Malle London is at the forefront of alternative motorcycle events at the moment, with the hilarious Malle Mile weekend event acting as a precursor to the more demanding Great Mile rally.
Where the former is about a bunch of people being silly and having fun on inappropriate motorcycles in the grounds of Kevington Hall, the latter is an altogether tougher experience, with some 100 daring riders snaking their way from the tip of Scotland to the foot of England in five days of hard riding.
Of course, the motorcycles upon which said nutty enthusiasts complete the 1250 miles are completely inappropriate, consisting of breakdown-prone classics, uncomfortable customs and modern machines that have been designed to look cool around town, as opposed to undertaking a journey of this stature.
This year, friend of Flat-Out and photographer extraordinaire, Rachel Billings, managed to bag a spot on the support team, aiding rider breakdowns, helping to set up the various camp and, of course, capturing it all on her trusty cameras.
This is Rachel’s diary. This is The Great Mile 2018.
Day 0 – Gatwick to Inverness to BB’s Bunkhouse in Castle Mey, Scotland
Flew to Inverness from London. Arrive at 14:30. Drive the marshal’s rental car to BB’s Bunkhouse near Castle Mey. Finally arrive at 17:30 after loads of delays.
Registration at Castle Mey and ride out to John O’Groats, although I missed this as we were delayed thanks to Europcar, bastards.
Welcomed to The Great Mile camp by Dod the Fiddler (who also rides motorbikes), followed by dinner that is lovingly made by Tom and Will of the Nomadic Kitchen, and involves pancetta-wrapped pork, filled with a tangy chorizo and apricot stuffing, garlic sautéed potatoes, sugar snaps peas and a warm salad, salsa verde, tzatziki and more side dishes than I can begin to list.
“Dinner is Lancashire hotpot followed by sticky toffee pudding”
A few people have ridden up from all over the UK, and the majority have sent their bikes via WMB (We Move Motorbikes), a huge lorry with cages in and a forklift attached to the back that will follow us the whole way down the country and back.
We all meet and chat to one another, some recognise faces from the pre-ride dinner held a couple of weeks back, while others are familiar thanks to the Malle Mile and other bike events.
Rider briefing and whisky paired with smoked salmon. Everyone is given their own Malle ‘The Great Ride’ tin cup to toast their whisky and coffees in (and to do our bit for the planet!).
Early Bedtime (to find chocolates left neatly placed on our pillows), as tomorrow we are up at 6:30am for breakfast, leaving Castle Mey for the first checkpoint of many and the official start of The Great Mile at 8am.
Day 1 – 239 miles. The Castle of Mey to Torridon Estate, Scotland
Up at 6am, fresh All Press coffee, croissants and cowboy beans with mushrooms, again lovingly concocted by the excellent Nomadic Kitchen.
Everyone drinks strong Joe, chats and preps themselves and their bikes for the first leg of the rally. I sense a soft rumble of excitable calmness before the storm.
“We enter into the grand and pristinely trimmed driveway of Castle Mey only to be halted by a tractor blocking our path”
Us marshals head off sporadically to set up the checkpoints ahead of riders. Rain clouds come in just as we’re about to leave. A whisper of rain greets us as we head down to Castle of Mey courtyard for the start line.
Everyone grabs their packed lunch of chicken baguette, homemade brownies and fruits.
We enter into the grand and pristinely trimmed driveway of Castle Mey only to be halted by a tractor blocking our path. The farmer nearby has blocked it to let his cattle through to the next field – he wasn’t aware of our rally agenda.
So we wait for the cattle to pass, he goes to move the tractor and accidentally rips one of the trees out of the ground with the front of his machine (awks!). He appears too stressed by the whole situation to give a toss about a gaggle of bikers eager to press on.
We head to the front courtyard of Castle Mey, get all our riders through the first checkpoint and on their way.
All except one, who finds the battery on his Triumph Street Twin has decided to give up the ghost.
Calum of deBolex Engineering Co. is the Malle mechanic on hand and he carefully recharges the stricken machine using jump leads and our support Land Rover, only for Rob Ade, with his girlfriend Amy on his Triumph, to break down again 30 seconds down the road.
Another recharge and everyone is on the move again.
