Riding High: Conquering the Wall of Death

Riding High: Conquering the Wall of Death

I’ve been traveling by motorcycle for decades. My love for two-wheeled adventure began simply, by exploring the area around my home in Bavaria. Then it grew. Since then, I’ve ridden mostly solo across the United States, through Scandinavia, Australia, Africa, Mongolia, China, and beyond. Now I’m back to my roots in Munich, up against an entirely new challenge. I’ve ridden across continents—but what about riding around a 26-foot-high wooden wall?

The old Indian Scout engine roars. But it is the rattling of the wooden boards on the wall that make my heart beat faster. Jagath rides one round after the other across the vertical wall, the Wall of Death.

At the age of five I visited Oktoberfest with my family and saw for the first time the Wall of Death riders circling the wall with their motorcycles. I stood at the top of the wooden cylinder and was fascinated by the sound of the boards and the bikes. Today, some 40 years later, I am standing at the bottom of the same cylinder. It’s the 2014 Oktoberfest in Munich. A friend of mine serviced Jagath Perera’s Indian Scout. Jagath is a motorcyclist who came from Sri Lanka to Germany 20 years ago to ride the Wall of Death. Ten years ago he fulfilled his dream and bought Pitt’s Todeswand (literally “death wall” in German), a wooden Wall of Death originally built in 1928. It is only used at Oktoberfest. My friend invited me to come to this year’s festival when he brought the motorcycle back. Jagath does a test ride, and thanks to centrifugal force he stays on the wall. Being an adult now I understand the physical powers that make this possible, but I also understand how much can go wrong.

Jagath uses a hammer to bend the front fork. Afterward, the Scout runs straight and the man from Sri Lanka smiles happily and asks me, “Do you want to be my pillion rider?” I hold my breath—do I? “Yes!” He mounts the seat on the tank and explains how to sit on the bike.

I do not dare move and disturb Jagath as he rides. But he tells me to lift my head so I can see what’s happening, and for the first time I really feel the 3.5Gs that keep the bikes on the wall. I can hardly look up. The airstream blows dirt in my eyes, but when Jagath stops the ride, I am thrilled by the new experience, climb from the motorcycle, and beam with delight.

“Aren’t you dizzy?” he asks. “No, why?” is my surprised answer before I realize that this is indeed strange. Some people get dizzy very quickly after riding the wall. You can train your body not to, Jagath explains to me. But if you ride too fast or for too long, the centrifugal force sucks the blood out of your brain and you faint.

Since 1980, Hugo Dabbert has held the record for the longest time riding the Wall of Death, at six hours, seven minutes, and 39 seconds. Jagath is looking for a sponsor to break the record. He plans to ride for eight hours and 20 minutes.

We Meet Again

One year later and I am standing at the top of the Wall of Death, looking down to watch the riders and listening again to the roar of the engines and the rattling of the boards. After the show, Oktoberfest closes down for the night, but Jagath celebrates his birthday with friends. When we finally say goodbye at dawn the next day, he says, “If you want to try riding the wall yourself, visit me next year before Oktoberfest starts.”

“Keep the Track, Hold the Speed”

Standing at the bottom of the Wall of Death, I hold my shivering heart in my hands and listen carefully to Jagath’s advice. Physics says this is possible, so it will be my fault if I fall.

“At first you stay on the lower ramp,” Jagath tells me. “Do not climb the wall—stay on the lower ramp,” he insists. Before I enter the ramp on his bike, I ride in a circle on the ground. To get a motorcycle driver’s license in Germany one has to ride in a circle with a nine-meter (30-foot) diameter. Pitt’s Todeswand has a diameter of approximately 39 feet.

The engine of the 1955 BMW R25/3 runs and I shift it in to second gear, ignore the world around me, take a deep breath, kick-start my heart, pull the throttle, and steer the bike onto the first ramp. I fix my eyes on the line drawn on the floor by the second ramp and mumble, “Keep the track.” After a few rounds I steer the BMW back on the ground, pull the clutch, and hit the brake with my foot. There is no front brake, because for the Wall of Death the old saying holds a double truth: if you brake, you lose.

After two more attempts, Jagath tells me to try my luck on the second ramp. I speed up and the motorcycle finds its way into the steep ramp. “Hold the speed” is the second mantra I repeat to myself. I keep the speed and the track by listening to the sound of the engine and focusing on the line of screws that hold the boards, and it works out well. After some more rounds Jagath is ready to risk his bike: “OK, climb the wall.”

Riding the Wall of Death is a bit like flying. Starting and landing is the most difficult. On my second attempt I am too cowardly and fall at the changeover from the ramp to the wall. Luckily the bike and I survive undamaged. I am angry about my own half-heartedness and start my next attempt after two more deep breaths.

Wall of Death Rider

“If you ride the wall every day during Oktoberfest you will know how to do it,” Jagath told me. I do not have time for the whole 16-day festival, but nevertheless: for the next nine days I am a Wall of Death rider at the largest fair in the world. During the first four days it rains, and because of the limited number of visitors we have only seven shows per day. But as soon as the sun comes out, we get more spectators and ride more often. On the second Saturday, we do 22 shows in one day.

After a few days I am more experienced and start riding higher in the wall. But I still struggle with the speed. If I ride too fast, I will lose consciousness, and if I ride too slowly, I will lose momentum. One more time I fall off the wall because I am too fast crossing over to the ramp. Jagath is glad, because he thinks this is the way to learn. Gerald, who works to bring in a crowd for each show, tells me about a former rider who fell off three times in one show. The story comforts my ego. By the end of my time here, I feel more confident and start to wonder, Will Jagath ask me to be a Wall of Death rider again next year?