Adventure bike rider rallies

Meet 'N' Greet


If you want to meet fellow overlanders, or pick their brains about doing your first big trip, there’s an easy way to do it – go to a rally for travel bike riders, says Peter Henshaw

So you want to find a decent bike rally? No problem, there are loads of them. Just about every weekend between April and October there’s something going on, and a few carry on through the winter. Then there’s the increasingly popular weekday evening meets, usually based at a scenic pub, the classic bike runs and unorganised meets where bikers just come and go as they like – the Ace Café, Devil’s Bridge and almost anywhere with a sea view.

All good stuff. The trouble is, none of those are geared towards overland travellers, whether they’ve just come back from a big trip, or are thinking of doing one and want some advice. The chances are that the immaculate Touratech-equipped GS has never been further abroad than Brittany. KTM V-twin, the latest Tenere… very nice bikes, probably ridden briskly on road, but never touched mud. Of course, you might strike lucky at your local bike meet or rally, and come across, say, an older GS or Transalp, with two big aluminium panniers covered with stickers from all over the world. The owner will be happy to talk to you about where they’ve been, what they’ve seen, reminisce about shared experiences, or inspire you to take off and do your own big trip.

On the other hand, you might not meet anyone like that. But it shouldn’t matter, because there are a few bike rallies that cater exclusively for adventure bike riders. They’re spread far enough geographically and throughout the year that you should be able to get to one. And the nice thing is, you don’t have to have ridden around the world (or even across a continent) to qualify for entry. Anyone can go, regardless of bike or riding experience. And if you’re thinking of doing a big trip, then they are thronged with friendly, knowledgeable people who will be happy to share their experience.

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

The organisers

Without doubt, the biggest name among overlanders’ meets is Horizons Unlimited. Years ago, Canadian couple Grant and Susan Johnson set off around the world on their BMW R80GS. After 11 years on the road, they settled in London and set up the Horizons Unlimited website, which really is worth a visit if you’re remotely interested in adventure biking, as it’s full of travellers’ stories, hints and tips. Grant and Susan have even produced their own set of ‘How To…’ DVDs which takes you through everything from bike preparation and inoculations to off-road riding skills and the best places to camp.

But Horizons Unlimited doesn’t have a monopoly. Bernd Tesch looks every inch the travel specialist he is – big beard, hearty manner – and runs his overland meet in Belgium every April. A newer rally is the Motorrad Reise Traffen in Lower Saxony, while if all that sounds a bit tame, then think about spending Christmas on a campsite in Patagonia – in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. Bike travellers who can’t stand mince pies meet up there every year. The Elephant Rally is a bit closer to home, though camping in Germany, mid- winter, means it’s not the soft option.

All of these rallies have to cover their costs, but none of them are run on strictly commercial lines. So they’re not expensive (though it’s a good idea to pre-book before they fill up), and tend to be run by folk who do it because they’ve done big trips themselves and want to make it easy for like-minded folk to meet each other and keep in touch. Sounds good to me. Here’s more about them.

Horizons USA

When? Sept 2011 Where? Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge, Robbinsville, North Carolina Web:

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

There aren’t just a couple of Horizons meets – there will have been 16 in 2010, in Canada, the USA, Spain, Argentina, Bulgaria, Ireland, Thailand… Four of those are in Canada/USA, and the Robbinsville meet is typical. Based at the Iron Horse Motorcycle Lodge, Cabins and Compound, it all looks very civilised, and there’s a mix of practical and inspiring presentations – in 2010 there was a women-only session, and an experts panel.

This is one of the smaller rallies, with about 80 people each year, and it’s a remote area. But you’ll get to know everyone more quickly, and there are some great rides nearby, like the Tail of the Dragon (local road with over 300 bends in 11 miles). Or for something further west, there’s another HU meeting in Colorado in August.

Tesch Travel Treffen

When? 29 April – 1 May 2011 Where? Malmedy, Belgium Web:

Bernd Tesch is a great big bear of a man, a sort of cross between David Bellamy, Ted Simon and Nick Sanders. As well as running outdoor survival courses and selling a huge range of adventure biking travel books, Bernd holds TTT every April, in a field just outside the town of Malmedy in southern Belgium. It usually attracts around 300 riders, and the pre-book fee is €25.

It’s a back to basics sort of event (or it was the year I went) with facilities limited to a couple of portaloos, and bring-your-own beer – there’s no bar, or indeed anywhere indoors to congregate. Belgium in April can be chillier than you think – this is the Ardennes, where in 1944 the Allied advance across Europe was pinned down by bad weather, so be prepared. It was snowing as I put my tent up.

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

As with all these events, there’s plenty of time to chat around a big bonfire in the evening, though there’s also a ride out to a village hall one afternoon for talks and lectures. But the best entertainment is outside – the camping field is only accessible by riding through a river or over a footbridge, and there’s nothing better than to sit by the river watching the bikes come through. I’ve been there, done that, fallen off.

