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ALLEYCAT International Bike Messenger Races

Racing Without Brakes (or Gears, or Lycra)

The cheapo, pared-down, under-the-radar world of the Alleycat International Bike Messenger Races

By Ben Muessig // New York, NY –

Arizona Reporter, March 10, 2007

They snake through the streets on brakeless bikes, dodging traffic and blowing through stoplights. There’s no fixed course – just fixed checkpoints. For bike messengers, that’s a job description. For urban twenty-somethings fascinated by the bike messenger lifestyle, it’s a kind of countercultural marathon – an Alleycat.

"Racing in an Alleycat is the biggest adrenaline rush ever," said rider Chris Raimonte, 18, of Philadelphia. "It’s crazy, you’re racing right in the middle of traffic, and you don’t even know where the cars are coming from."

"There’s nothing better than being on your bike, flowing through traffic and knowing that you are the fastest thing out there," said Austin Horse, 24, a bike messenger from Brooklyn, New York.

Bike messengers organized the first Alleycats in Toronto in the late 1980s, to decide who was fastest. Races have since run in London, Amsterdam and Barcelona – and in San Francisco, Austin, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, Boston and Boise. Urban commuters and recreational cyclists are starting to join in, participants say, as an alternative to mainstream endurance sports.

Though competitive, Alleycats shun the trappings of traditional road races. At "Monster Track," a recent New York City race, hardly anyone wore a helmet, let alone a Lycra jersey. The dress code was more blue jeans and stubble. Dirty, dented bikes outweighed shiny new machines. (One rider came with a penny-farthing, an antique bicycle with a gigantic wheel in front and a small one in back).

"At an Alleycat, you don’t need any fancy gear," Horse said "People show up on converted bikes with cut off Dickies and no shirt, and they fit in fine."

The token entry fee of $15 was typical, and so was the promotion – via MySpace messages, handmade flyers and word of mouth. Alleycats are often unsanctioned events, held without city permits. Many organizers prefer to steer clear of authorities, fearing they might interfere.

But more than 100 riders from six countries showed up. Two came from Tokyo, one from Berlin.

The 20 mile or so race –the length isn’t exact because each rider charts his or her own course — began with the traditional sprint to the bicycles. The next task was simple: hit a series of checkpoints, and pick up a signature at each. The first rider to finish wins.

The catch: there’s no map or other directions. Riders choose their own routes, just like bike messengers on the job.

Among bike messengers and urban commuters, it’s now fashionable to ride single-speed fixed gear bikes, which do not let you coast. To stop, pedal backward and skid. At "Monster Track," there was one more rule – no brakes allowed.

You can see why the police wouldn’t be crazy about that. And they weren’t that day in Manhattan, when they showed up just before the race. Somehow all was smoothed over, and the race was cleared to go – though an hour and a half late.

The leaders of traditional biking organizations are dubious about the races, too. Alleycats might be fun, but they are potentially dangerous, said Joshua Poppel, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition, which encourages riding for sport, recreation and transportation.

Once an Alleycat is underway, authorities can’t do much to stop it. Because each participant charts his own course, riders rarely travel in large packs, and so probably won’t be noticed.

"If a cop sees some people going by really fast on bikes, he probably won’t have time to react anyways," said Amy Bolger, a photographer and ex-bike messenger who has just published New York Alleycats, a book of photography about the races (Tasora Books, February 2007).

"It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt on wheels," said Horse. "Can you imagine a scavenger hunt being illegal?"

Typically, the winner goes home with prize money — and a chunk of the proceeds goes to couriers recently hurt in accidents.

"It’s not as intimidating as road racing," said Horse, who finished third at "Monster Track," with a time of 1:10:57. (New Yorker Alfred Bobe won, with a time of 1:08:44).

Messengers are serious about competition, though. They also compete in the annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, held in recent years in Sydney, New York and Edmonton, Canada, and to take place in San Francisco in 2007. [Correction CMWC 2007 is in Dublin, NACCC 2007 is in San Francisco].

Bolger isn’t worried that Alleycat rides will attract the ire of authorities, even though Critical Mass, another unsanctioned ride, has been the target of controlling legislation in some cities.

"Their problem is that they go too slow," Bolger said of Critical Mass. "They obstruct traffic."

For Alleycat racers, traffic obstructs them.

Cyclists take to the streets at Monster Track, a major Alleycat race.




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