As Vern tells the story, it all started one February day about 30 years ago when he and some others on BMWs encountered some Harley riders in the small Colorado town of Grant. Grant is on U.S. 285, right at the foot of the road that runs up over Guanella Pass and down to Georgetown, along I-70.
The Harley guys were dissing the beemer guys, so Vern and his buddies issued a challenge. “How about if we all ride over Guanella Pass to Georgetown. Are you with us?”
No, the Harley riders were having none of that, but the beemer guys took their own challenge, made it, and a tradition was born.
The Elephant Ride, named for Hannibal and his Alps crossing, complete with elephants, caught on in a big way in later years. Riders from across the country and even around the world showed up to take the challenge. ESPN even came out one time to film the event and broadcast coverage nationwide.
Then it almost died out, but a small core kept the heart beating. Now, a big part of that core is made up of Adventure Riders, who use their forum to plan and promote such events. That’s how I heard about it and it just sounded like something too good to pass up.
As the event grew, a big part of it became camping out up in Grant the night before. Never mind that it’s February and there’s a foot of snow on the ground; are you here to have an adventure or not?
So Saturday evening I loaded up and drove to Grant and selected my spot for the night. Then I joined the party, already very much in progress. At times the wind was a bone-chiller, while at other times it abated. Regardless, the big campfire blazed and an incredibly gung-ho bunch of guys hung out around it talking about different motorcycles, motorcycle trips in various parts of the world, past Elephant Rides, and much, much more. Every now and then a bottle of Old Overholt made the rounds.
More snow fell during the night so in the morning it was time to dig the bikes out and try to fire them up in the bitter cold. Some started right away, while others warmed their riders trying endlessly to kick the engines over. More riders were also arriving, having slept in their warm beds at home and risen early to drive on up. There were dirt bikes of all kinds as well as Rokons, those squat, wide-tired, two-wheel-drive jeeps of the motorcycle world. A little later a contingent of Ural sidecar rigs pulled in. That was my ticket; I was riding monkey in a friend’s sidecar.
Eventually, in groups of 8-12, the bikes started rolling out. The ones with screws in their tires blasted along, while those riding bare-tired put much of their effort into staying upright.
The road up Guanella Pass is maintained in winter to a point, and beyond that you’re on your own. The road was totally snow-covered but it wasn’t bad, and by the time the Urals reached the point where they had had to turn around last year it was still clear sailing. On around a bend we went, up a hill to a switchback, and there we caught up with some bikes.
Opinions were varied at this point.
“I’m not going any further on this road; I barely made it up that last hill.”
“Of course we’re going on. You can see it’s icy on the right but if you stay to the left it’s good, hard-packed snow.”
Everyone continued. Then we hit the first of the drifts. The road was crossing a ridge and the wind was howling, blowing snow that built and continued to add to a sizeable drift. Bikes before us had punched a path through, and we watched as a couple riders had at it. At times the best approach was to stand on the snow above the bikes and raise the front end, while powering the rear wheel. One rider grabbed the front wheel of his buddy’s bike and worked it forward. They got across.
Then the lead Ural ran into the drift at speed to see if he could bust his way through. No dice, and that was as far as the hacks would be going today. The Rokons (top speed 20 mph) finally arrived and even they struggled, but made it through the drift and kept going.
Around the bend, however, was another, bigger and deeper drift. And some who had cleared the first one called it a day. Ultimately, only a couple Rokons and a TZ 250 made it to the top of the pass, and nobody went down the other side to Georgetown. Of course, every drift you struggled through going one way was a drift you had to struggle through again going the other way. Enough is enough.
Back at the staging area again, it was all about loading bikes on trailers and heading home. Another Elephant Ride had been made, and no one cared that they hadn’t made it to Georgetown. If the journey is the destination, we had all gotten to where we wanted to go.
By Ken Bingenheimer