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3rd April 2009


A Honda CB160 Abroad, Part 2
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After encountering big snow en route to the Elephant Rally at the Nurburgring in 1968, Roger Harrold's Honda converted itself to an 80cc single. And then things got really bad...

I puttered round Waimes and came across the Hotel des Ardennes and my O-level French was good enough to establish that they had a room available. Actually, they had an entire hotel, as I was probably the only potential guest for miles around. The owner put the bike into a warm dry storage room, his wife dried my riding gear in front of a fire and they invited me to eat with them in their kitchen. I was very grateful for warmth and safety after what had been a very difficult and dangerous ride, and I have since wondered what sort of treatment I'd have got in England as a wet and dirty motorcyclist pitching up at a hotel on a dark snowy night.

Next day things looked much better. The snow had stopped and with the bike dried out and running well, I made good progress across the Ardennes to the German border where I found to my great relief that, unlike their Belgian counterparts, the Germans actually cleared the snow from their roads. I latched onto a couple of ex-Wehrmacht Zundapp sidecar outfits, the 'Elephants' which had given the rally its name, and we had a good fast ride over the remaining miles, arriving at Nurburgring about mid-morning.

Oi! Some of those bikes are cars... The campsite at the 1968 Elephant Rally

Since I had arrived a day late my pre-booked room had gone, and an officious lady from the local tourist office said 'You were not here last night', which ranked high among statements of the blindingly obvious. I spent some time sorting out some new accommodation for that night and started to have a good look around the rally site. Apart from the preponderance of BMW twins, there were some unusual bikes to be seen, including a 1000cc NSU-engined Munch Mammoth that had to be just about the least suitable bike for the conditions.

It did strike me that we in the UK enjoyed a much wider variety of bikes than the Germans but as they all seemed able to afford BMWs they probably didn't care. The Germans also looked much better presented, most wearing two-piece leather suits. By comparison we British looked a slightly scruffy collection. It just seemed a confirmation of national stereotypes, the Germans all smart and efficient, the British getting by somehow but doing it effectively.

Shortly after I arrived, snow began falling heavily again, and by late afternoon there was a very deep covering over the whole area. On the main road outside the circuit, German riders were performing hair-raising stunts, sliding big BMWs around feet-up on the ice. This was great to watch but as the snow got heavier it became clear to me that if I didn't leave the Eifel mountains soon, I may have serious difficulty leaving at all. A ride back through the Ardennes from whence I had come was an unattractive prospect so, reluctant but realistic, I set off in twilight to ride further east, down toward the Rhine valley to get clear of the snow that threatened to imprison me.

That was the most demanding ride I have ever undertaken.

Through darkness and a heavy snowstorm, on roads unknown to me, and generally downhill, it was very scary indeed. It took about three hours to get to the Rhine and I took a room in a bar near Bonn, relieved to have arrived unscathed. I later found out that some of the riders who remained at Nurburgring over Saturday night spent a couple of days trying to get back to the coast and then struggled through more snow back in England. Wise decision… me? Unheard of before, or since.

Sunday morning found me cruising happily along soaking wet autobahns past Bonn and Cologne, planning to take a late afternoon ferry from Ostend, no problem. I should have remembered the Belgian attitude toward snow-clearing. As I crossed the border near Aachen, there was literally a wall of snow across the autobahn, and I had no other option than to ride into it.

Are we having fun yet?

The road climbed high over the hills to the East of Liege and the temperature dropped. Soon I was chipping off the ice that was forming on my goggles. Then the goggles had to be discarded and I was chipping ice from my specs. Overtaking cars and lorries showered me with snow and slush and the whole experience was downright miserable, although at least both cylinders kept going. All I could do was slither along hoping for better things, but fearful that it might be like this all the way to Ostend.

However, relief came as the road dropped into the valley of the River Meuse at Liege, and then it was just a case of plodding on to Ostend. Even then, fate toyed with me when the front wheel dropped into an economy-sized pothole in Brussels and the impact left me spread-eagled on the tank with my hands dangling down by the front forks. How the wheel and forks survived is a mystery.

Arriving at the ferry terminal I spotted the same Vincent outfit I'd attempted to help a couple of days earlier. The rider, Roy, had been towed back to Ostend and was intending to leave the stricken machine at Dover until he could return with a replacement magneto. We arranged to meet in Dover, and since it would then be about midnight I would give him a lift to his sister's house near Ashford, Kent, where we would both be able stay for the night.

Now the CB160 was a smashing little bike, but 'little' was very much the word. Two-up, with luggage and a 35-watt headlight it was a very wobbly and bitterly cold ride to Ashford where we were both more than happy to call it a (very long) day. I spent the night on a large sofa in front of a log fire... absolute bliss. Earlier, Roy had admitted that when I had originally stopped to offer help, he felt a certain amount of frustration as he stood by his mighty (but dead) Vincent and watched me walk back to my puny little bike, prod the starter button and ride off.

Next day, Monday, was a cold, dull ride home. Once or twice I thought I felt a little harshness from the drive chain but I was too cold and tired to bother checking it. I arrived home that afternoon with a great sense of achievement. Afterwards, as I unloaded the bike and had a quick look round, I noticed that the clip and side-plate from the rear chain split-link were missing. There was only one plate and two pins holding the chain together. My guardian angel had performed one last service before clocking-off for a well-earned rest.

I did the same rally again the following year, camping this time, and, drawing some lessons from the first attempt, the whole thing went like clockwork. Guess which trip I look back on most often and with most satisfaction?

In fact, I can barely remember the 1969 event at all.

This photo wasn't taken at the Elephant Rally.... 1965 Honda CB160 brochure
Budget Hondas on eBay.co.uk

I learned a valuable lesson from the first trip, strewn as it was with mistakes, difficulties and dangers. The experiences that give us the most satisfaction and lasting memories are not necessarily those that are most enjoyable at the time. Rather it is those endeavors that draw most from us which remain in the memory longest… and best.


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