“We secure a fresh power source and the couple head off to make checkpoint two”
I head out on the road with mechanic Calum in the Malle Land Rover, we grab the trailer and set off – only to get a call from Rob – the Triumph is dead again.
We collect the couple, stick the bike in the back and head off to Wick, where there’s a bike mechanic with the battery he requires.
We secure a fresh power source and the couple head off to make checkpoint two – but 40 minutes later, we get another call. They’ve broken down again, so we head back over to the west coast (an hour’s drive) to go and fetch them.
While sat on the side of the road waiting to be rescued, Rob says two policemen with guns, who accusingly asked him what he was doing there, approached him.
Unbeknownst to the unlucky couple, they had broken down by a decommissioned nuclear power plant. It isn’t Rob’s day.
Thankfully, the couple arranges for a Triumph dealership in Glasgow to order the parts they believes they require, and formulate a plan to head there the next day to repair the repeating problem.
We decide to head straight along the fastest route to the evening’s camping spot, but we take a wrong turn down a disused road.
It turns out to be ten miles of unbelievable scenery but not so good for the trailer and Triumph on the back, which means we have to stop several times to check the bike is intact.
After a little detour, we head to Brora to pick up some beers for the camp, but enjoy a minor brush with an angry Scottish man in the Co-Op wearing nothing but pyjama bottoms.
“It turns out to be ten miles of unbelievable scenery but not so good for the trailer and Triumph on the back”
We manage to emerge unscathed and unintentionally wrangle a free crate of beer for our troubles. It’s amazing what some cool bikes and a cool story can achieve.
Unfortunately, the little detour means we are the last group to return to camp at the Torridon Estate, which hugs the shores of a stunningly beautiful lock.
The woodland opens up to an impressive stately home, with around 60 bikes – new, old, custom and stock – neatly parked on the slate gravel, gently ticking after a long day’s riding.
I’m handed red wine and a hot foil tray straight from the oven that’s filled with veggie haggis, fresh scallops and prawns, a brick of warm goat’s cheese, tomatoes chorizo and garlic-slathered potatoes.
There follows another rider’s briefing, more whisky and a rowdy game of tug of war, as well as a short but sweet fiddler performance by our hosts, then warm chocolate-drenched waffles for dessert and bed. Heaven.
Day 2 – 259 miles. Torridon Estate to Kelburn Castle, Scotland
I’m awake and out of the tent at 6am today, but only a few riders are up and busy slurping coffee, awaiting their breakfasts and arranging their kit.
Breakfast is thick porridge in a huge metal vat with some runny honey, and another solid steel saucepan full of beans and sausages. An army marches on its stomach, after all.
“I’m handed red wine and a hot foil tray straight from the oven that’s filled with veggie haggis”
Rider’s collect their lunch bags, strap their maps to their fuel tanks, have their checkpoints stamped into their Malle logbooks and eventually head off, team-by-team, through the woods and out on to the empty winding roads. It’s overcast, grey, but bloody warm.
I climb into the back of the 1996 mini convertible on loan from the BMW museum, we put the top down (it’s very windy) and Amy Shore (photographer) squeezes into the back seat with me to shoot the rider’s weaving around the last stretch of Scotland.
It’s pretty cool to think that the two photographers shooting this event are both female.
The roads are virtually empty, minus the occasional motorhome passing by, but Amy and I almost head-butt each other several times trying to get the perfect (and in focus) shot.
We stop at a checkpoint in Applecross, where Malle’s own Jonny, who’s manning the location and stamping logbooks, greets us.
We grab a coffee, I sneak a biscuit, and have a quick chat with the teams currently resting very sore buttocks.
Then it’s straight back in the bumpy old Mini and on to the third checkpoint of the day.
“I climb high up a rock and photograph the rider’s making their way down and around the bends”
It’s getting chilly now and we start climbing the roads higher and higher up mountainside, before the twisting route opens up to a great big valley with one long, winding road back down.
I climb high up a rock and photograph the rider’s making their way down and around the bends. I witness some bikers risking missing the next checkpoint to turn around and do it all again.
Back on our way, whizzing through the Summer Isles of Scotland with Amy driving the Mini.
