On a wing and a beer, they race through Downtown

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February 21, 2005 // UPDATED 1:52 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Jeremy Stratton
Jeremy Stratton

The annual Stupor Bowl: mirth and madness with area bike messengers

"Who's got a dollar to see a dumb kid from Chicago get naked and jump in the river?"

Minneapolis bike messenger Chris Zito's voice echoed off the concrete beneath the Hennepin Avenue bridge, where 190 bicyclists were gathering for the start of Stupor Bowl VIII, an annual winter race put on by local couriers.

"I need 50 bucks!" Zito yelled.

The money came quickly in ones and fives and soon, the dumb kid from Chicago was scrambling naked out of the freezing water while observers cheered loudly.

"Give me my 50 bucks!" he yelled.

Bike couriers came from as far as Chicago, Milwaukee, New York and elsewhere for the "alley-cat" style race, held every year on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Although different every year, the route sends bikers pedaling around the city in a wider-ranging simulation of a Minneapolis messenger's winter workday. A combination of speed and street-knowledge is necessary, and a bit of imbibing is involved, if one is so inclined.

Most racers - local messengers and "civilians" - represented Minneapolis. Mother Nature did not. The 50-degree spring-like day was not what organizers had hoped for.

"I want it to be 20 degrees and snowing," said Tim, who, like fellow co-organizer Christian, asked that his last name not be used.

"There's no advantage now to the local kids."

Local courier Matt Allen, last year's winner, agreed: "I would have liked a blizzard, but I can't complain."

Most agreed. Elliot Park resident Brendan Kelly, 28, a nonmessenger who rides through the winter, welcomed the warmth.

"Winter makes me depressed," he said. "Riding [in 50 degrees] is a hell of a lot better."

The warm weather may have helped bring out the record crowd, well more than double that of any previous Stupor Bowl. A race map featured 27 stops, 23 of them bars of some sort. Christian said 100-120 riders had been expected; the 190-person turnout may have been the biggest alley-cat race ever, aside from international championships.

The course was also expansive, taking riders throughout Minneapolis, with stops as distant as lakes Calhoun and Nokomis, Northeast Minneapolis, and even a St. Paul stop, at the Dubliner Pub on University Avenue. Downtown stops included MacKenzie, The Skyway Lounge, Pizza Luc, One on One Bicycle Studio and Grumpy's Downtown.

Racers could hit the stops in any order and did not have to visit them all. The winner would be determined by the number points collected, rather than who hit the finish line first.

Riders gained points for arriving at checkpoints, for having a drink at a bar, performing tasks not involving alcohol and, in something of a two-wheeled scavenger hunt, collecting certain objects.

Riders knew the stops beforehand, except for the finish. Gathered beneath the bridge, hopefuls who hadn't heard the rumors learned that the finish was at Grumpy's Downtown, 1111 Washington Ave S. Routes were planned and official "manifests" (route sheets) distributed. Riders would have three hours to finish.

Only a strong south wind would hinder their progress. With the playing field leveled, reigning 2004 champs Allen and Amy Campbell (women's bracket) were cautious about their prospects.

"I don't think I'm going to win," said Campbell. "I'm just going to have fun with it."

The only contestant who said she might win was also the youngest. Former messenger John Gerlach led his 8-year-old daughter Isabelle on her trail-a-bike (picture a bike with seat, pedals and back wheel, attached to the front bike by a long bar.) The two ride together four days a week from Gerlach's Northeast home to Isabelle's school in South Minneapolis.

Finally, at 2 p.m., Tim ordered the mass of riders onto the rocks along the shore of the river.

"Go!" he said. All 190 bikers heard "Yo!" and stood staring at Tim like idiots.

"I said go! Get the [expletive] out of here!"

They were off, scattering to all corners of the city. Bikers could be seen from blocks away, shooting through intersections and maneuvering Saturday afternoon traffic. Many a traffic law was ignored.

"The only thing I ever worry about with these races is that someone's going to get hurt," said Christian. Only a few have, and, ironically, Christian himself suffered perhaps the most serious injury several years ago (a broken collar bone and "hip bone through the skin" did not keep him from finishing, however.)

During this year's race, one woman was involved in a hit-and-run accident, which was "not necessarily her fault," according to Christian. She was not seriously injured.

Among this year's point-producing tasks: collecting minnows from an ice-fishing stop on Lake Calhoun, picking up an official map of the skyway, or getting a light-rail pass. (Some riders squeezed onto the packed train, especially for the trip to the Sunrise Inn at 4563 34th Ave S.)

At Behind Bars Bicycle Shop, 208 13th Ave NE, bikers simulated a workday flat tire by deflating, removing, replacing, and re-inflating their inner tubes. (Campbell's chances of repeating as women's champ deflated with a real flat tire after her simulated one.)

Nearly 140 racers finished in three hours. Bikes lined and littered the sidewalk outside Grumpy's Downtown. Inside, the drinking accelerated, winners were announced, and prizes awarded, donated by a long list of local and national sponsors.

In the end, the highest point total was shared by three riders, all of whom arrived at the finish at about the same time. "There was a lot of pushing and shoving," said Christian.

Local messenger Alex Farioletti, a recent transplant from New York, elbowed his way to first place. Kevin Stroede from Milwaukee took second. The third place finisher, a messenger from New York, deserves honorable mention for reaching the top point total via seven drinks. Former local messenger Maty Sauer, now from Portland, Ore., placed first for the women. Local civilian Gwen Steel was second, despite a flat tire. The drinking award went to the aptly named Todd Danger, a journeyman courier currently riding locally.

Although the father-daughter Gerlach team did not ride to some far-off stops (or drink, of course), they were the second to reach the finish.

"They rode a ton," said co-organizer Christian. "She was smiling ear-to-ear."

By Monday morning, as the last out-of-towners were leaving, Mother Nature proved that she has an ironic sense of humor. Couriers woke to single digits and a bitter wind, now from the north, as they rode off to work. It would have been ideal weather for a Stupor Bowl.

Skyway News reporter and former fair-weather bike messenger Jeremy Stratton was among this year's Stupor Bowl riders. He hit 20 of 27 stops and finished the race in time and mostly sober.