The thing about the Great Mile rally is that, to participate, your bike must be the definition of inappropriate. The ride runs 1,250 miles, from the northernmost point in the British Isles to the most southerly, which means a great many machines meet that definition. So, it was classic Hondas, Moto Guzzis, BMWs, and even a 1957 Triumph Thunderbird that waited to disembark from the Castle of Mey, a 15th-century tower house on the teetering edge of Scotland. Who would be barmy enough to ride an average of 250 miles a day for five days straight in all manner of British weather? This year, it was 50 riders, all with origins as varied as their motorcycles.
Teams hailed from France, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and of course, the U.K. In that crowd, my BMW R nineT seemed out of place. As much as I wanted the experience of riding across my home country on an old bike, I was lugging a camera and wanted to get the shot all the more. At 6:30 a.m. on the first full morning of riding, a hot cooked breakfast greeted us, consumed as riders gathered their belongings and wrote out their routes, sticking them to their tanks. With logbooks stamped and a flamboyant billow of the Malle flag, the Great Mile began. Team by team embarked on their journey, only to be stopped at the end of the drive by a herd of cattle crossing the road.
The convoy to Dunnet Head Lighthouse was a sight, a trail of wheels and lights rolling across the moorland. Looking out to the sea, waves battered the stubborn rocks below. It would be five days before we saw anything like it again. Organizers made certain that riders didn’t have to worry with logistics. In addition to hot meals, our equipment was transported from camp to camp each night. Having the luxury of riding free of your gear and to arrive at a camp spot each night with your tent already up with a hot meal and cold beer waiting for you is one that can’t be matched. That’s not to say it was all luxury. Everyone underestimated the chill of the Scottish nights, even in July, and a shower was provided at just a couple of locations. Thankfully, there’s no rule saying you have to smell good to have an amazing time.
It’s one thing to travel from point A to point B by the easiest route possible, but it’s another to do so by way of the most breathtaking landscapes Britain has to offer. When the sun breaks in Scotland, for example, the vibrant contrast of colors is spectacular. Lochs glitter blues and silvers; green landscapes turn harshly dark at the edge of a cloud shadow. It’s a country full of surprises; you summit a hill, and whole valleys open up before you, beckoning you to travel the miles of zigzags you now see at your feet.
RELATED: Motorcycle Riding in England and the UK Tips
We rode past lonesome cottages—the kind you imagine running away to when life gets too much—boats that gently rocked a little out from the shore, and churches whose Holy Communion must consist only of three local families. White-sand beaches with crystal-clear waters looking like they belong to the Bahamas enticed us to swim as the riders felt the sun’s sweltering heat in their leathers. Our minds would have changed as soon as we dipped a single toe into the North Atlantic.
One of the finest stretches of road in Scotland’s wide portfolio is Applecross Pass. It’s engulfed by thick cloud most of the year, but as we rode through, the weather gods blessed us and we had a clear view as far as the eye could see. Harsh mountains wall the pass, and our riders gingerly made their way down the 20-percent grade. In the wet, this road is lethal. But even with the underlying caution, it’s a road that one could simply ride up and down all day, purely for the fun. It’s a grown-up version of a child’s slide—except you wouldn’t want to go down sliding on your arse.
We rolled through the Lake District on the third day. After the jagged, raw landscape of the Scottish Highlands, the softness of the lakes was a shock. Riding past swelling and sinking hills, the landscape breathes. That’s not to say the roads are any less exciting to ride. Just one look at Hardknott Pass will make your knees quiver against your tank. It’s tied first place as the steepest road in England, at a 33-percent grade, and I was grateful to have not read about the road before arriving at the foot of it. Isn’t it funny how one only remembers the immense power of gravity once on the edge of a guardless single-track mountain pass on a motorbike facing car traffic from the opposite direction?
RELATED: Riding The Mach Loop On A Triumph Speed Triple RS And A Thruxton R
Teams on the rally can be as few as two, but many join solo and are matched up with other like-biked teams. The sense of care and community was apparent from the word go. If a rider had mechanical difficulties, which was common, other riders swarmed to their aid with tools, spares, and advice. When riding, teams would often amalgamate for long stints, keeping an eye out on the more delicate machines.
Over the last couple of days, the weather worsened dramatically, leading to problems for some of the rally’s more fragile bikes. While riding through Dartmoor, we noticed one of my favorite rides on the rally stopped on the side of the road, alone. The rain and spray had played havoc on the gorgeous custom Honda 750’s electrics, and the owner had to keep stopping to dry them out. We all sat together with a cup of tea before spending the rest of the day taking it slower together, making sure he wasn’t left on his own and that he got to camp safely.
But despite the slow going, the last five miles of the trip were electric. You could feel the eagerness running through everyone. Eagerness not to finish and be done with the trip, but to have successfully completed an epic journey across Britain. Cars began to dwindle as we rode, and then it appeared suddenly as we crested a hill on a final, narrow lane: the sea.
The moment we dismounted, all previous squabbles about getting lost or riding too fast or too slow were forgotten. We flung our arms around anyone and everyone with cheers of euphoria at the realization that we had made it. None of us cared that we were all dripping with rain, the skin of our hands stained by our gloves. Or that we’d not showered in three days, or that we felt like we needed to sleep for a week. Together, we’d completed the 2018 Great Mile.
Sitting in the local pub afterward, happily sipping a beer and drying out, the reality of completing the rally began to sink in. As tough as the past few days had been, most of us agreed that we could carry on for another week. It happens that way, sometimes, after a long ride. Places that seemed so far out of reach now appear just over the horizon. What if we extended the trip to the south of France, or Spain, or through the French Alps and beyond? What if we kept riding? More than anything, that’s the mark of a good trip: it does not quench your spark for travel but ignites it, opening you wide to the world’s possibilities.