Rusch Job: Bikes and Beer… and Borrowing a Tradition from our Winter Brethren

Words by Rebecca Rusch

I didn’t know what gelände quaffing was until I moved to Idaho. Now it’s an annual tradition that I host as a hotly contested competitive component of Rebecca’s Private Idaho. For those who don’t ride that fast, there’s still the opportunity for glory just before the sun sets in Ketchum. Beer and bikes go together like peanut butter and jelly. There’s a long history of tipping a frosty mug after a glorious bike ride. However, I think my event might be the first one to bring gelände quaffing to a cycling event. Go ahead and prove me wrong on this.

As the event director, the most common question I get is “What is gelände quaffing?”

Gelände: from the German geländesprung, “a jump usually over an obstacle in skiing that is made from a low crouch with the aid of both ski poles.”

Quaffing: to drink something (especially an alcoholic beverage) heartily. 

Put them together and you get the greatest beer event you’ve never heard of. A sort of all-terrain drinking event. A game where style points count and athleticism and training are essential.

It’s a ski-town tradition that is loosely based on a type of ski racing that dates back to the 1940s involving all-terrain skiing and flying through the air as far as you could — a traditional form of hot-dogging, if you will.

This rogue sport, called geländesprung, has deep roots in European ski resorts around the world. Fast-forward to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, our neighboring ski resort (which also has great mountain biking), and the tradition of gelände quaffing was born in the U.S. in the ’80s. Wasn’t everything that’s good born in the ’80s?

The folklore goes that a die-hard crew of big-mountain skiers, dubbed the Jackson Hole Air Force, was waiting in a bar for the mountain to open following a three-day storm. The bartender slid a crisply filled beer mug down the bar top, and the glass took air off the end of the bar. It was caught before it shattered, then heroically consumed. And gelände quaffing was born.

Illustration by Stephen Haynes
Illustration by Stephen Haynes

Each year, quaffing teams form organically at the post-ride celebration at Private Idaho. By the time the brackets are made and the tables are sufficiently lubricated with spilled beer, riders have been celebrating their ride and warming up for the final event for hours.

The rules are simple, but execution is not. Teams of four rotate around the 10-foot-long table. Slide the frothy beer mug to your teammate; she or he must let it leave the table, catch it before it lands on the ground, quaff the beer and slam the mug back down. This rotation continues for 60-second rounds. Points are given for the most catches. Extra points are awarded for a handle catch, one-handed grabs and freestyle moves. Costumes are encouraged, although many wear trash bags to keep the inevitable spillage off their best T-shirt.

I’ll just admit this openly: I suck at gelände quaffing. I don’t fail at too many things, but this year, I let my team down. I didn’t make a single catch and my fumbles got our women’s team eliminated in the first round. It was a pathetic showing on my part.

It became painfully obvious that while I may have the athleticism, I certainly had not put in my specific quaff training. Either that or I just didn’t have enough of a buzz to be competitively uninhibited.

I can justify my lackluster performance by telling you that the winning team was from Emporia, Kansas, and their team captain owns a bar. From the looks of his physique, he quaffs regularly. He probably does quaffing intervals and quaffing endurance days — a legit training regimen. I just don’t know how I can compete with that, unless the next evolution of gelände includes turning pedals on a bike.

Win or lose, raising a glass after a big ride with friends is a tradition I’m happy to keep alive. And if you visit Mulready’s Pub in Emporia, grab a seat at the bar and ask the owner, Rick Becker, to spin you a tale about the time he won the gelände quaffing competition at Rebecca’s Private Idaho. I bet he’ll even show you the stunning PBR trophy. Until the next ride, prost!

This column originally appeared in Dirt Rag #195