"Be Careful What You Wish For ..." The 1996 Elephant Ride
The weather gods smiled, and Elephant riders celebrate
Unfortunately, the weather in Colorado was fine. Daytime highs were in the 70s, and the roads were clear and dry all along the Front Range. The Eighth Annual Elephant Ride -- arguably the kookiest motorcycle event in North America -- was in danger of being boring. Then the weather gods smiled.
The origins of the Elephant Ride are lost in obscurity. Some say it began as an inebriated challenge issued by some BMW riders to a group of Harley riders in a dive bar in Denver. The pachydermic name commemorates Hannibal's crossing of the Alps with war elephants during the Second Punic War (218 B.C.). More likely it was patterned after the "Elefanten Treffen," a wintertime motorcycle/sidecar meet held every winter in Austria, originally a rally for Zundapp enthusiasts who affectionately nicknamed their steeds "Gruene Elefanten" (Green Elephants).
By Dave Tharp, Virtual Museum Curator.
The previous year's event featured 18 inches of powder snow and a temperature of minus eight degrees Fahrenheit, but the dirt road over the 11,669 foot Guanella Pass was dry this year, and people had been driving over it in Geo Metros.
But February weather in the Central Rockies is notoriously wild. The die-hard fans and participants (who return year after year to challenge the elements) were hoping for the worst.
And an odd group of participants it certainly is. They arrive in little clumps, a few from the Norton club, a handful of BMW enthusiasts, a gaggle of roadracers, some denizens of the Internet, or a group of enduro riders. This is not a mainstream event. These people are looney-tunes. The only uniting theme seems to be the uncontrollable desire to do something silly with motorcycles.
When we arrived at 3 PM at Grant, the roadracer group (mounted on dirtbikes of all descriptions) had already set up an oval course on the campsite's pond, and were holding impromptu outlaw ice races. They merrily roosted plumes of slush on each other, crashed into the snow berms, and took a terrible toll of clutch levers. Hundreds of sheet-metal screws driven into the knobbies provided amazingly good traction, and enough speed for some spectacular wipe-outs.
But there wasn't any snow. "The weather report said there was a chance for 1 to 3 inches of snow in the central Rockies on Sunday," said one weather-watcher in an attempt to raise spirits, but the everyone thought the ride would be dry, dusty and dull.
Opinion varies widely on what sort of equipment to use on the Elephant Ride. Bikes included BMW GS's, an excellent Norton Atlas, a scruffy BSA 441 Victor, and dirtbikes ranging from a DT-1 Yamaha to an XR600 Honda. Sidecar rigs, highly favored by those who don't like to fall down so much, were well represented, with a couple of BMW's, a two-wheel-drive Neval (British export version of the Russian Ural), and a pristine '47 Harley Knucklehead rig.
Paul Uhmacht, a perennial Elephant Rider, had ridden his Honda Transalp in from San Franciso, and "Dr. Moto" Gregory Frazier had trailered up a knobby-tired '36 Indian Sport Scout for the event. The red-menace Neval rig had been brought on a trailer by Jack Wells from New Jersey, for its second attempt on Guanella, after toasting its clutch in deep snow the previous year.
After dark, the campout conformed to motorcycle norms all over the world, with bench racing, story telling, and beer. Campsite owner Al Gross offered his large metal garage for a gathering place, complete with the luxury of electricity, and a small propane burner.
After considerable consumption of beer, one of the Indian riders performed a snow dance, and although he only managed a few steps before losing his equilibrium, we hoped it would work.
And, starting at about 3:00 AM, it did. A few flakes began to fall.
The temperature was mild in the morning, but we awoke to three inches of snow and the sound of engine starts.
At the 11am start, although the sun had come out, and melted the road in the staging area, snow pack was encountered after only a few hundred feet.
Starting out in the rear of the pack, with a handy sidecar to keep us upright, we were treated to a scene of double, triple, and quadruple getÐoffs, with bikes in every conceivable orientation except upright. This is a normal occurrence at the Elephant Ride, and riders who have not yet fallen, eagerly stop and help, knowing that they'll need reciprocity within the next few minutes.
The snow began to get deeper as we motored our way along, periodically losing traction and swinging the tail of the rig around in a series of arcs. We began to have to push snow with the sidecar, and its smaller-diameter wheel began to bog down. After about five miles, we partially solved the problem by moving the passenger from the chair to the rear position on the motorcycle, which unloaded the sidecar tire, and provided additional ballast for traction. As we continued, the snow became deeper, the slopes became steeper, and we constantly rode on the edge of bogging down.
Finally, we had to push. With the back tire spinning, one of us pushed at the handlebars, while the other pushed on the back of the sidecar. We made the next crest.
Half riding, half pushing, we climbed to the last switchback before the long, steep final climb to the top of the pass, at about the 10,000 foot level. We could go no further. The snow was too deep, and we were exhausted.
Dr. Moto pushed, pulled and dragged his '36 Scout up the same hill we had just made. He collapsed for a few minutes at our switchback, then got out a box of screws and a nutdriver, and started replacing the screws in his rear knobby. "These things aren't worth a damn," he stated. "They just get thrown off after a mile or so." I didn't have the heart to tell him that everybody else was using 7/16" long screws, not 3/16" screws. He then kicked the old Indian to life, and up he went.
By now, many dirtbike types had made the top, and were on their way back, so they stopped and told us what it was like. "MAN! The snow's about two feet deep, and the wind is blowing 40 miles an hour! We barely made it!"
About then, the another Indian, a '46 Chief bob-job, ridden by Justin Hill, slid into our switchback, closely followed by the two-wheel drive Neval rig, by now with chains on both driving tires. The Neval churned around the corner and disappeared up the road, without a sign of slippage or loss of traction. Justin hung out for a few minutes of rest, then started up the slope, roosting a nice fan of snow, and fishtailing like a shark in a feeding frenzy.
The ride back to Grant was uneventful for the sidecar-equipped, although the sun had come out at lower elevations, and turned the road into a muddy morass. A little mud never hurt anybody. We hung around the base camp for a while after the ride, and chatted with the participants.
A very few (including Paul Uhmacht on his Transalp) had made it all the way across, and all the way down to Georgetown.
Twenty or so had made it to the top, mostly on screw-equipped dirtbikes. The Neval rig made it, both Indians made it, and an ancient 750 Honda made it. Unfortunately, Greg Ray's Knucklehead rig had shed a few gearteeth from the transmission, repeatedly losing and regaining traction.
But smiles were evident on every participant's face, vows to "be here next year" were exchanged, and good-natured insults were hurled. Nobody complained of the cold, snow, exhaustion, pain, bad luck, or mud. They LIKED it.