Monday, January 12, 2009

First Friday Alley Cat - April '08

Aprils First Friday Alley Cat was the warmest one all year. I arrived at the bar around 7pm and it was already packed. There were a number of racers already there but none that had been coming normally. That’s to be expected, even in this community, there are your share of fair weather cyclists. That’s ok; it’s always fun to have more people racing anyways. I didn’t really know anyone so I picked a stool and ordered a beer. I spent the next 45 minutes watching everyone in the bar. More and more racers began to trickle in, many where messengers, this was going to be a tough race. At one point even the owner of Breakaway showed up. Everyone’s spirits were high and the PBR was flowing like water. I watched in wonder as racers pounded down can after can and smoked cigarettes one after another, these people do this for a living so their bodies are used to this level of abuse, but I was still amazed. How many of them were going to be drunk for the race? A number of times I wondered if a race was going to be foregone in favor of a spring biker party.

The race was supposed to start at 7:30; that came and went with not an utterance of anything. I didn’t even know who was putting the race on and continued to watch everyone else for any signs of registration. I stopped at 2 pints and spent the rest of the time drinking water and eating chips and salsa. Each time I do this I am always amazed at the 2 diverging cultures that preside in this bar. On one end you have these early 20 something bike messenger people and their friends, who sport all sorts of biking apparel and carry large cross shoulder messenger bags. Then you have the people who have been patronizing this ‘corner’ tap for probably as long as it has been in existence, middle aged working class white people. It’s like you have the conservative parents sharing a bar with their rebel children and everyone gets along fine. The messenger community, I have noticed, is very friendly and open to party with everyone. Friday night I watched a conversation unfold between a barely 21 year old racer and an old man in his 70’s or 80’s. This night, more than any other, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson when he hung out with the Hell’s Angles. Although, I’m not doing this to write about it, I’m doing it to race, I’m just writing about it because it has made such an impact on me that I feel the story should be told.

Around quarter to 8 the guy putting on the race showed up, it was Joe. He was running a bit late. Everyone swamped him to get registered. There were no manifests handed out. I checked the mechanics on my bike and readied myself so I wasn’t lagging too far at the start. After I came back into the bar I heard a call to meet soon outside, I went back out and unlocked my bike. Everyone else started pouring onto the sidewalk as well. It was just barely nighttime. While I was doing something to my bag my bike fell over and someone yelled “false start!!” out in jest. Everyone was in an incredibly good mood today…it was going to be a fun race. The guy putting on the race handed out empty FedEx boxes. He told us to write this information down on the boxes; there were 2 manifests, 1 was in a free paper box on Water and Wisconsin and the other was in a free paper box on Prospect and Albion. The first person back with all the info on the manifests filled out won. There was some light hearted ribbing about the instructions and the manifests. Go was called and everyone flew into action. I was delayed even though I already had my bike readied. I heard a honk as I was securing everything, someone must have cut in front of a car. I put my FedEx box in my bag and took off as well.

I headed for the first manifest. I took the corner at Michigan and Water just as Michigan got the red, I had enough go to make it around the corner before traffic on Water began moving. I pounded up the block to the first manifest; I could see half a dozen bikers also headed to or already at the drop. I hopped off of my bike, picked it up and ran to the Onion box. I opened it and grabbed a copy from the huge pile, made sure I just had one, gripped it in my hands and mounted my bike. I took off east on Wisconsin, winding my way to the next manifest. I attempted to read the first one but it was getting too dark, traffic behind me was too heavy and included a bus, and I just am not used to reading while biking anymore. I thought about the idea that a stop might be downtown, but shrugged it off, not wanting to waste any time and kept going. I zigged and zagged my way to the far east side, not running into too much trouble with vehicles. At one point I noticed another of the racers studying their manifest while riding, I’m not that confident in the flow of traffic, maybe in time.

