Vassar Yesterday

First One to the Finish Line Gets a Date!

By Carrie Hojniki ’12

The Yale-Vassar Bike Race

At the April 11, 1952, meeting of Yale’s Trumbull Beer and Bike Society, a drunken wager was raised: Two Yalies would race to Vassar by bicycle, completing the race before sunset the next day.

By sunrise the next morning, however, the enthusiastic participants had grown in number. Sixteen five-member relay teams set off on the 77-mile journey from New Haven, Connecticut, to Poughkeepsie. As if the long journey itself weren’t enough of a challenge, the men instituted another rule: at the end of his leg of the race, each team member would have to consume a quart of beer before the next racer could begin. According to LIFE magazine’s 1952 article “Beer and Bikes from Yale to Vassar: Men From Eli Guzzle and Pedal 77 Miles to See Girl Friends,” only one of the 16 teams had any sort of formal racing training. The untrained “decided that they could make up for lack of bicycling speed by their speed in beer drinking,” noted the article.

Needless to say, the race was a bumpy one. Mishaps and injuries were abundant. LIFE reported that one student, who happened to be on the Dean’s List, was lost within New Haven city limits, before he even reached the Yale Bowl. Alas, the men persevered and most of the teams—whose names ranged from “Quart Quintet” to “Mainform Five” to “Lavender Hill Mob” and “Under Sextet”—managed to reach the Taylor Gate finish line. “With 90 dates waiting for them at the finish line, most of the Yale men doggedly stuck to their wheels,” wrote the LIFE reporter. The inaugural winner, a member of the Under Sextet team, received something of a special prize—a flower necklace and a tour about the campus on the shoulders of the welcoming women.

Two Miscellany News editors writing under the pseudonym Pency Pyfels ’52 described the enthusiastic crowd: “The welcomers crowded Taylor Gate and the highway. When standing room gave out, eager girls hung out of the windows of Stack III, climbed on shoulders or scaled trees. Blue and white pennants floated from the windows. Two drum majorettes defied the winter weather in their brief but snappy costumes.”

And the festivities didn’t end there. Pyfels also described a crowning ceremony in which two Vassar women received the honors of being “Matthew Vassar’s Brew” and “Miss Brew of ’52.” Adorned in mid-nineteenth century costume, the two promenaded to the bugle stylings of their peers. Over the five subsequent years of annual races, the merriment grew and grew. According to the Yale Daily News, the New York State Militia was summoned to keep order in Poughkeepsie one year.

The social event initially was favored as an alternative to even stranger activities engaged in by Yale men. Yale Dean Harold B. Whiteman was quoted as saying: “I think this type of exercise a great deal better than face slapping or eating live goldfish.” For Vassar’s resident warden Elizabeth Moffat Drouilhet ’30, however, the event showed just “what absurdities one could get into.”

The Yale Daily News reported that by 1957 “the racers felt they had worn out their welcome at Vassar,” although other sources indicate that the tradition experienced a more compulsory demise.

What the administration and students could agree upon was that the event represented a particular moment in social interaction between Vassar and Yale. Vassar students “felt that they were totally isolated from the opposite sex,” explained Drouilhet. “There were any number of attempts to try to counteract our geographic location.”

The Yale-Vassar bike tour was just one of many.

Addendum: Sources for this story include the Ivy Style article “Bicycle Week: The Yale-Vassar Bike Race” by Rebecca Tuite, LIFE magazine, the Yale Daily News, the Miscellany News, the Vassar Encyclopedia, the Vassar Chronology, and the Harvard Crimson