The Dead Baby Downhill bicycle race only has two rules: “No biting and no eye-gouging,” according to founder Dave Ranstrom. “Outside of that, there are no rules. First one to the party wins.”
That means just about everything else was allowed — running red lights, drinking beer and riding makeshift homebuilt bikes — when hundreds of bicyclists rushed through the streets of Seattle for the 18th annual race on Friday, Aug. 1.
‘Anything can happen’
This year, the Downhill started at The Barrel Tavern, just south of White Center in the Top Hat neighborhood, and ended in Georgetown, as is tradition. A bang of fireworks marked the start of the race, and, as the smoke cleared, riders hurried to gulp down their beers and barrel down hills toward the finish line. The race path was not predetermined, allowing the pack of cyclists to spontaneously choose the route as police officers closed streets and directed traffic around the moving mass.
“Anything can happen. It’s a mass of like-minded, bike-focused individuals,” said Oliver Doriss, a glass blower from Tacoma who has participated in the race for 10 straight years.
“Riding with a large group, taking over the traffic lanes — it’s a fun feeling,” said Zach Lindsey, another rider. “There’s a sense of illegality, but it’s the same sense of community that you get with a legitimate bike club.”
Some are in it for speed and the thrill of reckless abandon while others are in it for the carnivalesque atmosphere.
“The group dynamics of the ride are really what makes it fun,” said Laird Rickard. “I’m usually not competing. Usually I’ll do the race on a funny bike, like a tall bike. The Downhill is an opportunity to see people’s creativity, with the bikes they ride.”
Accidents are not uncommon — the event was even featured in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” — and many past participants have crash stories they don’t hesitate to share with excitement and bravado.
“The Dead Baby episode of ‘Grey’s Anatomy was pretty funny,” said one member who goes by the nickname “the Drunkle.” “The whole episode was about injuries at Dead Baby.”
This year, an ambulance carried away a cyclist who went down while rounding a corner. In his absence, a member of the Dead Baby Bikes club, which organizes the event, picked up the injured bicyclist’s discarded bike, slung it over his shoulders and continued riding.
“Really, though, not a lot of people get hurt,” said club member Chris Quigley.
A homemade trophy constructed out of welded bike parts and passed down through the years goes to the race winner. When the award ceremony took place, however, the first-place winner was nowhere to be found, perhaps already lost in the celebration.
‘It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids’
After the race came what Dead Baby Bikes calls “the greatest party known to mankind.”
“It’s like ‘Road Warrior’ on steroids, the party to end all parties,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown and president of the Georgetown Merchants Association.
The annual party is a raucous bicycle-centric celebration, complete with bicycle-powered carnival rides, burlesque-style dances that incorporate bicycles and bottomless beer refills included in the $25 registration fee. This year, freestyle BMX riders took to the air, showing off their mastery to the crowd’s delight.
But the main event was the “tall-bike jousting” — think Knights of the Round Table except on double-decker bicycles (two bike frames with one welded on top of the other). Anyone can sign up and joust, but having a good health insurance plan is not a bad idea. A jousting competitor once broke both of his arms when he was knocked off of his tall bike.
The club and many of the riders embrace a punk aesthetic; studded vests, tattoos and piercings pepper the crowd. Most are young — between 20 and 30, but all are welcome. Even families, presumably with bike-loving parents, stop by.
“[Attendance] is around 3,000, but seems to grow every year,” said club member Colin Northcraft.
How Dead Baby got its name
Founded in 1995 by Ranstrom, a longtime Seattle bike messenger-turned bike shop owner, Dead Baby Bikes got its name from Ranstrom’s first bicycle shop. The name is derived from a relic left at Ranstrom’s shop by a previous tenant: a doll nailed to the inside of the shop’s door.
“We all just laughed and said, ‘Dead Baby,”’ Ranstrom said. “It’s just tongue-in-cheek. If I thought it would have lasted as long as it has, I probably would have thought of a better name.”
The first year’s race began at the now-defunct Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill and ended at what was then the Dead Baby bike shop in Belltown.
“The very first race, we only had 200 people,” Ranstrom said. But there was plenty of chaos, as it so happened the race coincided with the Torchlight Parade.
“They rode right through the parade. They knocked over clowns. They knocked over marching bands. And they knocked over cops on motorcycles,” Ranstrom said. “I had more cops at my little bicycle shop than I ever wanted to see in my life.”
The club behind the festivities
Dead Baby Bikes club members wear a three-piece patch, or “colors” — an outlaw style reference to motorcycle clubs. But before club members started wearing the colors, Ranstrom wanted to get approval from the local chapter of the motorcycle gang, the Bandidos.
“We rode our bikes from Seattle all the way down to Tacoma, colors in hand,” said Ranstrom, ”We handed these big old bikers our colors, and they said, ‘Lets get this straight. You guys ride bicycles?’ They all started laughing and said, ‘You guys are OK.’ That’s where it started.”
Since then, the underground club has grown to roughly 150 members; Ranstrom wouldn’t give an exact number. Similarly to motorcycle clubs, Dead Baby chapters have popped up in various cities across the U.S., including Portland and Vancouver, British Columbia.
First year with a permit
This was the first year event organizers obtained proper city permits in response to a push from the city.
“I think there was a lot of concern over public safety and city resource,” said Larry Reid, curator of Fantagraphics books in Georgetown. “Last year in particular, SPD showed up in force because they had heard reports of gunshots being fired, when, in fact, it was fireworks.”
But, Reid added, because “the neighborhood completely embraces” the event, “it became pretty clear that we were not only endorsing, but helping to facilitate the event.”
“We did everything we could to facilitate them getting their permits. I think it’s going to work to their benefit,” he said. “We like to think of ourselves as outlaws,” said Northcraft, “[However,] once we started looking into the permitting process, we realized it’s stuff we already do, like provide security and toilets.”
‘The island of misfit toys’
Despite the club’s rough edges and grittier side, both the club and the Downhill embody a community-embracing bicycle counterculture with a come-as-you-are mentality.
“Family is a really important aspect for a lot of members,” said club member Jesse James. “This club is very tight-knit.”
“It’s like the island of misfit toys. They’ve done Christmas at my house for the past six years,” Quigley said.
Riding and building tall bikes are both a part of the Dead Baby ethos. Among club members, wheels that look like Rat Fink hot rods are a more common sight than sleek carbon-fiber bikes meant for racing. The club even has in the works a trash can-turned bike — a metal garbage can turned sideways with two wheels attached, with a rider straddling the can.
“I used to have Dead Babies come in to teach bike stuff to the kids at school back in the day. Those kids were making tall bikes,” said Quigley, who is also an elementary school teacher. “One year I had seven kids who were in my class or had been in my class doing the race.”
For partygoers, the Downhill offers a peek into the club’s culture and a chance to share cycling’s counterculture.
“The bottom line is it’s fun. Once you come out, you keep coming back,” Quigley said. “At the Dead Baby race, you’re free — free to do what you want to do.”