Sports and other competitive games seem particularly hampered by the social shutdown over COVID-19. The list of games you can play with strangers while remaining 6 feet away is depressing, at least if you dislike golf.
But there’s an obscure game that seems perfectly suited for the age of sheltering-in-place: bike tag. The game is part trivia, part exercise, part competition, part art, and in the year that combines agoraphobia and cabin fever, it might be the ideal corona pastime.
“Bike tag is a fun, inclusive game that anyone with a bike in the Twin Cities can play,” said Risa Hustad, who rides all year long. “Even though I’ve lived in Minneapolis for the better part of three decades, there are lots of spots around the metro that I didn’t know about before bike tag. As a person with a competitive side, it’s often a motivator for me to get out and ride if I’m otherwise not feeling up to it. It has also changed the way I ride. It helps me notice interesting spots that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.”
The rules are pretty much unchanged since the original bike tag post was put on the fabled once-thriving Minneapolis Bike Love website back in 2007.
Here’s how it works in practice: You go to the Facebook page, and there’s a photo at the top showing a bicycle. Using visual clues in the photo, you try to figure out where it is. The first person to reply with a photo of their bicycle in the same spot “gets the tag.”
They then have an hour to “drop” a new tag with a new photo somewhere else, anywhere within the 494/694 loop. Some people simply ride somewhere else immediately, while others keep a collection of “banked” tag they’ve taken — photos of their bicycle somewhere special — to use in the game.
Whether by following along on Facebook, or going out and getting the tag yourself, bike tag can be a great way to learn more about the Twin Cities and get exercise. In the early years, players used digital cameras and upload them from their computers, which added a bit of drama; the game has gotten easier, and quicker, thanks to smartphones.
“What I love about photo tagging is that it is an urban trivia competition combined with biking, all things which motivate me,” explained Jana Velo, who is an administrator for one of the three photo tag Facebook pages. “If I know I want to go out for a ride anyway, photo tag gives me an automatic destination. When I have time to ride, I’ll aim for the trifecta — all three photo tags at once.”
For the record, there are three separate groups, with slightly different rules and boundaries. Many of the same players play all three, and over the years, Velo has gotten the trifecta a handful of times.
“I like having a sense of urgency to encourage me to ride faster than I otherwise would,” said Max Dingemans, who has been playing bike tag for a few years. “I used to like figuring out where things were, but found a few years ago I was spending more time looking around online than riding, so I basically don’t do more than five minutes of search anymore.”
The trivia aspect of the game is one of the best parts about it, combined the thrill of racing to a spot nearby, hoping you’ll be able to beat the unknown field. There’s a kind of mischievous rush that taggers get when “dropping” a new tag somewhere obscure, and hoping to stump the crowd for a few hours.
On the other hand, for many people it’s simply relaxing fun.
“I like photo tag because it’s a not-too-competitive game that gives me an excuse to ride with a destination,” said Kyle Nietzel. “It also builds community and encourages more people to play. In fact, the more participants, the better the game.”
According to Nietzel, there’s an unwritten rule of bike tag. For example, if two people show up trying to get a tag at the same time, they almost always “piggyback” the next tag. One will get the first tag, and they’ll ride together to somewhere else to drop it off for the other person.
“My best bike tag ever was when I reconnected with Jared,” said Kuan Ski, another long-time tag player. “I always knew Jared by his bike, and we had met before, maybe more than once. He used to ride a red bike, had a red milk crate strapped to the back and a flower attached somehow. I normally don’t get the Minneapolis tags, but this one was close to Golden Valley, where I lived. I saw the tag and knew I could get there in 20 minutes. Lo and behold, I get there and Jared is sitting in front of the Kenwood water tower. I recognized him almost immediately and we talked and recalled the old days. It was nothing world changing, but it made my day.”
One competitive aspect to bike tag is how different cliques form, and people who live in the same area can end up passing the tag back and forth with each other like a ping pong ball. Sometimes, great inter-city rivalries form, with efforts to keep the tag in St. Paul or Minneapolis (or Falcon Heights?) for as long as possible. Picture conspiratorial efforts by St. Paul cyclists hoping to snatch the tag from the clutches of Minneapolis, a feat only accomplished by riding over the river and beating the tag-players to the spot.
I crunched some numbers some recent bike tag activity, looking at 20 tags over a week in early April. On average, a tag sat in one place for about eight hours, from a low of 15 minutes to a high of 26 hours. During that time, the tag moved an average of 3.2 miles between each photo, though there too the range was quite wide. The longest jump: It once moved 10 miles from the Mississippi River bottoms near Mendota all the way up to Falcon Heights.
The game certainly slows down in the winter, with fewer riders willing to brave the snows. Sometimes tags will last in one spot for days. But in the summer, the tag is very active and speeds up, often flitting across the city many times a day.
“In normal times, bike tag is a fun way to explore,” said long-time tagger Alex Anderson. “I like batching trips, so if I’m on out bike commuting or running errands, it’s fun to be able to tack one more thing on by picking up a bike tag. In the current weirder times, I think bike tag helps itch the wanderlust scratch. I’m used to bike commuting, and not needing to do that right now means I need reasons to get out and ride.”
Around the country, as bicycling has spiked as people have been searching for ways to get out of the house, bike tag might be the perfect activity. As of this writing, the Twin Cities Bicycle Photo tag is located at the state fairgrounds, but now more than ever, you can be sure it’ll be gone by the time you get there.