Alleycat Bike Racing for Beginners

With the number of urban cyclists surging, more and more riders are taking part in alleycats, informal races inspired by the routines of working bike messengers. Here’s what you need to know before taking your steed to the starting line

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    Photo: Blazej Lyjak/Shutterstock

Hundreds of bikes lay everywhere, stacked against dumpsters and brick walls. A crowd was swelling around me, high-fiving and joking with nervous anticipation. Then someone was yelling: "Manifests are ready, come get 'em!"

It was 2009, a summer night, and I was in a literal alleyway in downtown Minneapolis. I'd come to try my first alleycat event, a form of unsanctioned street racing created by bike messengers decades ago. Made to mimic the routine a bike messenger might face in a typical delivery day, alleycats send riders around a city to a series of checkpoint stops.

Traffic, stoplights, potholes, pedestrians, and car exhaust are a part of the experience. Winners combine navigation skills with raw speed to complete courses that might crisscross a metropolitan area for 30 miles or more.

Held every week in cities around the U.S., alleycats have long attracted a crowd of working couriers and fixed-gear nuts used to riding among cars. Recently, a surge in interest toward urban biking has drawn in new riders, from serious roadies looking to win to casual cyclists who come for the party.

In Minneapolis, where I have ridden in a couple dozen alleycats since that first blush, underground races are held every few weeks. One series, called No Name, hosts races the first Sunday night of each month. You put $5 in a pot to race; the winner takes the cash but usually buys beers at the end for the pack (and must organize the next month’s race).

Despite a few large races each year in the U.S., there is no sanctioning body for this "sport." There is no official calendar of events; rules and event formats vary from race to race. Alleycats have their detractors, too. It's dangerous to race in traffic, and in 2008 a rider died in a Chicago alleycat after running a red light.

If you want to race in an alleycat, get to know your local bike community and ask around. Don't let the piercings and tattoos of the urban set intimidate. Alleycats, at least in Minneapolis, are often open and friendly events to anyone on two wheels. Just know what you're getting into before grabbing that manifest and pedaling into the city streets.

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