(Photos by M.Andersen/BikePortland)
The charioteers never saw the rainbow arching over their heads. They would have been crazy to let their guard down that long.
About 100 soggy competitors and spectators came together in one to three inches of standing water in a crumbling Clay Street warehouse Saturday afternoon for the seventh annual edition of a Portland institution: a Ben-Hur style gladiator battle conducted on homemade chariots drawn by minibikes.
Under the supervision of a team of yellow-vested referees, the gladiators used smoke grenades, firecrackers, rotting tires and lightly padded blunt objects to try to knock one another off their contraptions. (The rules: A team is eliminated if both hands and both feet of either the driver or charioteer are completely separated from their vehicle.)
The setting was spectacular, and the weather added more excitement: after hours of drizzle, a sudden downpour kicked off the competition and then suddenly receded, leaving a rainbow visible over the open building while the competitors sloshed in circles after one another.
“One of my roommates dragged me out here,” said Eli March, 26, a first-time attendee. “I was impressed with the creative ways of interfering with the other teams. The grappling hook was probably my favorite, followed by the fishnet.”
The grappling hook, which was made of rebar, didn’t last long on the field.
“I had to go ‘Dad’ on that,” said one of the referees, 28, who introduced himself as Sauce. He said he’d told its owner to put it away, even when she promised “not to throw it or anything.”
This year’s winners, Garai and Luke of the Pavement Princesses, managed to survive another highlight: a successful lassoing by a spectator.
As the race wrapped up, the owners of this chariot (which had also been, I was told, their wedding carriage) decided to retire it in as spectacular a fashion as possible. (A bit after I got this photo, they were both riding in the back and kissing as the fire burned down.)
Chariot Wars was only one of the centerpieces of Mini Bike Winter, the wet-denim tradition of fun on bikes organized by the folks behind Zoobomb. As someone who’d never been to a Mini Bike Winter event and doesn’t own a single jean jacket, I wasn’t sure what to expect — but from the Sprockettes‘ kickoff dance performance to the laughs among longtime friends to the ecstatic embrace of Garai and Luke at the end while the crowd chanted “PPS” to celebrate their victory, I felt totally welcome and seriously charmed by a strong, fun-loving and mostly (though not, you know, excessively) healthy community.
“I feel like Mini Bike Winter is the antidote to the cold,” said one of the spectators, 30, a Chariot Wars veteran who gave her name as Cinnamon. “It’s like a lot of heat all in one area. It makes a lot of sense.”
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.