Let’s itemize a few of the sights witnessed in the 23 years of the Seattle race described by one of its leaders as “gleeful mayhem on freak bikes.”
Towering bikes comprised of two frames welded on top of each other. Cyclists pedaling away inside a circular metal cage called a “hamster ball,” making it turn round and round. And plenty of bikes adorned with grotesque, sometimes impaled baby dolls right out of a 1980s “Chucky” slasher movie.
The reason for the dolls is the name of the event: Dead Baby Bikes Downhill.
For an event that will bring up to 4,000 people to Seattle streets on Saturday, the race is not widely known. On the Facebook page for the event, one of the regular participants posted, “What the Hell is ‘Dead Baby Downhill?!’”, I’ve been asked SEVERAL times this week lol.”
Larry Reid, president of the Georgetown Merchants Association, the neighborhood that’ll host a post-race street party, “I’d describe it as apocalyptic. It’s crazy. It’s ‘Road Warrior‘ on steroids.”
The downhill part of the event is the race that’ll draw 2,000 or so people. There is no planned-out route, because, you know, this is not some corporate mentality, OK? It starts at Captain Blacks bar at 129 Belmont Ave. E. and ends up in Georgetown along Airport Way South.
For a $30 entry fee, participants get a T-shirt and a water bottle. The bottle can be refilled with all the beer you want at that night’s free post-race outdoor party.
So, hot fun time in the summertime, complete with bands such as the duo Dirty Dirty, which describes itself as “punk-rock spastic.”
Reid, curator of Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery, says the neighborhood welcomes the Dead Babies “with open arms.”
He says, “It’s really one of the few remaining examples of Seattle counterculture as the city gentrifies, and Georgetown is one of remaining arts communities.”
The event is the concerted effort of the Dead Baby Bikes club, with some 50 members, most of whom are or have been bike messengers. With the T-shirt sales and lots of volunteer work, they have managed to pull the race off for two decades.
You need a certain attitude to be a bike messenger, what with its scrapes, close calls and the occasional collisions with motorized vehicles.
The club originated in 1994 in a bike repair shop run by Dave Ranstrom in Belltown, in which the previous tenant had nailed a doll to the roll-up door. Hence, Dead Baby.
“We thought it was funny,” he says. The club’s logo is of a cartoon doll bloodily pierced through with the extended “b’ and “k” in the word “bikes.”
He admits, “Yeah, we’ve gotten some hassles about the name.”
Ranstrom is 51, just bought a house, and these days works a shipwright. But the spirit of a bike messenger is still there.
He says the first race had an attendance of maybe 200, and went from the Comet Tavern on Capitol Hill to Ranstrom’s bike shop. It was on the same night as the Seafair Torchlight Parade, and the group raced right into the parade.
“We went through marching bands, right through,” Ranstrom says. “They were not happy.”
He says police later showed up at his shop.
“I thought for sure I ‘d be going to jail,” says Ranstrom. “They said, ‘Is this your responsibility?’ I threw my hands up and yelled, ‘I love Seafair!’ ”
The club’s membership is open to men and women.
Sarah Galvin, 33, a Seattle poet and essayist, joined the club when she 24. She worked as a bike messenger while going to college.
In 2016, she wrote about the Dead Baby racing event for Queerspace Magazine.
“I felt like I’d entered another dimension — something between Mad Max and a 1930’s hobo convention. I knew then that I had to be a part of this somehow,” she wrote.
In an interview, Galvin described the night’s most anticipated event: jousting while riding welded tall bikes.
The entrants sit 8 to 10 feet off the ground, holding sticks or tubes that have foam, a boxing glove, or a tennis ball taped at the end. The first one to knock the other off the bike wins.
“Not for me,” says Galvin. “I’m small, like 105 pounds.”
As the August event has gotten bigger, it’s also had to adjust.
Morgan Rose, a Tacoma registered nurse, heads up the assembling of first-aid teams for the race. You need to have a CPR card.
She says the injuries tend to be mostly scrapes and cuts, not like the more severe injuries portrayed in a 2005 episode of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” which takes place in a fictional Seattle hospital. In that episode, emergency room physicians are kept busy with injuries from the Dead Baby race, including a bike messenger impaled with spokes.
Says Rose about bicycle spokes coming off and spearing somebody, “It’s not really realistic.”
The event also used to be unpermitted.
This is the sixth year organizers have obtained a 13-page permit from the city’s Special Events Office for the post-race street party. It’s issued to “The Greatest Party Known To Human Kind.”
The group also has a permit to close off the block in front of the Captain Blacks bar, where registration for the race is from 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, with the race starting at 6 p.m.
The actual race, however, still is unpermitted.
Not surprisingly, a Seattle police spokesman says, “We hope everyone is wearing a helmet and follows all traffic laws. We’d feel terrible if somebody got injured.”
“Some people stop for the lights,” says Greg “Gunny” Rehm, the club’s sergeant at arms. “But if they choose to violate traffic rules, that’s on them.”
These days, at age 45, Rehm hasn’t been a full-time bike messenger for a while. He works in tech, he says. “Yeah, I know, I’m a total sell-out.”
Still, the spirit is there.
He repeats the phrase that’s almost the club’s slogan, “Safety third.”
And what first and second?
“Having fun and looking good,” says Rehm.