The Magic of the Stupor Bowl

[The start of Stupor Bowl 2012.]
If bike messengers are the punk rock of bike culture, "alleycat races" are like all-night basement house shows. This last weekend was the second time I've ridden in the Stupor Bowl, Minneapolis' most famous alleycat. This was the sixteenth annual race. It takes place every winter in Minneapolis on the day before the Super Bowl, and it's semi-notorious.

To most people it will seem crazy. Alleycat races are designed to mimic a bike messenger's ride. Typically, a 'manifest' is handed out right before the race. It's a series of checkpoints that you need to go to, where someone is waiting to 'sign off' that you've been there, and you have to complete all of them to finish the ride. The trick is to balance riding quickly, choosing the fastest route, and knowing the most shortcuts. There are all kinds of variations on this basic theme, from 24 hour races involving interactive activities (e.g. getting a tattoo), to ones with themes, to ones where the stops are in code or involve clues. Also, many of these rides involving drinking at bars.

For the majority of Stupor Bowl riders, this last concept is crucial. For those who ride the 'stupor' race, a beer or shot of liquor must be consumed at every one of the stops. There are something like a dozen stops over 3-4 hours, 30-40 miles of riding, and prizes awarded for those who finish in the top few places. Most people, as you might imagine, don't come close to finishing the race.

It should be obvious that there might be problems with this formula. The weather can be brutal (though the past three years have been quite nice), people will more or less flagrantly run red lights, the cultural scene is dominated by young white dudes, and the ride shamelessly encourages both alcoholism and riding quickly through the city. But all those things aside, it's the most fun you'll ever experience on a bicycle, and I don't think it has to feel intimidating for most people. The best thing about riding in the Stupor Bowl is that, for one night, the city magically transforms.

Once the race begins, suddenly everywhere you look, you see other people riding bicycles. This fact alone changes the feeling of riding a bike through the city. For me, so much of the time, riding a bike is a lonely experience. Unless you live along one of the city's main bike routes, most of the time you're on your own, battling your way through traffic. Days will go by (especially in the wintertime) when the only other people I see on bicycles will be obviously homeless. This kind of isolation wears on you, day by day, eroding your sanity, until along comes a day at the end of January where the streets are filled with bikes, everyone having fun and speeding back and forth through the city.

And when you finally arrive at your destination, some long forgotten dive bar or a campfire in someone's backyard, there are tons of people there waiting for you, huddled around, expecting you, ready with a drink. Suddenly carrying a bike helmet or wearing three layers of gloves isn't weird, and you stop feeling like a semi-crazy person. 

There's a lovely flexibility to the ride, too. Because the adventure quickly becomes chaotic, because nobody is quite sure where exactly the stops are actually located or how best to get there, it stops mattering exactly who you're riding with. I started off in a group of a dozen people, various clusters of friends, and by the end of the night I found myself riding with a single buddy along the Northeast Minneapolis riverfront surrounded by slowly falling dendritic snowflakes. It didn't matter. I found friends around every corner, at every new destination.

Riding through the evening into the night in the winter, exploring a renewed city, and riding distances you never imagined, time and space collapse. An hour shrinks into a pea, and you have no idea how you put thirty miles under your tires, up and down river bluffs, into unknown neighborhoods. In the long dark wintertime, we so often view riding a bicycle as hard work. Overcoming the elements, going up that hill, or into the whipping wind is a grueling effort straining your capacities. I will sometimes sit before my trip home in a coma of dread, delaying the inevitable struggle.

During the Stupor Bowl ride, all that work fades away. Only effortless play remains. It's a magic trick, a look into a crystal ball city that might someday come to pass, a new map of the future where barriers melt like candlewax and anxiety falls from you like a snowflake.

[The next day, an illegible trace is all that remains.]

1 comment:

jinwen said...

"put miles under the biking tires" makes me to think how many miles I put under my foot... first time to hear that, inteteresting.