Milwaukee’s Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race

Milwaukee’s Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race

It’s the one block party that all of my friends go to. Well, maybe not literally, but  they’d all be welcome. At the Riverwest 24 Hour Bike Race in Milwaukee, WI, you see all types from within the cycling world—seasoned road racers in full kit alongside bike messengers in cutoff jeans; recumbent riders at eye level with youth pedaling 20-inchers. And there are all sorts of folks from outside the bike world. Local families and business owners participate in various ways. People travel from all over, and I can’t imagine how they explain this race/block party upon returning home.    But to say “block party” gives the wrong impression.  It isn’t a party on a single block for an afternoon. It’s an entire neighborhood celebration, for twenty-four hours.

The Checkpoints, Bonuses and Tattoos

A lap is approximately 4.6 miles and roughly outlines the Riverwest neighborhood on Milwaukee’s east side. The course is defined by four checkpoints that must be hit in order (a manifest is punched at each), but the finer details of the route are up to the rider. There are also bonus checkpoints, sometimes well outside of the usual course, where riders can earn extra points. Each bonus checkpoint —hosted by volunteers—includes some sort of challenge like karaoke, local trivia, or sitting for a haircut with an eager barber whose only tool is an electric clipper.

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Rider gets his manifest punched at checkpoint 3, with a disassembled bike standing by and a DJ picking tracks in the background.

The bonus checkpoints are only open for a couple of hours at a time – typically with a line to complete whatever task is required. It’s easy to get caught up in the race-day mindset and mourn this loss of time, but anyone who’s been at the Riverwest 24 knows that interactions in line can be just as much fun as riding.

There is one other way to collect a bonus. Every year the organizers agree on a design that competitors can have tattooed on themselves for a little extra credit. But if you intend to get it done during the race you’ll want to make an appointment early, as local artists tend to book up.


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Participants must decide whether to run the stairs or ride the switchbacks.

Teams with bikes… or bike

Riders in the 24 can choose from a couple of different categories. A popular option is to ride on a team of up to six, with one rider carrying the manifest at a time and the others left to cheer, rest, or socialize. Another option is to have a team of up to six riders who all share one bicycle. This category is less hotly contested, for reasons that anyone who’s ever ridden someone else’s bike for a good length of time can probably imagine. There’s the tandem category: two riders, one bicycle built for two. Finally, the solo rider competition – which has separate rankings for female and male participants.

Challenge 1: Registration

Registration is the first challenge for many would-be participants. With the exception of previous year volunteers, who are given preference, one member of each team must register in person at the Riverwest Public House, a local co-op, on the first of May. This sounds simple, but in order to keep the small-scale, friendly focus of the 24, registration is capped at a few hundred teams (the exact number shifts). The event has grown in popularity so much so that the line for registration now starts forming a night in advance. This can be a major obstacle for those hoping to register from out of town.  For others it is an all-night community experience that foreshadows the race.

No sleep for the caffeinated

Many riders stay awake for the duration of the Riverwest 24. Even those who are on teams, and have plenty of down time, may find it hard to rest. Colectivo, a local coffee roaster, sets up a booth outside of their shop and brews up free espresso. It’s not uncommon to stumble upon live music, or get invited up to another team’s cookout, at any hour. Many of the people who live along the route host parties, or just hang out on their porches, taking it all in. Participants set up camp along the route, pitching tents in parking lanes, public parks, and lawns.

Despite all of the activity throughout the night, there are some quiet moments. As a three-time participant, my favorite times were in the early morning, just before dawn. The city seems still.  The spectators who’ve stayed up for the duration are more subdued; and yet the crisscross of bike lights through the neighborhood continues.

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As a solo competitor, Erik’s mechanic Jakub Cychowski cranked out laps for all 24 hours.

Everyone say “Cheese”

The race start at 7 pm on Friday.  Twenty-four hours later on Saturday evening there is a ceremony. Award are presented, but the highlight is the group photo.  Every participant crams into the same picture. The group fans out across the width of a street.  The photographer has to back up, making the individual riders tiny.  You need to look closely to find yourself or your buddies in the picture , but don’t skim too quickly over all of the smiling neighbors.

Unfortunately you missed the Riverwest 24 race this year, but it will be back again next July.  Mark the registration on your calendar for May 1… and block off April 30 if you want to guarantee a spot.

Special thanks to our guest blogger and ERIK’S Fit Technician Phillip Van Asten.

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