NAME, COUNTRY, NUMBER AND WHAT ARE YOU RIDING IN THE RALLY?
Robert Nightingale, England, Rally Number #57. Against the advice of many, I decided to ride my late-fathers 1957 custom Triumph Thunderbird, which I got working earlier this year and it turned out to be the oldest motorcycle in the 2018 rally.
IS THIS THE FIRST TIME YOU’VE ENTERED THE RALLY?
Over the last 3 years I’ve helped the Malle team research the rally route, normally from the back of a support vehicle, but this was my first time riding in the rally with a team, a completely different experience!
TELL US ABOUT YOUR RALLY PREPARATION?
The day before the rally, like most of the riders I was scrambling to complete the bike in time, finding last minute spare parts that might break or rattle off. On the forecourt of The Classic Car Club in London, bits of the Thunderbird were littered around the bike, more and more custom/classic rally bikes were being dropped off every hour, which only added more pressure to the impending deadline. I managed to fit a new oil-feed pipe, “new” custom California handlebars, bent the mud-guards out a bit to accommodate the larger off-road trials tyres, fitted race plates and gave it a fresh oil change. After a quick lap around the backstreets of Shoreditch past the BikeShed to test the brakes and the oil flow – the bike was pretty much ready to go.
First thing the next morning we helped the professionals load the bikes into crates at The Classic Car Club and onto the rally trucks. Strapped in tight, for the long and slow journey up to the Castle of Mey, located at the very Northern tip of mainland Britain. It was a bit sad seeing my old bike leave for Scotland without me, like sending away the family dog and watching it stare at you out of the rear-window as it was driven away and out of sight.
The boys at Ace Classics helped me fill my tool roll with some more extras (seals, plugs, strange bolts, more cables, levers etc.) and advised me to take it real easy if the bike was to survive the rally – to ideally ride on alternate days, giving the old bike a rest day between stages.. which was definitely the plan.
WHAT HAPPENS AT THE START LINE?
After 24 hours of driving North from London we finally reached the top of the country in the support vehicles and set up in the rally camp at the Northern tip. Overlooking the North Sea from the Castle of Mey, with the glow of the refineries on the horizon behind the islands of Stroma and Orkney, seals playing in the bay beneath camp. Up there the coast line is pretty harsh and jagged, with few buildings on the land, the weather can do a full 180 in minutes, turning from sunshine to blizzard.
The team from the Nomadic Kitchen (Tom & Will) arrived that afternoon, after riding a pair of borrowed Royal Enfield Himalayans 800 miles straight up from London. As soon as they unloaded, they got out their knives, lit the fires and started prepping the first nights wild cooking feast – fire roasted pork loin and mouth watering roasted salads. The 70+ riders descended on the Castle of Mey from all over the world (mainly Europe) for the Riders Check-In that afternoon.
After all riders had checked in, with fresh rally numbers on each machine, we left the castle as a pack. Lead by Jim the head groundskeeper at the castle on his old BMW (after a quick change from his kilt to riding leathers). We rode 5 miles along the coast up to the lighthouse, perched on a slab of rock 250m above the lashing sea. 70 completely unique classic/cafe/custom motorcycles made up the pack, as we snaked back and forth up the hill to the lighthouse. I turned to see all the bikes behind me meandering up the hill in single file, moving as one continuous machine, the headlamps lighting up the hill in the dusk – it was a beautiful site. We road back along the coast and the local villagers had come out of their house to wave the rally past, very sweet. The feeling that the rally was about to begin was building.
Back at camp, we had the first and most detailed riders briefing, describing the next days route, with riders from last years rally joining in with local tips on the route and their thoughts on the rally experience and team riding. The briefing was followed by the now customary whiskey pairing; local single-malt with locally caught/smoked salmon. After three attempts at a synchronized toast, there was a cheer, a gulp of whiskey and it was back to the bikes.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE FIRST DAY IN STAGE 1?
I don’t know if Tom and Will from the Nomadic Kitchen made it to bed that night, I woke at 5am and they were slaving away over the fire, knocking out a hearty wild cooked breakfast for everyone. Rally mornings are always the most rushed and the first day was the most chaotic, bikes and kit everywhere – riders running from tents to bikes, half dressed in leathers, toothbrush in one hand, with a coffee and spanner in the other, trying to find some odd component that they were sure they packed. We had a quick briefing with the rally marshals at 6am, minutes later they tore off on bikes, which in that moment felt like we were about to play the largest game of hide and seek in the land. With a 2 hour head start, the marshals headed out to set up check-points and report back of any route problems. We threw our rally duffels into the support vehicles and headed to the start-line at the Castle. Luck was already on our side, not a cloud in the sky and it was beautifully warm, when Scotland is good, it’s bloody great!
