People don’t always choose to do things that are rational. That doesn’t mean that irrational (ok lets be honest, stupid) decisions can’t be a hell of a lot of fun. This is going to be a story about doing stupid things, stupid fun things. I don’t recommend anyone take this as an endorsement of doing stupid things, in fact if you read it carefully you will see that its actually a warning against said actions.
Before we get started perhaps you should know something about me. I am a bit of a speed addict. Nothing makes me happier than jumping on a bike and accelerating it to the highest speed I am capable of. Speed isn’t enough though, if it was just speed this post would be about track racing. No for me I need more than just fast bikes and fresh legs, I need a living city to get the thrills I need. I need traffic, pedestrians, pot holes, a million sensory inputs that all must be digested and processed at the speed of light.
I have the kind of brain that is hard to shut down. It keeps me up at night, it storms with ideas all day long. If you know me, you know I don’t sleep much, not because I am not tired, but because my brain has other plans. There are only a couple of ways I know to shut it down, to placate it with enough sensory input that it burns bright and hot and chugs calmly along. One of those ways is racing alley cats.
99% of the time I am a conscientious cyclist. I stop at every red light, I yield to pedestrians, I travel at reasonable speeds, hell I even signal my turns. I wear a helmet, my bike has lights. If you were to look at me you might never guess that I have a secret addiction to throwing myself head long as fast as I can into raging city traffic.
An alley cat is a bicycle race where a bunch of idiots race their bikes in city traffic at high speeds. They are based on the daily life of a messenger, most often you are given a manifest which has a series of check points spread out all over town. Your job is to get to each check point, get your manifest signed, and get to the finish line. You do this as fast as you can. There are no rules, no regulations, get from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible. You have to plan your own route, and you are not given the route ahead of time.
For anyone who has ridden in a large city this might sound like a recipe for disaster. You might be saying “holy shit that sounds stupid!” And you would be right. It is stupid, and its dangerous, and you can get hurt, or get killed. But damn if it isn’t a lot of fun too.
Going fast is easy. You go find a nice desert piece of country road and you hammer down on the pedals till you got nothing left. Going fast while riding in a swirling city environment, while you are trying to plan your route, while competing against other riders, that’s an entirely different game.
If you want to be good at alley cat racing you have to be a strong rider. You have to know the city like the back of your hand. And most importantly you have to understand how to ride inside a living city. You have to understand traffic, you have to understand pedestrians, road conditions, route planning, you have to be able to process a million things all at once and craft it into a flowing line.
You have to look in front, back, and side to side, take in everything, figure out where everything moving will be in ten seconds, find that bike shaped hole and throw yourself into it as fast as you can. It lights up every part of your mind, and exhausts your body. I never sleep better than after a race.
I remember the last race I did. Myself and several of my co-racers were approaching a stopped line of traffic. Two lanes of stopped traffic waiting at a red light. We all made the same decision, split the two right lanes and go down the middle of the two rows. I said “after you!” to the rider on my left, to which he replied “no, no, after you!”
A crazy grin formed on my face as I stood up on the pedals throwing more speed into my attack, leaning forward to get that extra little bit. Behind me the insane whoops of my co-racers echoed in my ears as they dropped in behind me. We had committed fully, and we could all feel the excitement.
Passing the cars at high speed produced a staccato whirring drum beat in my ears. The whir whir whir of their engines as I passed at high speed made the sound of helicopter blades. I reached back with my elbow to position my bag into the center of my back, then quickly shifted my hands to the center of my bars and tucked in my shoulders. I had no desire to smash into the rows of mirrors on each side of me, potentially knocking me off by bike, and royally pissing off the car owners and the racers behind me who would almost certainly plow right into me.
I approached the end of the row of traffic, look left, look right, look left again. Two cars approaching from the left, one turning, one going too slow to matter, one to the right moving fast. Brake for a half a second, turn sharply to the right, then hammer the pedals going back left, turn hard right again. Through two lanes of cross traffic like it didn’t exist. I am a drop of water passing through a cracked rock. Nothing can stop me if I just move fast enough.
Accelerating hard so I could grab the open rear right window of the cab in front of me, which proceeded to floor it. Cabbies always know when you are skitching. They spend so much time in their cars that they have a sixth sense of what is going on around them. In this case I was happy he tried to shake me by accelerating to 30+ miles per hour. It was a welcome rest, my legs felt wobbly and my heart was trying to dig an escape hatch out of my chest.
I let him drag me along at eye watering speeds until I saw my turn approaching, I let go with a nod into his side mirror to show my thanks and shot around the turn, banking hard to compensate for the momentum. As you approach what you think is a check point you often call out “CHECK POINT!” hoping beyond measure to see a group of people shoot up their hands. You charge forward, skid to a stop, whip out your increasing crinkled and destroyed manifest shove it into their hands and get your check mark. Before you even have a moment to enjoy the mercy of standing still you are back on your bike pumping speed into the pedals shooting off to your next destination.
These races often last about an hour, and often the entire hour is spend in a mad dash through the heaviest traffic, craziest pedestrian mess, and worst road conditions in Boston. They are usually about 20 miles long, and often take you to places you have never been, down roads you have never used.
The competition is friendly and people often help each other navigate, while at the same time calling out helpful information about intersections “Clear left! Car right!, Ped UP!” can be heard between the panting. The good racers work as a team slowing cars by charging at them opening holes for the people behind them. We all want to win, but we also want everyone to finish in one piece.
The finish lines are a pile of bikes and coughing racers, their lungs shredded from turning themselves inside out for an hour. Everyone checks to make sure everyone made it safely back. People often show up bleeding from the legs and hands, crashing is common. You pant, you sweat, you sit in a heap and cough, some people smoke cigarettes (its hilarious). Its unlike any other sporting event I have ever been to.
Usually After the race there is a huge party. People get drunk and dance and celebrate that they are alive. You see a lot of short shorts, big calves, and even bigger messenger bags. Its like a party full of drunken tatted up turtles with t-rex legs. Sweat perfumes the air, and everyone has a good time.
When the adrenaline wears off and you can take a breath without coughing up a bloody mist, when the party has burned itself out, you ride home in the cool night air. Your legs are tired, and satisfied. You remind yourself that you have returned to a world in which red means stop, where you don’t scream at every person in the street to “Make a hole!” Life slows down again. You get home and have just enough energy left to shower before you fall into a deep peaceful sleep.
Racing an alley cat is stupid. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that has a great aversion to breaking bones, to getting hurt, or to breaking the law. But it is fun, dangerous stupid fun.
Tags: alley cat, fun, race, stupid
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