A Stupor Bowl-er takes a breather. Photo by Erica Nicole
If you said to a normal person, “Hey, let’s get on our bikes and race in freezing weather, and drink heavily while we do it!” he would probably laugh in your face. But bike messengers and hardcore cyclists are not normal people, and for the past 16 years they’ve been coming from all over the country to gather in Minneapolis to do just that. The event is called the Stupor Bowl, it happens the Saturday before the Super Bowl, and the most accurate summary of it probably came from Brian Lorei, a 23-year-old bike messenger from Chicago, when he announced shortly before the race, “Guys, I’m gonna fall down a lot.”
The Stupor Bowl didn’t always have the drinking component—that came in 2002, five years after the first race, when a bike messenger named Chad Selberg had the bright idea of putting the checkpoints at bars. From then on, being able to ride in a straight line after a dozen shots became as important as riding fast. This year, cyclists could either treat the event as a normal (albeit cold) 50-mile-long bike race that takes them all over the city, or they could embrace the true spirit of the event and down a shot of liquor or a beer at each of the nine checkpoints.
Surprisingly, all of this is 100 percent legal, since it’s not a crime to ride a bike under the influence in Minnesota. And a spokesperson for the Minneapolis Police Department had never even heard of the Stupor Bowl when I asked whether there had been any incidents this year. That's probably because organizers like to keep the Stupor Bowl hush-hush and don’t publicize it widely; the race’s website doesn’t mention the drinking or when it takes place. See no drunken bike race, hear no drunken bike race, speak no drunken bike race. Or something.
On Saturday, with temperatures in the low teens, the 356 racers were led in a slow-moving pack from an initial rendezvous point to an undisclosed location at the bottom of a snow-covered hill, where they waited for the starting signal to come from Jeff O’Neill, a race organizer.
Everyone massed at the bottom of the hill waiting for the signal.
Then: “POP! PA-PA-PA-PA-PA-POP!”
Oh, wait. That was just someone lighting off fireworks. Back to your marks.
A minute later, the streets of Minneapolis became a two-wheeled shitshow. In threes and fours, riders fanned out in all directions, choosing their destinations from a photocopied manifest that provided the nine addresses that had to be hit. The order was up to them, which meant the contest resembled a scavenger hunt rather than a traditional race. It also meant that riders were rewarded for their knowledge of the city.
Photo by Christopher Berg
Some of the stops had additional challenges apart from the drinking, like the apartment of Evan Reich, a messenger and an organizer of last year’s race, where racers had to kiss his pet lynx on the lips. But most of the checkpoints were at bars willing to put up with a couple hours of chaos in order to score some extra business. Sponsorship from Pabst Blue Ribbon also helped ensure that participants didn’t have to blow their entire wads on drinks.
“A few of [the bars that served as checkpoints] had to be coaxed into it by the fact that they could make a lot of money in a few hours,” Jeff said. “Others came to us directly and asked to be a part of it because they have in the past or they’ve heard about it before and were totally into the madness.”
It almost felt engineered when right around 6 PM, as people started to get really drunk, snow began to fall. It was at that point, thanks to the rising blood alcohol levels and the falling temperature, that the fuck-it factor took hold. Jeff estimated that about 30 people actually finished the race—the rest deciding that bending their elbows was more fun than pedaling a bike. “I only hit two checkpoints,” Brian Lorei told me afterwards. “We tried to hit the next checkpoint, but we were like, ‘Well, we should probably just keep partying.’ “
Photo by Christopher Berg
But don’t get the wrong idea. There were also those who were in it to win it. And here’s the thing about getting competitive dudes real drunk: Sometimes they get on stage and try to fight each other. At the awards ceremony, a couple racers from New York City started beefing—over what, no one had any idea—before an audience of hundreds. The brawl didn’t last long and the guys seemed to forgive each other, but it served as a reminder that nine drinks by 8 PM is no joke.
It was following the afterparty, not buzzing around on bikes in traffic, that people started getting hurt. In addition to several cases of frostbite, a worker at one of the checkpoints tore an ACL, and a racer fell on his face while walking and needed stitches. And at a strip club that had served as a checkpoint, an irate guy in crocodile-skin boots and a cowboy hat picked a fight with some racers. He was promptly “laid out” according to one Stupor Bowl-er.
This is how cold it was. Photo by Christopher Berg
It’s a safe bet that there will be a Stupor Bowl next year, but the ever-cagey organizers aren’t getting too specific about what it might look like. “All I know is I can’t wait to not be in charge,” Jeff said.
Scott Klocksin is a former New York City bike messenger and currently works as a freelance journalist in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter: @scottklocksin