What will the Rampage look like 10 years from now?

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 in the 414 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.

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  decide to 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.

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 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 even 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.

When people ask me how long the ride is, I say that Santa drink 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.

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 winters 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 around the after. 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 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 to get people out on bikes in the winter, 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, 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


About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

8 thoughts on “What will the Rampage look like 10 years from now?

  1. Since 2009, this has been one of my favorite holiday traditions and I really thank you for explaining the origins of the event, as I had just heard of it through friends and didn’t realize the back story. It is incredible to think this ride has gone from a dozen to hundreds in such a short time. Your article did spur some thoughts on your three main points – spreading out to more establishments, fundraising and drinking.

    In the five years I have been doing this, I have only been in a large group (10 or more Santas) past Great Lake Distillery once. Every other time I have been in a smaller block of Santas, most of the time on the tail-end. From my perspective, I think you already are seeing your vision of Santa’s stopping at other local places. Many of the restaurants and bars between Great Lakes and Kochanski’s, such as Oscar’s and El Rey’s, have a fair number of Santas already stopping. On other bike bar crawls that I participate in, local eating establishments are highlighted on a map that is given out at the first stop and if you would do that, I think this would help with some of the overcrowding, especially on the narrower streets of the Southside. I would say in my opinion the best part of the ride is in between Lakefront and Great Lakes, so as long as you keep the group together in that part, the rest isn’t as big of a deal (10 Santas still get a great reaction from people!).

    In terms of fundraising, I think there may be more effective ways then to have a concert, although I give big kudos for getting that pulled together! My major concern with the concert is setting loose a ton of non-bikers (some without bike lights!) in the dark, in downtown Milwaukee after almost 12 hours of biking/drinking. If you are trying to minimize the risk of this event, it just doesn’t seem like a great idea. One of the reasons I didn’t attend the fundraiser was in previous years I was exhausted and in bed by 7:30!

    I believe in years past there has always been people walking around collecting donations for the Bike Fed and I would recommend going back to that route, with a suggested donation of $15. With 500 Santas, you would at least match what you made this year. In any case, I would be concerned with anything that stretched the event longer into the night, especially when you have more non-bikers involved.

    In terms of drinking, this may have started out as a bike first, drink second event, but I think those roles have reversed and I’m not quite sure how you reverse it back without fundamentally changing the event. I do think it is everyone’s personal responsibility to make sure they don’t drink too much (and I think as bar crawls go in general this group is great), but I agree at some point, someone is going to make a bad choice. I do think the amount of biking does help keep people who only want to drink away (For example, look at how bad the SantaCon events have gotten in other cities). The only way to make this a risk-free event is to eliminate the drinking altogether because anytime you get 500+ people together with alcohol, something bad is eventually going to happen.

    Finally, I just want to say I love this event and I commend you, the owners/workers at each of the stops and everyone else who helps put this event together each year. It is easy for someone like me, who just enjoys it, to point out these minor issues, but just keep true to your vision and this event will continue to be great!

    • Ben,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, and for riding of course. It sounds like we are of the same mind, but neither of us has a simple answer. As for more biking, or riding a longer distance, I have also heard comments from people that a 15 mile day is already a lot of riding for people who don’t consider themselves “cyclists.”

      The group plans on debriefing soon to talk about next year. I will keep Santas informed via this blog and our social media channels.

      Ho, ho, ho!

  2. Dear Dave,

    Thank you so much for starting and for organizing this event. I had to miss it this year but have had many fun experiences in the past. I think the combination of biking, beer, and Midwestern friendliness is a perfect match. My favorite part of the event is meeting all the other Santas and seeing everyone’s smiles. I got my dad to join us last year and he had so much fun that he turned up again this year even though I was out of state. I hope the ride continues to be a fun, social event that brings people together. Rides like this are what makes Wisconsin different from other states. Thanks again. Clay

  3. I’ve done this ride for about 5 years now. Thanks for those that organize it! I ride my bike most every day of the year with commuting and weekend rides so I’m all about the bike. Do the wrist band again but skip the concert. That’s not needed given the length of the day already. Honestly, I’d prefer to not have the ‘beer first’ crowd. They are missing the main point of the ride and are more likely to not control themselves. I’m afraid they could ruin it. If there was a way to get them farther apart, that would help discourage the ‘beer first’ crowd I think. I know that’s hard though. The stops as they are now are good spots. Definitely keep it loosely organized.

  4. I don’t have any suggestions about how to organize with so many riders now, but I miss riding in a big long line of Santas through the streets and neighborhoods. We seem to have lost that recently. After leaving the distillery the group gets pretty fragmented.

    The food trucks at Great Lakes were a great addition the last couple of years.

    2013 was my sixth ride. Three of those years I was joined by my son in law from Boston who has now started his own Santa Cycle Rampage. See http://bo.st/1k2nNt7

    Thanks to all who have organized this event through the years. I have met many great people and always have a good time.

    • Nice to learn we have inspired other Santa Cycle Rampages! Truth be told I copied the idea from Chicago Bike Winter, but there event is an anti-comsumerism thing on Black Friday where they sing anti-Christmas songs on Michigan Ave. I like the name but made the Milwaukee event into a positive thing.

      I think next year we will have a longer all Santa route. We have consistently heard people like that aspect and miss the longer ride through different neighborhoods.

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