Elefantentreffen Is the Most Bizarre Motorcycle Rally You’ve Never Heard Of
Forget about Rolling Thunder and Daytona Bike Week and even Sturgis. If you want to see truly hardcore motorcycle fanatics, make your way to Elefantentreffen. It’s the most amazing motorcycle rally you’ve never heard of.
Every winter for the past 60 years, a few thousand riders from throughout Europe descend on Germany (the location has changed over the years) in the dead of winter for three days of laughter, roast pig, and many, many drinks.
Italian photographer Alessandro D’Angelo caught wind of the event a few years ago when an old mechanic told him he must go to Elefantentreffen if he wanted to see a true biker. The name means “Elephant Rally” because of the olive-drab Zündapp KS 601 or “The Green Elephant” driven at the event in the 1950s. It’s held in late January or early February in the Bavarian Forest about 110 miles east of Munich, near the Czech border. Everyone takes a different route, and getting there through the sleet and snow is half the fun.
D’Angelo made his first trip in 2014, setting out from his tiny hometown in central Italy. He took a car, two trains, and a bus before hitchhiking in a van to Thurmansbang, a tiny town at the edge of the Bavarian Forest. From there, he trekked nearly five miles into the snowy wood, spotting a few several heavily-loaded motorcycles whizzing by along the way. Just when he knew he was lost, he heard the faint roar of engines in the distance. He trudged on. “Finally in front of me lies a valley: motorcycles parked everywhere, people laden with firewood and tents that go in all directions, hundreds of campfires and a great euphoria that saturates the air,” he says. “Now it’s time to shoot pictures.”
At least 5,000 riders attend Elefantentreffen each year (although legend has it that 35,000 attended in 1977), riding in from as far as Russia and Italy. Old iron abounds, with the Zündapp KS 601 always a popular ride, along with old Jawas, the obligatory BMWs and even the odd Vespa. The machines are as unique as the people who ride them, sporting everything from sidecars tricked out to carry vast quantities of beer (and other, um, supplies) to a “rusty Moto Guzzi with animal bones screwed on.” Riders dress for the cold, but also for show. Vintage military uniforms, furry hats, and the occasional Spiderman costume are common.
Most arrive the on the first night, roaring in on bikes heavy with chainsaws, stoves, tents and so much beer. Camp is made, fires built, and drinking commenced. Soon the air is filled with the smell of roasting pigs and “many cauldrons with strange alcoholic concoctions.” It is invariably bitterly cold, but no one seems to mind. “For the Elefantentreffen participants, the snow and the cold, the smell of smoke and roasted pork are the essential requirements for happiness,” D’Angelo says.
The photographer attended in 2014 and 2015, wandering about making friends and taking portraits. He wanted to portray the riders as “movie heroes,” which certainly comes across in their strong poses and big smiles. D’Angelo was fascinated by the people, who represent all walks of life, from farmers and students to engineers and doctors. The photographer notes that even though they rarely spoke the same language, it didn’t really matter. “The beauty of this rally it’s that to all the people no matter who you are, how you are and what you do,” he says. “Everybody is equal as long as they get there.”
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