I cranked out to the next manifest drop point, not knowing where Albion exactly crossed. At Juneau Park I was already breathing hard, I was still too out of shape, but I kept pushing forward. As I hit the south end of Prospect I began to watch the cross street signs. After a few blocks I noticed some bikers up ahead of me. A few racers were crowding a paper box on the east side of the street. I hopped off my bike and tried to pedal lean it on the curb. It ended up falling over a minute later, but luckily didn’t hit anyone else’s bike. I grabbed the second manifest and mounted my bike. Just as I did one of the racers, who does cyclo-cross, showed up. Someone joked with him that they beat him here. His response was that he already had 2 questions taken care of…that probably wasn’t a joke. This was going to be tough and the little hope I had to doing ok in the race was fast receding. I mounted my bike, fought with traffic and made my way to Brady Street. I had noticed on one of the manifests that a stop was at a church on Brady Street, I decided to make that my first stop. At Brady and Downer I ran into another biker who was caught at the red light. This is a hairy intersection and is usually busy as well. I showed up, stalled for a moment and crossed during a break in traffic while also checking to make sure traffic from another direction wasn’t going to take off. We both pounded up Brady, which was jam-packed with foot and vehicular traffic. As I came to the church on the corner of Brady and Humboldt I noticed a few other racers already there. I hoped off my bike, picked it up and ran to the front of the church. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my manifests, quickly scanning the drops for the one about this church. I found it, found my answer and hastily scrawled the date the church was built on the paper. I shoved everything back in my pocket and took off down the street. I had no idea where the next stop was, I was just going to follow other racers this time. I knew that some of the stops were downtown, like the church on State Street where the homeless gather for free meals every night.

Heading west on Brady I passed two of the riders and caught up and held pace with 2 more. At the red light at Van Buren they showed no signs of slowing down. I thought they were going to plow blindly through the intersection but instead they cut a hard right ad took the bridge leading to Holton. I followed suit and pounded up this long slow incline. They were outpacing me mostly due to their lower gear ratios. I ended up about a half block behind them and continued to follow them after the bridge. At the top end of it they turned west down a side street and kept going forward. I had no idea where they were going, but decided to follow.

We ended up north of Schlitz Park, actually passing the hill that I climbed as part of the MMI race. We continued on to 3rd Street/MLK and hooked south. We all sped down the street heading south in the northbound lane. A block before Walnut we all mounted the side walk. The two I was following stopped halfway down the block at a statue of Martin Luther King. I followed suit and pulled out my manifest. Before I had found the question they said what the answer was. Not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth I copied the answer down. The question was what was the title of the x book on the back of the statue. All around the base of the statue are a number of ‘books’. The answer was Mahatma Gandhi.

Once that question was answered they mounted and I followed suit, slightly behind. They took off west on Walnut then east on 4th. I knew this area; my car was parked just a block away. They cut down the next block and took a shortcut out to 6th through the parking lot of a building. Then they went south on 6th. I’m not sure why they didn’t just go up to 6th and Walnut, maybe they didn’t want to chance getting caught at the light. Traffic was pretty sparse and we all had an easy time navigating the road. I gained the advantage on 6th and coasted down the hill. They were riding fixed so had to keep peddling. I gained the ground I had lost by tucking into the hill to reduce my wind resistance. I got a quarter of a block from them and they stopped at the next intersection and backtracked down that street. I caught up with them as the righted their direction and we all cranked up the hell heading west on Vliet. As I took the corner I passed one of the guys and shouted out to him if he minded me tagging along, he said he didn’t. They once again had the advantage over me with the smaller ratios and climbed the hill with ease. I slowed a bit but caught up at the next church on 9th street. I over heard them asking about if some way was open then they took off. I missed them and got stalled but another racer showed up and I followed him. The next stop was the church on State, it seemed like we were going to take the foot bridge over the freeway and catch up with the south portion of Vliet that ran along the north end of the Pabst complex. I wondered why we just didn’t go back to 6th and take State that way. Oh well, maybe they just knew an easier way. I followed the lone guy as he made his way to the entrance of the crosswalk.

The crosswalk was pretty steep, so again I was at a loss. The guy I was tailing turned the corner at the other end. At the turn I had to slow considerably because it was 90 degrees. I was then faced with two cross fences making it difficult to bring anything other than a human through that entrance. I had to put a foot down and steady my way through the barricade. Once out I was back on free road.

It was fully dark now and this part of the street has no street lights. Traffic was non existent and I knew where to go. I headed back east on the hill that turned Vliet into Juneau all the while thinking 2 things, I should have taken 6th street and I need to NOT hit anything on this road, which is incredibly horrible. Luckily I know this stretch of road very well, due to it being on my route to work while biking. I spotted an open road in the midst of the Pabst construction and took it. It led me to 8th street and I continued forward. At State I hooked right and climbed the hill for a block and a half until I got in front of the church. I mounted the sidewalk, stopped in front of it and realized this wasn’t the right place. I pulled out my manifest, scanned it for the correct question and realized it was a church that was just around the corner.

