The Great Malle Rally
Words & Images: Henry Crew
It’s the day before rider registration and I have a choice to make; leave now and have a dry start to the ride with a wet end or leave tomorrow and have it the other way around. Neither option is particularly appealing, I’ve become surprisingly finicky about when I choose to ride since getting back home, after having to ride every day for the last year, come rain or shine. Either way, it doesn’t sound like a great start to a 1250 mile ride from the southernmost to northernmost point of mainland Britain.
I chose leave now.
I made it most of the way there before the rain began, luckily it had dried off by the time I reached Boscastle, I dumped my bags in the hostel and headed out for dinner, had a chat at the bar with the most enthusiastic welsh couple I have ever met and then climbed up the hills of the cove to watch the sun set over the harbour. Not bad!
Early start the next morning to get some snaps before storming into the lanes for the remaining hour or so to meet up with the rally team at ‘Cornish Camels’, that’s right, the event start point is a country estate slash camel farm complete with peacocks, chickens and a tiny 17th century barn which is now the family museum. A solid start point for the theme of eccentricity that ran the length of this rally.
Riders started to fill the courtyards of the estate, piling into the marque to complete registration and grab their custom Malle duffle, log books, flasks, mugs, and all important race numbers. Once everyone had arrived, Robert Nightingale, co-founder of Malle London, lead the hundred strong group on a ceremonial ride to Lizard point.
The Sun had been blazing all day and, once back from the group ride, the drinks started flowing. Tommy Perkins (@the_nomadic_kitchen) and his crew had been hard at work creating an amazing meal which went down a treat. Once the last plate had been licked clean Robert jumped up on a chair to make a toast to the start of the rally. Very aware of tomorrow’s 6am start I snuck off early to bed in the hope of waking feeling moderately fresh or at least not catastrophically bad.
The flag dropped on day one and the teams poured out. Each team must make it to the finish point via three checkpoints every day. The arrival and departure times at the checkpoints can only be logged once all team members are in attendance. The first day of riding took us through Cornwall’s high sided lanes, across the stunning Dartmoor National Park on some fantastic roads before reaching Cheddar Gorge - an insane section of road which I have driven many times and always wanted to ride. It did not disappoint in raising our heart-rates. blind turns and hairpins tighten at the last moment to a single lane cut between the stone walls of the gorge. Committing to a turn, full lean, and then having to wind your neck in to avoid decapitation is a sure fire way to get the blood pumping. Over all too soon we continued at a spirited pace along backroads to The Aldwick Estate, which was to be our stop for the night. After a hot shower, a hot meal and a cold beer myself and former record holder Kane Avellano (@Bonnie_Tour), were grilled about our motorcycle circumnavigations in a casual talk/Q&A set up which took place in the bar of the venue.
“Like school kids on a field trip the excitement was palpable and whispers bounced around the room”
The next morning we rolled out and crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales. Bolting down the incredible A roads of the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia I was blown away by the roads and the scenery. I’ve been to Wales a couple of times but never on two wheels. At the final checkpoint everyone seemed to be low on fuel, rumour had it there was a petrol station in a town 5 miles up the road but the main pack took a wrong turn, I tried in vain to make it up to the front and get the message across but running low myself I decided to swing around before I found myself stranded in the middle of nowhere. I made sure to fill up my spare canister to help anyone in the group that suffered that fate but luckily they all made it. Running slightly behind schedule I decided to jump on the motorway and bypass Liverpool in order to make up some time, I ran into Ravi, Stu and Mark at the next petrol stop, “we are just cruising at 70-80, feel free to tag along with us but we don’t want to slow you down”, 70-80 seemed good, we were already late so there was no point in rushing - I’m not sure if any of them had a working speedo as I don’t think we dropped below 90 that whole run back.
There was a lot of talk and excitement over the following days ride. Like school kids on a field trip the excitement was palpable and whispers bounced around the room as Robert took centre stage at the riders briefing. Tomorrows route would include the infamous ‘Hardknott Pass’ followed by a second pass just after Buttermere.
“this is a sure fire way to turn the Desert Sled into a wheelie machine”.
I left early to get ahead of the crowd and make sure I had enough time to enjoy the roads ahead, after a few minutes on sketchy backroads the asphalt opened up on to some moorland. Single track but with enough visibility to let you really open up. The road was a rollercoaster, wavy and bumpy, but it all added to the fun. I glanced in my mirror just in time to see Simon, who I was riding with, pull to a stop at the side of the road. I pulled into a passing point and walked back down the hill to where he was stationed. His bike was going nowhere. Needing to get to the first checkpoint ahead of the other riders in order to sign them in we took the marshal bag off his bike and attached them to my tail rack and I left him to wait for the rally support bike. I had concerns about putting another bag on my bike, especially attaching it to the tail rack, having previously discovered this is a sure fire way to turn the Desert Sled into a wheelie machine. for the next couple of hours I spent a large amount of time on one wheel, or no wheels, as I hurtled down lanes in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the pack. Every bump in the road, every bridge, every crest of a hill, every acceleration in first or second gear, my front wheel was in the air. Not ideal when you don’t have much choice in the matter but it was a lot of fun. That is until I came to the Hardknott Pass.
I had got a little lost after doubting myself on the way to the pass, I ended up taking a road over the mountains around the pass and coming up in the opposite direction to the planned route. The Hardknott Pass is steep. Very steep. It is particularly steep on the side that I ended up ascending, with multiple hairpins and tight turns on an uneven road surface. A very technical and enjoyable climb but complicated slightly by the aforementioned wheelie machine that I had created. Halfway through every corner, as the gradient flattened, I was on one wheel. It certainly made it interesting but I was glad to make it to the top. Just as I was stamping out the last team Simon arrived on his bike, Calum had fixed it just by looking at it, we continued along the route, taking it pretty steady but unfortunately the problems persisted throughout the day. Air bubbles kept forming in his fuel line which would kill the engine and lock the back wheel, not fun at high speed. We got to Buttermere and stopped for lunch, bled the fuel line, emptied out his fuel filter (which was full of muck) and crossed our fingers we could get him to camp. It was not to be and Simon’s ride came to an end just past Gretna Green after numerous attempts to restart his bike.
