Even though the term “race” is part of the official title for the Riverwest24 – if anything about the RW24 can be said to be “official” – and place finishers are named in four categories, the true winner on July 25-26 and beyond will be the Riverwest neighborhood.
Just a handful of neighbors worked together to develop the basic concept for the event in 2008. And neighbors, now numbering more than a thousand, continue to come together as the lifeblood of this bike race that is like no other. The fact that this year’s trophies will be ice sculptures begins to hint at the sense of group merriment, rather than individual accomplishment, that pervades the RW24.
Some members of the organizing team might dispute the “group merriment” characterization. But that speaks to the eclectic nature of the Riverwest neighborhood itself – a key element in the continued success of the race. Here differences of opinion and even widely disparate viewpoints, maybe discussed over a few beers at the Public House, are celebrated rather than discouraged.
But to really get a feel for why this 24-hour bike ride on the streets of Riverwest is unique, you need to go back in time to January 2008 with Jeremy Prach and Paul Kjelland, two of the original organizing team.
The Baja 1000 is described as a “grueling,” 1,000-mile motorcycle race lasting more than a week in the Baja California region of Mexico. Prach and Kjelland had volunteered to be part of the road crew/support staff for one of the participating teams.
After Prach returned to Milwaukee, he and Riverside High School co-worker Chris Fons were talking over beers one day (do you see a pattern developing here?). Prach and Kjelland were on the lowest-budget team for the Baja 1000, a team without big-money sponsors.
Prach came away from the experience with a deep sense of the role the people in the communities surrounding the race course played in the event, beyond the race participants themselves. Regardless of what team a rider was on, when that rider came rolling into one of the many tiny towns along the race route, the people would come out to observe – and to help. Whether it was providing water or assisting with a tube blow, it didn’t matter if the rider was winning or losing; it was all about the experience itself.
Steve Whitlow, another member of the RW24 organizing team, describes the process Prach and Fons went through to take the Baja 1000 inspiration and turn it into the Riverwest24.
“Jeremy and Chris were thinking, ‘What could we do in our neighborhood that might simulate that welcoming feeling that [Jeremy] felt in Baja’,” Whitlow said. The importance of the race observers, and the fact volunteers were on a level plane with race participants, definitely was a driving factor, he explained.
“Now, you have to imagine Jeremy and Chris standing on Jeremy’s front porch that first year, clapping for imaginary bikes, manifesting the vision,” Whitlow said.
Very soon thereafter, Mike McGarry, another Riverwest neighbor, joined the organizing team. He was deeply involved in the bicycle community, Whitlow said, a former bike messenger from Chicago, who then worked at Ben’s Cycles in Milwaukee. McGarry started tapping his friends, talking to different people, and started trying to hype the race.
Prach’s house at Center and Pierce became the starting line. Whitlow’s house, at Booth and Keefe, was Checkpoint 1, and Fons’s residence on Burleigh and Humboldt was Checkpoint 2. Checkpoint 3 was underneath the marsupial bridge, the pedestrian walkway suspended under the Holton Street bridge spanning the Milwaukee River and North Commerce Street. Then the riders return to the starting line to begin another lap. Or not. Rest periods are strongly encouraged in the RW24, as are teams, so that few single riders are riding for the full twenty-four hours.
Prach, Fons and Whitlow pulled a block party permit that first year. They got signatures from the immediate neighbors and “told ‘em about our kooky idea,” Whitlow said. The original fee was $15 per rider. It has risen to $24 per rider, where it will stay. “A dollar an hour for the ride of your life,” Whitlow explained.
Details of how the competitive part of the race would work were thought through. The system of printed manifests that need to be punched at each checkpoint by volunteers, with different “bonus” checkpoints thrown in each year, continues to work well.
The activities surrounding the checkpoints and at other spots along the route have grown since 2008, to the point where the overall experience – for organizers, participants and volunteers – “is beyond our wildest expectations,” Whitlow exclaimed.
The original organizing team of Jeremy Prach, Paul Kjelland, Chris Fons, Mike McGarry and Steve Whitlow came to their roles with strong philosophical leanings, Whitlow said, with some leaning in different directions.
The current team consists of six people: Prach, Kjelland, Fons and Whitlow, with the addition of Wendy Mesich, volunteer coordinator, and Nicole Watson, who works on setting up checkpoints. Mike McGarry subsequently moved to Madison, Wisconsin.
Mesich echoed Whitlow’s take on the different approaches taken by organizing team members.
“It’s not a race. There’s a divide, even among the organizers,” she said. “I’m definitely in the ‘it’s not a race’ camp. That’s not the important part for me.”
Mesich said, instead, it’s getting people on their bikes, in the neighborhood, all night long, out and about and seeing everybody, and promoting bicycling that are the truly worthwhile aspects of the event.
“It’s really promoting the neighborhood, that sense of Riverwest that is hard to put your finger on,” Mesich said. She has lived in Riverwest for eighteen years and described how the first few Center Street Daze events “really spoke to me, the things that happen in our neighborhood that aren’t going to happen in other neighborhoods anywhere else.”
Volunteering is really important to Mesich, too, just as it plays a vital role in the RW24. And, by the way, volunteers are still needed for this year’s race. Contact Mesich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The sense that this whole thing, from organizers, to a volunteer who helps for one hour on the fly – it couldn’t happen without that,” she explained.
“So many people willing to donate so much time and effort and really care about it, just to give everyone this great holiday,” she said.
Whitlow and Mesich – indeed, the entire organizing team and, presumably, a good portion of the participants and volunteers – appreciate the distinctive nature of the RW24 and what it says about the Riverwest neighborhood.
“We work together in a very good way, ‘cuz we’re focused on the underlying philosophy of what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to accomplish,” Whitlow said.
“I think people in general, maybe Riverwest in particular, with the DIY, anarchy, hipster nature – I think people are very hungry for things that are honest, things that are genuine. Part of it is, we work really well together. We also work really well with the neighborhood,” Whitlow said.
“I think in general people are starved for things that are genuine. I can go to any stupid street festival and buy a stupid elephant ear, buy beer in the street,” Whitlow said. “RW24 has not yet entered the realm in which it is a parody of itself.”
Whitlow summed up quite nicely the overall value of the Riverwest24 to the community that supports it so enthusiastically.
“I like the fact that my three children will grow up and think that it’s completely normal to organize your neighborhood around a happy festival. They’re going to think it’s normal to just go ahead and invent a holiday and have the whole neighborhood celebrate it.”