Steel Horse Rally

In September 1971 the medieval Flemish city of Bruges was once again invaded by a peaceful horde of motorcyclists from all over the world. Around 2000 bikers gathered to celebrate this, the fourth such meeting in the fantastic setting of Lake Loppem where everyone was welcome to camp and share an enjoyable weekend of sunshine and friendship.

Harley-Davidson owners came in large numbers to attend the fourth Steel Horse rally.

This 1971 meeting had peace as its theme under the stewardship of Jean and Magda Blanckaert, and peace reigned supreme during the three days of the event amongst the 'knights' of various nationalities; the greatest number, once again, being from the UK.

British bikers were once more en masse, and as this picture shows, some of them came with the firm intention of avoiding dehydration under the blazing sun...

By Friday, the city streets had been invaded by the steel horses of the rallyists and the centuries-old stone facades resounded to the amplified echoes of hundreds of motorcycle exhausts.

... exhaust pipes of all sorts provided the soundtrack for the weekend's events.

The lakeside campsite was usually home to caravans for most of the year, but that weekend saw an invasion of hundreds of tents. The little free space that remained between them was of of course occupied by countless motorcycles and their owner's kit in all its various forms, so much so, that by Saturday, finding a few square metres to pitch a tent became a big challenge.

The Loppemsee campground, together with the city of Bruges itself, was definitely conquered that weekend by hordes of modern-day knights!

Steel Horse 1971 - Modern-day knights at Loppemsee campsite.

However, this was an invasion that the people of Bruges and its surrounding suburbs seemed to accept with a smile. Indeed, it offered them a rare chance to see at close quarters these 'foreign invaders' with their weird clothes and customs, and was perhaps a welcome break from the daily routine and their rather subdued Flemish way of life.

I'm sure the male population of Bruges enjoyed the spectacle afforded by the rally...

After registering with Magda Blanckaert, in her caravan, and having received the commemorative rally badge, newcomers needed to look around the lake for a space large enough to pitch their tents.

Finding a space big enough to pitch your tent was a challenge.

Once this was sorted, one of the essential requirements for a large number of bikers was to take a walk around the site, which allowed them to stretch their legs after many hours in the saddle. This of course was the perfect opportunity to check out the multitude of motorcycles from all over the world and enjoy the impromptu exhibition.

...a multitude of motorcycles from all over the world...

Everyone had a different objective in this respect. Some liked to admire rare motorcycle models or extraordinary bespoke machines; others simply searched for friends and acquaintances from previous rallies and relived old times, renewing their friendships with their shared interests and experiences.

Participants in awe of a beautiful Ariel Square Four.

As with previous Steel Horse rallies, the huge Loppemsee campsite, with its hundreds of machines scattered throughout, became something of an improvised motorcycle show with a unique atmosphere all of its own.

...a real improvised motorcycle show...

All kinds of two or three wheeled machines were on view; from classic vintage motorcycles of the past, to the most recent models, from simple mopeds to powerful bikes, cafe-racers to customised choppers.

A customized HD chopper in the style of the time.

This impromptu exhibition proved a real treat for lovers of beautiful machines originating, like their owners, from all over the world. The majority being British, Italian, German, American, or Japanese. In that wonderful sea of steel and chrome, a few unusual models attracted a constant stream of admirers. In particular; a four-cylinder Munch Mammoth using an NSU 1177cc car engine, a 499cc single-cylinder Vincent Comet, and a 250cc Moto-Guzzi Airone of the 1950s.

The rare and splendid 499 cc single-cylinder Vincent Comet.

The 49.9cc moped of a young Frenchman from Lille also attracted its share of admirers; and for good reason too! He had built it himself from a moped AV44. The frame supporting the bike's third wheel was made by hand with pieces of standard angled steel. The goal was not of course to be able to take a passenger in this outfit, but to be able to easily carry all his camping equipment, his reserve petrol, and all the other things that he would need on the rally.

Its owner was none other than Hugues Spriet, aka 'Gueguette', a member of the MC Samara of Amiens. A rallyist and passionate photographer, and to whom we owe a debt of thanks for a great number of the excellent photos taken during the rallies of the past. Sadly, he lost his sight in recent years and is now blind, but continues to participate in the annual organisation of his club's, invitation-only winter rally in northern France.

