What a German Biker Festival Taught Me About Manhood
At the Jüterbog Motorcycle Jamboree, I saw strongman competitions, bikes, and strippers. I 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 offered. His hands are covered in oil. Onstage, rock band Daalschlag—self-proclaimed inventors of "moped metal"—is 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, and a kickboxing ring. There are strippers strutting around carrying snakes, and bands setting fire to the stage. But mostly there are 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. There are furious MRAs [Men's Rights Movement] who just blame their issues on the feminists. And there are droves of millennial 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 dudes who love beer, boobs, and 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 that he benches 485 pounds and can deadlift 660—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. 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 provide some 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 as if 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. He was introduced to the studio audience as "the strongest child in the world." After that appearance, Herbert tells me that he was inundated with interview requests from local press.
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 ten, "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 as bouncers at the same club in Bremen, Germany.
The strongman competition host, Lars Petersen, originally invited Herbert to the festival. Petersen 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 Petersen 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 began to organize rock shows. These days, he runs an online magazine about bikes and rock music—the website's URL is tattooed on his neck.
In the magazine, you can find reviews of biker rallies, commentary on biker life, and references to Petersen's band, the Wild Rock Project. When I steer the conversation toward the idea of masculinity, Petersen 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 Petersen 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. "Demilitarized, of course," he adds.
He's at the jamboree with his best friend, Volker, whom he met when he let Volker take a ride on his motorcycle. "He asked if he could take a ride and I let him," Christian tells me. "I thought he was just going for a spin around the block." Instead, Volker took off and 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 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 get 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," Christian says. No women needed." He's 38. Volker is more than 20 years older. "Christian is like my adopted son."
As the evening sets in at the Motorcycle Jamboree, bikers speed around the site to show off. I admire one motorcycle adorned with airbrushed artwork of pumped up, ax-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.