"Stupor Bowl is dead," Gene Oberpriller pronounced after the 18th annual alleycat bike race. The fact that you—hopelessly mainstream as you are—are reading this is proof. As any nightclub owner will confirm, underground cachet is a fragile beast. It's only minutes, or entries in this case, between the insiders who establish a quirky event and the corporations who kill it.
The Stupor Bowl, supposedly the second-oldest and certainly one of the largest alleycat throwdowns in the country, upped its contrarian quotient by taking place on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, in Minneapolis. Oberpriller is a pillar of the Twin Cities' bike community and co-owner of One on One Bicycle Studio, for many years the rallying point for Stupor Bowl.
Alleycat bike racing was hatched to be everything road racing is not. Bike races are highly organized, corporate-sponsored, expensive undertakings. Alleycats are cheap, of- and by-the-rabble affairs, hatched by bike messengers and angry, sorry, urban cyclists. Roads are shut down to car traffic for bike races. Alleycats are coincidental with car traffic: Sometimes there are co-incidents with car traffic. (People have been killed.) Bike races follow a planned route with, hopefully, no stops between start and finish. Alleycat racers determine their own route between checkpoints, taking into account traffic, off-road shortcuts, terrain and, sometimes, alcohol consumption. Bike racers are sleek, chiseled machines—branded, shrink-wrapped, shiny. They train, work out, stretch, watch what they eat. Alleycatters are actively ungroomed and favor a crime scene of mismatched clothing, most of it unwillingly conscripted into service as athleticwear. They eat, usually. Their pre-race warmup consists of a beer and a smoke. Bike racers claim they're clean. Substance use is warmly held as a virtue by alleycatters—integral to training and racing, a source of pride. And, finally, for all the aforementioned reasons, bike races are legal and very solicitous of media attention. Alleycat races are not entirely legal, unwelcoming to media and diluted by hobbyists.
"Single-speed mountain bike races went through the same thing 10 or 12 years ago," said Oberpriller. "Once corporate sponsors come in, and big money, hardcores are like, nah, this is done. Stupor Bowl will go on, of course, but hardcores will go elsewhere."
The corporate backing he's referring to is Chrome, the aggressively urban clothing and accessory shop next door to One On One, owned by outdoor retailer Keen.
Follow me, fellow ruiners, as we simultaneously get a piece of and help destroy an ill event. I did a little light dusting and vacuuming, and then hurried on down to One On One. Snow was not a factor this year, and 20-degree (above zero) temps were just cold enough to encourage picturesque layering and de rigueur shorts 'n tights combo.
I followed tats and dreds and people wearing a diaphragm in their earlobes into Chrome and foolishly revealed I was a journalist seeking some history and quotes and stuff. Oblivious to my faux pas, I dug out my spiral notebook and took down this quote from one of the two dudes with significant hair and matching Stupor Bowl hats: "We're not really giving interviews." Oh, awkward. A girl sitting next to them smiled and kept smiling as I asked for the piece of paper with the checkpoints on it. No, they couldn't give that to me—that's what you pay $20 for! (That and a t-shirt.) Embarrassingly outed as an ignorant non-cyclist, a probable narc, and hopelessly uncool, I struggled to put my spiral notebook back in the backpack, as legitimate members of the club shuffled me out of the way. The girl continued to smile as if to say, Fucking idiot.
Disgraced, I slunk to the back of the shop where Hairy Dude had vaguely invited me to "talk to anyone back there." Someone back there was pouring fixedly, with the power of 10,000 lasers, at his phone and a map of the Twin Cities. I chirped some questions but got one-word replies. He never looked up. Eventually, I did go away, shambling back over to One On One where groups of people, mostly guys, again focused all of their remaining grey cells on phones, street maps, and the sheet of checkpoints. Rigidly maintaining an unapproachable body posture—backs turned, eye contact avoided, arms shielding their calculations like a second-grade test paper—the few I managed to engage gave reluctant answers without looking up, and then immediately found that they had to go, somewhere else. I got a couple pictures though—thanks Scum City and multi-plaid shirt Lightspeed guy!
As a journalist, Stupor Bowl was enormously unpleasant, and yet, through painfully extracted information, stalking, eavesdropping and shameless eyeballing, I gathered that it would be fun to do. I mean, I thought so. Ergo, it's ruination.
