Monday, January 12, 2009

First Friday Alley Cat - March '08

After about a monthly and a half of barely riding my bike and none of it being outside, I once again was ready to play in Friday night downtown traffic for the March edition of the Milwaukee First Friday Alley Cat. Due to laziness, exhaustion from moving and general apathy I had not participated in the February race, but I was damn well doing March's. Friday the 7th, race night, proved to be a cold one. With low teen or single digit temperatures and a brisk NW wind bringing with it a chill in the negatives it made for a crisp and clear evening. The best thing about the weather was that the roads were bone dry.

All I knew about the race was that one was going to be happening, I didn't know who was putting it together, what the official start time or cost would be. I just knew to show up at the bar by 7pm and I'd be ok. Changing up the layers on my torso I embarked to the bar. Traffic was normal but I ended up not taking Water to the bar like I normally do. I cruised down 4th street, heading for Michigan. I was taking up the right lane, given the highly publicized problem with gapping potholes, in order to guarantee my personal and mechanical safety. The left lane becomes a left turn lane at Well's, but the person in that lane didn't want to be stuck behind me so they kept going forward. I'm starting to develop that sixth sense about traffic from the more time I spend in it and knew the car would plow through the turn lane and keep going forward. The impatient driver got caught at a red light at Wisconsin and I blew by him through a gap in traffic, I love doing stuff like that to agro drivers

As I approached the bar I couldn't see any bikes, I wondered for a second if there was going to be a race but quickly squashed that, I knew there would be a race. As I pulled onto the sidewalk I saw 3 bikes parked, it was on. I locked my bike up to my usual spot and a female biker pulled up at the same time.

The bar was pretty empty and I didn't recognize any of the bikers who were there. I grabbed the stool at the end of the bar and ordered a pint of Spotted Cow and waited for the race to start. The group of bikers who were already there moved to a table not to far from me, allowing me the opportunity to eaves drop on their conversations. As more racers started to filter in I found out who was running the race, a young girl, I think her name was Meg; I'm horrible with names. We introduced each other, I paid my five dollars and she asked if it was OK if the manifests didn't get handed out until the start of the race, I said it didn't matter to me. In the back of my head I started panicking, I don't have then innate understanding of the downtown area like the other riders do. At least from my job as a car courier for the big J I do have a better then most knowledge of the city, but not by bike…that is changing.

As time went on more and more riders showed up, it was a pretty small crowd. I wondered if it might not be from the cold or the lack of info off of the Myspace page. I greeted some of the racers I had talked with in the past. After contemplating how to dress for the ride I chose to not use my balaclava and stuck with my knit cap. Even though the weather was pretty cold, the balaclava doesn't breath and I over heat with the damn thing on. I knew with the knit cap I'd be cold at first but after 10 or so minutes I'd be good. Now the only thing I needed to worry about were my feet freezing. It was almost 7:30 when the manifests were passed out.

The manifest had a set of questions asking for something from specific locations, but it also had questions about things from Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure movie…this was going to be weird. In all actuality there were only 3 stops on the manifest, the rest were just plain trivia. We all suited up and mounted the bikes, Meg asked if we were all ready, I wasn't but I didn't care, everyone took off. It was me and two other racers still left getting ready, I heard one of them mumble to himself he was too drunk already, pegging that as his lateness in starting the race. I knew I was not going to win so I wasn't in a big hurry. Before the race started Meg wanted everyone to know that Eric, the guy who actually put together the manifest, wanted everyone to think of this as a group ride, not a race, he wanted everyone to be safe and not risk their lives over fifty bucks. From what I have been picking up on the past week in this community is that there had been some tragedies this year. I read an obituary about a guy getting killed a week or so earlier in Chicago while biking, he was competing in a leg of an alley cat series known as Tour de Chicago. He blew through a red light, leading the pack and got hit by an SUV. Even though he wasn’t a messenger everyone was especially sensitive to the tragedy. When you spend your life on a bike anyone getting killed while riding one is sobering and saddening whether you know them or not.

