This Is “The Great Mile”: The UK’s Longest Motorcycle Road Rally
Photography by Fabio Affuso
The Great Mile is a road trip-style motorcycle event held in the UK, and it has a unique origin story besides the cadre of interesting bikes in attendance. Conceived of by the founders of Malle London, a tasteful crafter of travel luggage and other adventure gear, it is an irreverent road rally that sees participants travel all across the British Isles. The machines represent everything from the 1920s to today’s technology, but the riders are all here for a shared purpose. To give some background on the event’s genesis, as well as a view into this year’s “Mile,” I’ve put together a bit of a Q&A together to share the story both general and specific.
How did The Great Mile come about?
We’ve been hosting the shortest motorcycle race in the country for a few years called simply “The Mile,” for very inappropriate custom, cafe-style, and classic motorcycles. It’s an event that’s been developing each year into something quite special; there’s a real DIY attitude to road rally motorcycle racing, and a resulting camaraderie in the community of men and women around this event in particular. We’d been thinking for a while about doing something different for The Mile, finding a way to evolve it, and then I took a research trip to Mongolia with my wife last year. We’d been driving across the Mongolian steppe for a few days across the endless grasslands when we saw two strange red flags up on a hill in the middle of nowhere. We would later learn that those flags marked part of a 1000km horse race from Ulaanbaatar up into the Arctic Tundra.
We caught up with the race soon after, and hung out with the riders in their yurts that night. From the stories they told, it was a really brutal race, but the excitement, friendships, and determination was contagious all the same, and my immediate thought was “Imagine this for motorcycles!” The concept of hosting the longest motorcycle rally in the country was in motion: 1,200 miles from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of Cornwall, via the Lake District, Snowdonia, etc. To be held only on the best and smallest B roads. It took a while to convince the entire Malle team that it was a good idea or at least convince them that it was possible to host a rally of that distance. Admittedly, it was a very ambitious project. It’s a serious operation to get 100 riders—100 motorcycles—plus equipment, tents, supplies, medics, engineers, marshals and support trucks 2,500 miles up and down the country into the most remote (and beautiful) places. It would be a big undertaking, but it was worth it.
Why host the longest motorcycle rally in the country?
Over the last couple of years there’s been a lot happening politically and globally focusing on negative concepts around separation, walls, bans, and entrance/exits from one place to another. We wanted to create something that brought people from all over the world together to celebrate the best parts of the United Kingdom through the connected thread of the motorcycle and the passion it instills in each of the riders. There are so many beautiful and inspiring landscapes in the UK that stand as proof that you don’t always have to head for distant lands to find true wilderness, fantastic riding, and “adventurous” weather conditions. Fifteen countries were represented in the rally, with riders coming in from New Zealand, South Africa, the U.S, and other European countries. Regardless of where they hailed, many new friendships were built around the experience, and though there is a competitive edge to the event, the supreme importance is on the experience being a fulfilling one in every aspect.
What is it like to be a part of The Great Mile Rally?
The rally began at the ever beautiful Castle of Mey, poised on the rugged coastline at the very northern tip of Scotland and the top of mainland Britain. 82 riders crossed the starting line there, and four days later 69 of them completed the rally in full. The route was seriously tough. It was beautiful and it was full of fantastic riding roads no doubt, but it was a real challenge for everyone involved to complete the entirety of it, and it took true determination and endurance to do so. Besides the riding environment and all the winding roads have to offer, each night also saw us camping in some special locations, from a forest in Glencoe to the Glanusk Estate in Wales, to the final cliff-top camp at The Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.
When the riders crossed the finish line and took off their crash helmets, I didn’t know if they’d be laughing or crying at the end of it all! True to form, the British Isles surprised us with very unpredictable weather and of course gave us the exact opposite of what we’d expected: sun and relative warmth in Scotland, and 12 hours of heavy rain and a thick mist across Devon and into Cornwall for the last day. The rally route was supposed to get slightly easier with each stage, but with those weather conditions each day just got harder instead.
Our fantastic engineering team, deBolex Engineering, who normally build custom motorcycles, was helping to fix bikes daily, and were getting more than 10 motorcycles back on the road each day. One rider, Steve, managed to forward-flip a vintage BMW R80 and got away with it, and after some light fixing he was back in the rally (now on a “custom” deBolex bike). Steve won the “Great Stunt-man Award” this year for that maneuver!
Another notable story from the rally came from one very determined rider named Neville. He’d built a gorgeous custom Ducati and had finished it literally hours before the rally began, but unfortunately the engine wasn’t performing correctly and the bike limped down the route on the first stage, turning up at the camp that night in the back of a guy’s transit van with an unperturbed and grinning Neville sitting next to it. Neville then hitched a lift to Glasgow airport with our support team the next morning, flew to Birmingham, took a train to Bicester, got back to his garage, saddled up on his other bike, and road eight more hours north to the rally’s camp in Wales (getting in before the last teams that day to boot!) and completed the rally. For obvious reasons, Neville won the “Most Dedicated Rider’ award. The Squadro Otto team won the rally overall, completing the entire route and each checkpoint with the closest time to a perfect run.
What is it that you love about riding motorcycles?
Jonny Cazzola (the other founder of Malle) and I had ridden the route on our Triumph Bonnevilles in 2016, researching the roads we were planning to use and thoroughly testing the latest Malle luggage collection in the process. When we were riding across Scotland looking for the best locations, we made our way down into Glencoe, and for a few seconds these magnificent stags were running alongside us. You’re hovering just about six inches above the road with the bike beneath you and only the sound of the motor and wind all around you—it’s about as close to flying as you’ll ever get. On the bike you’re in the landscape rather than insulated from it, and there’s no barrier, no frame, no border, you’re part of it.
Who is the average Great Mile rider?
There really wasn’t a typical rider in the rally. We had older participants in their mid 60s who have been riding for half a century, and then we also had new riders in their 20s who’d been on a bike for a year or less. Men, women, brothers, fathers and sons, company teams, it was across the map. Mark Upham from Brough Superior Motorcycles was riding his 1927 SS100 Brough with his daughter Victoria, and then we’d have people right next to them on 2017 bikes, and the only thing that really connected us all is the love of two wheels and the desire for adventure.
What’s in store for the future of The Great Mile?
It’s been a few weeks since the first one we’ve held, and I can just now look at a motorcycle again! After 10 days living in the back of one of our Land Rover support trucks, four hours of sleep per night, and each morning our team of devoted marshals always had the challenge to get out early and get ahead of the rally to set up the checkpoints and support the bikes along the route. In all, it certainly tests your “allegiance” to motorcycles by the end of it.
Now that we’ve recovered though, we’re already starting to think about how we can make it better, make it even more of a challenge to complete, and provide more time for riders to meet each other at the rally camps each night. There were so many wonderful people there, it’s hard to meet everyone. Many of the riders have been giving us great tips on what they want from the rally experience next year; there’s been talk of making it a five-day event, possibly down the Irish Coast this time, with a new rally route that may start at The Lizard and end at the Castle of Mey, with timed challenges at each stage. We’re already looking forward to The Great Mile 2018 even if we’re not sure where it will be exactly. Regardless of the specific scenery, we know it will be tough, it will involve a lot of beautiful riding in every weather condition the UK can throw at us, and it will be a great adventure once again!