A night on a beer bike, deconstructed

Beer + Bike + Review = Hot Mess.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 24.04.2024 Photography by
Iain Treloar, Matt de Neef and Tim the Beer Bike Driver
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Real talk: I think it’s only natural to approach team-building activities with a certain level of trepidation. It’s a category of entertainment riddled with trust-falls, high-ropes courses, forced fun. So, on the Friday before Tour of Flanders, as the staff of Escape Collective converged on a square somewhere in Ghent, Belgium, I wasn’t entirely without worry. 

Then I saw the beer bike. 

Beer bikes are, as has been catalogued in these very pages, a source of some fascination around these parts. As you might suspect from their name, they combine two key ingredients: beer, and bikes. To lay my cards on the table, I like both of those things. So an opportunity to ride a bike while drinking a beer with friends in a foreign city? What’s not to love? 

The rules of engagement: we had the beer bike for two hours, a Bluetooth connection to a speaker, a small bearded man as a designated driver, and a keg of beer. This in itself seemed enough for a guaranteed good time, before we even got into the metaphorical significance of the Beer Bike – not just a funny object but an avatar for an expanding cinematic universe of characters and content – at Escape Collective.

But we hadn’t really grappled with them in the flesh, not really. And so, with a combination of giddiness and inebriation, we set out to right this wrong. 

The Escape Collective crew pile onto the beer bike.

Pt. 1: Riding experience

Picture, if you will, a triangular wedge of thick foam – seat-adjacent rather than conventionally a bike seat – mounted on a rigid bar without height adjustment. At your feet is a crankset with a sticky chain, connecting mysteriously to the underside of the beer bike. There is a single low gear ratio at which you effortfully spin your legs, going approximately nowhere. This is your home for the next two hours. 

Jonny pouring beers into little plastic cups, with a very serious expression.
Serious Business.

On each side of the beer bike are six such seats; at the front and at the back are two benches without pedals. Wooden benchtops stretch along each side of the bike, with cup holes handily drilled to accept your plasticware. In the centre of the bike is a keg of beer and a tap, and in front of that, in the middle of the bike, sits the (non-drinking) driver, who in our case was called Tim (your results may vary). You may think that he has electric controls to help ease our passage; he does not. He has a shitty little foot pedal that looks like it’s off a 1930s tractor that does the braking, a steering wheel that has been stolen off a VW, and the finely-honed ability to gracefully ignore bicycle cycling journalists crowding him on four sides.

The single metal pedal which controls the brake.

After a quick explainer of what we’re doing and the safety features of the bike (JK there are none), we set off, slowly building up to cruising speed (about 7 km/h). There’s a period of acclimatisation as we bump off the curb and realise that this thing probably won’t fall apart, and we spend a few minutes trying to see how fast we can go. Jonny jumps in the middle and is on beer-pouring duty, slopping foam over the edge of the cups and the benchtops; Jared works out how to connect to the Bluetooth speaker and puts on something that is initially tasteful Euro-dance but then turns into the TOM BOONEN TOM BOONEN TOM BOONEN song.

Caley's hands wrapped around the beer bike countertop.
The white knuckles of a Caley Fretz putting in a surge of power.

For about 15 minutes we weave through the narrow streets, cackling with delight, before at a certain point two realities – the slothlike pace of the bike, and the fact that we are actually working up a sweat for that meagre speed – begin to sink in.

Time to seek distractions elsewhere …

Pt 2: Pride comes before a …

Thoughts turn to the challenge of taking pictures to commemorate this Very Special Adventure. On the bike: jostled and harshly lit, failing to convey the majesty of this machine in motion. Off the bike: logistically challenging, and with high risk of a blurry end product.

No matter. At the occasional traffic light, we could reshuffle ourselves – some to seats where they could take a breather, others to seats where they could actually pedal (at least two of the cranksets weren’t connected to a chain, which made them largely ornamental spinny-devices). As our confidence grew and our count of little cups of Belgian beer increased, the dismounts became increasingly daring – hitting the ground running, making pit stops at construction site portaloos, and snapping pictures thereafter. 