I clipped back into my pedals and went back to 9th; from there I headed north and crossed over the street to get to the church I needed at the corner of 9th and Highland. I wrote down the date and paused for a moment to look over my manifest for the first time. There was one that listed the locations of a number of churches; we had to put down the dates they were built/finished that are etched into the buildings. The other manifest had questions that related to information found on a number of monuments around town. After glossing over the locations I started to formulate a mental route map. It was at this point that I realized I had missed two stops I could have taken care of in the beginning if I had stopped and read my first manifest when I got it. I would hit those on my way back downtown. My next stop was only a few blocks away in the park on the east side of the courthouse. I biked back down 9th and climbed the steps from 9th to get into the park. I wondered if any police would harass me for being in their stomping ground after dark carrying/riding a bike around.

I got up to the main area of the park and noticed a news van parked at the east end and someone walking towards it. The park was incredibly dark and I had to find a statue of Gandhi, I never knew there was a statue of Gandhi in town. I contemplated heading to the news van to see if they knew where it was and also wondered if they had noticed an inordinate number of bikers in the park recently. I spotted out of the corner of my eye the statue, closer to the courthouse. I hiked my bike up another set of stairs and mounted it, partially wondering if I would get in trouble for riding in the park. Oh well, if I get yelled at, I will apologize and walk it out of the park. I didn’t get scolded but I did notice a lone person sitting on a stoop. I thought that it might be a worker taking a break.

I headed to the statue and quickly began looking for the date he was born. I found it on the front side wrote it down and headed off. As I started to leave I noticed one of the Breakaway messengers enter the park from the south east. I headed southwest. My next stop was the church on Wisconsin and 12th. As I rounded the corner of the courthouse, the person who was at the stoop had now moved to hiding in a shadow on the side of the building. The guy looked pretty suspicious and didn’t seem to belong. He looked pretty shocked to see me come cruising down the walk way and probably didn’t make any move due to not anticipating me coming through there. The guy looked like he was looking for trouble.

As I headed west on the walkway I kept imagining me running into a hidden stair way and busting my ass all over it. I luckily didn’t and was brought out to the sidewalk on 10th street. I took a left and headed for the intersection with Wells. I noticed a police van waiting at the red light and decided to play it safe. I got in line with the rest of traffic and waited for the green. While I was waiting, the Breakaway guy came heading down 10th and took the intersection. I said cop, when he didn’t do anything I said it a little louder. With out looking back he said in a snide manner that he didn’t care. I said ok, paused and then I didn’t care either. As I rolled across the bridge over the freeway I began to wonder if my actions would piss the cop off and move him to pull me over. I tried not to look back and pushed myself forward. I overtook the Breakaway guy and turned down 12th, police van far behind and no longer a threat. I hit the intersection of 12th and Wisconsin just as it turned green. I rolled right through, up onto the sidewalk and stopped in front of the church. I wondered for a second if I would burst into flames at one of the churches then wrote down the date on my sheet. I scanned the manifests for my next spot and readied for take off. As I clipped in the messenger showed up, I shouted out the date to him, he thanked me and headed off west after pausing for a second. I chose to head east, the next stop was by Potawatomi and I knew that 13th would be the most direct way. The next closest cross over is 25th street.

The only problem with my way was that 13th under the freeway didn’t actually exist anymore due to the construction. I figured I’d risk it anyways and shot down 11th. At Clybourne I came to the entrance of 13th, hopped off of my bike, noted the ‘no foot traffic’ and ‘construction entrance only’ signs as I headed to the other side. As I made my way through the dark I had visions of hitting a hidden pot hole and screwing something up. I noticed large concrete barriers on the south side that kept everyone northbound out and funneled freeway exiting people to St Paul. I quickly scanned the best way to get back on pavement and on my bike and hefted my bike up so I could easily clear the small island. I through down my bike on the end of the off ramp and took off.

There was a lone car stopped at the intersection. I wondered if they notice me and my bike and if so what they thought about seeing me coming out of the forbidden zone. I beat them through the intersection as I rolled through the red. I was home free and riding down 13th. The only problem was that I was having a hard time clipping my shoes into my pedals. I had picked up a lot of dirt and mud in my little off-road trek. I was finally able to fully clip in as I hit the bridge south of St Paul. I cruised down the street and hung a hard right on Canal. As I rounded the corner I could see the flood of masses waiting to throw their hard earned cash away to the Native Americans…I love it. I see the Indian casino business as their revenge and retribution for everything that has happened to them at the hands if the white man. I flew by the line of elderly pensioners and began scanning for the statue of Potawatomi. I knew that I needed to count the number of feathers on the statue. I saw the lone guy who I followed from the 2nd church heading east bound on Canal. After he went by I spotted the statue sitting in the median, very tricky.

