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Beer Bike

Johnny Jones, April 2001

Sounds like Bryan is getting quite a reputation: First he said to a waitress, "Just bring me water. I'm an aqua-holic." That line drew a laugh in Houston, but at the steak house in Dothan, Alabama, the harried waitress looked horrified ­ as if Bryan has just made an admission of sin. Which, of course, she thought he had.

Bryan's Uncle Calvin tried to reassure her, "Aqua ­ he said `aqua' ­ that means water." But her eyes kept that wide-eyed look; she didn't get it.

Then he rode in Beer Bike.

Since Calvin isn't here to help Bryan out, let me explain. Beer Bike started as a 15-mile race in 1957, and it has since become a Rice tradition. Nowadays, "The race takes place on a 0.33-mile track which has a pit area on one side...Each team consists of 10 riders and 10 chuggers. Each person starts from the pit, rides a certain number of laps (3 for men) and then pulls back into the pit. As soon as a rider from a given team pulls into the pit, a chugger from that team starts drinking....When the chugger is finished, the next rider from that team can start. The team that completes the race first wins..."

Rondolet (a formal dance), water balloons, and a parade have become part of the celebration. Well, sort of a parade. Each college decorates a large vehicle, sometimes Hummers; the purpose of which is to carry a big sound system and thousands of water balloons. So everyone walks along and throws water balloons at students from the other colleges. You can tell who is from another college by their T-shirts; each college chooses a different color. It sounds like a day when kids let off steam and have a big party.

The "colleges," the combination dorms/social groups that comprise the backbone of life at Rice, field excellent, competitive teams.

The graduate students (GSA) struggle to get enough people to participate. Maybe it's because of the intensity: "In addition to chuggers and riders, each team also has a pit crew, composed of `throwers' and 'catchers'. Throwers are responsible for starting fresh riders: when the team gets the green light to start a new rider, the pit crew physically pushes/shoves the rider to give them a running start. The catchers' job is to receive riders when they pull into the pit after completing their ride -- typically this involves extracting the exhausted rider from his/her bike and carrying the bike (and possibly the person as well) out of the pit and into the chugging/setup area."

Because he had attended other Beer-bike races in the past, Bryan knew that riders needed to be caught; he just didn't think it would happen to him. He said that, when he got into the pit, his legs felt like jelly and wouldn't support him.

Why ride so hard your legs can't support you? "It's a Rice tradition," Bryan said, "and I wanted to apply the bike skills I'd learned and see what it was like to ride in a race."

What was it like? "I was surprised how much fun it was. It was fun do see the strategies working, like drafting."

When Bryan, the 4th rider on his team, started his laps, GSA was in 4th place. During his first lap, he passed the 3rd place rider. During all of lap 2 and the first half of lap 3, he "drafted" behind the 2nd place guy. "Drafting is when you ride close behind another biker so that the person in front of you makes a path through the air for you, reducing the amount of work required to keep moving." Towards the last half of his 3rd and final lap, he sprinted past the guy in 2nd, putting the GSA in 2nd place. After the next rider, they got to 1st for a couple of laps, although they dropped down to 6th by the end. GSA knew they couldn't do that well; they put their best riders first, so it would at least be competitive for awhile.

So that's what Beer Bike was like for Bryan: A combination of tradition, athletics, and carnival. A day to enjoy a Houston spring and ride hard to compete. Sounds like a lot of fun.

Quotes from "An unofficial guide to biking in Beer Bike" by Nathaniel McIntosh 2/12/95