A mighty motorcycle rally of Britain

Entry to The Great Mile rally, from the northernmost point in Britain to Penzance, is reserved for “inappropriate motorcycles” and the riders who love them. Simon de Burton joins in the fun on his 40-year-old Honda

Motorcycle enthusiast Luke Towsin rides through Glencoe on his 1971 Norton Commando in stage one of The Great Mile rally
Motorcycle enthusiast Luke Towsin rides through Glencoe on his 1971 Norton Commando in stage one of The Great Mile rally | Image: Fabio Affuso

Some years ago, I was riffling through the contents of an ancestral desk when I discovered a peculiar Victorian photograph of an adult wearing a bear suit while pushing a wheelbarrow containing a child dressed as an elf. The cryptic caption printed along the top read: “Are we having fun yet?” The same question came to mind last August during a particularly wet section of a high-speed, 675-mile motorcycle ride from London to the late Queen Mother’s holiday home, the Castle of Mey, which is situated near the most northerly point of mainland Britain.

As the rain lashed down somewhere near Stamford, and the headlamp of my 1977 Honda cast a depressingly feeble glow onto the endless road ahead, it dawned on me that there was still a solid 12 hours to go – but while an actual “fun” element was definitely lacking, I was still experiencing the perverse enjoyment that often results from battling the elements on a long motorcycle trip. If you know what I mean – and most motorcyclists will – then this year’s second running of the event I was heading to will very likely appeal.

Route cards are stamped and times logged at each checkpoint
Route cards are stamped and times logged at each checkpoint | Image: Fabio Affuso

Called The Great Mile, it is billed as “the longest motorcycle rally ever attempted in the UK” and is open only to riders aboard “inappropriate motorcycles” (hence the 40-year-old Honda) – meaning no state-of-the-art tourers, nothing too new and nothing that won’t add a frisson by dint of its apparent unsuitability for such a long and varied journey.

The Great Mile (or TGM as it has come to be known by fans) is the creation of 35-year-old Robert Nightingale and his cousin Jonathan Cazzola who, having pursued individual careers as design consultants, decided to combine work with their love of bikes by establishing a firm called Malle London. It specialises in high-end, handmade motorcycle luggage that’s tough enough to withstand the rigours of riding yet elegant enough not to look out of place when removed from the machine and carried to the boardroom.

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In 2014, two years after setting up Malle, the pair established The Malle Mile, a still unique event in the world of modern motorsport that comprises a red-tape-free series of off-road hill climbs, sprint races and scrambles, and takes place in the grounds of a stately home called Kevington Hall, near Orpington in Kent. From attracting an initial entry of 40 bikes, The Malle Mile has grown rapidly to the point that 450 riders will compete in this year’s edition, which is being held during the weekend of June 29.

The success of the original “Mile” revealed not only how popular the trend for owning unique, retro-looking custom bikes built in street scrambler, bobber and café racer styles has become (as noted in “Harley and Me”, How To Spend It, April 2012), but also how keen owners are to get out and ride them alongside fellow enthusiasts.

Malle London co-founder Robert Nightingale drops the start flag at the Castle of Mey
Malle London co-founder Robert Nightingale drops the start flag at the Castle of Mey | Image: Fabio Affuso

It was this – combined with the discovery of the madcap, 1,000km Mongol Derby horse race, which recreates Genghis Khan’s 13th-century system of carrying messages across the Mongolian-Manchurian steppe – that inspired Nightingale and Cazzola to devise a fun but seriously challenging motorcycle tour of the UK.

And so The Great Mile was born, featuring a carefully planned route starting in the grounds of the aforementioned Castle of Mey and winding its way on roads less travelled across the Scottish Highlands, around the edge of Glasgow, down to the Borders and on to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of the Lake District National Park.

Nightingale's fellow founder Jonathan Cazzola (in white) and Calum Pryce-Tidd (centre), founder of DeBolex Engineering, head up the rally support team
Nightingale's fellow founder Jonathan Cazzola (in white) and Calum Pryce-Tidd (centre), founder of DeBolex Engineering, head up the rally support team | Image: Mihail Jershov

From there, we took scenic routes through Lancashire and Cheshire, skirted the base of Mount Snowdon, followed the Welsh coast and crossed the Brecon Beacons, before tackling the home stretch that took in north Somerset and north and south Devon en route to the finish. And a rollicking good party on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula.

By the time I had returned to my Devon home, the odometer of the trusty Honda showed that it had covered in excess of 2,200 miles in six days, as a result of my decision to go the whole hog and ride to the start line – to which more sensible types travelled by plane, having had their motorcycles sent ahead by transporter.

