end of day, we have covered 359 miles. Our maps and GPS don’t match up for some odd reason, but there’s no investigation. Instead, we sip, talk, and enjoy our night. Team 3 feels like a unit now — a family even — and we save seats for each other at dinner and “cheers” to the day’s ride. Conversations roam far and wide as the day darkens, and I fall into bed with ivy walls encroaching upon the edges of my dreams.
DAY THREE: On today's menu we ride 257 miles through the Lake District of England and into the lowlands of Scotland. Greg and I have distilled our comms banter down to its simplest form. “Did you see ..” “Yup, beautiful.” “Woah, crazy.” “Ya.” Overtaking and lane splitting is legal here, but the roads are crammed tight, and traffic separates us from Charlie and Rolf. When we catch up to them, Charlie greets us with the news that he laid the bike down. His leg gave out as he stopped at a light, toppling him over into some roadside grass, and leaving him pinned by the foot under the bike until Rolf could extract him. I laugh at the image of him stuck in the grass, and also laugh in relief that a sore foot is the only repercussion.
Midday we enter the Hardknott Pass, and flashes of the Beartooth Pass in Montana fill my head. Riders who attended the Rally last year smile and say, “Just wait. It only gets better.” The GPS says to get on the motorway in direct opposition to our stage map. I yell to Greg to direct Rolf to the A road as frustration builds inside me. I’m here to see the intended route, to roam the UK, and it feels like a waste of time to follow a motorway. I shut off my headset for some time to myself. I’m tired, hot, sore, and agitated, as much with myself as any wrong turn or one I deem less worthy.
Difficult experiences are odd; we avoid them, fear them, chafe against them while they’re happening, then exalt in them upon reflection. I expected to be challenged by the sheer amount of miles we would be covering in the allotted time during this trip, but I’ve vastly underestimated the endurance it would require, both physically and mentally. Grand plans of continuing the ride from Inverness — the intended Great Malle Rally endpoint — back to London over the course of an additional four days begin to flicker with static in my mind. The day ends at Kelburn Castle, where we toast with Glenlivet Scotch against a golden sunset. It’s impossible to ignore the sense of surreal, but I hardly feel ready — or able — to unpack it.
As a team, we compare Google Maps and the Malle map, confounded by our ongoing navigation issues. Roads on the Malle map aren’t in the right place, towns are improperly located, and distances are suspect. Three route cards don’t lie, and it turns out the Malle team has been subtly messing with us for three days, and we’ve just figured it out. Next time, we’ll bring an atlas.
DAY FOUR: Today we ride “263” miles from the Lowlands of Scotland into the Highlands, and by early afternoon we pass Ben Nevis, Bidean nam Bian, and Binnein Mòr, three of the UK’s largest mountains. At lunch the marshals impose a one-hour break, so we all inhale our food and find shade to sleep in; Rolf has mastered the roadside nap and fades off quickly. The backs of my eyelids play back the blurring miles of the last three days. I’ve yet to get more than six hours of sleep in a night, but my mind is racing to comprehend everything it’s taking in. I can’t sleep, so I grab my camera and snap photos instead.
Applecross Pass, Bealach na Bà, snakes its way over the mountains along the Applecross peninsula. It’s the steepest pass in the UK, starting not too far above sea level and cresting at 2,054 feet. From the top of the pass, Greg and I look back through weather that’s the antithesis of what you expect in Scotland, and watch the Micro Machine riders wind their way up toward us. Charlie has gotten the feel of the Interceptor and tailed Rolf through the pass faster than Greg and me, because we kept stopping to take photos. The rush of Applecross Pass carries us through the remaining miles and into a celebratory evening at the Torridon Estate in the Scottish Highlands. A brutal bloom of midges — a cruelly aggressive Scottish No-See-Um — does its best to spoil the revelry, but its bites fail. I wobble back to our shared tent wondering how the Scots can hold so much Scotch, then drink two bottles of water.
DAY FIVE: The last leg of the Rally is “239” miles to Castle Mey. Winding along the coast we realize we’ve completed most of the North Coast 500, a renowned motorcycle route through northern Scotland. As the miles tick by, Greg and I talk about our luck in being able to be here and experience this: nostalgia in real time. In Durness, along the northern edge of Scotland, we lag. Rolf gets a fish and chips, then naps on the bluffs above a beach where Greg and I dive into icy ocean water. Charlie is left to laugh as we figure out how to change on a beach that’s suddenly become busy.
A man in a yellow safety vest waves us down on the road, and the conversation comes through on Greg’s Sena. “There’s been an off-bike ahead, take it slow, traffic is backed up.” Charlie and Rolf have been riding far ahead. My stomach drops. “Fuck.” We creep past a line of cars as we round a downhill right-hand turn that constricts into a single-lane concrete bridge. Charlie and Rolf are alright, standing with another team around Craig, who ran over a patch of sand and low-sided on the bridge. His teammate and wife, Amy, cradles his head and does her best to reason with an unreasonable situation. Craig’s right shoulder is clearly out, and having become entangled in his bike as he slid, odds are there’s more broken. Luckily, he’s worn all his gear; his helmet reveals an alternative outcome. An Army medic on vacation with his family comes to help as best as he can. We’re maybe 50 miles from Castle of Mey and as more Malle riders arrive, the mood is somber.
As traffic worsens, it’s decided to walk the bikes across the bridge then ride on to the finish. The line of abnormally silent bikes walking across the bridge, chains clicking and the scrunch of boots on sandy tarmac, makes for a disquieting scene. Rolf goes first, then Greg, then me. Charlie gets stuck behind a few other bikes, and then the ambulance arrives and blocks the bridge. We wait for 20 minutes, hoping Charlie might make it across, but eventually we ride on without him. Dark clouds gather and we finish the Rally in the rain, which seems fittingly Scottish. After a photo in front of the Castle Mey, we head out into a cow pasture cleared for our camp. We find Rolf and wait for Charlie, who arrives nearly an hour later, soaked, tired, and relieved.
The celebration is more muted than the night before. Maybe hangovers are just now fading, or maybe it’s the sadness of seeing a fellow rider go down. We raise a toast to Craig, and everyone gets together to send him a “get well soon” video. We dine on great food and drink to warm the damp coastal chill. Tomorrow will hold more miles down to Inverness for many of us, though some will go in separate directions. It’s an end that doesn’t really feel like an end.
In the morning we take A-roads the remaining 139 miles to the Inverness airport. The facade of favorable weather that’s followed us for the week begins to crumble away, and dark spitting skies and 40-mph wind gusts harass us. I realize that for me, the right move is to end in Inverness and fly home. I’ve covered more miles in fewer days than ever before, and we’ve seen a country in a way most never will. As the riders depart for their respective destinations, the Great Malle Rally feels more like a tide going out for a while, ebbing until the next great adventure, than it does a finite end. Maybe big trips never really end; the memories and inspiration flow to the next one, helping to bring it to fruition. Rumor is, Malle has been scouting in the Alps for its next Rally. Perhaps I’ll flow into that one.