What I Learned About Masculinity at a Biker Festival
At the Jüterbog Motorcycle Jamboree, I saw strongman competitions, bikes and strippers but also talked to men about their hopes, dreams and fears.
All photos by Rebecca Rutten
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
At the frozen yogurt stand, a biker considers the selection of toppings of offer, his hands covered in oil. On stage, rock band Daalschlag – self-proclaimed inventors of "moped metal" – are playing a song about the natural enemy of motorcycle lovers everywhere – the MOT test. A few other guys have just parked their bikes right in front of the stage and are roaring at the band while kicking back their body weight in beer.
It's mid-July 2017 and I'm at the Motorcycle Jamboree, the biggest event on the German biker scene. Every year, about 6,000 people come together at an abandoned Soviet airport in the village of Jüterbog, just south of Berlin. It's not all about motorcycles – there's a strongman competition, a kickboxing ring, there are strippers strutting around carrying snakes and bands setting fire to the stage. But, mostly, there are many, many manly men who love motorcycles.
The question of what it means exactly to be a man, is a big one these days. There's the idea that our perception of masculinity is so toxic that it's killing our men early, furious MRA's who just blame their issues on the feminists, and there are also droves of millennials activists trying to redefine manhood. The Motorcycle Jamboree, I suspected, would be a place devoid of that kind of conversation. I assumed it would be a safe space for burly blokes who love beer, boobs and their bikes. That's why I went down to the festival – to witness traditional masculinity in its purest form.
By every physical definition, Herbert Czeplinski is very, very conventionally manly. He's one of the buffest guys I've ever seen. He tells me he benches 220 kilograms and can deadlift 300 – numbers that are completely beyond my comprehension. When he's not training, he works as a forester, literally picking up fallen trees and pulling roots from the ground. "It's good for improving my endurance," he says of his day job. What I find most impressive, is that he only recently officially became a man – Herbert just turned 18.
His father Ingo has driven him almost 250 miles from Bremen to the biker festival just so Herbert can show off his strength in the day's strongman competition. Earlier this morning, he competed in one of the main events – the stone put. Compared to him, the other contestants looked like they were there to some provide light entertainment while the crowd waited for Herbert to show them how it's done. When his turn came, he lifted up stones the size of footballs like they were tennis balls – hurling them so far that the audience wouldn't stop cheering.
A few years back, Herbert, who at 15 was a powerlifting world champion, was invited on to a late night television show hosted by Stefan Raab, a former Eurovision contestant. He was introduced to the studio audience as "the strongest child in the world". After that appearance, Herbert was inundated with interview requests from local press, he tells me while doing an impromptu pec-dance.
The crowd at the biker festival appreciates Herbert's physique, but that's not always the case in everyday life. "It's hard to get close to girls when you look like me," he tells me. "They prefer Justin Bieber types." Because of his muscles, he looks a lot older than he is, so Herbert is often stuck in a catch-22 of sorts – girls his age think he's too old, and older women are put off when they find out how young he is.
He got his passion for exercise from his father Ingo, who is also a weightlifter. At first he would just watch and imitate his dad, but by the age of 10, "Herbert was doing more push-ups than he could count," Ingo tells me. The next world championship is soon – until then, they'll keep training as a team. "Powerlifting is an ego thing," Ingo adds. The way he sees it, finding out what their body is capable of is how weightlifters, explore their masculinity. But father and son don't just work in the gym together – on some weekends, they also moonlight bouncers at the same club in Bremen.
Strongman competition host Lars Petersen originally invited Herbert to the festival. Lars is a former European champion stone-putter, and having a strongman contest at the Motorcycle Jamboree was his idea.
It's been a while since Lars chucked stones himself. "I used to be in really good shape," he says. "Now I'm happy when I can throw a pebble into water and it makes a splash." He had the ambition to become a professional stone-putter, but he quickly found there's no money in the field. So instead, he went into advertising and also begun to organise rock shows. These days, he runs an online magazine about bikes and rock music – the website's URL is tattooed in his neck.
In the magazine, you can find reviews of biker rallies, commentary on biker life and references to Lars' band, the Wild Rock Project. When I steer the conversation towards the idea of masculinity, Lars says he believes that men have weaknesses – and that many of his band's songs are about that. They're also about men who pretend to be something they're not, which Lars hates. Bodybuilders, for example, who only train to pose. "That's really shit," he says. "Be real and show who you are, that's what makes a good man".
Christian runs a bike construction workshop in Eggesin, a town in northern Germany. He once made a motorbike for a client out of, among a few other things, two machine guns and some pistols. "Demilitarised, of course," he adds.
He's at the Jamboree with his best friend Volker, whom he met when he let Volker have a ride on his motorcycle. "He asked if he could have a go and I let him," Christian tells me. "I thought he was just going for a spin around the street." Instead, Volker took off and only returned two hours later. They've been friends ever since. "But I'm never lending anyone my motorbike again," Christian jokes.
At the time, Volker couldn't afford a bike of his own. At a party for his silver wedding anniversary, Christian turned up with a gift. "He rode in on a brand new bike, right onto the dance floor," Volker says. "There's a German saying that small gifts sustain a friendship. But a gift like that takes your friendship to a whole other level."
Every Friday since then, Volker's wife would prepare him a packed meal and he would set off on an adventure. "Where are you going?" she'd ask, but never got an answer. A few years ago, she died of cancer. "My bike really helped me through those tough times," says Volker, pushing his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose to hide his tears.
Last year, Christian and Volker went on a road trip through North America together – they toured through the Rocky Mountains. "Motorbikes, men and a campfire. No women needed," Christian says. He's 38, Volker is more than 20 years older. "Christian is like my adopted son,: Volker laughs.
As the evening sets in at the Motorcycle Jamboree, bikers speed around the site to show off. I especially admire one motorcycle adorned with airbrushed artwork of pumped up, axe-wielding vikings and naked angels. On my way to the Jamboree, I wondered if it would be a meeting of emotionally stunted individuals stuck in a bygone era, but I was completely wrong. When these men come together, there doesn't seem to be anything toxic about their masculinity. The guys I met were open and honest – all very well aware of the fact that there's more to being a man than bikes and beer.
Scroll down for more photos of the Motorcycle Jamboree in Jüterbog