Elephants, motorcycles and snow made for a wild mix of adventure. Described as “bizarre, mad, crazed and foolish,” the Elephant Ride was one of the more adventurous events avid motorcyclists could participate in, anywhere on the planet.
Originally dubbed “The Elephant Mountain Conquest,” it had no relation to the famed Elephantentreffen, the annual crazy cold motorcycle camping in Germany. The Americanized Elephant Ride was birthed over beers in a hardcore biker bar in Denver, Colorado during a blizzard in 1989. While numerous tall tales abound about how this extreme adventure ride came about and what it really was, only two avid motorcyclists know the truth. As the old saying goes, “Only two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.” Two of us are still alive, so out comes some of the secrets of the birth, life and death of the original Elephant Ride.
Elephants in the snow are about as sexy to look at as are motorcycles in the snow. Neither one trigger any release of testosterone. I had read that Hannibal (247-183 BC) marched a number of his war elephants across the Alps in the dead of winter. In the same history book I noted that he lost over half of them, the elephants not being “suited” for the cold. So how do motorcycles relate? The answer was the Elephant Ride, or what was spawned as the Elephant Mountain Conquest.
One cold and snowy winter night in 1989 I was slipping and sliding with my winter motorcycle (BMW R80G/S) on the snow and ice covered Broadway Avenue in Denver, Colorado. As I slid past a local biker bar I noticed another BMW motorcycle parked in front. I turned around and went back to the bar and parked my motorcycle next to the other in the snow. It was a fitting display of BMW foolishness, two BMWs parked in front of a predominantly Harley-Davidson hangout, with none of the famed Milwaukee iron in sight.
Inside the bar I met another year-round-rider, Dave Tharp. His cold weather motorcycle was an older BMW R50/2 model.
Two original not-too-shy Elephant Ride entrants, “Demented Dave” Tharp and “Dr. Moto” Frazier in an early Elephant Mountain Conquest photo.
Tharp and I started to exchange stories and tips about driving motorcycles in the snow and on ice. Two of the hardened Harley-Davidson patrons overheard us and began to inject their comments into our conversation with such mundane statements as, “Both your mothers wear combat boots,” and “My Harley can outrun any BMW ever made.”
Rising to the challenge, Tharp and I finally joined the kibitzers in a lively debate which resulted in all agreeing to meet the following Sunday morning with as many of their Harley-Davidson friends and as many of our BMW friends as each could convince for a morning ride up and over one of our local Rocky Mountains passes.
On the appointed Sunday morning five BMWs were at the agreed upon Start point along with 30 BMW supporters in 4-wheel-drive vehicles. No Harley-Davidson owners or supporters showed. The five BMW owners decided to drive over the pass, even without the challengers, and off we went into a small winter storm, and thus was born the first Elephant Ride.
That first year I fell down half a dozen times. The snow over the pass was a foot deep in places and I had a bald rear tire. I also discovered that the snow was packing up between the front fender and front tire, and then turning to ice as the tire heat from the friction melted the snow. The fender ice eventually made contact with the tire and I found I had to apply more power to the rear wheel, which in turn caused me to crash as I would spin out of control. Taking the front fender off solved the problem, but I experienced several slow speed get-offs before I discovered the fault and my snow driving learning curve flattened.
Tharp, on his BMW R50/2, appeared to have no problem at all, other than not being prepared for the freezing cold and snow flurries. Another BMW driver crashed his street bike so many times we dubbed him “Crash.” The remaining two drivers had BMW’s with sidecars and they seemed to be having the most fun, sliding through the curves and throwing up giant rooster tails in the fresh powder.
Crashes were sometimes caused by a front rider going down and those behind followed suit when trying to avoid the downed rider or their motorcycle, part of the mayhem called Elephant Ride adventure fun.
The motorcycle drivers had a wild time, crashing at slow speeds and laughing, almost as much fun as the people following us in cars and enjoying the show of watching us crash very expensive motorcycles. When we crashed the car people (known as “mice” versus the “men” driving the motorcycles) would pour out of their cars, run forward to help us pick up our downed motorcycle, pat the snow off our leathers and then help us remount. Everyone was laughing, including those of us who were falling down.
