Santa Cycle Rampage turns 11 in 2011

The smallest of Santa's helpers

It was 11 years ago that about a dozen year-round cyclists organized Milwaukee’s first Santa Cycle Rampage to spread holiday cheer while encouraging others to try riding bikes through the winter.  At the time, the idea of winter cycling was still new and strange to most of people in Milwaukee.  It was rare that I would see someone I didn’t know riding a bike in December.

Today, thousands of people in Milwaukee continue to use their bicycles to take them where they need to go throughout the coldest part of the year. Even most fair weather cyclists who hang up their bikes when the mercury drops below freezing know that it is really not very difficult to keep pedaling through the winter.

In a recent poll of year-round bike commuters, one of their top complaints was about the elevator ride to the office, rather than cold or snow plows.  Most people said they were tired of answering the question: “You didn’t ride your bike today, did you?”  I used to get that same query almost every winter day when I worked for the city.

There was no official count, but certainly more than 300 Santas rolled through the streets of Milwaukee on Saturday.

While winter cycling is a lot more popular that it used to be, perhaps the Santa Cycle Rampage still has a roll to play in spreading the word that year-round cycling is easy and even fun.  Among the people who drive to work in the winter, complaining about the weather seems to be another favorite elevator topic.  I typically would stand quietly while coworkers who drove in a storm complained about poor plowing, slippery roads, slow going, back-ups caused by spinouts, etc.

This Santa said WisDOT has been naughty and is going to get a lump of coal in their stocking this year.

The Santa Rampage is not a critical mass in costume. It is about spreading holiday cheer and promoting year round cycling. As such, the riders really try to follow the rules of the road.

Inevitably someone would turn to me and ask “how was your ride in the snow?” I often felt bad about admitting “It was great!  I love biking in a snowstorm.”  I felt guilty having a good time on my commute when they were in such a foul mood, but biking in the snow makes commuting kind of like an adventure.  It sort of brings out the kid in you again.

Even if you do slip and fall, the slow speeds and soft snow make crashes pretty minor.  Getting stuck in plow drift does sometimes happen, but all you have to do is get off, move your bike, hop back on and start pedaling again. When a car gets stuck it is usually a much bigger deal.

I remember riding down an unplowed block after a storm last winter, and a person in the car in front of me got stuck in the deep snow.  I got off my bike and tried to help push.  Soon there was a line of people in cars behind us who could not get through.  Most of them got out to help push.

Even with about 5 people pushing for 15 minutes or so, we couldn’t get the guy going. Finally I stopped pushing, and said, “sorry, but I’ve gotta get to work.” I hopped back on my bike and pedaled off, leaving about half a dozen people in cars stuck in the snow behind me. I don’t like to take pleasure in other people’s hardship, but I must admit to grinning while I rode away from those stranded motorists.

The annual Merry Christmas Toast and group photo at Lakefront Brewery.

While Milwaukee’s Santa Cycle Ramape has taken on a life of its own and has gained national reputation, I must give credit to the original. I hate to admit it, but I stole the idea, part and parcel from the crew at Chicago Bike Winter 11 years ago.  Their Santa Cycle Rampage predates ours by a few years.  The Milwaukee event is now much bigger than the ride in Chicago, but they still deserve credit for getting the snowball rolling.

I have to say this candy cane would win the award for best non-santa costume if there was a prize.

Happy Holidays incarnate rolling past City Hall.

With the power of social networking, this year’s Rampage saw more than 300 Santas, elves, and holiday helpers of all denominations, pedaling from every corner of the Milwaukee area and beyond.  One Santa told me he flew in from San Diego for the ride.  If the Rampage continues to grow, the organizers will probably have to make some changes.

This year the Santas met at various locations around the city and met at Lakefront Brewery.  From Lakefront, the full group pedaled through downtown to Great Lakes Distillery in Walker’s Point.  From there they spread Christmas joy west on National, down Chavez Drive for the traditional stop for tamales at El Rey.  Then off in a clatter to Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall, where owner Andy had an absolutely awesome polka band kicking out the beats.

This year he also had his outdoor beer garden going, which was a big bonus because the group is getting too big to fit inside his shrine to all that is good and Polish.  If you have not been to the Concertina Beer Hall yet, I highly encourage you to check it out.  From the biggest selection of Polish beer in Milwaukee to great live music, Andy’s place is worth the trip off the beaten track to this quiet south side neighborhood.

Next year I hope more people take their dreidels out for a spin.

Fatbikes seem a natural fit on a Santa ride.

Is the Santa Cycle Rampage getting too big for its red britches?


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.

3 thoughts on “Santa Cycle Rampage turns 11 in 2011

  1. Dave – Great pics!

    “I typically would stand quietly while coworkers who drove in a storm complained about poor plowing, slippery roads, slow going, back-ups caused by spinouts, etc.”

    I accept and respect each person’s choice of transportation mode. But when motor vehicle operators start complaining about how inconvenient driving is, that crosses a line for me – most have options for choosing a different transportation mode. There’s never a reason for feeling bad about your “great” bike commute in the snow.

    And any ride getting “too big” isn’t possible. We are traffic, after all. Mainstream media isn’t clamoring that the rush hour motor vehicle commute is getting “too big” (although they should be).

    I was unaware of Milwaukee’s Santa ride before this post. Maybe I’ll find a way to get down there and participate next year. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Everyone who loved the Santa Cycle Rampage on Saturday or is sad they missed it, should be sure to come to TOUR DE FAT. It is tentatively scheduled for July 14th in Veterans Park (official announcement will be made on this blog in the Spring). Tour De Fat is the other amazing party on a bike with costumes and beer. Come on Santas, get working on your summer costumes! Anyone interested in organizing costumed rides from the Santa Cycle Rampage start points to converge at Tour De Fat for the Bike Parade?

  3. “…the Santa Cycle Rampage still has a roll to play in spreading the word that year-round cycling is easy and even fun.” Yes, a roll is a roll is a roll, 600 wheels really rolling, not role acting.

    That same day we rode into downtown from Bay View for a holiday party. For a party minute we were a hot topic, but I could only say that winter biking is a delightful challenge, and I feel like I’m getting away with something, an infidel in a car-worshipping world.

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