With all the planning in the world, some things you can’t predict. After I and half of the bikes had reached the start line, with not a sole in sight, then the local farmer not realizing there was another 40 bikes behind us, closed the in-road with a JCB, acting as a blockade for his cows. As we soon learned the “Royal Cows” take priority and the big herd ran boisterously down the castle track, you don’t want to put a motorcycle in the way of that stampede.
Minutes later, everyone was assembled in front of the castle, the first time some of the teams had really met each other. Log books out, stamped, the flag dropped – the rally had begun. Teams departed in 5 minute intervals. My plan was to ride out as soon as the last team had left and catch up with them. Second hitch of the morning, a modern street-scrambler suddenly wouldn’t start. Calum from deBolex Engineering who heads up the engineering team can fix anything. He got the King-Dick tool chest out, with jump leads, meters.. he found a serious charging issue.
My team departed an hour or so behind schedule, but it felt so good to finally be out on the road, after the months of planning, logistics and comms we were in it. I was riding with Team-7, 2 couples on a mix of modern Triumphs and Bobbers. We barely saw another vehicle for the first few hours of the day, hugging the coastline that rises and twists along the hilly coast, one of the best parts of the North Coast 500 route. The Thunderbird was pulling strong and running like clockwork, we made great time, across the Tongue Bridge, through checkpoint #2, onto checkpoint #3 – stage 1 was pretty easy going.
We only needed to turn right about twice, the rest the of the day was following one gorgeous yet tiny B-road down the entire Western side of the Scottish Highlands, through truly wild countryside. In places the sea was a turquoise blue, if it wasn’t for the fact that you were in Scotland, the white sand beaches could be in the Caribbean. By the 4th checkpoint we had caught up with a few more teams and met up with the BMW Motorrad team, lead by Ralf and Lucas with photographer Amy Shore who was documenting the rally.
That day Amy was flying along in a vintage Mini with the top down, shooting riders out of the back with her cameras. Faster than we released, the 7 hour ride was soon ending and the signs for Torridon started to appear. As we came across the small pass from Kinlockewe, we reached Loch Torridon and rode along it until we reached the rally camp at the grand Torridon Estate. I kept an eye on the edge of the loch as we rode, the last time we were up here on the research trip we spent an hour watching a family of otters fishing for trout along the bank. Torridon did not disappoint, the estate is run by a wonderful Scottish/German couple that served up ‘Tartan Tapas’ with local scallops and fish from the sea loch. After the rally briefing and the whiskey paring, the instruments were out, Scottish music started and somehow ended up in an impromptu Highland Games. After we were thrashed at a Tug of War.. I turned to something I was slightly better at, bike tinkering. The bike seemed to be doing well, it was keeping up with the modern BMW’s and she was in her element on these tiny twisty roads, much lighter than most modern bikes I’ve ridden, it’s quite easy to steer the nimble bike with your knees, keeping the bars straight and pushing the back end around corners.
WHAT WAS THE RIDING LIKE IN SCOTLAND ON STAGE 2?
On day #2 of Scotland we had an early start and after a Scottish breakfast served amongst the trees, the morning rally ritual of oil/coffee/briefing – with the marshal-dash and then pack and suit up – ready for the day. Suddenly the midges decided to make an appearance, within minutes riders may not have had their jackets on, but most of us had helmets on with visors down – midges are a hellish event – this sped up our departure, log-books stamped, flag down – off we rode. Another gorgeous day of sunshine as we headed straight over to the highest pass in Scotland and the steepest legal road in the UK, for the AppleCross pass. The roads around there are beautifully smooth and seem to have been laid out by a roller-coaster engineer, with a good sense of humour, twisting up and down over endless hills, perfect.
First engineering hick-up of the day – Ravi’s Moto Guzzi had arrived at Checkpoint #2 at the start of the pass and then decided to throw up all over the road. A big black pool of fresh oil beneath the bike – a leaky hose or a faulty clip. After 30 minutes of fet- tling, our new friends in the BMW team arrived. He looked at the hose and said “I’ve got just ze thing”, we thought he was going to come back with a brochure for a modern BWM, but came back with some very smart white plastic gloves, tools and spare hoses. 10 minutes later, both teams were back on the road, and what a road the AppleCross pass is. Getting to the top is one thing, but the view down into the valley with the Isle of Skye in the distance is amazing. The road boats a dozen hair-pin bends as it progresses down the valley – as soon as I reached the bottom I just wanted to ride back up and do it all again. But there were more mountain passes to come.