At the end of the day there were no broken bones, just shattered plastic parts on our motorcycles and a few wounded egos. Everyone relished being part of our adventure and there were comments from the car riders, the mice, about how “next year” they would pilot their motorcycles instead of driving or riding in the security of their cars.
The next year went on for another nine years and the number of motorcycle drivers increased to over 150 during the height of the Elephant Ride. Dave Despain of ESPN’s Motorworld sent out a film crew to cover the event, ending his commentary with a reference to “zany.” The number of cars and trucks following the Elephant Ride motorcyclists increased to a point where the number of observers exceeded 100.
The Elephant Ride had also grown in other ways. The real “tough” men and women camped out in the minus 0-degree weather alongside a frozen stream. They had to break trail with their motorcycles into a private campground where they erected their tents, started warming campfires and wrote their names with yellow letters in the deep snow during the night. Around the campfires many lies and tales were recounted of past Elephant Rides, crashes and near crashes. “Swill and chill” took on a real meaning during these Rocky Mountain winter motorcycle camp outings.
One year several Elephant Riders foolishly tried to summit the 11,669 foot high Guanella Pass in the darkness of the evening before a predicted snow storm. The result was a fast car ride to a nearby hospital and $11,000 damage to a knee, the knee cap having been ripped off. Another time a sidecar driver drove over an edge of the snow covered road and down a 100-foot embankment.
A sample of cold adventure riding is pictured here as Elephant Riders encountered heavy snow when they neared to the top of Guanella Pass.
Rule #1 for the Elephant Ride was there were no rules. A given was nearly everyone crashed, it was just a function of the number of times that decided whether or not an entrant returned the next year. The participants on their motorcycles were likened to Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters of the Kool-Aid Acid Test days in that there was much merriment associated with the event, including the destroying of elephants.
The evolution of the Elephant Ride over the years caused elephants to suffer. Anything that closely resembled an elephant was the subject of a possible attack during the week of the Elephant Ride. One year a four-foot-high elephant was literally blown up with an explosive device while hundreds of mice and men watched and then cheered. Other toy elephants were pulled, tumbled and then dragged over the Rocky Mountain pass behind motorcycles on skis, tossed onto campfires accompanied by hedonist chants and one was subjected to a ride astride a homemade rocket. One year elephant burgers were featured at a local restaurant and were rumored to have a faint cigarette butt and peanut taste.
At the core of the Elephant Ride was nothing more than what makes many motorcycling events fun, a group of people who love motorcycles. In February for ten years many were given an opportunity to reestablish the relationship with their motorcycles, which in many cases had been ignored due to cold weather and lack of riding companions over the winter months. That relationship between the motorcycle owner and his or her motorcycle was one even Sigmund Freud could not fully understand or explain.
Eventually several Harley-Davidson owners decided to join the fun. One year Tom Tennant from Lakewood, Colorado entered his 1972 FLH chopper. After entering his Norton several times, Greg Ray opted to enter his 1947 Harley Davidson with a sidecar. These entrants were after Justin Hill rode his 1945 Indian Chief to the summit and a year later I entered my 1936 Indian Sport Scout. There were several other expensive vintage or antique entrants which included in 1997 John Cunningham on his 1959 Triumph. In 1995 I rolled out my 1931 Henderson, affixed a self-made rear tire snow chain made of dog collar chains and rope. That year we nearly made it to the summit but three-foot-deep snow stopped all entrants a mile from the top.
One diehard Elephant Rider from Mill Valley, California deserves special mention. He would make the 3200 mile roundtrip to the Elephant Ride, bringing with him a box of fresh leis strapped on the back of his Honda Transalp that he had ordered shipped in from Hawaii just for the event. Before the ride he would pass out the leis to men and women to challenge the cold. Paul Unmacht was a devoted Elephant Ride enthusiast who now rides on The Other Side, but is suspected of ordering snow one day each year while on that side for his annual crazy cold weather riding.
