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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Riverwest 24-Hour Bike Race—Ride On!

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Anyone who has ever called Riverwest home can tell you how the East Side neighborhood generates a palpable energy that magnifies when the warm days of summer arrive. The area just west of the Milwaukee River is known throughout the city as a laid-back, affordable community that welcomes people from all sorts of backgrounds, from hippies and hipsters to artists and young professionals. Unfortunately, when night falls the sporadic flare of violence sometimes disrupts the harmony that so many of its residents seek. In 2008, a group of optimistic Riverwesterners hosted Milwaukee’s first 24-hour bike race, the RW24, to strengthen relationships within the neighborhood, welcome new people and create a safe environment for residents and visitors alike, regardless of the hour of the day.

The RW24, like many of Riverwest’s existing traditions, is really a manifestation of the neighborhood itself. Rather than the shaved legs, carbon-fiber bike frames and competitive pelotons of elite racing, think tattoos, handlebar mustaches and DIY bikes with fixed gears. Cyclists of all performance levels are invited to take part, either as an individual rider or as part of a team. The classes include: Solo (one rider, one bike), Tandem (two riders, one tandem bike), Team A (two to six riders sharing one bike) and Team B (two to six riders each with his/her own bike).

In tune with Riverwest’s “Follow Your Own Path” attitude, the RW24 doesn’t have a specific race route, just a suggested one that measures 4.6 miles. Riders are free to choose any route they want, just as long as they visit each of four checkpoints in order and have their visits validated on the manifests they are given at the start/finish line.

Riders can earn extra points (one extra point is worth one lap) by participating in bonus checkpoints, which are kept under wraps until the day of the race. Previous RW24 racers, for example, have earned extra points by shaving their heads at a participating salon, getting a tattoo and helping break up concrete in a community garden.

The winner in each racing category is determined by the person or team who completes the most laps in the 24-hour time period that occurs between when the race starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 30, and when it ends at 7 p.m. on Saturday, July 31. Winners are eligible for some great prizes donated to the RW24 by local businesses, including a custom-made trophy created entirely out of recycled bicycle parts.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the RW24 is how quickly it has become one of Milwaukee’s most popular summertime traditions. In its inaugural year, the race boasted 187 registered riders, and now, just two years later, the race has already closed its registration with 500 participants. The RW24 has a devout army of volunteers to ensure that the entire event, which includes two meals—dinner at the Riverwest Co-op and breakfast at St. Mary of Czestochowa—runs smoothly. Little enclaves within the community close down their streets for block parties, and neighbors, armed with lawn chairs and coolers of PBR, line the suggested race route to watch the two-wheeled spectacle.

While the Riverwest 24-hour bike race promotes physical fitness and endurance, it also advocates a more holistic urban biking culture in America, one that helps reduce vehicular traffic and road maintenance, conserve increasingly scarce energy resources, discourage suburban sprawl and promote local businesses. The RW24 is a stellar example of how a select group of caring individuals can enact significant change in a community—literally overnight.