Down on Nicollet Mall between 10th and 11th streets, anything that can double as a hitching post is attached to a bicycle: scores of them, locked to light poles, skinny trees, each other. It's early afternoon on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, but this is Minneapolis, so who cares? In a cluttered second-floor office overlooking the street, a more reliable pack of athletes--bike couriers--are busy prepping for the city's biggest messenger race of the year, the second annual Stupor Bowl.
The Minneapolis Bicycle Messenger Association's space is crammed with cyclists clad in high-performance synthetics and olive-drab army gear. Most are locals, though some have driven in from the far-flung streets of Chicago, New York, and Vancouver to compete. In the middle of the room, a frazzled messenger named B-Rad is perched behind a cluttered desk, passing out maps and T-shirts. Off in a corner, surrounded by wheels, someone's getting a mohawk from a friend, his red locks falling away to the sound of the clipper's buzzing.
It's 40 degrees and cloudy, more temperate than Stupor Bowl II organizers had counted on. Co-director Fred Eisenbrey, a solidly built, 14-year messenger vet, says the MBMA had hoped for "the most miserable weather possible." When it launched the Stupor Bowl last year--more than a decade after the first of such competitions, known as alleycat races, originated in Toronto--the group scheduled the event for the traditionally frigid Super Bowl weekend. Unfortunately for the Minneapolis contingent, the warm weather has again robbed them of their home-field advantage, and ruined what could have been a deliciously masochistic ride for all. "We want to punish people," Eisenbrey admits, "but we're 0 for 2 so far. Next year, maybe it'll be brutal."
Still, the course promises to be a grueling one. As in the hundreds of annual alleycats from Berlin to Washington, D.C., Stupor Bowl contestants are supplied with a list of stops to visit in any order they choose. (One checkpoint at a recent Boston contest featured a dominatrix who whipped cyclists as they passed by.) This year, racers are required to perform a small feat at each of the seven official stations--retrieving a candle stashed high in a tree fort, say--and secure a proof-of-passage sticker for their manifest sheets. Whoever collects them all and wheels past the finish line first, wins.
By 3 p.m. the 54 racers have clustered at the starting point, a parking lot in the shadow of the Metrodome. They lock their bikes, resting them against the sanded, crusty banks of snow and ice that ring the pavement, and stroll to the opposite end. On B-Rad's mark, they sprint across to their mounts, unlock and hoist the frames onto the sidewalk, clip their shoes into strapless pedals, and stream off into the streets.
The trick to winning, all agree, involves hitting as many green lights as luck will grant, possessing the spatial know-how to weave the quickest path through traffic, and demonstrating the ability to sprint for a solid 45 minutes ("You pretty much put yourself at oxygen debt the whole time," says Marco Sundlin, last year's champion). Alleycats present a demanding workout even for professionals. Couriers cover shorter distances in their day jobs, doing deliveries that run between two points limited to the urban downtown. And they spend a lot more time catching their breath on the job than during a race--in elevators, in law office lobbies, at dispatch.
Most crucial, strategically speaking, is the choice of route, and theories on the most efficient itinerary float in the air before and after the race: "'Cause I was thinking southeast. North. Sixth. Then down..." "We took a gamble on the Walker, going the other way..." Once the race starts, most head east to the Witch's Tower in Prospect Park, and continue in a counterclockwise ring that includes Dinkytown, a tree fort on Nicollet Island, bars in Northeast, the Warehouse District, and beyond--a route that totals about 15 miles, give or take an alley here and a one-way street there.
Chicago native Bobcat's tactic is to shadow local wheels through unfamiliar terrain for most of the race, then outsprint them at the finish. Locals, too, prefer to ride in packs of two or three, with other hometowners who'll push their stamina and speed. The same camaraderie that keeps couriers a breed apart on business days knits them tight on the course.
But the demands are different today. During the work week, messengers are paid a commission for each delivery--giving them an incentive to hustle, at times dangerously so, or, after a profitable morning, the luxury to slack a little as the day winds down. And by comparison, weekend streets are wide open; sure, there are still police cars and delivery trucks to maneuver around, but this is a Saturday, and in spite of the best efforts of the Downtown Council to pack it with shoppers, the urban core doesn't demand the same intense vigilance as during the week.
So when Jason Stukel, a lanky Minneapolitan and seasoned courier, approaches the finishing point at MBMA headquarters after nearly an hour of mad pedaling on the road, Nicollet Mall is hardly bustling. As passersby look on quizzically, Stukel and the two Chicagoans in his pack abandon their bikes, and frantically thrust their papers into B-Rad's hands. "It was just who could juggle the manifest sheet faster, and I just had my hand on it before the rest of the guys," exults Stukel, the declared victor.