Stage 2 was definitely a longer day, about 8 hours or riding in total. We arrived at Checkpoint #3 at the start of Glencoe – the Great Glen. A breath-taking ride through that monstrous valley, imposing mountains on every side, the stags were grazing up on the heather/granite foothills – you’re riding through a whiskey advert! As we came to Checkpoint #4, I parked the bike up and something smelled bad. With an old bike, there’s no warning light if something’s starting to go wrong, you have to use all of your senses, touch, listen and in this case smell the motorcycle – normally the bike has a gorgeous hot-oil aroma to it – some- thing didn’t smell right.
We carried on the ride through Loch Llomand and the Trossachs and down the coast to the extremely bizarre and beautiful Kelburn castle where our rally camp was based for the night (the Castle was painted by a group of Brazilian street artists). As I turned up the drive to the castle, I wasn’t getting as much power as I normally would, or was it just my imagination, when you’ve been riding all day, 280+ miles, you’re tired and your mind can play tricks on you, maybe it’s me not the bike? The Nomadic Kitchen team were already at the fire when we arrived, roasting butterfly lamb. Dinner that night was a well lubricated affair, after a walk around the grounds of the castle, back at camp we were greeted by a fantastic sunset over the bay.
Calum and I had a look over the bike and realised the throttle was misbehaving, sticking slightly.. but nothing major it seemed, nothing to explain the smell or the power loss. At this point I should probably have taken that pre-rally advice and maybe given the bike a days rest.
TELL US ABOUT STAGE 3 IN THE LAKE DISTRICT?
Another early start and the good weather was still on our side. I knew this was going to be a long day, 300+ miles on the route card, I joined the last team to leave who were enjoying a leisurely start, but then it appeared that the old Police issue Moto Guzzi had snapped an alternator belt, after some quick calling around, we located a shop 20 miles down the road where we might get one. Our team headed out on a brief detour to source belts and parts, adding an hour off course. After we crossed the border and left Scotland for the lake district, we were happily cruising for a few hours as a team, when I felt power suddenly drop on the Thunderbird. I limped along to the next turning, 2 Minutes down a country lane, I found a safe spot to park up, for some reason the bike was only getting full power when in high or low revs, but nothing in the middle. I searched the electrics, then got word that the support vehicle was only 5 minutes away, we looked over the bike, stripped the carb, gave it a clean and then the bike seemed to be running fine, strange.
I caught up with my team at Checkpoint #3 and we rode as a team down in to the Lake District, across the 2 highest mountain passes in the Lakes – from Buttermere across the Hardknot pass. The Thunderbird was back in her element, throwing it from side to side up the mountain roads. The sun was shining, a fantastic afternoon of riding over the passes and along the lakes, dodging stray sheep, cows and tractors.
Unbeknown to us, late that afternoon a lorry driver had fallen asleep on the M6, knocking out an entire motorway bridge, he was completely fine, but it shut down the entire motorway for 24 hours (the local newspaper the next morning called him the most unpopular man in Lancashire). Which meant that all that traffic spilled onto every other nearby route, bumper to bumper traffic for 50 miles in every direction – exactly in the area we were all trying to ride through. Luckily we were on bikes and could filter through the bad patches of traffic. We should have been back at camp by 6pm, we arrived starving at around 9pm, at the very quirky and eccentric Heskin Hall. Our support crew weren’t quite as lucky, the Malle-Rover turned up at the Manor gates just after midnight, with a Commando in the back (the Norton had fallen off it’s centre stand and snapped a small, yet vital lever).
WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF STAGE 4 IN WALES?
By day 4 you could start to feel the toll of 3 solid days of riding, 750’ish miles, 2 countries behind us as we crossed over into Wales. I started that day with the BMW Motorrad team and the Thunderstorm clouds kept threatening to break. A couple of times we stopped, threw on wet weather gear, but most patches were just light showers, so we road as a pack through the winding roads of Snowdonia National Park, down the infamous A470 (voted the most beautiful road in the country) around the back of Mt Snowdon and down through the valley. By Checkpoint #3 we were joined by another team with a very fast Triumph Thruxton leading the pack. To keep up with them all I really had to press my chin on the tank, tuck elbows in and try to get an- other 10mph or so out of the bike. Somewhere in Snowdonia my key must have rattled out, so I borrowed a small teaspoon from the cafe which seemed to do the trick of starting the bike. The weather still held but as we left the Brecon Beacons the wind was picking up, bringing with it a new energy that you feel before storms. Riding with 3 teams now, 12 or so bikes together, we crossed the Severn bridge at a furious rate. Riding in all 3 lanes, I’m not sure if we were actually going that fast, or if it was the head on wind that was bashing the bikes about as we rode across the huge suspension bridge – quite a departure from the quiet tracks of the Scottish highlands, but riding in a fast pack like that is so much fun. I think the BMW’s were politely humour- ing my attempt at keeping up the pace, through my wildly vibrating side mirror I could just make out the image of Jochen grinning and riding along side-saddle on his cafe-racer BMW and then occasionally wheeling past me. I didn’t think being overtaken would be a highlight.. but it was a great memory of that stage.
