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Biking Santas take over Milwaukee for charity

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here come hundreds of Santas. They are not in sleighs. This weekend a sea of biking Santas took over the streets of Milwaukee. The Santa Cycle Rampage is an annual ride for holiday merrymaking and cycling advocacy. Lina Tran of member station WUWM checked it out.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Ho, ho, ho. Ho, ho, ho.

LINA TRAN, BYLINE: It's a chilly day in Milwaukee, perfect weather for donning a Santa suit and cruising through town. The sky is gray, and trees are bare, but the street is a sea of red thanks to all the Santas here for a jolly time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one - woo (ph).

TRAN: For first-time Rampager Mark Hense, that jolly time means kicking things off with a shot ski. That's a line of shots glued to a ski.

What are you most excited about today?

MARK HENSE: The mass experience. I think once you get soaked up into an ocean of Santas, it's something that is to behold.

TRAN: The Santa Cycle Rampage started two decades ago as a pub crawl among friends. People saw how much fun they had, and things snowballed from there. Jake Newborn is with the Wisconsin Bike Fed, the nonprofit now behind the event. It's billed as...

JAKE NEWBORN: The world's largest holiday-themed costume bike ride for charity.

TRAN: This year the Bike Fed expected 1,800 Santas, elves and reindeer to join. The money helps the group push for easy, safe biking access across the state and set up biking education programs for kids and adults alike. Last year, between this ride and the one in Madison, they raised $50,000. The Rampage also celebrates winter biking in a part of the country where cold and snow doesn't end outdoor play.

NEWBORN: Biking doesn't just stop in September. So people bike all year round. And this is really something that has grown to be, like, a tradition where people now are doing it every year. They've got costumes. They got special bikes for it.

TRAN: Riders decked their bikes with tinsel and lights. One cyclist, Mark Rowe, built a plywood sleigh around his. He wouldn't say quite how long that project took.

MARK ROWE: We like to probably not quantify that because significant others may not appreciate how much time we've been spending on it, but a lot of time.

TRAN: Six miles north around the ride's halfway point, Scott McBride is in his car when the Santas invade.

SCOTT MCBRIDE: Yes, we're stuck here for a while, but that's OK. Santa promised he'd give us extra gifts for waiting for his parade.

TRAN: Cyclists say it's a thrill to take back the streets.

SHERRY STEWARD: We love it. It's anarchy.

TYLER: Yeah. It's how the world should be.

TRAN: That's Sherry Steward, who's dressed as a Christmas tree, and her husband, Tyler. They say this is the only day that when cars honk at you, it's...

STEWARD: In a good way.

TYLER: Yeah.

STEWARD: We stopped traffic. It's OK.

TRAN: To be clear, the Rampage is not a race. It's a slow roll. Along the way, groups split off to visit bars that welcome Santas to break for milk and cookies or beer and cheese curds, a Wisconsin delicacy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ho, ho.

TRAN: Outside the popular Lakefront Brewery, Tonia Wellend says she needed some holiday cheer. Her mother had surgery yesterday.

TONIA WELLEND: And I love biking outside in the cold even though I am not fit for it as a Liberian woman. But this is the best time of the year. (Singing) It's the most wonderful time of the year.

TRAN: Wellend is an advocate for cyclist safety. She says the Rampage is more than the drinks and costumes. It's visibility for the bike community.

WELLEND: Cars see all these people riding, and they're like, oh, I'm a little bit more aware of people on the road.

TRAN: Wallen and her friends mount their bikes, ready to head to their next stop.

WELLEND: Let's go. One, two, three - head out. All right. Bye, Santa.

TRAN: Dressed as Santas, singing carols, they are sure to turn heads. For NPR News, I'm Lina Tran in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMSEY LEWIS TRIO'S "HERE COMES SANTA CLAUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lina Tran
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