I showed up at Oakland's Mosswood Park in the early afternoon and scanned the crowd. Of the 150 or so bike racers getting ready, a few were geared in Spandex, looking serious and stretching their quads, but most were the messenger sort — with tight cut-off jean shorts, dirty T-shirts, and scruffy facial hair. They huddled in small groups discussing tactics and checking out their competition. In the center of all the racers, volunteers were handing out energy bars, water bottles and black T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Rad Massaker."
When, on a whim, I decided to enter last June's Rad Massaker Alleycat bike race and begged my friend Jimmy Tobias to join me, I didn't quite know what to expect — fun, intense competition, getting severely lost, being ticketed by the cops for running red lights? I worried whether my legs would give out on me or if I'd crash or whether I'd be able to find the route. I had seen and heard about alleycats before but never raced in one.
Alleycats are underground races invented by bike messengers. They're usually done without city permits and have no set course. Imagine a scavenger hunt, but on a bicycle — the competitors are given a list of checkpoints spread across a city and they have to figure out the best route to each destination. Thus, knowing the lay of the land is as important as physical endurance. These races have been going on around the country for about twenty years but have only grown popular among non-messengers in the last five.
From under a tree, off to the side of all the action, my friend Jimmy emerged wearing a bright yellow baseball hat embroidered with the words "anti hero." Even though it was hot and sunny, he had on jeans and a long-sleeved flannel. Hanging from his mouth was a cigarette and he had two Budweiser tallboys in hand. As he offered me a beer, I flashbacked to an incident from a few weeks earlier — we were cruising around West Oakland and he suddenly swerved in front of me, causing me to crash into him. He stayed intact but I went flying. Why had I asked him to join me today? Was this really a good idea? I declined the Bud.
As I checked in and paid the $10 to enter (all proceeds went to Cycles of Change, a local nonprofit that teaches kids in urban neighborhoods how to build bicycles), I ran into my friend Stephanie Seiler. Knowing she was an alleycat veteran, I asked how she was feeling about the race. "If you treat it not so competitively, it's a lot of fun," she said. "But ... I always get really nervous, irrationally nervous."
Although I was riding a fully geared vintage racer, I noticed that Stephanie had a fixed-gear bike, as did Jimmy and most of the other riders. Fixed-gear bikes, or fixies, are common in alleycats. They are bikes that don't have a freewheel — the component that makes coasting possible — this means that once in motion the pedals never stop turning. Also, most fixies have only one gear speed and no brakes. Without gears, going up hills can be exceedingly difficult and without brakes, going down hills can be treacherous. To stop, fixed-gear bikers put backpressure on their pedals and skid their tires from side to side. I started to fixate on the possibility of getting caught behind a bunch of these fish-tailers coming down a hill — not only could they slow me down but they also tend to stop suddenly — upping the crash ante.
Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet. Rad Massaker's founder, Blake Von Knopka, a tall, blonde avid cyclist who is known for organizing grueling races, was motioning to talk. Waving a stack of paper in the air, he shouted for everyone to come and get their "manifest" — the directions for the alleycat. It listed the destination points in cryptic wording and in completely random order. There were six checkpoints in total (counting the finish) and as I glanced through the list, I saw that it covered a huge part of the East Bay — Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley and Richmond. "Checkpoints can be done in any order but there's a fast way and a very slow way," it read, and "all checkpoints must be signed off to finish and collect prizes and glory."
I asked Blake how we would fare given that we had never ridden in one of these races before. "You're gonna get massacred," he said, with no hint of humor. "The reason it's called a massacre is because I wanted to make it as hard as humanly possible."
As people frantically pulled out maps and began deciding their routes, Jimmy took out a pen and wrote his bike name across the top of his manifest: "The Penetrator." I read mine more closely: "Be smart, don't run any busy intersections. Obey all traffic rules. There's tons of open road to make up time. Have fun." Alleycat racers tend to run red lights, swerve in and out of traffic, and go the wrong way on one-way streets trying to beat competitors to the next checkpoint. "Don't kill yourself for a set of fucking tires," announced Blake, referring to one of the prizes, as people anxiously waited for him to say the word "go."
Then, like a departing flash mob, riders emptied out of Mosswood Park in thirty seconds. Befuddled, Jimmy and I stood there, sheepishly staring at our manifests and fiddling with our map. Blake ran over and gave me a little push, "You guys gotta go," he said. "You gotta get going."