I rolled up to it, hoped off and ran my bike onto the grass. I noticed a number of tire treads from previous racers. As I went around to the rear of the statue to count the number of feathers in its head I noticed a Potawatomi security guard watching me from the side of the street. I wonder what that person was thinking, how long has she been there, how many bikers has she seen do what I’m doing. What does she think this all means? It’s really interesting to think about what the bystanders think of al the bikers cruising around. Most people just think we are out for a ride, some will wonder at why some many seem to be gathering at places then leaving quickly. I’m pretty sure no one thinks that there is a race going on. Alley cat races defy the conventional bike race image, which is filled with brightly colored spandex sporting athletes riding around a closed course for ever and ever until the allotted distance has been covered. They don’t expect a bunch of kids riding dumpster dive single speed bikes sporting jeans and Pabst paraphernalia to actually be racing. I like that kind of misconception. Although the more I do this the more I would love for there to be some form of sanctioned single speed road racing circuit. There are forms of such through out the country but it’s few and far between. The only real sanctioned bike racing that openly allows single speed bikes is the fast growing cyclo-cross.

I got my feather numbers, 3 and took off. As I started I noticed the messenger heading westbound as well. I shouted out the number to him and he thanked me. I took off to follow him, I knew a little of where I was going but wanted to pace with someone. As we headed eastbound I noticed the other racer turning around to head back west, I shouted out to him that the statue was in the median, he thanked me for the help…just doing the friendly thing. We cruised down St Paul, I caught up with him around the 900 block, he glanced back as he saw my shadow creep on his right and moved over more. I followed him with my front tire parallel to his rear. I began to day dream when I noticed his right arm shoot down to point at the ground. I heard him say something about rail road tracks. I looked a head a few yards and saw that on the far side of the road, which I was on, the tracks ran almost parallel to the road. I followed him into the center of the road, to get to the tracks when they angles more, then we both took a hard right to cross the tracks and keep moving forward. Good thing I was paying attention. I considered that tid-bit as payment for the last two stops. We cranked forward.

He began to outpace me when we hit 6th. We both hit the intersection right at the red and took the turn before the cross traffic started. I slowed down a bit to take the corner but he just leaned over and barreled through it. As we went up the hill into La Barrio I again cursed my large gear ratio. Coming northbound, heading towards us, were two racers, the guy who owned Breakaway and another guy. The owner shouted at the messenger I was pacing, some kind of taunt. We kept going.

At Virginia he hooked west and I followed suit. I wasn’t too sure where Scott was but knew the next stop was 8th and Scott. He led me to 9th street and we both climbed up the small hill to get to National. He was leading by about a block when I began to climb; I was pretty tired out by this point and climbed the hill slowly. At the intersection with National, 2two blocks up hill, there was a car with its brights on at the red. There were also no street lights on this stretch as well. The road is also one way and we were going against traffic. As I climbed I watched the messenger almost get hit by a car pulling out of a parking spot too fast. He got to the light just as it turned green and rode on. I hit it on a long yellow and was relieved to no longer be blinded by the jackass with the brights on. I followed him, foolishly, onto the sidewalk. I figured he knew where we had to stop. We rode a block up and then ran into the freeway off ramp which posed 2 problems; the traffic that doesn’t stop at the stop sign, down ramp for the sidewalk is not at the corner, but further down the block…which was fine since it made you slow down more for the intersection. We both went though then were on the next sidewalk. As we rode past the school on that stretch I remember seeing people gathering at a van. There were two of them and they looked like they were weird lab people or attendants for a mental ward, ushering in patients into the carrier that would take them back to their padded cells. I expected them to turn around and be deformed and genetically misaligned in their facial features. They were actually two white haired white women waiting to get into their group ride. As I approached I saw more retirees coming out of the building, I shouted out excuse me and smiled. The lead woman warned her friends in a surprised manor about my sudden presence.

Onward I went, a half block behind the messenger. We went up another block to Scott, hung a left and saw our target. He mounted the sidewalk first and went to the side of the building. I scanned the north face of it for the dates. I saw them, there were two…hmmm. I told him I found the dates but that there were two. He asked me if he followed his stupid path on the sidewalk, I said I did. We jotted down the dates and took off. The next stop was 5th and Scott. I thought to myself that this was too easy...

