Dave Schlabowske
Bike Czar

The History and Future of Santa Rampage

Could event become a victim of its own success? Organizers consider changes in format.

By , Bike Federation of Wisconsin - Dec 6th, 2013 10:57 am

Thirteen years ago when I started Milwaukee’s Santa Cycle Rampage, I only knew a handful of people outside of professional couriers who rode their bikes for transportation in the winter. If I saw someone I didn’t know biking through the snow, I emailed the small group of year round commuters to let them know about the sighting. I started the Rampage after seeing Chicago had a similarly titled ride as part of their Bike Winter events. I thought a Milwaukee version would encourage more people to see how easy it is to ride in the colder months, and to reward the few who already did with a fun event.

The group of Santas on one of the very first Santa Cycle Rampage rides.

The group of Santas on one of the very first Santa Cycle Rampage rides.

That first year I think there were another six or eight people on the ride and they were all personal friends. We were naughty Santas and rode over the Hoan Bridge (still illegal sadly). Because there were so few of us, the small group could stop at any cafe or tavern we wanted and get served. More than a decade later, the ride has grown to more than five hundred holiday merry makers, and people come in from other states to do the ride. This year, for the first time, the ride was a fundraiser that generated more than $5,000 for the Bike Fed, thanks to the generosity of the bike-friendly stops on the ride.

There were not as many full red suits, but even on the early rides Santas were creative. The presents in the B.O.B trailer are a sound system.

There were not as many full red suits, but even on the early rides Santas were creative. The presents in the B.O.B trailer are a sound system.

Now thousands of people ride bikes year round in Milwaukee. While the big group obeys the traffic laws, it is inevitable that hundreds of Santas on bicycle will cause some traffic delays. We try to minimize that by sticking to streets where the Santas can ride in one lane and leave another lane open for traffic to get by. The vast majority of people in cars love to see the group ride by. It is the only time you hear people honking at you on your bike and you can be pretty certain they want you to wave to them.

All-in-all, the Rampage has been a huge success getting more people out riding and promoting bicycles as good for business. I certainly don’t take full credit for the success of the ride or the growth in year-round bicycle commuters in Milwaukee, but part of me is pleased  that this event has helped get more people to try riding a bike in the winter. Another part of me is nervous that someone is going to get hurt on this ride.

The Rampage started as a pub crawl with a lot of riding. We spent more time pedaling than drinking while going to little local taverns from the far north side to the far south side. We started early, rode for a long time, stopped for lunch, then hit a couple more pubs and were safely home by mid afternoon. It is now so big that  we can only go to really big taverns and cafes and have to use Turner Hall for the final stop. I think part of the mass appeal of the Rampage is the short distance and the super cool, super bike friendly stops we make.  We didn’t have places like the Cafe Hollander, a Belgian-style bicycle themed grand cafe, when I started the ride.

While I still recognize many faces on the Rampage, with so many people riding and drinking, the group is too big to self-police alcohol consumption and it seems inevitable that someone will get hurt. I know enough to pace myself for a long day. I don’t have a beer at every stop. The overwhelming number of Santas are conscientious, but there are Santas who have never been on the ride pedaling in from all corners of the city. Many of them start at a neighborhood place in addition to the handful of official stops and they then have a long ride home after a day of more drinking than riding.

More than 100 West Side Santas head down Wisconsin Avenue to rendezvous with the other Santas at Lakefront Brewery.

More than 100 West Side Santas head down Wisconsin Avenue to rendezvous with the other Santas at Lakefront Brewery.

When people ask me how long the ride is, I say that Santa drinks milk and cookies at the home of every boy and girl in one night because he has magic reindeer and a sleigh.  People without similar means of conveyance should probably not try to partake in the offerings of every stop on the Rampage. It is kind of like going to a Packers game. People get there early, tailgate, go to game, tailgate some more and then drive home.  The vast majority of Packer fans are responsible, pace themselves or have a designated driver. I know some don’t and that is not the responsibility of the Packers to police adult behavior. The Packers are not going to stop letting people tailgate because some people don’t drink responsibly.

Poster child for the modern Santa Cycle Rampage: happy, safe, responsible and an ear to ear grin.

Poster child for the modern Santa Cycle Rampage: happy, safe, responsible and an ear to ear grin.

