By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Michael Cory.
The Paradigm Shift
These turnouts of over-enthusiastic amateurs are responsible for stirring a sizeable rift in the Alley Cat community. A lot of the older men and women who began racing are still on the scene, but have faded into the background.
According to Ray they are still accessible, and turn out to compete in the bigger races such as Monster Track and the Halloween Ride, but otherwise there has been a shift to younger generations taking up the reins of race promotion.
“I’ll look at who the promoter is for an Alley Cat to decide whether or not I want to race,” says Ray. “If I see it’s one I haven’t heard of I probably won’t do it, since a lot of the races are recurring. It needs to be of quality. There needs to be thought put into it.”
This apparent lack of thought is largely spurred by the current craze around track bikes, which has mushroomed out of proportion over the past five years.
For those who aren’t familiar, a track bike is a single-speed bicycle that has one fixed gear, so that as long as the bike is moving forward the rider cannot coast or freewheel; you have to keep your legs moving. Because of this mechanism, however, there is a remarkable level of control that is afforded to the rider through their body movements.
Messengers ride them because they are low maintenance. Furthermore, they don’t break down because there are no moving parts at work. Ray claims that these kinds of bikes force you to think differently, with your whole being “in tune” to every movement.
Ray is just one of many bikers frustrated by the recent influx of inexperienced riders utilizing these machines out of a desire to look hip and trendy.
“Whether it’s from films or clothing companies or fashion brands putting these fixed gear bikes in advertisements because they ‘look cool,’ there’s been a lot of really inexperienced younger people riding them thinking that they know what’s up. It’s incredibly dangerous.”
“They come in and disrespect the hierarchy of people who have been in the scene a long time,” Ray adds. “It’s a lack of respect for history and heritage, from where the races come from and where the messengers come from.”
He recounts an experience that happened to him moments before our afternoon rendezvous in the park. While en route to deliver a parcel, out of nowhere a bicyclist squeezed between him and a van at lightning speed–cutting him off and nearly toppling an old woman pushing a stroller.
Ray pursued the rider and overcame him in seconds. He pulled the headphones off of the young man’s head and asked him what exactly he thought he was doing, to which the naive biker responded that he was a racer and challenged Ray on the spot to a race with a twenty dollar stake.
“I slapped him in the face,” says Ray. “I told him he was a bitch and a fake. You can’t ride like an asshole, and if you are going to, you can’t be riding recklessly. There’s a fine line.”
According to Ray, inexperienced youngsters are only one of many threats facing Alley Cat racers as they take to the streets.
Bike lanes, Ray explains, are becoming a serious impediment for racers and riders city-wide. Why? Because, in his experience, these bike lanes are creating situations far more dangerous than would otherwise occur.
Ray refers to them as “death lanes.”
“The Department of Transportation just changed out Lafayette, and they’ve been putting in miles and miles of these new lanes,” Ray tells BTR.
“They’ve been going to avenues and removing lanes of car traffic and moving the parked cars off the sidewalks and into the traffic lanes, and then adding the bike lanes between the parked cars and the sidewalk. It ends up creating a kind of death-lane of people who walk into the bike lane, or car doors opening into it.”
These new lanes also congest traffic by reducing routes of transport and allowing more options for drivers to double park.
“They’ve congested the city,” Ray laments. “Broadway is a mess–it used to be three lanes of really fast traffic, and now it’s just one lane. As a biker you used to be able to hop into the traffic and become part of the flow of the city.”
These changing traffic patterns can cause serious accidents for high-stake riders like Ray.
He points to a scar that covers nearly the entire underside of his hand. It was the result of a crash that occurred almost a year ago, in which an approaching box truck blinded him from a speeding Lincoln while he was exiting a bike lane.
In a hellish close-encounter with death, the vehicle sped up upon seeing Ray in an attempt to hit him. Narrowly averting a head-on collision, he was thrown from his bike into traffic. It was a hot summer day, and the speeding Lincoln ripped a chunk of Ray’s hand clean-off, which happened to get stuck to the door of the vehicle, leaving him in the dust and a pool of blood.
He admits that he’s hit his fair share of negligent pedestrians too.
