The Great Race
The history and fun facts behind the Riverwest 24 bike race.
The Riverwest 24 bike race began in 2008 as an idea between a couple friends who were inspired from volunteering at a 1,000 mile motorcycle race in Mexico’s Baja peninsula. They were impressed by the amount of community participation and parties all along the route in the vast area it traversed.
“One of the things that really struck us was being in the middle of nowhere in small towns, and there were parties all along the course,” said Paul Kjelland, one of the original organizers of Riverwest 24. “Anytime a motorcycle came by, everyone was cheering, it didn’t matter if it was first or last.”
After many discussions, beginning in the Riverhorse Bar (now Impala Lounge), the idea for a 24-hour bike race and a neighborhood party was born. It would be a way to get people out all night, meet their neighbors and collaborate on a project bigger than themselves.
The next several months went into planning the first race. Organizers contacted block watch groups. This was an instant way to be able to communicate with an existing structure that people trusted. They created four check points that serve as the perimeter of the race route.
The philosophy behind the race is that it really has little to do with bikes or racing, but is more about people getting out into the neighborhood, to meet new friends, experience new community organizations or simply take in the crazy scene. “I love to say it’s not a race, it’s the people who cheer and everyone who comes out and meets a new friend or finds a new organization,” says Wendy Mesich, this year’s volunteer coordinator.
The RW24, as its commonly called, is also dubbed “The People’s Holiday,” and has grown every year, with ever more block parties and fun. This year’s cap was set at 1,000 riders, though there could have easily been 1,600 riders.
The suggested 4.6-mile route roughly follows the border of the neighborhood, with the start and finish line at Pierce and Center streets. It takes riders north to Keefe Avenue and Booth Street, southeast to Humboldt Boulevard and Burleigh Street, southwest to the marsupial bridge under the Holton Street bridge and back north to the finish line along Pierce Street. The four check points of the race have remained the same every year. Twenty three bonus checkpoints are also set up around the course, with fun activities that get you the bonus points, giving riders a reason to slow down and enjoy the neighborhood.
“Bonus check points are one of the most important elements, they are the only thing that keeps this from being just a race,” Kjelland says. “It was a way to keep people from riding around really fast, so people can experience certain things they normally don’t.”
Two meals are made available to all cyclists before and during the race. A dinner is provided by the Riverwest Co-op that is served in front of the Co-op on Clarke street. And a pancake breakfast is served at All People’s Church in Harambee on 2nd and Clarke Streets. The breakfast is free to everyone and is coordinated between organizers of RW24 and the church. Members of the congregation distribute fliers in the Harambee neighborhood to promote the breakfast. Preparation of both meals are paid for from the $24 registration fee paid by each rider.
Registration has changed dramatically over the past few years. The first year people registered at Fuel Cafe on Center St. or were able to sign up if they ran into an organizer on the street. The first year only 130-140 people participated, but every year since the number has doubled. Now organizers have to put a cap on registration.
That cap has turned the registration itself into a major event. Registration is now held at the neighborhood’s Co-op bar, the Riverwest Public House, with people in line the night before registration begins and waiting hours to be able to ride. All of the money collected from the registration fee goes directly back into the event that’s coordinated completely by volunteers.
The complete guidelines and rules, teams and how laps are calculated that can be found at the race website, www.riverwest24.com. Small prizes are provided to winners in the different classes of riders, including ice trophies featuring the numbers one, two and three.
Today, RW24 serves as a model for what communities can accomplish when everyone works together.
In the course of putting together RW24, says Kjelland, “people learn and understand (organizing) skills and how to utilize them in other projects. When you have people organizing for fun, it makes it easier to organize for not fun. We are able to hone the skills and empower people that didn’t know they could organize.”
Photos from the 2012 Riverwest 24