It is my hope that the Rampage will continue to grow and get so big that it becomes more of a Santa Rampage Day with coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and taverns across the Milwaukee area offering treats to holiday revelers who show up in costume and on two wheels. People will then just hit a few places near where they live, make up their own rides, go home in the early afternoon to take a good winter nap and meet at the end of the day for a final party with a band.

Another idea would be to have an official Santa Rampage bicycle parade and then let people go to neighborhood Rampage stops after this. Click here to see a nice (short) video of a fun holiday bike parade they do in Appleton.  I imagine something similar to this, but during the day with 500+ Santas.

Next week a bunch of the long-time Rampagers and owners of the stops on the Rampage are getting together to debrief about the event. We all agree it is a huge success as a fun ride, as bicycle advocacy, and now as a fundraiser. The Rampage now has a life of its own and like the Packers, we can’t control what adults choose to do, but we want to be thoughtful and encourage this event to grow in a safe and healthy way.

If you have any ideas on how we might reformat the Santa Cycle Rampage next year, put your ideas in the comment section below.

See you next year Santas.  HO! HO! HO!

More on the Santa Cycle Rampage:

Top Ten Reasons to Ride the Rampage by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Jim Stingl: http://bit.ly/18Cjse1

A photo gallery of this year’s Ramapge here: http://wisconsinbikefed.photoshelter.com/#!/index

This article was originally published by the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.

Categories: Bike Czar

9 thoughts on “Bike Czar: The History and Future of Santa Rampage”

  1. Juli Kaufmann says:

    These are really thoughtful reflections Dave. I was a Rampage virgin this year, and it was the experience of a lifetime. I bike as much as I can year-round and I also like to drink beer. So, I had a sense of how to pace for enjoyment of both. Truly, I have nothing but high praise for the event. Kudos to all.

    That said, I found myself wishing my non-drinking friends would have been able to join me. Ironically, it was not the biking that kept them away – it was just too drinking-centric for them to opt in. I especially thought about how my son might absolutely freak out at how cool something like this would be to join. Without taking anything away from the drinking revelry, I would love to see non-alcoholic options added, to assist the growth and diversification. Tom Held raised the idea of a convergence – at a place like Summerfest – that would be family friendly and welcoming to all types of Santas, young & old, drinking and not. I like that, but I am sure there are many other ideas.

    Biking sure has come a long way in Milwaukee. I am one of the more recent adopters. I understand the challenges of becoming a more regular biker both real and perceived. Events like these have been an important influence on shifting the tide, I am evidence of that. The next evolution, I hope, will be efforts that expand beyond the stereotypes of who makes up the hardcore biker community- perceived as largely white, male, and of a certain age. Efforts to diversify participation, locations, and appeal of the event will hopefully ripple into encouraging the same diversification in the adoption of biking.

    I don’t want to lose the charm and organic nature of the event, there is pure bliss in its free flow organized chaos. But, I’d give up a bit of that if it meant growing our biker community. If we start seeing more children biking in urban areas more regularly, just imagine. If it is perceived as safe enough for my 7 year old son and gives my 70 year old mother enough courage to join, wow. Let’s also take everyone into neighborhoods they don’t normally venture, under the red cloak of joy. Let’s give them encouragement and an invitation. Santa Rampage: the gateway drug. 🙂

  2. Alan Bengtson says:

    Dave, this was my first time riding the Rampage (I currently live in SW Michigan and was visiting friends for Thanksgiving) and thoroughly enjoyed the event! The format was good and I wouldn’t want to change it, but would be good to provide suggested safe routes to take between stops (maybe you did, but I didn’t see anything…) Regarding the drinking, the best you can probably do is to suggest people be responsible (and wear helmets while riding!). More diversity of riders would be a great goal of the event, per Juli’s comment above. I have done the FTTM & SIR pub rides for years and although there have been accidents on course, luckily they have been few and far between and none with motor vehicles that I am aware of. FTTM has gotten to be quite large, but luckily has been safe. How large was the Rampage this year? Organizers like Phil V. would have good insights for future events. Still like the “critical Santa mass” of the ride and would hate to see that change. Good luck with next year’s planning and please keep it coming…! 🙂

