Different spokes for different folks

Promoters of a zany event whose parentage includes bike couriers are hoping to find niche in burgeoning market of alternative sports

Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 30, 1999

Toronto -- It's made of wood and bends up and around in a tight figure-eight pattern with steeply-banked turns and short straights, broken by a quick up-and-down hiccup over a bridge in the middle.

It evokes images of an antique amusement-park ride, with the exception that it's a bicycle track, a modern twist on the classic velodrome.

Fittingly, it's known as the Human Powered Rollercoaster. The track is the centrepiece of the third annual [3rd? isn't this the 6th -4 in TO and 2 in Vancouver] Alley-Cat Scramble, a meeting of nicotine, caffeine, athletics, music and fashion taking place this weekend in a massive warehouse in the north end of Toronto.

On one level, the purpose of the event is to find out who among the international gathering of 200 or so bicycle couriers, bike enthusiasts and competitive cyclists can best navigate the tightly-wound, 125-metre course designed specifically for the event.

Riders are sent off in groups of four, where they pedal in an all-out, five-lap sprint, jostling shoulder to shoulder for track space and the right to advance through the heats to tonight's 50-lap final, which actually is scheduled to start in the wee hours of tomorrow.

"Guaranteed crashes," said John Englar, the 35-year-old bicycle courier turned entrepreneur who co-founded the races and makes the on-track mayhem sound like a good thing.

On another level, the Alley-Cat is a meeting of like minds. More than 5,000 fans are expected to make their way to the two-day affair, which kicked off last night.

They share a passion for fast (top riders hit speeds exceeding 50 kilometres an hour), if unconventional, bicycle racing. And they can appreciate both the tacky charm of Black Diamond, a Las Vegas-based Kiss tribute band that was the headline entertainment last night, and the famous beats of hip-hop pioneers Run DMC, who carry the load tonight.

Throw in drinks, smokes -- not all of them legal -- tattoos, pierced skin, an urban gear fashion show and an art exhibit, and you've got a tidy piece of alternative, youth-oriented culture.

It's a formula that has worked for skateboarding, snowboarding and other lifestyle sports popular among what is known as Generation Y, the lucrative 14-to-26-year-old demographic who identifies more with ESPN's extreme sports X-Games than with the stodgy old Olympics.

The event's founders are Englar, who runs the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop, a downtown Toronto landmark for the courier set, and Andrew Stewart, who runs Bat Cave, a Toronto-based marketing and promotions company. They have high hopes that their particular brand of cycling can find a long-term niche in the growing alternative sports marketplace.

"I think that's where sports is going," Stewart said. "There are all sorts of interesting things that people are doing to express themselves these days.

"Music is changing, fashion is changing and sports is changing too. People are trying to push the envelope."

Their goal is to turn HPR riding into a circuit of events that would travel throughout North America and perhaps even Europe, a sort of travelling festival that would be to cycling what snowboarding has been to skiing in recent years.

"We want to take this to the next level," Englar said. "Personally, I think this is the spectator sport of the new millennium."

Like other sports that have pushed their way onto the mainstream sports radar in recent years, HPR riding didn't evolve out of a vacuum, but is instead a new twist on an existing concept.

During Englar's days as a Toronto bicycle messenger in the late 1980s, he began holding law-flouting gumball rallies he dubbed Alley-Cats each Halloween for him and other couriers eager to test their skills.

Each rider would throw in an entry fee, with winner taking all. The contests were held at night and required riders to race throughout the city's downtown core, through back streets, traffic lights, down flights of stairs and in and out of parking garages.

The Alley-Cats grew each year, becoming the high point of the courier crowd's social calendar. (The concept was taken international when Englar went to the 1993 Bicycle Messenger world championships in Berlin with videotape of the Toronto races. Alley-Cats are now held in more than 40 cities in as many as 10 countries around the world. The winners of the various Alley-Cats are flown in for this weekend's race.)

Englar's idea for the format of the event going on this weekend first took shape in 1993, when he was host of the largest Alley-Cat of them all.

He had a warehouse rented for the after-race party, featuring a number of courier-friendly local punk acts. As a twist on the old format, a banked curve was built at one end of the warehouse and the riders would finish the race with a couple of indoor laps.

"When the riders came in and did laps with the BFG playing and the crowd going nuts, we knew we'd figured out our format," Englar said. "We'd hit paydirt."

The current version of the event was formalized in 1996 when a mutual friend introduced him to Stewart, who in turn put him in touch with the people at Dunhill, who were looking for a cool, urban event to help them market their cigarettes.

With a six-figure budget and the help of landscape architect John Consolati, the Human Powered Rollercoaster came to life. The first event was held in Vancouver in 1996, with the inaugural Toronto event on Halloween weekend in 1997.

It was a success, drawing 150 riders, many coming from the United States and Europe. For long-time cycling enthusiasts such as Michael Berry, a 64-year-old former Londoner who runs Bicycle Specialties, one of Toronto's most respected bicycle shops, the event is a breath of fresh air.

"The racing is really good," said Berry, whose son rides professionally in Europe and who has been around cycling as a racer and fan for 50 years. "Traditionalists might turn up their noses at it, but the final I saw was the most exciting bike racing I've ever seen."

Berry said the event bears some resemblance to the old six-day indoor racing that enjoyed its heyday in Toronto and other major North American cities.

"It was an extremely popular type of racing and a big party atmosphere," Berry said. "There were bands playing and all sorts of other things going on and a restaurant in the middle of the track. The air was filled with smoke, and beer."

Englar said he hopes he and Stewart have hit on a formula that will put bicycle racing on the map in North America and tap into both the existing cycling community and the younger generation of sports fans who seem attracted to things that are risky, unconventional and go well with funky clothes and loud music.

"We want to promote this as a crazy bike event, not just an event for couriers," said Englar, who will need to find a new sponsor going forward, as Dunhill has withdrawn, citing federal restrictions on tobacco advertising.

Englar says this actually represents an opportunity to market the event more toward a younger audience, something their tobacco sponsor couldn't do.

He's confident someone will see the potential in the event and come on board. The ace in the hole is the track. Everyone loves a rollercoaster.

"It's a tricky track to ride," said Berry, who has seen just about every type of bicycle racing over the years. "There's not a lot of room to pass. . . . Most of the riders don't have a lot of experience. It's all or nothing.

"There really are a lot of crashes. A lot of crashes."

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