The Great Malle Rally offers two-wheeled escapism without a passport
Raindrops on hairpins and cold sandy beaches, bright chrome air cleaners and damp tyre screeches, hiding your smartphone so it never rings, these are a few of my favourite things.
Cream-coloured Triumphs and heated gripped Beemers, town celebrations all laid out with streamers, lighting the way to avoid the tent strings, these are a few of my favourite things.
Guys on white Harleys with red and white sashes, ornate exhaust pipes that finish with slashes, hardtailed choppers that go without springs, these are a few of my favourite things.
On the dark nights, while the frost clings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favourite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.
If you’re anything like us, sitting at home watching the rain dribbling down your windows, then the next chance we have for a carefree ride feels like it’s an awfully long way away. If you’re also the type that makes it over the channel every year, or even further afield, then those opportunities might feel even more distant still. But that sense of two-wheeled freedom we’re all yearning for doesn’t have to involve weeks of planning and months of crossed fingers. It could just involve heading off on the Great Malle Rally.
If you’re not familiar with it, the Great Malle Rally is a celebration of all that’s excellent about motorcycling. At its core it is a curated ride of the best roads and the most beautiful places that Great Britain has to offer. But it’s so much more: it’s a ride with old friends and new, a show of spirit and camaraderie and also a convincing advert that motorcycling life would be just fine without a passport.
With the cheap travel we’ve grown used to, it’s easy to forget just what we have on our own doorstep. But luckily for us, the folks at Malle haven’t forgotten, so each year they devise a new route and take a fresh cohort of wide-eyed motorcyclists on an unforgettable tour starting at the southernmost tip of the mainland and ending at the northernmost. Last year they invited us along.
On the first morning it was clear that people had taken the 'inappropriate' bike bit to heart. You see the rally isn’t designed for people on continent crossing supertourers - instead it’s best enjoyed on the sort of bike you might save for Sunday afternoon.
Most people had come on modern classics (Thruxtons, Sportsters, R nineTs etc.) but many came on actual classics or outrageous customs. For every push of the button fuel injected easy starter, there’s a chap working up a sweat in a wax jacket trying to kick start his 1970s R90S.
With the sun fully risen, everyone found their teammates and prepared for the off. "Do you know the way?" "Not a clue." "No, me neither." One group sets off and like the sheep we are, everyone follows them until by magic we find ourselves at the Lizard in Cornwall.
The rally isn’t competitive but there is an ideal time, which Malle have set but don’t publish. If you follow their route exactly, Malle know how long it should take you without stops, speeding or generally faffing about. We get our little black books stamped, then group by group we all depart.
Before long we’re in the rolling and winding roads of Dartmoor national park, cruising through idyllic vistas as a tight group. The daily route is printed on an A5 sheet handed out the night before and after a brief stop somewhere near Exeter to make sure we haven’t completely gone wrong already (we had) we continued on apace. Within no time at all, nearly all 200 miles are despatched as we wound our way up the breath-taking Cheddar Gorge.
Hours in the saddle
At the start of day it’s decided if we want to arrive before dark, we’d best get a shift on. The day involves nearly 300 miles of riding that will see us navigate Wales from bottom to top. We made a good go of it, ending up near Monmouth in short order but in the madness of a busy roundabout the team was split in two and with nowhere safe to stop and regroup we continued on. After a few miles of merry cruising, an active level crossing stopped us in our tracks, so then seemed as good a time as ever to check the map, wait for pals and have a brief unwind.
Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Have they gone wrong? Have we gone wrong? They must have stopped too. Let’s head off and wait for them at the next checkpoint. Twenty minutes later we pulled into the next checkpoint and to our surprise, they were sat there waiting for us.
"How?" "Oh well we saw a twisty road on the map that went by a reservoir, so we took that. Didn’t you take that? We thought you’d be waiting."
We declined to offer that we’d spent 15 minutes staring at a level crossing smoking like chimneys and instead took to warming our pasties on the cylinders of our various BMWs.
We then jump on a three digit A-road, from one unpronounceable place to another and it is sheer heaven. The road twists and plunges, darts and rises. Throttles are wrung, brakes squeezed and miles slip by. It was motorcycling heaven. Darting around the back of Snowdon, the gang agreed we should stop for tea and cake near Capel Curig. I diverted off to buy leggings before everyone else had the same idea. I was already cold and we were barely in 'the north'. My tent beckoned.
You know it’s going to be tough when you start the day in your waterproofs. Although knowing the weather is going to be hard going is one thing, but watching a bike lifted clear off its side stand by the wind is another. As we scorched through the Peak District the clouds hovered on the horizon and all too familiar spots appeared on our visors. By Halifax the rain was coming in sideways and a tiptoed ride through the Dales had everyone on edge. We gathered in a pub, eyes drawn, and chomped on Scampi Fries.