Hugues Spriet's funny but practical 49.9cc Mobylette AV44 outfit.

There were also small groups of bikers immersed in the middle of an outdoor mechanical sessions. Everyone was willing to advise or help with on-site repairs; those small faults that sometimes plagued machines. Fellow motorcyclists helping each other was taken for granted… an everyday occurrence the continues right up the present day!

Rallyists in the middle of outdoor mechanical sessions.

The 1971 rally programme though had undergone a change from previous years. The usual ceremony of the Order of the Steel Horse didn't take place on Saturday evening, but rather on Sunday morning.

As night fell everyone gathered under the big top and in the haze of cigarette smoke, there was singing, dancing, beer drinking and partying. As usual, the British bikers were the most vocal and energetic, and at the sound of a bombard, some of them sang so loudly that their vocal cords were severely strained. The evening unfolded without incident and in total exuberance and joy, before ending around one o'clock in the morning.

For many, in their drunken state, navigating back to their tents, through a winding sea of parked motorcycles became an epic challenge and first light on Sunday revealed those who had been defeated by the challenge and had simply fallen asleep exactly where they fell. Though the water of Lake Loppem still held its night time chill, it seemed that for the bravest, an early morning swim was obligatory to rid themselves of the previous night's hangover and kick-start their day.

Sleeping outdoors on the ground under the stars solved the problem of finding a space to pitch your tent.

Around 10.00am on the Sunday, the procession to Bruges got underway accompanied by a cacophony of exhausts and the snaking river of machines slowly but surely edged towards the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, which had been converted for the occasion into a motorcycle park.

...the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, converted for the occasion into a motorcycle park...

The sound of a bugle was heard and a drum resonated to a steady beat! Accompanied at the head by an honour guard of local scouts, everyone abandoned their machines and fell in behind Jean Blanckaert who walked at the head of the line under the banner of the "Order Van Het Stalen Ros".

Jean Blanckaert leading the procession

Walking to the sound of the fanfare and the almost military rhythm of the hammering of leather motorcycle boots, the crowd of bikers finally arrived in the courtyard of the Brangwyn Museum, just behind the palace of Gruuthuse. There, more than 2000 people gathered at the foot of the large stoop.

In In the crowd, a few well known faces of 'die-hard' rallyists of the time: Frenchmen Bruno Berard ('Crapaud') and Andre Massay ('Dede'), with Suzy and Jean Delain from Rixensart, Belgium.

Jean Blanckaert, once again, addressed the crowd in Flemish, English, German and French. After welcoming everyone, he began his speech which, for that year of 1971, invited each participant to share the collective friendship and joy afforded by the rally with everyone, especially those for whom joy seemed sadly lacking.

Jean gave his speech of peace and friendship to a crowd of more than 2000.

Then came the most moving moment of the entire rally. In a symbolic gesture, Jean asked the assembled crowd to join hands, and to hold a minute's silence in memory of the recent passing of friends.

That year of 1971 saw the passing of Michel Perdrix, the president of the MC 95 and founder of the legendary winter rally of the Millevaches and Christian Ravel, the French motorcycle racer who died at Spa-Francorchamps.

Michel Perdrix, founder of the Millevaches rally.

Following this moment of respectful silence, it was time for the traditional induction ceremony of a Knight of the Order Van Het Stalen Ros, randomly chosen from those in the rallyists crowd.

At the end of the ceremony, the crowd slowly shuffled towards the Place de l'Hotel de Ville. Then, little by little, for the vast majority of rallyists preparations began for the reluctant journey home.

Once again, the curtain came slowly down on the stage of another perfectly organised Steel Horse rally. The city of Bruges was able to recover its calm; and its inhabitants their Flemish routine.

A British biker with 'HM Prison' shirt and a French biker wearing the 59 Club and MC95 patches on the back of his rally jacket, there's also a BMW outfit, and on it, members of the then very active Liberty Club of Roubaix.

The people of Bruges together with their peaceful, once a year visitors who brought colour, spectacle and passion to their city, both looked forward to the next Steel Horse meeting of September 1972.

- Jean-Francois Helias