on the Tracks
New York Times, March 2, 2008
As told to Jennifer Bleyer
Mike Dee, a 33-year-old bicycle messenger with waist-length dreadlocks
and a chipped front tooth from a bike injury, has been zipping around
Manhattan on two wheels for more than a decade, picking up and
delivering packages, currently for Checker Courier.
In his spare time, Mr. Dee helps organize races known as alley-cats.
Pioneered about 15 years ago by bicycle messengers to test the skills
they developed in their work, these events involve barreling around the
city and threading their way through traffic to find random
On Saturday, hundreds of competitors will take part in Monstertrack, an
annual event that is one of the city’s biggest alley-cat races. A few
days before the race, sitting in his dark and cluttered apartment in
Stuyvesant Town surrounded by a half-dozen bicycles and piles of spare
bicycle parts, Mr. Dee talked about the life of a New York messenger,
the rising popularity of alley-cats and the sheer anarchic fun of the
Twelve years ago, I was working as a doorman and my job was hell. It
paid a lot, but it was mind-numbing and boring. I’d always see these
messenger dudes coming to drop off packages in the building, and they
seemed like they were having a good time. They didn’t have to wear a
monkey suit to work. If they got hassled, they rose above it with a
smart remark and a broken-tooth smile. I was like, “I want to try that
job out.” I reinvented myself.
It was pretty hard. Physically, your body changes a lot. You lose
weight and get stronger and eat three times as much as you used to. You
get more of an engaged street sense when it comes to traffic and
getting hit by cars. New York is a big crazy grid full of drivers who
want to kill you.
I was a messenger for a good two years before I even started hanging
out with other messengers in Tompkins Square Park , where all the
couriers would hang out after work. They were like, “We’re throwing a
bike race.” A bike race? Don’t we ride our bikes enough during the
week? They’re like: “No, it’s different! You’re gonna like it.” Then I
figured out there’s more to this than low wages and dangerous working
conditions. All right!
The first one I went to was a Halloween race called the Noose.
Basically, they drew a hangman’s noose over Midtown Manhattan and put
checkpoints along the line. An alley-cat is: You look at a map of the
city and pick 5 to 20 checkpoints. Then the racers have to figure out
the most efficient way to get from one to the next.
Because it’s an illegal, unsanctioned sport, anybody can come down, pay
$5 and race. And if you don’t like to race, you can be a checkpoint
worker outside or at a bike shop or bar or strip club, depending on
where we put the checkpoint, and hang out, drink, sign or stamp
manifests and try to pick up some boys or girls, whatever you’re into.
I’ve been organizing races for 8 or 10 years. Every holiday, there’s
usually an alley-cat. There’s the Valentine’s Day Massacre. On
Halloween, there was the Triple Six, the Noose, the Pentagram. I
organized these races last summer called the Five Borough Generals.
I’m surprised we didn’t get a visit from Homeland Security solely based
on the names of the races. There was the Rumble Through the Bronx, the
Broadway Bomber, the Staten Island Invasion, the Queens Riot and the
Battle for Brooknam. It was pretty awesome.
The next one coming up is Monstertrack, which is a race that I helped
start. Ten years ago, Monstertrack had 45 entries. This year there
should be 250 people. Way more than half of them won’t even be couriers.
Originally only bike messengers and their girlfriends came. Now it’s
regular people on their bikes saying: “I want to do that, too. That
looks fun.” It’s a cultural phenomenon for young post-college kids
getting these yuppie jobs that don’t pay them any money, figuring
they’re going to be paying off student loans the rest of their natural
lives, or who can’t get a job anywhere but a coffee shop with their art
degrees. They’re like, “I’ll just get this track bike and stick a
U-lock in my back pocket and ride around.”
There are categories in the race. There’s the overall winner, the
female winner, the first-place out- of-towner. Out-of-towners usually
don’t pull it together. They don’t have traffic like this in other
cities. Unless the guy’s smart or gets lucky, they usually come in 10th.
For some reason, companies don’t want to sponsor underground illegal
bicycle races through the streets. They’re afraid that somebody’s going
to get run over and killed. At Rumble in the Bronx last year, at least
four people ended up in hospitals. Three while racing and one, my own
roommate, got run over going home. His hand was literally underneath a
car, but it wasn’t broken.
We give away a prize for Best Crash at every alley-cat. Usually it’s
pretty cool. A guy shows up at the finish line with his bike on his
shoulder holding a broken front wheel, or there’s blood streaming down
his head, or he’s missing skin on his arm. You need to give away prizes
for things like that.