I have no shame in saying I was the first to crack. "I was just looking at the map and if we head this way we can cut off a few miles and get in earlier." Everyone nodded. We saddled up, collected a few sodden stragglers and made a beeline for camp.
Unfortunately for us, a navigational error saw us riding in circles for the best part of an hour. By the time we arrived, a crowd had formed around the campfire. Not of bodies but of boots and gloves gently steaming away.
Stuff of legend
There are certain passes that every motorcyclist should ride once. The Stelvio is one and the Hardknott in the Lake District is another.
However, I wouldn’t recommend doing it in the pouring rain on a BMW R18 that is longer than some of the corners are wide. We inched up together in first gear, traction control light flashing like billy-o but we made it to the top. Phew. Standing on the top, wind and rain lashing your face might not sound like perfect motorcycling but it really was. A quick descent to Buttermere via some heart palpitations on one particularly gravelly corner and we were ready for the trip into Scotland.
Braithwaite, Carlisle, Gretna Green and Dumfries flashed by and before long we were passed the Galloway Forest Park towards the west coast. Somewhere along the A76, I had one of the finest riding moments of my life. You know the type. The sun was low enough to look magical but still offered a bit of its warming glow. The road was undulating but flowed and the tarmac smoother than a baby’s bottom. The traffic? Nonexistent. I’m not really sure how long I was riding on my own – could have been hours, could have been minutes – but by the time we regrouped the sea air filled my nostrils. A short burn-up down the coast and we were at camp, bellies ready for another of the delicious meals.
Welcome to Scotland
An early start and we escape Glasgow heading for Fort Bill but I had another plan. The route skirted the edge of Loch Lomond – a fine road no doubt about it – but I knew of another way. Not better but different and besides, it passed a distillery I fell in love with many moons ago.
Bags loaded with booze, we tackled the Duke’s Pass – one of the best, if not the best, riding roads in the UK. By the end the pegs on the R18 were a few millimetres shorter and our grins many centimetres wider. A short dash across country and we stuffed our faces at the Clachaig Inn just off Glen Coe.
No sooner had we headed out in the now pouring rain than we came across an enormous tail back. We tiptoed alongside the cars for miles dreading what lay beyond.
How can the traffic be this bad? How long has it been shut? Christ, is someone hurt? After what seemed like hours of filtering, we found virtually the entire rally pack parked up behind the scene of a crash. A bus had gone into a wall. Nobody was hurt but the door was stuck, trapping everyone inside. “Thank f*** for that”. The road opened and we quickly headed off en masse, before pulling over to refuel and let the crowd disperse.
Cold, tired and soaked to the skin, we rumbled into the overnight stop ready for bed. Then out came the whisky and violins and all plans for an early night were put on hold.
All good things
The overnight spot of Torridon estate is powered by an ancient turbine, itself powered by the rushing water of the nearby river. It’s possible to get into the river for a refreshing dip we were told. For reasons I have long forgotten, or chosen to forget, my tent mate Niels thought that we should take up this advice, so that morning we clambered in wearing just our pants. There are no words to describe how cold it was. I genuinely feared some of my appendages would never return to normal function. Two fortifying cups of tea and a bacon sandwich later, it was time to saddle up and begin our final day on the road.
Taking in chunks of the North Coast 500, we worked our way east via chips in Ullapool and a chocolate factory in Durness. As the miles slipped by and the sun slipped away, we pitched and dived along the coast until we came to our final stop at the Castle of Mey. Inching down the driveway, having come through the royal entrance no less, we threw our kickstands down for the final time. 1425 miles on the trip, on our faces and in our hearts. Four total strangers brought together by bikes and four friends for life bound together by miles.
The Great Malle Rally in numbers
- 7 am. First thing in the morning and it’s time to get up. Breakfast, tea and coffee have been prepared by a chef, so it’s just a case of stuffing your face and packing up your kit ready for the day ahead.
- 9 am. Departure time comes around and it’s time to load your kit bag back into the van to be transported ahead. Everyone gets a numbered duffel to make life simple. The groups line up, get their books stamped and you’re on the road.
- 1pm. Midday rolls by and the groups are completely spread out along the route. The next checkpoint you get to people tend to whip out their packed lunches and take a well-earned break.
- 3 pm. By early afternoon you’re well into the thick of the day’s riding, which can be nearly 300 miles. Despite the long hours in the saddle, the routes are so magical you never actually feel tired.
- 5pm. By early evening you arrive at the next camp site, everything set up ready for your arrival. It’s just a case of grabbing your kit, popping it in your tent and kicking your feet up at the bar before a refresh in the shower.
- 7pm. Dinner is served by one of Malle’s talented chefs. After dinner there’s a group chat about the day’s fun, a short briefing on the next day’s riding and a quick booze tasting before jumping into a warm bed.
Join the fun in 2021
The 2021 Great Malle Rally will take place June 20-27, starting once again at the southern tip of England. You can enter solo or as part of a team. Places are limited and start at £1199. For more info head to mallelondon.com/rally.