The Outspokin’ Cyclist: Bike couriers spur alleycats

Phillip Barron
The Herald Sun
April 27th, 2006

Remember the childhood fun of a scavenger hunt? You and your friends run around the backyard or school yard, gathering clues in corners or under rocks. Sometimes the clues stared you in the face, but the excitement of the game obscured them from view. And for some of them, there was a goal and even a winner. But that wasn’t really the point. The point was to have fun, right?

Take a scavenger hunt, mix in a little punk culture, anti-authoritarian politics, and a taste of danger, spread the course out over town, and make it a bike race. Now, you’ve got what’s called an alleycat.

Although only a handful of people showed up to Durham’s St. Patrick’s Day alleycat, they came from as far away as Hillsborough, Raleigh, and New Haven, Connecticut. OK, Mark didn’t come to Durham just for the race; Yale Divinity School was on spring break and he was in town visiting old friends. But Eric Owens, organizer of the event, isn’t surprised that folks came up from Raleigh for the ride.

“It’s really growing at an exponential rate right now. Many small towns the size of Durham are now hosting alleycats, whereas a few years ago no one had heard of them,” says Owens. So, where did they come from?

Alleycat races are an outgrowth of the bike courier scenes of major metropolitan areas. In cities like Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, the downtown centers are so densely packed that frequently the fastest way to get a letter, memo, filing, or other parcel from one side of town to another is by bicycle. Courier companies employ bikers to navigate through car, bus, and truck-filled streets, and because the courier is paid by delivery, efficiency is key to being a successful messenger.

Efficiency on a bike in a dense urban area, however, often translates into speed, disregard for traffic laws (it might be more convenient to ride the wrong way on a one-way street, for example), and a significant element of risk-taking.

The risks of the job, thinks Owens who spent a year as a bike messenger in Manhattan before coming to Duke for graduate school, bond the couriers together. Bragging about delivering this many packages over that big an area is something he heard regularly after work.

And an alleycat race is the place to settle the bragging rights, to see once and for all who is the fastest or who knows the city the best. “They grow out of a culture of work,” says Owens.

An alleycat is a unique sort of race. It’s designed to recreate the day-to-day challenges of messengers. At the Durham alleycat, each rider received a manifest made up of checkpoints throughout town. To complete the manifest, each rider had to visit each checkpoint and document somehow that he or she had been there.

For instance, to prove that they’d been to Cookout on Hillsborough Rd, riders had to write down the number of milkshake flavors the restaurant offers. Hand-written signs hung near the top of several parking garages downtown, and racers had to scribble down the signs’ messages. And one checkpoint was simply to write down what’s at 1825 Chapel Hill Rd. Riders had to go there to find out.

Unlike other cycling races, alleycats are not held on closed courses. They’re held in the streets, where riders mix with other traffic. Nor is there a prescribed route; riders complete the manifest in whatever order they want. So in addition to being a test of speed, an alleycat tests how well riders know local landmarks and streets.

But, without a bike messenger scene in the Triangle, why are there alleycats?

“Now that skateboarding culture has been completely co-opted, is mainstream, and you can find everything you need at the mall, I think people are looking for the next underground thing,” says Owens. Since alleycats are not sanctioned bike races, they have a certain chic factor to them.

So, did the St. Pat Alleycat bring together an emerging Triangle urban-bike scene? I’m really not sure. But it was fun, a little absurd, and no one got hurt.

For more urban-bike scene absurdity, check out bike polo. Meet at The Bicycle Chain, Durham on Thursdays at 8:30pm

A little post-alleycat video… complete with crooked-crank racing, bike tossing, and a brief night ride.

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