By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Salim Virji.
It’s the first nice day all year, and everyone and their mother are hitting the hot pavement with both wheels turning. Mountain bikes, fixed gears, Citi bikes, uprights, recumbents, and even a penny-farthing can be spotted crawling along the winding footpaths of Washington Square Park, emptying into the traffic of 5th Avenue and vanishing out of sight.
Sprawled beneath the shadow of the marble arch there sits a different kind of biker. His long and tangled nest of hair curls around a mean set of toned biceps that playfully turn the wheels of his fixed gear, inspecting the tread. A massive burlap backpack sits next to him, and from the sweat sticking to his shirt it’s apparent that this guy is no stranger to shuttling heavy loads. You can tell that he’s fit, but to the untrained eye Cooper Ray looks just like any other twenty-something bike messenger.
That is, however, until he reaches out for a handshake and you notice the scars that snake around both forearm and wrist, climbing like distant veins up to his elbows.
If you know how to read them, they’re like a map that can tell stories.
“I started racing when I was fourteen,” Ray tells BTR. “People were really freaked out that I was coming out to these illegal events. I got threatened and yelled at. They put me down, but I kept on coming back.”
Perseverance is perhaps Ray’s greatest fortitude. Since 2007 he has been competing in New York City’s largest illegal bike circuit, known as the Alley Cats. Nearly eight years later he is a central force in the scene–promoting many of his own races and taking home the first place title for some of the biggest national bike challenges.
Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of an Alley Cat though–while the underground scene has grown to encompass a global magnitude, the community is still tightly knit and operates through word of mouth and messages passed along through the chaos of the world’s busiest city streets.
For bike enthusiasts, or even curious onlookers seeking a shot of adrenaline, Alley Cat races are the perfect fix. That is, of course, if you’re into split-second life-or-death physical acts of defiance, speed, and razor-sharp awareness.
Sound a little ridiculous? Don’t take my word for it, check it out yourself:
So what exactly are these die-hard cyclists all about? Ray gives us an exclusive look into the global underworld of extreme biking, and what the journey has meant to him.
What is an Alley Cat?
It all circulates around being a bike messenger–that is, an independently contracted courier that is paid commission to deliver packages and goods to clients around a city. Messengers will utilize their bike as means of quick transportation, since a bicycle can afford more fluidity navigating traffic and tight spaces than the cumbersome bulk of a motor vehicle.
The Alley Cat races were born out of this community.
“Depending on who you talk to, the point of origin changes,” Ray says. “Some old-school messengers will cite Toronto 1989 as the very first official Alley Cat, whereas another seasoned vet will say that it happened first in New York City that same year. The title of ‘first’ is constantly vying between those two cities.”
Regardless of where it all began, NYC has a long standing reputation for Alley Cats. They began as work-simulation races. On Fridays or Saturdays after work these messengers would meet up and put together a manifest of pick-ups and drop-offs–similar to a work manifest including a list of various addresses printed on a piece of paper.
The goal? Whoever can get to all of the addresses first wins.
The rules? There are none.
“So you have this list of addresses,” Ray explains, “when you get to one of the addresses, the checkpoint, you have to get a personal signature from someone that is posted there. Maybe you’ll shotgun a beer or take a shot too. The destinations are usually not in order; you have to look at the manifest and figure out what the best route will be.”
To make the race more difficult, riders are only provided a five-minute window to study the manifest before the race begins.
“I started doing these things before there were novelties like smart phones,” says Ray. “So you’d just have to know where to go, or figure it out yourself.”
Organizing the Races
The community eschews the popular conventions of social media promotion in exchange for handing out flyers and more traditional word-of-mouth messages containing event details. An occasional Facebook-announced event will draw the madmen out to the streets, but more often than not these races are known and conducted without the aid of outside circuits save the messenger community itself.
Not just any cyclist can be a race promoter. You have to earn your street credit first.
Ray, who races more often than he promotes, organizes two annual events of his own each year. He waited close to seven years, however, before he started throwing his own Alley Cats.
“It was very much outside of my element to think I had the authority to promote one,” he says.
“It wasn’t my world–I had to earn my place. It wasn’t until an older racer passed me the torch to start promoting some of his races that I got my foot in the door.”
One of Ray’s very own creations is known as the Skyscraper Race. Its name is derived from the unique checkpoints that comprise the race, which pay homage to old architectural developments, such as Depression-Era buildings.
According to Ray their significance, whether it be construction companies or municipalities, railroads, or just beautiful skyscrapers, comes through how they all relate to one another.
It’s an appreciation for the beauty of our identity as a city–a meaning steeped in the white hot adrenaline of the competition.
The other Alley Cat that Ray organizes annually is called The Rookie Race. But don’t let the title fool you–this race is a far-cry from a rider’s cake walk.
It started as a response to hordes of new, younger, and inexperienced riders that began flooding the scene. This seemingly inviting race is so technically difficult that it “makes you feel like a beginner all over again.” Difficult street names and addresses force the riders to really contemplate an ideal route, and on top of it all the event is a “blind” manifest pickup–meaning the riders are not given any time to study the manifest at the drop point.
“The first time I threw that race I had almost forty people turn out at the start,” Ray tells BTR, “which is a lot for an Alley Cat since you normally get around fifteen to twenty for what’s considered a ‘good’ turnout. I had more than thirty-five at the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, and had only eleven finishers.”
He concludes that it goes to show many don’t have what it takes to compete in the real races.
Make sure to check out “Do You Have What It Takes to Be An Alley Cat?” Part II on BTR tomorrow.