Ushuaia Christmas

When? Christmas 2011 Where? Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego Web: Nothing specific

The Ushuaia gathering, held every Christmas in the southernmost town on the planet, is a bit different in that it’s not organised. Other rally organisers have been involved in the past, but these days it’s arranged via forums and blogs by whoever feels like going. If you want to be part of it, the best bet is to keep an eye on these to find out which campsite the bikes are gathering at.

Being based at Ushuaia, simply riding to this meeting is a challenge in itself. Many bikers favour Ruta 40 (South America’s Route 66 and the southern end of the Pan American Highway – do the whole 3,000 miles, and you’ll cross 20 national parks and bag 27 Andean mountain passes). Don’t expect big crowds or organised events at Ushuaia, but everyone will have done some serious riding to get there, including nearly 300 miles of gravel and tar roads across Tierra del Fuego alone. This is place to meet the serious travellers – but I’m told it’s a good laugh into the bargain.

Horizons UK

When? 23-26 June 2011 Where? Lumb Farm, Ripley, Derbyshire Web:

Thought to be the biggest overlanders’ rally in the world, the first Horizons UK meeting had just 40 people turn up, but around 600 made it in 2010. It’s easy to get to (10 miles from J26 of the M1) and although you’ll be camping, the club house has a bar and hot food.

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

The pre-book price is £35 (Friday to Sunday) and it’s a bargain. From Friday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime there’s a packed programme of talks, demonstrations and chat. Just about every aspect of overland travel by bike is covered: preparation, luggage, tyre changing, yoga (just the thing after a hard day in the saddle), photography… plus inspiring talks with pictures from people who’ve done big trips. Highlights for the next one are Austin Vince (biking’s Boris Johnson), septuagenarian Simon Gandolfi (round India on a 125) and Ted Simon. If you want the maximum advice and inspiration on how to make that big trip, this is the one to go to.

Elephant Rally

When? 28-30 January 2011 Where: Loh, Bavaria Web:

Not an overlanders’ meet as such, but the Elephant Rally deserves a special mention – riding hundreds of miles across Europe in mid- winter and camping in temperatures down to -20°C mean this is one for the committed only.

Running since 1956, the Elephant is Europe’s biggest winter bike rally and now claims to attract up to 10,000 riders. Don’t expect to be deafened by thrash metal – the Elephant is described on its website as a ‘quiet and traditional rally’ whose activities include ice sculpture and a torchlit procession, the latter to commemorate riders killed on the road. However, I’m reliably informed that a certain amount of beer is drunk.

Since 1989 the rally site has been between the towns of Thurmanbourg and Solla in the Bavarian Forest, and it’s surrounded by beautiful twisties, though as many are snow covered at rally time, that does take the edge off things. Many riders arrive in sidecar outfits, but cars, quads and trikes are banned, so it certainly is one for the traditionalists.

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

If the Elephant sounds a bit too extreme, try the Dragon Rally, a milder UK equivalent held in North Wales every February – the same idea, but slightly less chilly (but not by much).

MRT – Gieboldhausen

When? First weekend in September Where: Lower Saxony Web:

The youngest of the overlander rallies, though it says something that even this one has been going for 14 years. Motorrad Reise Treffen, as you might guess from the name, is held in Germany – at Gielboldehausen, a small town in Lower Saxony on the Rhine. That’s a nice area for biking, as the Harz Mountains are nearby, so it can be combined with a decent riding holiday.

Based in a camping field next to a hotel, the rally offers the usual mix of lectures, chat and a big bonfire. A good few hundred people were expected in 2010, with talks including Hans-Dieter Schnapka, who has ridden his diesel bike to Vladivstock. Food stalls mean you don’t have to self-cater if you don’t want to, and of course the beer’s on tap.

And although it’s surrounded by some fantastic roads and scenery, these aren’t the reason for coming to Gielboldhausen, according to organiser Ralph Wustefeld: “It’s the meeting itself. Talking to other riders, the exchange of travel information from one world traveller to another.”

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

People you meet…

Most Harley-Davidson Electraglides only get wheeled out on sunny Sundays, but Peter and Kay Forwood are a tad more ambitious. They’ve ridden theirs over 300,000 miles all over the world, across deserts, over mountain ranges and through the Congo.

But why take such a heavyweight cruiser? “It was the bike I had at the time,” says Peter. “I set off do a three-month trip on my own, liked it so much that Kay joined me, we rented our house out and have been travelling ever since.” That was 13 years ago, since when they’ve visited every single recognised country in the world.

The hardest part was that muddy track through the Congo, where they dropped the bike several times a day, but thanks to its hard panniers, the Harley only topples over by 45°. It’s been reliable too – clutches last 150,000 miles and drive belts about 30,000.

Meet 'N' Greet
Photo: Peter Henshaw

Would they do it again? “Absolutely,” says Peter. “People envisage the world out there as a dirt bike world, but it’s not – 90% of the roads we did were tarmac.”