The faces and the glory of the Ben Hurt Chariot Wars

Competitors in the Chariot Wars — including the eventual champions on the left — making their way around the course.

Yesterday under the Fremont Bridge — amid smoke bombs, firecrackers, and all manner of projectiles — the Ben Hurt Chariot Wars once again proved to be an epic spectacle.

The event is part of Zoobomb’s ninth annual Mini Bike Winter, a three day fest that takes mini-bikes to places only the fun-loving and creative crew from Zoobomb can.

Prior to the day’s action, a few hundred people amassed in North Portland for a brunch (fresh made hash browns and bacon) and socializing. It was a larger crowd than I recall from past years, with a healthy contingent from L.A.’s Midnight Ridazz club as well as “Team Salt” from Salt Lake City, Utah, a vanful of Canadians and the “Dead Babies” from Seattle. Portland bike clubs were of course represented too. “The Dropouts,” “North Freak,” and of course our gracious hosts, the Zoobombers.

Hamster Ball pilots Twitch (L) and Zane.

There were a lot hugs and smiles. In addition to the annual Dead Baby Downhill in Seattle and Freak Bike Fall (also held here in Portland), Mini Bike Winter is one of the largest mini/freak bike gatherings on the calendar, and it’s as much a time for friends to re-connect as it is a bike competition (if not more so).

On that note, I ran into an old acquaintance and a key figure in Portland’s freak bike scene, David “Chops” Darby. After helping start (along with club co-founder deadbuny) the Dropout Bike Club and a bike-based landscaping service, David has been living in southern Oregon for the past few years. Now he’s back, and not sure how long he’ll stick around (he’s living in an RV, so he’s mobile). Standing on the edge of the crowd, looking in, David seemed very content to be back among his old friends and proud that he’d started something that has flourished in his absence.

David Darby, a.k.a. “Chops”

When it was time to roll out to the Chariot Wars (the location is always a closely held secret), the large parade of riders — mini-bikes pulling chariots to double-stacked tall bikes — filled an entire lane for several blocks of of N. Mississippi Ave.

The endpoint of the ride and the grounds on which the Wars would be fought was a expansive paved area at the Union Pacific Railroad yards under the east side of the Fremont Bridge (just below N. Interstate Ave.).

Team SALT and their chariot (as in Salt Lake City, Utah).

Once everyone had assembled, the day’s emcee, “Dutch” (who is one part of last year’s winning team “Bear Force One”) explained the rules. Basically, anything goes. “But remember we’re all friends here,” Dutch said, and then he added they main rule: “You’re out when you are disconnected from your chariot.”

There were about 6, two-man chariot teams on the battlefield, and one wrecking ball — a.k.a. the Hamster Ball. The Hamster Ball is two BMX bikes welded together and wrapped in metal tubing. The pilots pedal hard, slam their front brakes, do a complete rotation, land back on their wheels and continue on. In yesterday’s Chariot Wars though, they were just there to create havoc (they weren’t official competitors).

Here are some of the competitors…

And there was plenty of havoc.

Right as the action started, the Hamster Ball claimed its first victim. A side impact knocked the wheel off of the chariot piloted by Guardrail and Don Jon. Despite their trailer missing a wheel, these heroic gladiators not only pressed on; they outlasted everyone else to claim the Chariot War trophy.

En route to victory, Guardrail and Don John survived thick smoke, explosions, flying cans of beer, and a blood-thirsty — yet very appreciative — crowds…

Don John (L) and Guardrail victorious despite losing a wheel on their chariot in the opening minutes.

With this much unsanctioned fun, we knew the police were never far away. Sure enough, as the Sprockettes assembled to perform, several PPB patrol cars and UPRR security guards rolled up. After what looked from afar like civil conversations with several organizers, the authorities sat back. By the time the Sprockettes began dancing, they had pulled out their cell phone cameras and seemed to be enjoying it as much as the rest of us…

There was a reporter for the Associated Press covering the event (I’ll share the link once the story is publsihed). As things wrapped up, he interviewed me, looking for help to put what he’d just witnessed into some sort of context that the American public would understand. Seeing this outpouring of grassroots and creative energy for the first time, the reporter was clearly excited. And, remembering my own first time, I was excited for him.

“This is amazing! It really deserves more than one story.” he commented. “Yeah,” I replied, “Tell me about it.”

— Browse more images in the gallery.

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