Here's how it works: You shell out your $20 and get the sheet, called a manifest, with 12 to 14 locations listed on it: Some are bars, some are businesses, some are front porches or parking lots. You can choose to participate in the Stupor race—fewer checkpoints but a beer must be consumed to successfully complete the stop—or the speed race that's all about hitting all the checkpoints in the least amount of time. Checkpoints can be achieved in any order, and in both Stupor and speed categories, the first rider back wins. The prize is a custom-embroidered messenger bag and bragging rights. Riders, a couple hundred usually, assemble in the alley behind One On One and are led to the undisclosed start location (by Hairy Dude who first shut me down, and who was the 2014 speed winner, and who got to determine this year's checkpoints, and whose name was David Smith, and who is the roommate of a guy I grilled) and also informed of the location of the one secret checkpoint on the list. This last-minute announcement throws a wrench into racers' carefully devised route. All told, racers cover 30 to 40 miles. As with most races, only a few participants are truly competitive; most are deeply committed to drinking and maintaining a modicum of balance. And of course, the after-party.
And speaking of partying, one of the most talkative participants I spoke with, rosy-eyed and loose, said he was merely continuing the party from the previous night. A koozie-swaddled Miller backed him up. A bike messenger for 15 years, he'd come from Seattle to take part in the Stupor category, and seemed very competent. He was the only person in the room not intently studying a map—he left that to his "homeboy from Milwaukee," motioning to another bearded guy studying a map, who won the Stupor category last year. When I commented on the monstrous size of his messenger bag, he said it was full of beer, and kindly offered one. "I fucking got to fill my water bottle," he intoned, and toddled off.
Last-minute bathroom visits were made, cigarettes rolled and supplies stowed as 1:00 rolled around. Out in the alley, riders stood astride their bikes and told stories about previous Stupor Bowls to set the tone, get in the mood. Here's one that was within earshot:
"Man, that was the first time I was seriously worried about my junk. I got to somewhere in St. Paul and this guy hooked me up with some socks. I stuffed em down my pants but I was like, dude, I'm going to bail on you. It's just not worth risking my dick, and you know, when I was sitting in this coffee shop, and you know, when stuff starts thawing out, I was like, Aaaarrrrwww. And people were like, 'How's your dick?'"
Just before they saddled up, many racers enjoyed a cigarette, the smoke rising in festive plumes.
Having discovered through intense over-the-shoulder eyeballing that one checkpoint was on my way home, I hopped in my car and drove straight there. Two young women, dressed in layers of tired nylon and acrylic, were lining up cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon on a frozen plastic picnic table, so I sensed this must be the checkpoint. Their delight when they thought I was there to help make sure racers drank their beer and check off manifests with a Sharpie was only matched by the sudden draining of mojo when I said I was there to write about the goings on.
"What's Deadspin?" one volunteer asked.
I prattled on, relating the brush-offs I'd received. They looked nervous. One had ridden in Stupor Bowl before but the other just liked to hang around the bike shop. This cold volunteer gig was her way of being part of the club. My teeth rattling, I said I was going to wait in my car for the first racers to appear.
I knew the checkpoint volunteer was worried about having said too much. She spotted me huddled in my 1995 Villager van, scurried through traffic to the passenger side window, scrunched down and showed her teeth, fluttering her hand or spasming from the cold. One or the other. I fluttered back.
Here's what I remembered she'd said about why Minneapolis' not-secret Stupor Bowl alleycat bike race doesn't like publicity—it's because bike messengers, and urban bikers generally, don't like it when cars cut them off, or drive on the road, or when drivers shake their fists and holler, "Stupid bikers!" when a dirty guy with a mini-fridge strapped to his back scares the living daylights out of them while they're sitting at the stoplight obeying the rules of the road. See, drivers don't like bikers and bikers don't like drivers, this way-too-chatty checkpoint volunteer told me. Furthermore, she said, this Stupor Bowl, with lots of haphazardly dressed people drinking and darting through traffic might be … might cast bikers in a bad light.
Obviously, she wanted to strike this treason from the record.
It got to be a little uncomfortable, me looking at her through the smeary window and her smiling and kind of raising her eyebrows at me, so I got out. Easily the most fearful person for the least cause I've ever interviewed, she asked me not to use what she'd spilled—like a stoolie, like a not cool person, like a completely normal friendly person who forgot to be rude—in my article. I said I wouldn't.