It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult. The fog thickens as we ascend further up the San Bernardino mountain pass in the Swiss Alps. Rain intensifies from a light spit to a thunderous clatter as the road winds towards the dense clouds. Visibility worsens with every bend, and now, any progress is made largely by guesswork. Car lights suddenly appear from the white, rushing towards us and allowing little time to think. The road markings have long gone, and we only know we’re entering a corner when halfway through it. We’re three days into the Great Malle Mountain Rally and I’m wondering if I can go on.
I’m one of 75 riders taking part in this new annual motorcycle rally, which is the largest ever attempted in the Alps. It was dreamt up by Malle London, a company that, when it’s not organizing such adventure-travel excursions, produces robust, practical luggage and hard-wearing jackets designed for stylish motorcycling. Created off the back of Malle’s annual UK ride from Land’s End in England to John o’ Groats in Scotland, this motoring foray is the first time the outfit has tackled continental Europe, and the challenge is bigger than ever before. The route takes in 1,500 miles in six days and goes through Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Italy, France and, finally, Monaco, where riders finish by taking a dip in the Mediterranean.
That last part seems like an impossible luxury at the moment, as I now attempt to descend the pass in the pouring rain and with limited range of vision. Reaching a high-point of 6,778 feet in elevation, the 20-mile serpentine route is one of the most beautiful in Europe, taking in mountain lakes, castle ruins and waterfalls as it dissects the soaring peaks that dominate this part of Switzerland. But in my current convoy of five riders, we see none of that as the dense blanket of fog stubbornly blocks the view. As we make our way down the other side it eventually begins to clear, but the rain holds up.
The week wasn’t always wet. The day prior, I awoke to the sight of orange-tinged mountaintops as the sun rose. This was a welcome sign on the longest day of the rally, with 221 miles through three countries ahead of us. The route would involve traversing the notorious Stelvio Pass, one of the highest driving roads in the world. Topping out at 9,045 feet above sea level, the stretch is a marvel of engineering with its 60 hairpin switchbacks that carve through the mountainside. Yet there is little time to consider the surroundings when hauling a motorcycle to the summit. It’s only when you get there that it’s possible to fully appreciate the technicality and beauty of the twisting tarmac you just navigated.
Compared to others, I had it easy. Malle originally started arranging these rallies for “inappropriate”’ motorcycles, encouraging riders to enter the wildest vintage bobbers, flat trackers, cruisers and cafe racers, all in the spirit of old-school adventure. This year saw incredibly cool but rather impractical machines enter, like a late 1970s Honda CBX, a Kawasaki ZRX1200R turned custom by Debolex Engineering and a Harley Davidson Breakout—a drag-style chopper better suited to Route 66. My ride is a Royal Enfield Interceptor 650, which is among the most practical models that could have been selected.
First introduced in 2018, the Interceptor 650 is based on a classic Enfield design of the same name that was originally made from 1960 through 1970. Its 650 cc parallel-twin motor stands out amongst the smaller single-cylinder power plants that the India-based marque is well known for. And while still modest compared to the increasingly powerful competition, it’s a remarkable motorcycle with output that’s more than you ever realistically need for the road.
Lightweight and easy to maneuver at slow speeds, the Interceptor instantly instils confidence, which comes in handy on the many tight, 90-degree hairpins I encounter over the week. When the road opens up, the bike comes into its own; its 47 bhp, burbling twin propelling me out of corners with a surprising pace. Indeed, keep the revs high and the Interceptor will hang onto the coattails of much more powerful sport bikes. My particular example comes with a red-and-gold chrome fuel tank to match its gleaming engine and upswept exhausts, tapping further into the bike’s 1960s heritage.
None of this, of course, matters on the last day of the rally, after I’ve conquered the Stelvio, the Dolomites, the Furka and the Col de l’Iseran pass, the highest and perhaps most remarkable paved road in the entire Alps. I can no longer pull in the clutch, my backside feels like it will be permanently sore and my arms are locked into a perpetual double fist bump. The rally pushes you to your limit, redefining what you previously thought possible on a motorbike. With that comes an enormous sense of achievement. It’s the motoring equivalent of running a marathon every day, with all the physical and mental strains that come with it; but then there’s the satisfaction and endorphin rush, too.
At the end of this grueling day with the fog and the rain and the hairpins, I sit at the top of the camp in Chaserstatt, which is at an altitude of 5,800 feet. Overlooking an endless horizon of mountains, I’m halfway between crying and uncontrollable excitement, my arms and legs tingling with adrenaline. It’s a feeling adventurers have been chasing for centuries, propelling them to attempt ludicrous things in the name of exploration. It’s something the Malle team has achieved in spades. And they’re not stopping here. The second mountain rally is already scheduled for September 2023, while an arctic event (finishing in the Arctic Circle) and a rally in Morocco and the Saharan desert are also in the works. I better start planning now.
Click here for more photos from the Great Malle Mountain Rally.