Monday, June 14, 2010

The Tale of the Alleycat

Traditionally, alleycat bicycle racing was meant to replicate what bike messengers do on a daily basis: Quickly and efficiently ride through crowded urban landscapes to deliver parcels. In its purest form, during an alleycat riders are informed of a number of checkpoints they must reach. At each, they receive instructions regarding what to do next, then it's forward to the next stop. Knowledge of city streets and back alleys, as well as strength on a bike are key components for success. The first racer to travel to all checkpoints and cross the finish wins. The spoils are modest: a smallish amount of cash, a new bicycle or component. The real prize, however, comes from knowing (and letting it be known) that you are the best at what you do. Collecting wins is better than employee of the month plaques, yet not as obnoxiously self-aggrandizing as collecting yachts and sports cars.

(Click here for a fun read about a Chicago bike messenger's race experience in Philadelphia. Rated PG-13.)

Here's the thing though: Alleycat races are dangerous and illegal. Under Illinois law bike races must be approved by state or local authorities before they may take place on public streets. Generally, approval will not be granted unless accommodations are made so that the event does not interfere with traffic. 625 ILCS 5/11-1514. The point of alleycat racing is to test one's ability to travel by bike in the city under the kinds of conditions faced daily by bike messengers, in traffic. Obviously, no governmental authority would sanction a race in moving traffic. One significant downside to these races operating outside the law is that they are uninsurable. If a racer is hurt due to a poorly designed or designated course, or some other negligent act or omission by the race organizer, he or she will likely be out of luck with regard to receiving compensation.

Bad things can and do sometimes happen in alleycat racing. In March, 2008 a racer was killed during what used to be the biggest and most important such race in the city, the Tour Da Chicago. During the race, several racers ahead of the main pack approached the six-way intersection of Lincoln-Damen-and Irving Park. As they did, the pace, which had been high, slowed because the light was red. However, one of the racers, Matt Lynch, apparently tried to take advantage of everyone else slowing and shot into the intersection. When he did he was struck and killed by an SUV traveling at full speed. Matt made a mistake and it cost him his life. When deciding whether to enter an alleycat race, the prospective participate should consider the stakes and carefully take stock of his or her ability and experience. Recently, there has been a trend of alleycat races being organized and participated in by bicyclists who are not messengers, riders who may not have the kind of ability and smarts that someone who rides for hours every day on crowded city streets does. Several weeks ago I asked Ben Fietz of the Chicago Couriers Union to offer his insight about alleycat races. He graciously did so. Here is what he wrote to me:
Alleycat races are pretty much always illegal, and can be very dangerous. That said, they can also be a very important part of the messenger community and the biking community in general. It sounds crazy, but I probably wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't participated in alleycat races. In their purest form, alleycat races are a way for messengers to compete against each other and find out who is actually the fastest and who knows the city the best. I have the top spot at one of the best messenger companies in Chicago, and the truth of it is that I got into the company that I work for by racing in alley cats and proving myself about four years ago.
That used to be the main purpose of alleycats. They were races put on by messengers for messengers. But a few years ago, alleycats started to get really popular with city cyclists, and they started entering alleycats, and eventually throwing their own. It got to the point in Chicago where there were more non-messenger thrown races than messenger ones. Of course companies with hip marketing departments became aware of this scene, and sponsorship for the races grew. The early alleycat races usually didn't have any sponsors at all, they would just be a cash race, winner takes all. It has gotten to the point where people are having alleycat races in cities which don't even have any messengers in them. I heard about a race in St. Augustine Florida, which seems kind of silly. A couple of years ago, Velocity wheels sponsored and threw an alleycat in the city in Michigan which their headquarters are located. Once again, there were no messengers in the city, but they had an alleycat with a huge prize list, and people came from all over to race.
There aren't as many alleycat races in Chicago as there used to be. The Sadie Hawkins race in the fall is a yearly race, which has very little involvement by messengers, but it's a fun race and usually has a huge turnout. A messenger has been throwing a race about once a month downtown. These races are short and fast, and are set up to favor messengers. There are usually a couple of stops in each race that are very hard to find unless you are a messenger. The biggest race used to be the Tour Da Chicago, until Matt's death.

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As far as the safety of alleycats, it is pretty much up to the individual racer to race within your limits. There isn't really any way to make a completely safe alleycat race. The whole point is that you are racing on city streets with traffic. The difference between a good alleycat race and a bad one is the level of organization and how well the race flows. But how well the race is organized really doesn't have any bearing on how safe that race will be to enter, just how much fun it will be.
Alleycat racing, if it is to be done at all, should be left to folks who know what they are doing. A group of riders racing through city streets pretending to be something they are not, professional bicycle couriers, is a recipe for disaster. Before deciding to participate in an alleycat understand what you are getting into.

6 comments:

  1. Sounds like a catch 22 to me---can't be a good messenger unless you've done well in the races, can't do well in the races unless you're a good messenger.

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  2. You've got such an interesting perspective on things related to cycling. It's great to read your posts and learn something along the way. Nice work.

    Darryl

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  3. Thanks, Darryl! Glad you've been enjoying the blog.

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. nice blog,am also enjoys the Niner Bikes race in street but not in any dangerous velly.

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