Many hands reaching across and toward the central beer tap.
Jonny on the tools.

I have hazy memories of Joe running after the beer bike, after he was left behind at a traffic light; I have proud memories of myself successfully dismounting, running ahead, getting a bunch of pictures of the bike in motion that I thought absolutely nailed it but absolutely, on reflection, did not. And I have somewhat sharper memories of trying to repeat this dismount a bit later, misjudging the speed with which the bike was moving and which my legs weren’t, and – to use the technical terminology – ‘eating shit’ on the side of a canal somewhere. I sprang up in a hurry, laughing at my clumsiness, hid the tear in my knee and palm of my hand from my colleagues, and we all pretended that I wasn’t the biggest klutz this side of Ghent. 

Then I started waving at people.

A blurry picture of a group waving outside a convenience store.
Any bystander is a future friend.

Pt 3: A non-exhaustive list of people we pissed off

You’ll be shocked to hear this, but a slow-moving vehicle on narrow roads pumping loud music and filled with tourists who don’t speak the local language are not cut out to be Ghent’s most popular people.

Considering this combination of factors, I’d actually say I was pleasantly surprised with the reception that our little beer bike posse received; there were some people that waved, some people that smiled, and even some teenaged boys that were probably not of legal drinking age that hopped on and got a free beer before we dropped them off somewhere on the way. 

But there were several people who absolutely fucking hated us and everything we stood for (and fair enough), so as a clumsy form of reparations, I’d like to offer our sincere apologies to the following: 

A car in the background, its lights glowing menacingly, behind a smiling Wade and Joe at the back of the bike.
A Dacia Duster losing its mind behind the Escape Collective Beer Bike.
A hand waves in the foreground. A group sitting outside a bar do not reciprocate.
Do you see a single returned wave? Neither.

Pt 4: How the sausage is made

Here’s the thing about riding a beer bike. It is exceptionally fun in small doses, especially if you have spent months building out an entire persona (what’s up, Chad!) to hang the experience off. Does the beer do a lot of the heavy lifting on the fun-front, though? Yeah, I’d say it’s a key part of the appeal, because purely judged on the actual mechanics of the riding experience it’s… fairly miserable.

The seat’s uncomfortable. Your arms get tired from gripping onto the countertop; your legs ache for days afterward from working really, really hard to go almost nowhere. Then there’s the hit your dignity takes when you’re spurned by Belgian after Belgian, or are forced to grapple with the fact that a sizeable slice of the onlooking pie-chart is hating everything about you. And still, by some strange alchemy, it’s one of the best things I’ve done all year. 

The Escape Collective crew pose in front of a beer bike, mostly smiling.

As we pulled into a stop after an hour and a half – we could’ve gone longer, but realistically we’d all had enough of both beer and bike – we dismounted and asked Tim to take a photo. Then, just as we all started wandering back through the streets of Ghent toward our hotels, I turned back. The beer bike was getting winched onto a truck, exposing its inner workings, and I scrambled beneath to fire off a few pictures.

Evocative, I think you’ll agree: 

In response to Tim’s puzzled expression, I rounded out the night with a quick interview that was the equal-worst of the week, realising midway through that he maybe didn’t speak the best English or understand why I was asking him any of this. The transcript makes for unpleasant reading, the pointier questions I’d planned getting pared back on the fly to thirsty attempts to ingratiate a beer bike driver.  

The beer bike on the back of a truck, with the reporter standing next to it cornering the beer bike driver for an interview.
This looks more threatening than it was.

EC: Were we the best customers you have ever had? 

T: [nervously] Uh, yes. 

EC: [delighted] Yes?!

T: Yeah. It was funny. It was happy. 

EC: Do people normally like the beer bike…

T: Yes, yes …

EC: I mean, the drivers – do they get angry with the beer bike? 

T: [considered pause] Yeahhhhh, on this day it’s more than most … [Tim sprinkles in a few words in Dutch]

EC: … But you liked us. 

T: [uncertainly] Yeah. 

EC: [insufferably] And we liked you. 

T: Thank you. 

EC: Thank you. Bye.

Blurry figures walk across a square away from the beer bike.

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