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Rogues race under radar

Bike messengers and urban cyclists slog through first stage of the annual Tour da Chicago, an unsanctioned competition

Chicago Tribune,  January 10, 2005
By Patrick Rucker

After bicycling more than 30 miles to win the first leg of an oddball derby through the city's frozen streets Sunday morning, Casey Masterson was modest about his triumph.

Masterson, 24, of Milwaukee had just trounced more than 50 cyclists in the first stage of the Tour da Chicago, an unsanctioned winter race that spans several Sundays and sends rogue bicyclists crisscrossing the city.

Clutching his $50 winner's purse, Masterson insisted that the competition was its own reward.

"Just to come down here and hang out, that is the appeal," said Masterson, his face dirt-flecked. "It was exhilarating. Winning is just the bonus."

Over the last several years, the friendly competition has escalated into a heated rivalry among the bike messengers and cycling enthusiasts.

And while the Tour da Chicago is a biker's delight, there's something in it, too, for the pedestrians and drivers who spot a mass of cyclists pedaling like mad down the middle of an icy street.

"It's their little peek into a Chicago subculture," said Susan Peithman, 23, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the few female racers.

Sunday's contest started at 8:30 a.m. in the Logan Square neighborhood, at Boulevard Bikes, 2535 N. Kedzie Blvd., a sales and repair shop. As records spun on the store's turntable, competitors chatted before the race.

"I've been in other alley cat [races], but this is the biggest," Ryan McLennan, 26, said of the contest. "It's on the main roads but not really sanctioned. And it has to remain relatively small. If it were in the summer, this would be huge and have too many people."

The cold temperatures and early hour mean that the Tour da Chicago draws only the hardiest bikers, who earn points for how they place in each leg.

After seven more stages over seven more Sunday mornings, a winner will be crowned and walk away with a 7-year-old, heavily soiled biker's jersey and the envy of his or her rivals. But first that person must compete in events that involve more than pedal power.

The stages include a cycling scavenger hunt and a footrace while carrying a bike.

Mike Gipson, 29, a bike messenger, stood outside the shop moments before the first heat began, sipping coffee, smoking a cigarette and chomping on an energy bar.

"About half of the people are messengers," he said. "But there are a lot of other good riders out here."

Sunday's event featured several elimination races around the North Side. Masterson, a computer programmer, bested a fellow Milwaukee rider and a former bike messenger from Oak Forest in a final dash around Humboldt Park.

At the next stage, all eyes will be on Masterson.

"He will definitely be the target," said Mike Morell, 27, who organized Sunday's race. "It's good-natured, but people are really trying to win."


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