We were chasing each other down the lanes of the Mendip Hills, when we saw the welcome site of 2 rally flags up ahead. The guys from Sinroja motorcycles lead the Marshal team that day and waved us in smiling. The landscape was completely differ- ent around there, the camp was perched on top of the Cheddar Gorge on a large flat plane, with gorges surrounding the area on 3 sides. Word spread that night that there was a full lunar eclipse, with a blood moon – unfortunately the storm clouds had descended on the dark camp – so instead we hosted a motorcycle race.
The boys wheeled out the Mini Malle Moto, a half thrashed monkey bike from The Malle Mile, I pushed the Thunderbird out into the middle of the long grass a hundred meters away, they turned all the support vehicles around with full beams to light up the “track”. One at a time every rider and Marshall took a timed lap around the marker-bike and back, 10% didn’t make it across the start-line and then the Belgian rally team proved that it was actually faster to run the route by foot and beat the monkey bike. After the race finished and the winners were awarded a cold beer, I was walking the Thunderbird back across to camp and realised the tank badges must have rattled off somewhere in Wales. Steadily it seemed, I was leaving bits of the Triumph on roadsides up and down the country.
HOW WAS THE FINAL STRETCH TO THE FINISH LINE?
The last day of the rally was supposed to be the shortest day, but the motorcycle gods had other plans.. We woke to good news that the storm hadn’t broken yet, but big dark clouds hung menacingly on the horizon, full of water – I guess on the last stage of the rally, you need a little drama – you don’t want everything to be too easy. For the last day we had arranged for the press-marshal Rachel Billings – who was writing about the rally – to ride with our team to shoot 35mm film from my bike.. slight problem.. the bike wouldn’t start. After 30 minutes of tinkering and some kind words whispered to the bike, she suddenly roared into life. By that time all of the teams were now 30 minutes ahead of us. We jumped on and headed down into the Gorge, ok it’s not the Grand Canyon, but its a great ride. In the rough words of Bill Bryson “England doesn’t have the biggest or the highest or the deepest of anything, but it does a lot with what it’s got” and the county here is unique, varied and very pretty. Tiny post card towns and castles connect the dots all the way from Wales to Devon and on to Cornwall.
On route to Exmoor, it poured with rain, black skies above, the sort of downpour where immediately there are deep pools of water on the lanes, mini rivers at the sides. Somehow water gets into your boots, soaks your socks and you hunch your shoulders and neck to try and close any gaps between helmet and jacket and soldier on. I remember shouting to Rachel “shall we take shelter” as we sped through the driving rain, but she shouted back “just keep going” – she’s got grit! The rain was relentless, but then the rain ended and there was a faint hint of blue sky up ahead, things were looking up.. and then bike died. We rolled to a silent stop in an old school house drive. Out with the tools, so much for Rachel’s rally team photos which was the photo-brief for the day. I was pretty sure we were miles behind the other teams. By sheer coincidence Calum and the support Land Rover drove by only 10 minutes later, we went over the obvious things, then took out the battery, only to discover that the 2 new lithium batteries had fused together in some horrible hot-molten-mess. The bike might be out of the rally and only 150 miles from the finish line.
Luckily we weren’t in the wilds of Mongolia, it’s midday on a Saturday in England, we start calling up all local bike garages trying to find a classic 6V battery, after 10 no-goes we find one on route that thinks he has some in stock, we quickly stick the bike in the trailer and as we did 4 of the rally teams roared past us, beeping. So we weren’t last after all at that stage.
We found the old motorcycle shop, owned by a young guy who specialises in vintage Japanese imports from the 1980’s.. quite niche, but he has the battery! £6.50 later it’s installed, the suns shining and we’re back on track. We headed for checkpoint #2, we’re still in the running and things look good. As we reached Exmoor, the landscape changed completely, a wild open moor, with animals running across the roads. We crossed the top and the bike seems to be struggling again, fine in high revs, but no power be- low max revs, it coughs, spluttering, then just the sound of air rushing past you, as the bike free-wheels in neutral down a very long hill into the deepest valley in Exmoor. We rolled to a silent stop outside an old garage that looks like it has been closed for decades. No network connection, Rachel walked up the valley, still nothing, I started going over the bike, no joy, the battery was completely dead.