Mark Upham, owner of Brough Superior Motorcycles, rides to Cornwall on a 1927 SS100 Brough Superior, with his daughter riding pillion
Mark Upham, owner of Brough Superior Motorcycles, rides to Cornwall on a 1927 SS100 Brough Superior, with his daughter riding pillion | Image: Fabio Affuso

The delivery (and return) service is just one element of a series of bronze, silver and gold entry packages devised by Nightingale and Cazzola, from £1,150 to £1,850, that mean riders arrive at the end of each day to a “glamping” site equipped with fully kitted bell tents, great food cooked by private chefs, hot showers and roaring fires around which to avail one another of their on-road exploits.

The Great Mile is not, however, any kind of walk in the park – nor is it meant to be. “What we’re doing with The Great Mile is tapping into the new motorcycling culture that is growing up around high‑achieving people who not only want to buy or build great-looking custom bikes, but want to really use them too,” says Nightingale, whose love of two wheels was handed down from his late father, the professional magician Hugh Nightingale.

At the end of each day, riders camp in luxury tents that have already been set up
At the end of each day, riders camp in luxury tents that have already been set up | Image: Fabio Affuso

“We’re strong believers in using motorcycles for the purpose for which they were intended rather than keeping them as showpieces. The Great Mile is a way for people to do that while also discovering parts of Britain they might otherwise never get to see – and we describe the event as being for ‘inappropriate motorcycles’ because it’s not designed for types who like to ride brand-new touring bikes and dress in Kevlar.

“We are out to attract riders who convey a sense of style in their machines, the way they dress and in their general outlook on motorcycling,” he adds.

Nightingale (left) and Cazzola discussing the rally check points
Nightingale (left) and Cazzola discussing the rally check points | Image: Fabio Affuso

Among the 80 or so such riders who took part in the inaugural Great Mile was enthusiast Sven Olsen, the UK general manager of luxury watch brand Tudor. He signed up for the event as soon as he heard about it and tackled the ride on his 1972 Triumph Trident, the pride of a small collection of classic bikes. “The idea of The Great Mile instantly appealed to me because it presented the opportunity to use one of my old motorcycles for the type of journey that, ordinarily, I would never have considered undertaking,” says Olsen.

“Riding from the most northerly tip of Scotland to the south of Cornwall was a fairly daunting prospect, but much of the appeal of the event lay in being able to take on the challenge in the company of dozens of other people who were also riding old or unusual machines,” he adds. “It was certainly tiring, but it was also perfectly achievable – and it proved to be an absolutely superb way to truly discover just how beautiful Britain really is.”

Participant Hugh Francis-Anderson is greeted by Nightingale at the camp
Participant Hugh Francis-Anderson is greeted by Nightingale at the camp | Image: Mihail Jershov

Although not officially a race, The Great Mile features a competitive element in as much as the exact route is not revealed from the outset. Instead, riders are briefed each evening with the following day’s “secret” checkpoints at which their route cards are stamped and their times logged so that they can be compared with a predetermined average speed. At the end, the team with the nearest to perfect rally time is declared the winner.

Despite being the first event of its kind, the inaugural Great Mile drew riders from all over Europe as well as a few from further afield – notably Jon Otis, the principal of a major New York design agency, and Carl Proffit, a New Zealand-based photographer who incorporated the event into his honeymoon, with new wife Sonya riding pillion.

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It was, however, a steep learning curve for the organisers, who have applied lessons learnt from the first event in order to make this year’s even better. “There is no doubt that getting 100 or so people and around 80 motorcycles from one end of the country to the other in four days amounted to nothing short of a military operation,” says Nightingale.

“Having listened to the feedback from competitors, we’ve opted to make the 2018 event longer, both in terms of distance and the number of days. This time, riders will finish earlier each evening and overnight in more remote areas than the official camping grounds used last year, arriving at the end of each day to find that their luxury tents have been set up and their Malle luggage, which comes as part of the entry package, has been delivered.”

There will also be an opportunity to take part in post‑dinner events such as hill climbs, beach races and sprints, and those who want to take part but don’t have a suitable motorcycle can take advantage of our new partnership with London’s Club Moto that will enable them to rent suitably appropriate “inappropriate motorcycles” at favourable rates.

The 2018 Great Mile takes place from July 24 to 28, and entries are now open. A maximum of 100 machines will be permitted, with 10 places being reserved for How To Spend It readers.

And if you end up among them and find yourself asking the question: “Are we having fun yet?” – I can assure you that the answer will be a decisive “Yes”.

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