  3. Adam Baus says:

    We had to miss out this year, but were present last year for the rainy and cold Santa Rampage experience. For the size of the event, it’s almost outgrown what the city can provide. What weather you had this year!
    I will share two ideas. One, that it’s a manifest style event, and you publish the venues, and people can choose what order they go to any or all. If the rampage provides ride guides, they simply leave on the hour every hour for the next. I picture a full circle from Hollander East Side, down to GLD, over to Kochanskis, up to Hollander Tosa, and then back to the East Side via Wisconsin Ave or something. People choose their own adventure.
    Otherwise, I LOVE the idea of hitting up neighborhoods, rather than singular destinations. Instead of just going to GLD, go to La Perla, La Fuentes, GLD, The Iron Horse Hotel. Hit up Locust St – Truly Spoken cycles, Fuel Cafe, Riverwest Coop. Work with the local businesses to have fun christmas, bike or Santa related activities for people, drinkers and non-alike, to engage in.
    It’s gotten so big, its about what you want to get out of your own ride, its not about the group.
    If you really feel the drinking has gotten out of hand, take a year off.

  4. Ms. Miltown says:

    First off, thanks to you Dave and to everyone who organizes this fantastic ride. We have done the ride twice; once about six or seven years ago when it was still a manageable size, and once two years ago when Mike Eitel and crew took over.

    I do have to say I preferred the earlier ride for a few reasons. First, the route and times were not published. This meant you had to “follow the leader”, which meant you couldn’t lag in bars, it meant you had a fantastic critical mass of Santas that looked like a parade, and it kept everybody festive and together. That would of course be hard now with the sheer number of Santas.

    When we did the ride under the new format, we didn’t necessarily like the unorganized chaos because the mass was lost, and the overenthusiastic self proclaimed leaders would argue about which route to take and then the mass would get split up and we just didn’t enjoy that as much.

    I love the ideas offered above. It would be great to add family friendly stops, an “official parade” with streets shut down, and an end of day “convergence”, possibly at Summerfest or Harley campus or?

    I envision neighborhood rides, similar to how it functions now, but with more activities and organization in each neighborhood. Each neighborhood has their stops, their own parade in their community, and possibly even a theme. Then the rides head downtown to meet in a central spot and converge for a large official bike parade where the streets are officially closed for the parade. Imagine if each neighborhood had a theme, and the convergence would be a massive coming together of the Santa neighborhood, the reindeer neighborhood, the snowmen neighborhood, the elves neighborhood, etc.

    As an alternate to drinking, what about adding a Scavenger hunt, a Riverwest style race or passport stamping for the fastest Santas, etc.

    Keep the fundraising element for sure, and maybe even add a build a bike event for Boys and Girls Clubs.

    And most importantly, let us know how and when to volunteer for next year!

  5. Willie Fields says:

    This was my first year for the Santa ride. I knew about the ride from friends who have ridden in the past. I have done the MUBR, and some of the thursday night rides with MKEBKE. I love the format of the ride, the length and the stop locations I felt were all very well planned out. I did the entire ride and did notice that we were down to very few riders when we arrived at Turner Hall, possibly due the it being such a long day. I had a blast, met tons of new friends and I am looking forward to next years ride. I did shoot a little video of the days festivities, if you haven’t seen this, please enjoy and feel free to share.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts and for riding of course! We removed he official route because we are worried about liability. We feel safer if people are on their own, but the groups are still really big. 150 Santas on bikes is still an impressive sight. If everyone rode together, it would be about 500-600 Santas, and might cause more traffic problems.

    Changing the ride to a formal parade is an idea, but permitting it would limit the riding to a mile or less. I don’t think we could close streets for more than that. And permitting adds a lot of costs and would require a whole new level of fundraising.

    Lots of good ideas have been suggested, but you are the first to offer to volunteer! I will try to contact you when planning begins, but be sure to reach out to me via email if you don’t hear from me.

    Thanks again!

  7. More neighborhoods, for sure! And more riding through different neighborhoods. Great suggestions.

  8. Thanks for the thoughts Juli. A few people do bring kids on the Ramapage most years, but it is generally not a kid-friendly ride. We are brainstorming ideas to expand the ride/parade aspect of the Rampage and reduce the alcohol consumption. The ride used to go through more neighborhoods, but we cut that down as it got so big to reduce traffic impacts and liability.

    Adding diversity to cycling is a very difficult task in general but in Milwaukee particularly. The Bike Fed does most of our education work in minority communities, but it is difficult to bring those groups together for rides. Definitely a worthy goal to strive for though.

  9. Tina says:

    You should publish a schedule of the stop start and end times. For those who have commitments that day they could join later.

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