“There are so many things that can get you angry,” he admits. “People, cars, you name it. But if you let them get to you then you’ll just be angry all of the time. My rule is that if you endanger my life then I’ll get angry at you.”
Some riders are not so fortunate. In 2008, Matt Manger-Lynch died in Chicago during a race as he disregarded a red light and rolled out into approaching traffic. The event rattled the Alley Cat community and led to the cancellation of that year’s Monster Track.
“The whole thing got so blown up, it was ridiculous,” says Ray. “But that’s a case where the person was an inexperienced rider and rode straight into an intersection. There’s definitely a rhythm to it, you have to cut parallels with cars and judge trajectory. It was a clear case of being irresponsible.”
Safety Through Hyper-Awareness
Alley Cats may ride dangerously, but they are also hyper-aware and incredibly experienced with any and every situation that can happen at an intersection, especially in NYC.
As a bike messenger, Ray safely asserts that below 59th Street he knows every intersection in Manhattan; how the lights work, how the traffic moves, the ways that pedestrians come off of the curbs for the time of day and even the time of year.
If you give Ray an example of an intersection, he’ll tell you exactly what to do going into it.
“Let’s say you’re approaching an avenue from a cross street, so it’s yellow and you’re midway through the block,” Ray tells BTR.
“Then it hits red maybe a quarter way through the block. People will come off each side so I’ll place myself in the middle, or as close to the middle as possible, if the people are too close together you have to be able to judge the gap of how people are walking. The second you exit that group of people there will be moving traffic behind them, so as you’re moving through them you have to think ‘well there’s traffic moving forward from the left, and there’s two lanes of traffic, well there’s a Crown Victoria waiting at the light,’ and you know that Crown Vic is gonna gun it, or the guy in the minivan or box truck isn’t going to be able to accelerate his car quite as fast. So maybe that means instead of cutting in front of the Crown Vic and getting hit by it, I can cut behind it and then you’re on the double yellow.”
“But, while you’re looking at that and you’ve gone through two or three layers, you have to look to the other side and think what kind of traffic is over there and how fast they’re moving and what kind of cars they are. Often times you’ll pull a parallel with a car, so if you’re gonna get hit by something or know that you can’t get through it, you simply have to turn against it and parallel its motion and then cut behind it, and zig-zag your way through doing this.”
All of this is occurring in a matter of split-seconds, by the way.
Victory and Future Challenges
The Alley Cat races are without a doubt illegal. Aside from the dangers posed by day-to-day traffic patterns, riders are also faced with the opposition of law enforcement. Many riders, including Ray, have been tackled off of their bikes during races, and even during messenger deliveries.
This doesn’t stop the races from occurring each year. The biggest annual Alley Cat in the world is called the Monster Track, which is a track bike-only no-brakes race. There’s Stupor Bowl and the North American Career Cycle Championships in Minneapolis, and the Halloween Ride in New York.
While Ray typically places in the top-three for most Alley Cat races, last year marked his first time taking home the first place trophy for Monster Track.
“It was a huge deal for me,” he tells BTR. “I wanted that race for a long time.”
For the competitors it’s not really about the prizes, but the spirit of the race. The adrenaline and zen-like awareness combine to create a visceral experience worth staking one’s life upon.
“You start winning these races, and then you start getting respect on the streets,” says Ray.
Ray is looking toward new cities to continue his passion. Alley Cat races occur all around the world, throughout major cities in Europe, Asia, and South America. He just returned from a race in Puerto Rico, where he was ranked first place in the out of town standings, and forth overall.
The allure of mysterious new cities, new street names, and traffic patterns, are all part of the challenge that riders like Ray live for.
Later this week he’s flying back to Puerto Rico with a one-way ticket. He admits that he doesn’t know if the road will take him back to NYC, where he’s clearly earned his name. He knows that he can always return, but there are bigger prospects up ahead.
“Next stop [after Puerto Rico] is Mexico City,” he says with a grin. “Think about a city twenty times more densely populated than NYC. The streets are all winding hellishly into one another, the architecture is different, and the culture is wild and new to me.”
“It’s time to gear-up for a new scene.”