We stop at a single petrol pump to refuel and put the roof back on (it’s deafening in the back with the wind), where we bump in to the German riders, all journalists, that have managed to blag a bunch of new BMW bikes upon which to tackle the rally.
After a shared packed lunch, we all hop back on/in our vehicles and drive to checkpoint three at the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe.
Arrive at checkpoint for a short break, only to find a couple of riders have accidentally dropped their bikes whilst trying to start them on a camber.
A few expletives, some sore egos and a bit of wrenching and they are back on their way safely again.
Amy swaps driving the Mini to jump on the back of a bike for some pillion photographing.
After a tough day of snapping, we arrive at Kelburn Castle, where it is bathed in golden sunshine – the first sunset we’ve seen since a slightly overcast dusk on our initial evening at Castle Mey.
“A couple of riders have accidentally dropped their bikes whilst trying to start them on a camber”
We take the opportunity to walk up to the castle and explore the somewhat unusual Brazilian street artist’s handiwork along the exterior walls.
We sit down to dinner cooked over the fire by the Nomadic Kitchen crew again, this time it’s butterflied lamb that has been reared and butchered just four miles down the road.
The entire Great Mile team is sat outside on a massive medieval banquet table; whisky is being passed around, Piston Head beers and red wine flowing. Everyone is tired but continue to swap stories about the amazing roads they got to tame today.
Day 3 – 259 miles. Kelburn Castle to Heskin Hall, Lancashire
Today, I’m keeping Craig Callum company in the support car, he’s been marshalling the final checkpoint on his own all week, the loneliest checkpoint of them all.
Breakfast consists of delicious hot croissants, yogurt, jams, fruits, meats and cheeses.
Most riders seem spritely today and almost all head out on time, a miracle that has failed to happen so far. Craig and I drive off to the first checkpoint to help Malle’s Jonny set up in Gretna Green. Then we head off with the Sinroja Motorcycle brothers (also marshalling) to checkpoint three in Buttermere.
After a brief stop in some shade to escape today’s hot sun, we pack up and make our way to the incredibly steep Hardknott Pass, where I plan to capture a load of imagery.
“Most riders seem spritely today and almost all head out on time”
Apparently, Craig was a racing driver in a former life, so he races our rental Saab to checkpoint four – cue travel sickness.
We arrive with not enough water and a distinct lack of shade. I stand on the highest rock I can find, which affords a perfect view of the winding roads and pass below. It’s a waiting game for the distinctive sound of bikes.
A couple of hot hours later, the first motors appear. Climbing, slightly sputtering on the steeper corners. We sit watching, praying that no cars come along and quash their momentum up the hill.
Five bikes arrive at once and they race up the meandering, melting tarmac, but they don’t notice one member of their team struggling on the steepest point.
“Five bikes arrive at once and they race up the meandering, melting tarmac”
The bike literally can’t get up the hill – it’s too heavy and needs a push. I’m about a five-minute walk from the struggling biker; so I run down to help him. I give the bike a push from behind, he gives it some revs, but loses his balance, the bike falls and slides down the hill towards me.
Thankfully, a driver heading down the pass parks his car and comes rushing over to help us roll the bike down to safety. We enlist the muscle of as many riders as we can to get this bruiser of a machine up the side of this steep pass.
After a bit of over-revving, much sweating, a few running starts and the bike makes it up the hill to checkpoint four.
We arrive at our campsite in the grounds of Heskin Hall quite late, just as the last bit of light fades. A few riders are giving their bike some TLC, topping up oil with torches strapped to their heads, as there’s rain forecast for tomorrow.
Dinner is Lancashire hotpot followed by sticky toffee pudding. We’re camping in bell tents again, but we have access to the bar, dining hall and showers in a private apartment on the grounds.
Heskin Hall is a peculiar place – a beautiful but slightly eerie grand house. I can’t help but feel that it’s the perfect place for Derek Acora to film his ‘Most Haunted’ show.
“He says he’s the first person to ride a sofa up that mountain”
Everyone is pretty tired today, but nobody can get enough of describing his or her experience riding up Hardknott Pass. Especially Roger, who managed to zoom up the pass on his Honda Touring Motorcycle.
He says he’s the first person to ride a sofa up that mountain and with that, we all head to bed.
Check back for part two of Rachel’s The Great Mile 2018 coverage