The Professionals - Simon Smith

Simon Smith of Global Enduro on corrupt coppers, giving £1million to charity and sucking warm milk from a cow’s udder…

What’s the hardest thing about maintaining a successful motorcycle travel company?

The hardest thing originally was for people to have faith in us, because it was a new concept. Now it’s about keeping it unique and working very hard, as simple as that. I’m an Essex man I know life doesn’t hand things out, you’ve got to work harder than everyone else and when competitors come at you, have an answer. When you’re running a business for yourself you cannot let your foot off the gas for one second. I’m hugely motivated because I believe implicitly in what we’re doing. When people understand there’s more to this than just riding around on a motorbike, it tends to take care of itself.

How important is the bike to your tours?

Bikes are things that we love and they’re a wonderful way to have an adventure, but they’re not the future. We’ll continue to keep growing our bike rallies, but adventure is a big thing and motorcycles are just one way of doing it. And bikes are a small audience. We’re not moving away from bikes, but there’s treks across the Zambian wilderness, camel expeditions across Namibia, there’s military events that we’re putting together with a famous SAS guy – there’s all these things where we can take the Enduro concept but we don’t need the bikes.

Your company is known for pushing the limits of what normal people can do. But where would you draw the line on a rally?

You don’t actually know where the line is until you find it on one of these rides. I found my line once in Africa, rode over it and promptly broke three ribs, but the lines are always moving, it’s not a static thing. People need to feel scared, people need to feel challenged and emotional at the end of the trip, but that should never mean we’re actually putting them in danger. It’s an incredibly subtle line to draw, and it’s something we’re always aware of during a tour.

What’s been the single biggest logistical nightmare you’ve ever had on a trip?

In 2004 on our second Enduro India there had been a change of the chief of police, so I went to see the new guy. His name was Vijay Singh, and he was an evil fucking man! I asked if he would come and flag off the rally, but he turned to me and said, “your rally is not leaving the bloody carpark.” At this stage I had 160 people in the air all arriving within 12 hours, who’d raised £250,000 for charity and we’d already spent their money on organising the tour. As my customers were above Iran on a plane, I was on an overnight train to meet the one politician who could over-rule this corrupt copper. “I know this policeman’s boss,” says the politician, and he writes me a letter, seals it with wax at the table, and I get back on the train. Just as our clients are landing in India I’m sitting with the policeman’s boss. He reads the letter, freaks out and sacks him on the spot. “Get out before I beat you!” he shouted after him. That was the longest train journey of my entire life…

Is that how India is run, then?

It is, but it’s no different in this country. We assume here that everything is good and fair in the UK, but all those judges and politicians are in it for one thing: power. And in a poor country, those people don’t give a damn what you’re raising for charity, they just want to know what’s in it for them. It’s vital that you stand your ground and don’t give in to any bribes, because the moment you give a bribe to a politician, you’re screwed. In the end they’ll ask for so much money it’ll kill your business.

Some cynics would suggest that your charity angle is merely a tool to make people sign up...

Of course it is, we want them to sign up so we raise more money for charity! That’s why we do this. I don’t give a shit what cynics say, how many companies do you know big or small that are raising £1 million per year for charity? This is a way of life for us. We earn decent salaries in the office and why not, we work bloody hard and we’ve got to pay our bills, but central to what we do is raising money and we give away over 50% of our profit every year.

What have you learned about people from running this business?

I’ve learned how bitter and twisted some people can be, but I’ve also learned how wonderful people are as well. The two best qualities in the human spirit are compassion and adventure, and if you can bring those two together and add a motorcycle you’ve got a magic formula.

Did you notice any increase in business after the Ewan and Charley programmes?

They’ve certainly not done any harm. I’ve heard so many jibes against those two, “they only did it because they had a support crew,” stuff like that, and it stinks of jealousy. They went round the world and they got bikers inspired. Riding motorcycles shouldn’t be about a fashion label, and that’s what it’s been drummed down to. What bike do you ride, what leathers you got? Riding a bike is just a Louis Vuitton bag for some people. Biking used to be about expression, individualism and togetherness, Charley and Ewan have done that in abundance and they should be saluted for that.

How do locals generally react when 100 white fellas on motorbikes turn up on their doorstep?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re riding into a ghetto in Brazil where a man with a machine gun waves you in, or into the poorest, Aids-riddled village in Africa. Generally people are happy to see you, and the poorest people are the richest. Those with nothing want to give. But one guy got hit in the throat with a rock and we had a spear thrown at one of our riders in Africa. He said, “Si, look at this stick, it’s got an arrow-head on it!” and I laughed, “you’re in Africa, man! What do you expect?” Individuals do exist that could do you harm, but they’re certainly not the ones that overwhelm you.

Finally, what’s the single weirdest thing you’ve seen in all of your travels?

I saw an adult male Indian man lying underneath a cow sucking warm milk out of her udders once. I rode past with my mouth open, expecting to get splashed!