After 20 minutes or so a little voice popped up from the hedge behind the garage “need some ‘elp?”. A small older gentleman, in a blue baseball cap came through the gate smiling. I explain the bike problem, the man in his late 70’s, tells us he used to get a lot of these bikes here back in the day and he owned a similar model once. He rubbed his big mechanics hands over the engine and says “well let’s try and fix it”. He heaves open the sliding doors of the ancient petrol station. I notice the faded paint on the inside walls ‘The Black Cat Garage’. Inside he had a load of old bike parts, some possibly working, some hanging from the ceiling, but he has a workbench of old tools – this might be the best place we could have broken down in the whole of England! He had an industrial battery charger, but after no success with the old 6V, Fred says “I have an idea”, he pulls something out of an old scooter “this might work”, it still has charge. We put it next to the Thunderbird and with makeshift copper wires from something else, we hooked it up. The Thunderbird kicked over first time! Fred wouldn’t accept a penny for the battery, we wrangle it into the battery box on its end, holding it in place with gaffa tape. We thanked him again, loaded up and headed off down the green tree lined tunnels of Exmoor – and the rain had stopped.
To make it up to Rachel for that last 5 hours of riding in the rain, 3 dead batteries, 2 garages, 4 pairs of soaking gloves, I suggested we stop on Dartmoor for a quick bite to warm up. We rode in to the oldest pub on Dartmoor. There was a wedding going on in the back of the pub, the bride walked out head to toe in white lace, looking radiant – we met at the door of the pub – I’m dressed head to toe in Black waxed canvas, covered in black oil and dirt, hungry and looking angry “I think we’re complete opposites” I mentioned. We went to start the bike, nothing, silence. The rain started spitting, I reluctantly called the support ve- hicle, Calum’s 2 hours South almost in Cornwall. A rowdy group of young male wedding guests came out of the back of the pub, half cut, they all have an opinion on how we can start the bike. Moments later they’re taking turns to help me push the Triumph to the top of the hill, across the bridge and bump starting me across the river. On the 15th go, it roared back to life, they cheer, Rachel downs the last of her drink and we’re back in the game.
A few hours later as we crossed into Cornwall, the rain started again, I saw a familiar Land Rover in a country lay-by. After 9 hours on the bike, 6 of them in the rain, Rachel wisely swapped her seat on the bike for a drier one in the support vehicle.
As I pulled away – with determination to complete this rally on the Thunderbird – the rain really set in, it was already raining but now it’s pouring, my last pair of gloves are soaked, the bike then started to miss-behave. Again it only ran at full revs, then I realised I’d lost the lights and then the front brake gave up. I saw the sign for Helston and The Lizard.. only 17 miles. I’m not giving up now, keeping the bike at full revs, I hammered it down the lanes, taking all of the roundabouts in 3rd gear. I considered taking the more direct route across the middle of a round-about, rather than around it, but thought better of it. Hunched on the saddle, trying to keep the water out, watching the odometer count down the last 17 miles, shouting out at each mile marker for a morale boost “15.. 14.. 13”. Finally the sign for ‘Mile End’ appeared, the last mile South on mainland Britain. I arrived at Lizard Point just after sunset, 9pm, 4 hours late to the final checkpoint and the finish-line. No one in sight, the rally flags had long since been cleared away, but so good to be there, gazing over the sea at Lizard Point. I turn to get back on the bike, the lighthouse lighting up the horizon and the silhouette of the Thunderbird, reminding me of the view North from the lighthouse at the Northern tip of Scotland, just a few days ago, but it seems like an age away. The poor bike, bits missing, smelling bad, no lights, exhausted and in dire need of lubrication – the bike and I had a lot in common at that moment.
ANY LAST WORDS ABOUT THE RALLY EXPERIENCE?
When I got back to the rally camp from the finish line at The Lizard, the afterparty was in full swing, fires lit, drinks flowing, with a gale still howling across the Cornish peninsula – I walked into the food tent like a half-drowned cowboy.
I was the last to leave Scotland and the last to arrive at the finish line, but once I started riding those roads with my team, there was no way I was go- ing to miss out and take a rest day. Things went wrong, bits fell off, but I wouldn’t change it one bit, that was the adventure.