Our destination for the night was Kelburn Castle, first built in the 1100’s and now painted by Brazilian graffiti artists (it’s worth a google). About 15 minutes out, me and my adopted rally team pulled into a carpark by the coast to enjoy one of the most incredible sunsets I have ever seen. The light was an other worldly tangerine. It turned out Stu had been hiding that today was his birthday, we made it back to Kelburn just in time for the Glenfiddich Whiskey tasting and then took over the dining room where we ate and drank and enjoyed my favourite evening of the whole trip. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time. Surrounded by a table of new friends I finally understood the appeal of big group rides and rallies. It’s a shared experience and sometimes a shared struggle with a shared reward at the end of the day in the form of great food, a few drinks and a good laugh.
Surrounded by a table of new friends I finally understood the appeal of big group rides and rallies.
Stage 4 of the rally took us through my favourite parts of Scotland, Loch Lommand and Glen Coe, and ended with a slightly hairy ascent of the Applecross pass. Why are the fun mountain passes always badly surfaced single tracks?! Me and Kane stopped to take some drone footage at the top and then decided it would be a good idea to stick our bikes in neutral and see how well we could glide them down the hillside… with no hands. I have to say Kane is extremely good at it! We were having so much fun we didn’t even notice the queue of bikes that had formed behind us by the time we reached the bottom. We snapped a few pictures of highland cattle and then blasted through the last chunk of the route to reach the Torridon Estate. The estate has a beautiful spring with waterfalls and a river passing through the grounds but be warned, as hot as that day was the water was freezing.
The final stage of the rally comprised a large section of the North Coast 500, an incredible loop around the coast of the Scottish Highlands and a ‘must ride’ for any biker. It has soared in popularity in the last couple of years, unfortunately not just with bikers, meaning that this once deserted route now has a lot of car, caravan and motorhome traffic which not only causes congestion but also adds another element of danger to the route. During our day on the route we had multiple close calls with caravans that wouldn’t give us time to get to a passing point and motorhomes that would block the whole road, refusing to pull over to let anyone pass. This is largely in contrast to the local traffic in Scotland which I found the be extremely courteous and welcoming of motorcycles. I was nursing a pretty bad hangover this particular morning and grateful for a long break at our checkpoint. By the time we got back on the road I was back to health and rearing to go. I was over the moon to finally get the chance to ride with hugely talented custom bike builder, Calum (@debolexengineering). We really got a chance to enjoy the roads, pushing the bikes about as far as they could go over The Highland’s beautiful roads, well surfaced and with good visibility for the most part, slightly lacking in their level of technicality but great fun if you like to go fast and great views if you don’t.
“Rider down near Tongue. An ambulance was on its way”.
The roads suddenly narrowed after Durness and the surface worsened, potholes, crumbling edges and large amounts of gravel in the road. After a few miles we came across the first accident of the day. A German guy called Frank had ploughed his Beemer off the bank. His front wheel had dropped into a pothole whilst moving over for a caravan. The edge of the pothole had caught the rim of his wheel, projecting him off the road and into a ditch. Aside from bent bars, a bent front wheel and a few other dings the bike was relatively unscathed and, thankfully, so was Frank. Whilst readjusting his bike a Police car zoomed past sirens wailing and shortly afterwards we got the message. Rider down near Tongue. An ambulance was on its way. Tongue was only 10 miles up the road from us. We arrived at the crash scene as Craig was being loaded on to a stretcher. Conscious and smiling between grimaces. He’d come off on a corner after hitting a patch of gravel and barrel rolled with his bike into the wall of a bridge breaking his collarbone, a few ribs, dislocating his shoulder, and smashing his pelvis. Not a nice list but it could have been a whole lot worse and thankfully Craig is doing well on the road to recovery.
It was a dramatic and emotional end to the rally. After 1000 uneventful miles we ended up with 3 accidents on the same day. Seeing Craig in pain and his fiancé, Amy, so upset was gut-wrenching however, the way that his friends, old and new, stepped in and stepped up to help and support them has been heartwarming and reassures my belief in the good of people and camaraderie of motorcyclists.
We rolled in to the final camp to a more subdued mood with everyones thoughts with Craig and Amy. Once news reached us that he was ok and being well looked after spirits picked up a bit, further improved by another meal courtesy of Tommy Perkins/The Nomadic Kitchen. After Dinner an awards ceremony was held to celebrate stand out participants and, of course, the winning rally team.
Bright and early Robert rounded up the troops for a group ride down the coast to Inverness where the majority of riders were loading up their bikes on a truck and flying back home. Me and a few others decided to hang back and make a small stop John O’groats, the most northern tip of mainland Britain - pretty underwhelming but nice to say you’ve done it, I guess! I rode with that gang back to Inverness and hung around as they loaded up the bikes before saying my goodbyes and heading off for a few more days enjoying the Scottish Highlands.
So that’s The Great Malle Rally, 1,250 miles from the southernmost to northernmost tip of mainland Britain on all of the best A and B roads available. It’s no walk in the park, especially if you’re not used to spending a lot of time in the saddle, but I am so glad I got to spend a week exploring and enjoying parts of the UK that I had never ridden before. After riding around the world it’s nice to come home and acknowledge, with fresh eyes, just how beautiful this part of the planet really is.