Engineer and Gerbing customer Paul Ryder recently rode to the 65th Elephant Rally in the Bavarian Forest. The ‘Elefantentreffen’ is a famous winter weekend motorcycle rally in Germany and a favourite of hardcore motorcycle rally enthusiasts, attracted by the challenges of cold-weather and quite frankly brutal conditions. It’s intentionally basic – participants can only bring legal motorcycles and sidecars on to the site and all camping gear must be carried in on them.
The Elephant Rally is the stuff of motorbiking legend. As Paul says, ‘You’ve got to go to once in your life.’ The first was organised in 1956 by Ernst Leverkus as a get-together for winter-loving devotees of the Zündapp KS 601 motorcycle/sidecar combo. The KS 601, also known as ‘Der Grune Elefant’, the ‘green elephant’, gave its name to the rally, which happens on the first weekend in February or the last weekend in January annually. Since 1989 it takes place in a valley between the towns of Thurmansbang and Solla near the Czech border, in order to get maximum snow. It is organised by the Federal Association of Motorcycle Riders in Germany. This year, 2,645 motorcyclists from all over Europe attended; some brought their modified motorcycles. The youngest participant was 17 and the oldest was 80.
Paul and his friend Dane were two of these hardy motorcyclists, camping in temperatures that fell overnight to minus 9 degrees. Thankfully, he took his trusty Gerbing heated products along for the ride and lived to tell the tale.
Why did you decide to do the Elephant Rally and what is so special about it?
I wanted to go due to the freezing conditions, camping in the snow and the forest location. It’s like a badge of honour to go there. Anyone in the biking fraternity - you say you’ve been to the Elephant Rally - and they go, ‘Wooah…. Savage!’
You never know what weather you’re going to get. This year, which was the first year I’d gone, we didn’t get snow, unfortunately. It was actually too cold to snow. So, the challenges were different, like trying to find some water to cook with that wasn’t frozen. We camped for two nights. You buy a bale of hay when you get there, put that down first then pitch your tent on top. As well as my riding gear, I took ex-military kit, suitable for the Arctic, which worked well and we were warm enough. You have to wear base layers, like merino wool.
The atmosphere at the rally is amazing. There were all sorts of people. It’s like a festival: having a few drinks around the campfires, looking at the bikes, and riders modifying their bikes to adapt to the conditions. There are some competitions, like a tug-of-war, and awards for furthest distance travelled to the rally, and best self-built bike. Some people are really kitted out for the conditions, even bringing marquees along in their sidecars. We made friends from all over the world – Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and more.
I also did it to raise money for Cancer Research, a charity close to my heart.
How was your journey to the Elephant Rally?
It was actually all right on the bike, travelling, because I was wearing my Gerbing heated clothing. I also bought a Honda CB500X for the trip. I knew I needed something light, but with enough puff to get along the motorways.
It took a day and a half to get there and a day and a half back. It was beyond freezing at one point. We asked a motorist what temperature his car was measuring and he said it was minus seven. We were going along at about 65mph and so, with the wind chill, that equated to minus 44 degrees. It was savage. If I switched off my heated jacket, I was frozen within minutes. If you had your visor open even a fraction, the wind coming in with the wind chill would be instant brain freeze. You couldn’t have any vents open on your helmet. There was also lots of salt on the road. That sprays up so you can’t see anything, and coupled with low sun… what can I say. It’s an endurance thing!
Dane fell off his bike once on a slip road as he was coming off the motorway. I had a slide on the black ice but more by luck than by judgment, I didn’t come off.
Did Gerbing's riding gear do the job?
I wanted reliable heat, so I bought Gerbing heated motorcycle clothing to ensure I was well prepared, and could travel distances in comfort. I'm happy to say everything worked very well. I wore the Gerbing heated motorcycle jacket liner, trousers and socks.
What I did was very extreme. Not many people go out in minus seven at 65mph - that’s expecting a lot of your kit. I put the temperature controller up on the tankbag so I could see it easily. I had the dual heat controller and I adjusted the heat as I was going along. I generally flipped between the first and second heat settings. The second temperature setting was sufficient for body warmth and I didn’t need to go higher than three.
I definitely wouldn’t have found it as tolerable as I did without that gear. I’d have really struggled. I went away earlier this year in colder weather, and I didn’t have heated socks, and my feet… I thought I’d got frostbite, and that was only minus three. The Gerbing kit was comfortable to wear and fitted well.
And finally… would you recommend going to the Elephant Rally?
Oh yes, totally. The sense of achievement you feel when you get there, despite all the adverse condition... it's amazing. You’ve got to go there once in your motorbike career.