Racing alleycats

For time immortal (or, roughly 2006, when fixed gear and brakeless riding became a hot trend in cities across the globe), you find the sporadic article highlighting endemic parts of “city cycling culture”. This includes topics such as, what is a fixed gear, why do these cyclists ride dangerously, from where does the culture draw its inspiration, or my personal favorite, an article exploring the alleycat. For alleycats are the colorful mascot of fixed-gear-dom, and as such your local rag has an easy enough time writing a 3-minute read explaining how edgy 20-somethings, with hair to match their bike, can do good in the community, by binding party culture, via the bike, to charity drives and riding around town recklessly. Pair this picture with a copy-paste run-down of how a race is run (let me clue you in; it involves checkpoints), and you’re still left with little sense as to the real “why”?

That’s what I’m accustomed to reading, though. The short introduction of messenger culture, it’s history, the legacy of fixed gear, its introduction to the road and how this bred a strange alternative subculture. It’s chic, and cool, and makes for a boring-ass read. So what is it about the alleycat that is really great? Well, for starters, the race itself.

Alleycats are incredibly fun. As an unsanctioned race, there’s the fact you’re intentionally skirting all the rules. Sure, the race is structured by requirements, but from start to finish, the whole affair is one gnarly shakedown of a city. You don’t get this kind of riding everyday (unless you make your living doing this sort of riding). The alleycat also has the uncanny ability of taking a rush-hour commute and transforming it into an exhilarating tear through town. Whereas you’d typically be cursing traffic and asshat behavior on the road, the pressure of competition forces you to excel against these obstacles. It takes an oftentimes mundane chore, the act of riding through a gridlocked city, and turns it on its head: hard cuts, close calls and all.

That’s only a piece of it though. An alleycat isn’t like a conventional race, in that your success doesn’t solely depend on your physical ability. It helps, but it’s only piece of the puzzle. To really exceed, a racer must know the city well. It’s the type of race, as someone who loves riding a bike everywhere, that gets every ganglia in the brain sparking. Patience and planning pay off. Knowing neighborhoods and streets saves time. Being aware of the time of day, ongoing construction, or which thoroughfare is most direct offers as much advantage as having a bike that’s feather light. In a world where people have their phone read off directions, racing alleycats exercises a skill slowly being lost.

These are the two controllable factors that make racing an alleycat great. The greatest part of an alleycat, though, is uncontrollable luck. You can spend the entirety of a race, side-by-side with an opponent, only to take the slower line through the last intersection. Luck is the great mitigating factor, and for all racers, luck offers some degree of comfort; Maybe she’s on your side today. In standard racing, with a set course, obviously luck also plays a part. But the organization of a race is such to dampen its impact, which for competitive sport is ideal. For someone who knows the limits of their legs, however, it sucks a bit of the fun out of it.

So much of recreational cycling celebrates the sport. It encourages discipline in a way that compartmentalizes your riding into different categories, then pits you with others in the same field, and judges on this basis. Its aim is to be as black and white as possible. Racing is fun, but some of the fun is lost in this discipline, and for average cyclists it can be discouraging. This is where alleycats vary. The race celebrates the utilitarian virtue of cycling. Not only that, but it reminds those of us, who ride first and foremost for the ride itself, that there’s more to the journey than just going from A to B. Alleycats are a way of stitching us into the streets that make up our day-to-day riding, showing us these streets are still fun to ride, and reminding us, that with a little bit a luck, you can come out on top too.

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