As we cruised down the street I noticed I was right. The actual spot was on the other side of the freeway. At each intersection he shouted out clear to let me know there was no traffic. Amazingly 6th street was clear and we hooked left to get around to the other side of the freeway. We went up a block, headed east then back south on the eastern portion of 5th street. We rode up the block about half way and began to scour the building for a date. We found it, jotted it down and took of. He got the jump and was a half block away. As I took off I noticed a semi getting off the ramp from the freeway. I shouted out to him to look out for the semi.

We both rolled along heading north bound. I only had the two downtown stops left. I caught up with him near National; he asked me what I had left. I told him the first two and split off from him at National. He headed back towards the 6th street viaduct and I headed off to 1st street.

Traffic was picking up in this part of town and I amazingly made the green at 2nd, but not before someone threatened to turn in front of me without noticing. One thing I neglected to mention was that I had been riding without a headlight again. When the race started I found out that my batteries were dead. It was easy to see that the car didn’t see me; I was dressed in all black, on a midnight blue bike with no headlight, let alone reflectors. I threw away the reflectors years ago. This was the first time I ever got scared on my bike, my heart raced; I had to calm my self down and did well enough by the time I hit 1st street. I ran a long yellow and headed north ahead of two other races that were coming from the south. I wondered where they were coming from to be there but kept going. I could see two other racers a few blocks ahead. I was behind by a lot, seeing as I had to do 2 questions yet that most of these people probably already had. I kicked it into high gear and passed them quickly. As I did I heard one of them shout something at me as a joke, but I didn’t really understand what they said and put my head down.

I kept ahead of traffic and beat everyone through a red light. I could hear a siren behind me, but kept going. I cruised into the Third Ward way ahead of the other racers and traffic. Too bad I wasn’t on the home stretch; this would have been a great victory ride. I hit a red light at Buffalo and turned east down it due to heavy cross traffic. I headed back north on Milwaukee Street and rode into downtown proper. I zagged my way to Juneau park, not exactly knowing where I was going. I kept repeating 2 street names in my head, not sure if I had the correct intersection, I knew that both streets ran parallel, but hey, weird stuff can happen on the far south east side. I found one and rode it all the way east. I got to the south edge of the park and stopped. I pulled out the manifest, confirmed the intersection and began my frantic search for my target.

I needed to find a statue of Solomon Juneau and find out when he was elected mayor. I searched hard for statue, anything that would have a date on it or that required information. There was one monument nearby that as dedicated to WWI veterans but that was it. I paused and scanned the area; I noticed a statue in front of the art museum and headed off. I rode the sidewalk, looking for a down ramp to the street. I didn’t find one so had to dismount. Praying to not get hit by traffic in the blind curve coming off of Lincoln Memorial Drive I ran my bike across the street to the statue…it was Lincoln. I never knew we had a statue of Lincoln in town. I went back and scanned the park like area west of the museum, to no avail. I went back to the original corner just as two people on comfort bikes came strolling down the sidewalk.

Why do grown adults purposely ride the sidewalks?

After circling fruitlessly again I headed to the park area on the southwest corner of the intersection, scanning for any form of a statue. After I ended up on Wisconsin Avenue I cut my loses and decided to head back to he bar. It was getting late and I wasn’t going to find one of the answers so I didn’t want to waste my time going to the other one when I was going to be DQ’d anyways. On my uneventful jaunt back to the bar I argued mentally over giving up but I won out and ended my race, I was done.

There were many bikes back already, which made it even harder for me. I locked up back were I was before, noting that the guy who does cyclo-cross was back as well and in the same spot.

The bar was more crowded than it was earlier. Many more bikers had shown up after the race to hang out, I recognized a lot of people who I have raced with in the past, who decided not to ride tonight but come out to party. I found Joe, placed my sloppy manifests in the FedEx envelope and handed it to him then explained why I didn’t have two of the answers. He jotted down my time, I was like the 6th or 7th person back, there were still many racers out in the field. Too bad I didn’t have all the answers. I decided to throw the hat in and worked with him on checking my answers. He seemed a bit shocked to see the two dates for one of the churches, when I explained where it was he nodded in wonder for having missed that. I guess the date he was looking for was on another part of the building. I thanked him for the race then got a beer and bought one for him as well. After I handed him his and then sat at the bar to drain mine, the messenger I was pacing for a while asked if I was the one following him. When I told him I was he asked where I went, then I explained where I went and he told me that the statue was actually on the corner I didn’t check, next to the historical society…oh well. I watched as more of the racers showed up, the bar was hopping and crowded.

After I finished my beer I thanked Joe again and took off. It was a great race and a great night, but it was time to take my defeated ass home.

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