11am on a Saturday morning isn’t usually a time when you would find a courier out of bed, let alone on his bike. But every now and again, the opportunity arises to defy all habits and get up early in order to do exactly what would otherwise happen in the evening: Riding under the influence.
This Saturday was one of these opportunities. Jake, or Wizard, one of the couriers here in Melbourne, was leaving the country and as a farewell he organized an Alley Cat Race: “Try Not To Die”. Due to the Grand Final of the Aussie Rules Football, the Race was moved to the morning so that everybody could happily watch the ‘footy’ afterwards.
Now, I can’t explain to you what Aussie Rules Football is exactly, but I can explain an Alley Cat. Alley Cats are the social core of every Messenger community. They are street races in open traffic that often try to represent all the challenges and events of a work day, condensed into a few hours of fast and relentless racing. The races take different forms, sometimes they are point-to-point races where at every checkpoint the next address is revealed, sometimes you might get to know all checkpoints beforehand, requiring a bit more planning ahead in order to figure out the smartest way to tick them all off. Usually you would have to collect a signature or stamp on a piece of paper (your manifest) at each checkpoint, but sometimes you might also simply have to answer a site-specific question (how many doorbells are there at that address…) or additionally do a task or challenge at the checkpoints. Couriers are all massively fixated (no pun intended) on nudity and alcohol, so most challenges will either be to flash or to down a drink.
So these races are essentially a really fun scavenger hunt in which all basic traits of a courier are being tested (their ability to plan a smart route for all their deliveries, their perfect knowledge of the city and its shortcuts, a good sense of location, their willingness to get naked in front of a group of cheering guys with beards, their drinking skills, their ability to maneuver traffic, disregard traffic rules and ride fast).
In this particular Alley Cat, Jake decided that there would be no manned checkpoints. Instead, everyone had to take a selfie at each checkpoint as proof. He told us five checkpoints and the pub to finish at.
Some of the checkpoints were addresses and so I could google them, others however I had no clue where or what they were. So it was pretty clear that I would have to follow people and that I better not get lost…
We went through Flagstaff Gardens and down Dudley Street, jumping a few red lights and dodging traffic at two big crossings.
The first checkpoint was quickly reached and after the photo I followed one rider across a car park and onto the harbor esplanade. The cycling lane there was full of little speed bumps and best practice was to keep on the very side and ride on a slim line of slick stones that frame the path. A double turn and an ascent onto a small bridge to cross the river. The bridge at some point split into pedestrians’ and cyclists’ segment and it was a bit of luck that I didn’t end up going down a stairwell instead. A steep right turn after the bridge was the first time out of a handful where I grounded my pedal. I realised I am still used to riding fixed gear, where the cranks are a bit shorter and you have an intuitive ability to time your pedal strokes so that you don’t hit the ground. I have taken the habit of constant pedaling and still find myself doing it on the road bike.
Stephen, who was riding a fixed brakeless with a ridiculously wide handlebar showed me the way onto the next road, one long straight and flat strip all the way to the next checkpoint. We were going relatively fast and slowly caught up to the rider in front of us. Kit behind us was trying to make a connection, too. I motivated Stephen and took the wind for him, the least I could do after he had shown me the way. We caught up to the rider in front of us, Dan, and pulled him with us. But the two at the very front we never quite caught up to. The next checkpoint was the Mailcall office, the courier company that Wizard used to work for.
Kit caught up to us and we rode on in a group of four, still chasing the two in the breakaway. We came to a big roundabout and I was the only one who cut it short counterclockwise. After I had gained three quarters of a roundabout, I decided not to wait and focused on the two ahead. I kept them always in sight, and yet they remained a good hundred metres ahead of me. We maneuvered through the thick traffic along the beach boulevard until the two riders in front of me made a quick dash to the right, rode against the traffic and bunny hopped onto the sidewalk. I crossed behind them but my attempt to jump onto the sidewalk lacked elegance. At the beach we dropped our bikes and ran a few metres into the sea, the cycling shoes absorbing the water immediately, sand sticking on the velcro. This small dip was the challenge at this checkpoint.
Back on the bikes the two quickly gained on me again as I got unlucky with three red lights in a row that only allowed slow and careful crossing. Stephen caught up again and at the next checkpoint, a selfie lying down in the grass, we were nearly on their heels again.
Once more I had to witness that a fixed gear gets up to speed a lot quicker than the continuous acceleration of a road bike. Therefore I was delayed by another red light, the first one where I actually had to stop fully. But on the long stretched downhill to follow I had no troubles shifting up and catching Stephen again. The other two were gone completely and a few streets later, Stephen decided they went left and turned. I stayed on the main road but could not see any riders ahead of me. Toorak Road also has a pretty mean climb and the hill really slowed me down. Lacking all comparison with other riders I hit the wall and quickly lost all momentum. But at least it gave me the chance to get my phone out and check up on the next checkpoint. I had been told that the velodrome in Hawthorne East was in the H A Smith Reserve, which at least I could google quickly. I was on the right track, even though the others had probably found a smarter way than to face the hill on Toorak Road. During my descent, which gave me the time to recover, I dashed into a residential area and zigzagged my way into the general direction of the Reserve. But then, when I hit the main road again and couldn’t spot a velodrome anywhere, I was a bit puzzled. I slowed down to get some orientation and saw one of the riders coming from an underpass. Matt, the rider, told me he was heading for the velodrome too and led me into the park and onto the track. We took one round in the velodrome and returned back on the road.
Matt told me he took a wrong turn and got lost a little, I assumed that this was how he lost the lead and ended up at the velodrome at the same time as me who had slowed down on the climb.
We took the main road back into the city, one long straight going west, Matt always in front of me. The cityscape around us changed and as we went through Hawthorne we met many people in black and yellow and with stupid oversized fluffy heads – the Hawthorne Hawks were playing in the Grand Final. as we came into South Yarra the traffic also got thicker again and many people attempted to cross the road without looking. It was only once we were on St Kilda Road that I really knew where we were, we crossed the Yarra once more onto Swanston Street and then turned onto Elizabeth Street. Within the CBD grid the streets are really not designed for cyclists: most of the time the tram tracks in the middle are sperated from traffic by little elevated isles and cars and bikes share a line on each side of this. That makes overtaking cars somewhat difficult, as the space between the curb stone on both sides squeezes you particularly close to the car. At times the bike parts also get led onto the pedestrian isles, which isn’t much better either as people leaving or entering trams tend to jump right into you.
Yet we managed the last few blocks at good speed with no major accidents. The pub was just ahead of us now. Only the most despicable person would have raced Matt to the finish, after he had provided guidance for me all along and I would have been unable to find my way without him. So, I was absolutely happy to stay behind him.
To my big surprise none of us could have actually lost much time on our individual escapades toward the velodrome: nobody else had arrived yet! Later I heard that one of the other breakaway riders had caught a puncture when he threw his bike onto a rock in the attempt to climb a fence in his way.
And yet Matt and me had been incredibly fast. It took the next rider more than ten minutes to arrive. The race that took me and Matt less than 1:15hrs was nearly 35km long, my top speed was 76.7km/h and the average was 28.1km/h, acceptable, regarding that it was in traffic and with checkpoints to slow you down. All in all I was very happy with my first Alley Cat in Melbourne and we all watched the Footy together, increasingly tipsy.
the recording of my race: