A bike battle like no other: The Ben Hurt Chariot Wars (photos)

Ben Hur would not have lasted five minutes with these modern-day gladiators.

The Ben Hurt Chariot Wars have once again staked their claim as one of the toughest bike events of the year.

About a dozen two-person gladiator teams slogged through the mud and muck of a vacant lot in north Portland as riotous onlookers lobbed bottle rockets, smoke bombs, glitter bombs, ketchup and various other menacing liquids.

The day started with a meet-up brunch at Dawson Park that featured bike-BBQs roasting up pancakes and egg-and-chorizo tacos. Part family reunion and part mini-bike exhibition, the gathering was a time to size-up competitors’ chariot entries and spend time with friends who share a common passion for doing death-defying things on child-sized bicycles.

Thomas works as a pedicab operator when he’s not a Chariot Wars gladiator.
“Sysfail” is a keeper of Portland’s mini bike and freak bike cultural history.
Aaron Truman, co-owner of A Better Cycle bike shop on Southeast Division, competed in his fourth Chariot Wars. He rode steed and his wife Kaline was the gladiator.
Two legends of local bike lore: Phil “RevPhil’ Sano (left) and Jon “Dutch” Paglia.

The love of mini-bikes in Portland has been around just as long as (if not longer than) the more well-known bike fun culture that blossomed here following the BikeSummer event in 2002. Zoobombers, famous for “bombing” down the west hills from Washington Park (after being dropped at the top by MAX light rail), wanted the subsequent BikeSummer to feature a healthy portion of mini-bikes and coined the name Mini Bike Summer. But other bike cultural organizers had already planned to call the 2003 event Mini BikeSummer (as in, a smaller version of BikeSummer, not a summer of mini-bikes).

The two groups combined and dubbed the 2003 event MiniBikeSummer. In 2004, that name was dropped in favor of Pedalpalooza, the three-week celebration of free fun on bikes that has happened every June since.

And then in 2007 the Chariot Wars were born from the creative mind of local bike fun provocateur Gabriel Amadeus Tiller. Since then the event has brought out a colorful assortment of competitors and instigators. The Dead Baby Bike Club, the Dropout Bike Club, North Freak, The Rebel Alliance, and Fatal Femmes are just some of the many “teams” that have entered the competition over the years.

After all the food was eaten and friends were hugged at Dawson Park, there was a mass bike ride up North Williams Avenue and down Mississippi to the scene of the battle — a vacant lot under a massive spiral of freeways.

“Who needs a bike when you have a horse?” says JFD, who has hung up his mini bikes in favor of a hooved animal named Kelsey.
Given the historical inspiration of the event, it was fitting to have a horse on hand.

Before the battle commenced, I asked a few of the gladiators if they had any last words. Most of them were too focused to answer. One member of the Fatal Femmes duo — last year’s champions — looked me right in the eyes and said, “Go fuck yourself!” This is a woman who nearly lost her finger in this event last year, so I backed away quickly. As I did she said, “My finger is better and I’m ready to chop it off again.”

Dutch, a former champion himself, served as leader
of the Goon Squad, a troupe of enforcers who maintain the rules.
Why was this man not wearing much clothing?
He spent the day in his hot tub on wheels (see below).
Pardon me, is there a battle going on? The hot tub was a part of the action but it wasn’t competing. It’s what organizers deem a “mobile nuisance,” which means it’s there to instigate and get in the way. In a previous year Zane and Twitch (famous for their Hamster Ball, among other things) showed up in a hollowed out, pedal-powered Volkswagen Beetle.
One of the Fatal Femmes.
The Fatal Femmes gladiator.
Getting pumped before battle.

With an unruly crowd frothing with anticipation and the gladiators prepared to meet their destiny, the battle was on. There is really only one rule: stay attached to your chariot. Last team standing wins.


Hot-tub-on-wheels builder Zane had to get out and help turn the wheels through the mud.
Blood (fake).
What they were fighting for.
This team was the eventual winner.
These guys pushed themselves to the absolute limit. Congrats to the winners: Guardrail and Cedar.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

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