Sadly, the Elephant Ride died in 1999, the victim of success. In a media release published on February 14 that year the organizers bowed to pressure from lawyers, law enforcement officials, political incorrectness and rising event costs. The release read:
ELEPHANT RIDE BURIED – R.I.P
“Pachyderms and motorcycles upside down on an ice-covered road high in the Rocky Mountains. Not a pretty sight. Behemoths wallowing through snow…only Hannibal (247-183) BC) had stones large enough to muscle elephants over high alpine passes, and then he lost over half of them. However, crazed motorcyclists from across the United States may have Hannibal beat in the ‘tough-guy, tough-girl’ category. 1999 marks the end of their efforts to prove how crazy they are in matching Hannibal.
Ten years ago ‘Demented Dave’ Tharp, a BMW aficionado, enlisted organizational help from globetrotting motorcycle adventurer Dr. Gregory Frazier in a face-off, Harley-Davidson motorcycles against all comers. Frazier, a well-known Indian and BMW motorcycle racer, said of the Harley-Davidson challenge, ‘Bring ‘em on, we’ll be gentle with the pups!’
Since that time Frazier, Tharp and hundreds of other deranged motorcycle riders have annually ridden motorcycles in the ‘world’s highest, coldest motorcycle event,’ the Elephant Ride. Crashing is common, as is laughter, camaraderie and fun. Few Harley-Davidson riders have met the challenge of the Elephant Ride; most suffering from yuppification when cold weather and tricky riding conditions prevail.
However, motorcycle marquee owners of other brands such as Honda, Yamaha, Triumph, Kawasaki, Ducati and BMW have had so much fun riding in blizzard conditions above 11,000 feet the annual Elephant Ride became too large. To organize it each year now costs between $5,000 and $10,000. As there has been no entry fee, no advertising and no sponsors for the event, funding came from the organizer’s personal pocketbook. According to Frazier, ‘We passed the hat a couple of times and usually came up with $20 to $30. People got used to having free fun and we were having fun organizing it. As the event grew so did organization and promotion requirements. Our fun became expensive.’
At the official Start of the Elephant Ride it was obvious there was no “Gentlemen, start your engines!” as no flag was dropped and equipment was “run what you brung.” Mountain mayhem followed.
In 1999 the Elephant Ride was declared the last. Ten years of having fun with motorcycles crashing on ice will be fodder for two-wheel historians. Remembered will be the year Elephant Burgers were advertised, but the elephant meat failed to arrive from Africa. Undaunted cooks mixed peanuts and cigarette butts with hamburger and unknowing Elephant Ride participants claimed the burgers did taste like elephant. Also remembered will be stuffed elephants organizers watched disappear with large fireworks. And crashes will be remembered, as well as frozen fingers, broken bones and the motorcycles that did not start due to the cold.
BMW of Denver, the oldest BMW motorcycle dealer in the Rocky Mountains and Elephant Ride host, is sorry to see the Elephant Ride die. A BMW of Denver spokesman said, “Now the zoo keepers at the Denver Zoo can rest easier each February, none of these Elephant Riders is going to try and kidnap one of their elephants. May the Elephant Ride rest in peace.”
Since the official death of the Elephant Ride, a smaller elephant/phoenix has risen from the ashes. Annually a few cold weather riders gather in February in Grant, Colorado and make a Sunday ride up Guanella Pass. But gone are the nights when the former Platte River Inn, also known as “Stinkey’s Corral” would stay open until 2 a.m. serving swill and elephant burgers to campers while a contest of dwarf hurling was being disorganized. And gone are the nighttime races on the ice covered pond owned by Mr. Stinkey – now the area is part of a private lake and event center. As for the exploding pachyderms, they too are gone thanks to new laws, rules and regulations.
One secret that remains is neither Demented Dave nor I have returned to join in the wobbly rising of the phoenix once gloriously described as “Motorcycle Madness in the Rocky Mountains.” Wary of litigation, doing far less swilling and chilling and subject to too much media scrutiny, both Demented Dave and I will likely make our next Elephant Ride with Paul Unmacht on The Other Side.