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Alley cat bike racers ride to live and live to ride

The Villager, December 12, 2007

By Judith Stiles

For a child, hopping on a bike can sometimes feel like saddling up an imaginary horse for an adventurous ride in the glorious Wild West. For an alley cat racer, hopping on a bike in New York City can be a perilous undertaking, especially in bad weather, when slipping and sliding can be greeted by the sudden opening of a car door that will send the best of cowboys flying into traffic. Daring to be a bike messenger and an alley cat racer makes life in the old Wild West seem tame.

Lower East Sider Kym Perfetto of the Six Racing messenger team showed no fear when it came to navigating through cut-throat traffic at top speed in order to win the well-known Broadway Bombin’ Alley Cat race this year.

“I felt this girl coming up from behind, so I grabbed onto the wheel well of a nearby cab, but the metal was sharp and sliced open my fingers. But I didn’t let go, and I won that race!” said Perfetto, who will always have deeply lined scars zigzagging across her fingers to remember this win.

Perfetto and the Six Racing team are part of a growing international phenomenon of mostly bike messengers who have parlayed their riding skills into free-spirited, ruthless, wild competitions, such as the Cranksgiving Charity Race in New York City, The Stupor Bowl in Minneapolis, Show Me The Money in Sydney, Australia, Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Sacramento, Cal., Man Overboard in Washington, D.C., and many more.

In a typical alley cat race, bikers start from a common point, then take and weave through traffic on lightweight bikes, usually without hand brakes. At every race they receive a manifest that is like a treasure-hunt map that indicates the designated route. The riders stop at checkpoints to get the manifest stamped, before they ride on. Often at checkpoints they are required to perform a task, such as doing 20 push-ups, picking up a package, pumping a flat tire or drinking a beer.

“At one of the races, we had to put on a mask and run in and out of a paintball court with 15 guys shooting hard pellets of paint at us,” recounted Pablo Airaldi, smiling and lamenting all the bruises he got from that race.

Even though Perfetto and Airaldi enjoy the camaraderie of a racing team, another team member, Dan Chabanov, was quick to point out that it is really “every man for himself” when they race.

Yet Perfetto said: “Even though you try to beat everyone, it is good to have allies out there. Like when Kym called me on her cell phone to warn me about the traffic circle at the La Guardia checkpoint. We work together in many ways and try to get in the top ten of a race.”

Perfetto noted that there are no referees and little officiating of any kind, except the organizers have the power to disqualify racers for infractions such as cutting in line at a checkpoint.

Chabanov added, “You can get disqualified for doing something stupid or super-rude, like throwing a beer can at a checkpoint.” And although alley-cat racers are renegades by nature, even they require a certain amount civility during a race.

Every member of Six Racing team agrees that biking is a unique culture and a way of life. “Obsessed” and “extremists” are happily how they describe themselves, especially when they try and explain why they would choose to compete in The Stupor Bowl in Minneapolis, when the temperature is often below zero with a wind-chill factor of minus 30 degrees.

In 2007, Airaldi took fourth place competing against more than 270 people, in the 10th Annual Stupor Bowl, finishing the course of more than 40 miles in two hours and 20 minutes. He vows to return next February with his full-face mask and layers of long underwear. Coating his entire face with petroleum jelly won’t keep his eyelashes and spittle from freezing, yet still he is eager to race in the Stupor Bowl again. Crazy? Foolish? No, this daredevil at heart has a passion for alley cat racing.

“It is a bug that engulfs your whole life,” said Airaldi.

Unlike the discipline and rigor found in other team sports, Six Racing team member Chris Thormann pointed out that alley cat racers do their workouts during work, when they clock hundreds of miles a week as bike messengers, even in the winter.

“I don’t have a particular training program and I don’t pay too much attention to what I eat before a race. I usually have two slices of plain pizza with vitamin water and that’s it,” said Thormann, who took first place in the Out-of-Town Quake City Rumble in San Francisco.

After hundreds of miles of biking as messengers from Monday to Friday, then another raucous 50 miles of alley cat racing on Saturdays, not even Sunday is a traditional day of rest for these relentless racers. These cyclists can often be found on Sundays in “The Pit” at the corner of Chrystie and Broome Sts., playing a pickup game of bike polo. With three to six players on randomly chosen teams, they play polo with mallets and a street-hockey ball, gracefully maneuvering their bikes on the asphalt, passing and taking shots like the best of polo players.

But with these guys, you will never hear them shout like Richard III, in Shakespeare’s play, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” On the contrary, saddling up on a bike is their preference — rather, their life’s passion — for work, racing and polo, in the kingdom of New York.




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