Coming to Galveston: Debauchery on Two Wheels

The Island's annual Barcycle beer/bike-ride offers a sordid tableaux you don't often see this side of New Orleans.

By John Nova Lomax Photography by Daniel Kramer March 5, 2014

Two years ago photographer Dan Kramer and I were dispatched to Galveston. Our brief: to find Spring Break in all its debauched glory, and though we scoured the Island from East Beach to 17 Mile Road, we failed miserably.

In Galveston, gone are the beer-bongs, hook-ups in the surf, and ecstasy-fueled shindigs of our 1980s youth, replaced by multiple generations of families from places like Tomball and Huntsville and the sort of wholesome youths who spend their Spring Breaks working for Habitat for Humanity. Which is all well and good, downright noble and sweet in fact—but not what we were expected to find and report about.

But while the tourists let us down, the locals more than picked up the slack. Kramer and I were apprised of a newish locals-only tradition: Barcycle. Since 2002, on the Sunday a week before St. Patrick's Day, hundreds of Galvestonians deck themselves and their bicycles out in shamrocks and kelly green, assemble at the crack of noon at O'Malley's Stage Door bar near the 1894 Opera House, and pedal to pretty much every tavern within whistling distance of The Strand. (NOTE: Because St. Patrick's Day falls on a Monday this year, Barcycle will be held on Sunday, March 9.) As one bartender told us, along the way pretty much all of them manage to "get tore up from the floor up."

Kramer and I arrived late in the proceedings and could see at once that the bartender spoke truth.

As I wrote at the time...

We caught up with this slow-motion death race in Saengerfest Park in the Strand area about four on that dismal Sunday afternoon, and already by then, more than a few of the riders could hardly stand up, much less pedal their green tinsel-festooned cruisers. I watched as a young glassy-eyed blonde with pigtails keeled over twice in trying to navigate a thankfully empty parking lot. Someone else wiped out on Galveston's defunct trolley tracks and just left his bike there, where it sat abandoned for 10 long minutes.

Beer was flying, bottles were breaking on concrete sidewalks and barroom floors, couples were making out on benches, and if it was puking you sought, you were in the right place. Kramer also spied a bearded young man pissing on the wooden doorway of a venerable Victorian warehouse. A young couple was having a teary argument right in the middle of a public square. In short, this was a daylight urban Bacchanal of the sort you don't often see this side of Carnival in New Orleans.

Will Wright, a Galveston graphic designer, was dressed not in green but in gold. He explained that he was not just a leprechaun but also the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and as it had finally sort of stopped raining by this time, it felt appropriate talking to him right then. (Also, though he had imbibed a healthy amount, he was sober enough to conduct a lucid conversation.) He explained some of the tradition, notably, that it was held the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day as a sort of mindf**k for the tourists and other square folks. "We like people to see us all in our green and go 'Whoa, did we miss St. Patrick's Day?" he said.

By about dark, Barcycle was starting to fray around the edges. It looked like a MASH unit: skinned knees, bruised elbows, a scraped chin here and there. What had once been a tightly-contained squadron of cyclists leaving on command to head to the next watering hole had frayed. Pockets of them were scattered from The Press Box to Murphy's to The Wizzard, quite likely the finest and friendliest downtown Galveston dive. There, the surviving cyclists were chomping down free trays of tequila Jell-O shots. (Those seeking folk authenticity should look no further: not only is Galveston rumored to be the birthplace of the margarita, but San Leon alt-newsman Gator Miller swears that the city was also the birthplace of the Jell-O shot. But that's another story.)

Before we took leave of Barcycle, a couple cornered me. The man looked me in the eye and with all the gravitas he could muster from beneath his shamrock-encrusted bowler hat, addressed me solemnly. "You must never write about this," he said, sincerity oozing from his hazel Celtic eyes. "This is ours. This is Galveston's. If Houston hears about it, it will be ruined." Sorry laddie...

And sorry again. Strap your Schwinn's and beach cruisers on your RAV-4'S and get down there, Houstonians. Make sure you have no plans to drive back later that night, nor work to do on Monday. 


Show Comments