I didn't pay attention to where the pack headed, but enjoyed watching them storm the road, plowing through the intersection of Water and Michigan, commuters must have been dumbfounded by them. Not only is a swarm of kids on bikes flowing through the intersection like water; it's one of the coldest nights of the winter. No one ever really understands how easy it is to ride in this weather without having done it; all it takes is the right gear. I've gotten incredibly acclimated to biking in these frigid temperatures but still can't wait for spring to take full effect; I want to ride without having to layer or wear bulky gloves. Before the start of the race I discussed this very idea with one of the racers and we both agreed, after this winter, warm weather was going to be utterly amazing.

I mounted my bike and took off down the alley in-between the bar and the building next to it. My goal was south 2nd, to look for a bar that no longer exists. The first question on the manifest I was tackling was to get a book of matches from a club called Dish that went under a few years prior. I knew the club was somewhere on south 2nd in the Gay district of Walkers Point, somewhere near National. I came out of the alley at Clybourn; I took a right and was at Water. Going through the alley I cursed my choice and the low power of my headlight, which had new batteries after dying in the last race. I was alert as possible to watch out for potholes and anything else that would catch my tire.

A year and a half earlier, riding to work after biking around all day, my tire got eaten by a major difference in the height of the road and the curb line. I didn't see it due to the darkness and I hit it trying to pass cars stopped at a stop sign. The difference threw me into the sidewalk, thankfully, but I pegged a concrete light pole before landing on the grass. The fist thing I could think off was that I bent my tire; I inspected it quickly while one of the drivers asked if I was hurt, I waved him off and winced at my sore wrist. After checking the bike over I mounted up only to find I bent one of the rails for my saddle, I dismounted bent it back as much as possible and road the half mile left to work. The rest of the night I continued to check for a flat tire. A few weeks after that I went by the same spot during the day and saw that the curb cement was about 4 inches higher then the black top of the main road portion, no wonder it threw me off.

I always end up having to swim against on coming traffic when I get onto Water Street heading south bound during every race. I was able to cross over the road to get on the correct side under the freeway so it wasn't a problem this time. I kept up a good pace heading southbound. Right lane traffic got a little hairy in the middle of the 3rd Ward, as people couldn't decide whether they were driving or standing. As I came into Walkers Point I could feel how much I suffered from not having ridden in so long. I was starting to get tired, this wasn't good. I hit National and hung a right. I thought I spotted a flashing rear light turn down 2nd, if I see another racer I must be in the right place. Now it was time to find whatever bar occupied the space that the last one was in. The question had a hint about the fact you can get a book of matches from the defunct bar at a new one, I figured it would be what replaced it. I tried to find the location, but was unsuccessful. After heading north on 2nd street I decided to call a friend to see if he remembered. He jogged his brain and thought it was near 2nd and National. I remember the only likely place was actually a Mexican joint and that couldn't be it. As I ended my conversation another racer road by, heading north, shouted hey at me. I wondered if he thought I was trying to cheat, in a way I guess I was, it wasn't like I was having my friend give me the answers to the trivia questions, I just couldn't remember where this damn club used to be. I shrugged it off, mounted the bike again and went back to National. When I got there my phone went off, it was my friend again. He gave me the places address, it was the 200 block or so, back were I was when I called him or that’s what it sounded like. I had poor reception and my hearing was hampered by the wind and the traffic. I thanked him and put the phone away and took off. As I got to the area of 2nd I began scanning the buildings, finding nothing, it was a bust. The area looked like it had never housed a bar. I decided to give up on this answer and knew I'd at least get 2 of them correct.

It was time to get the other destination question taken care of. I now had to head up to the Schlitz Park area on the other side of downtown. I took 2nd to St. Paul and decided to switch back and try and find the 3rd location question first. It was to find the name of a business on a street that I had never heard of before. The only thing I knew was that the address was 222 N., which would put it about where I was on the city grid. I knew it would be somewhere in downtown and I knew the only nearby area the street could occur was in the Third ward. I cut east on St. Paul and back onto Water. I then took a right on Buffalo and headed east, figuring it was further towards the Summerfest grounds. As I got to the ICC I knew it wasn't around here. At the intersection by the ICC there was some heavy traffic due to all the people who had lined up earlier in the evening to try out for the new Johnny Depp movie being filmed in the area. People in big SUV's couldn't follow the rules of a 4 stop sign intersection and honked and yelled at each other in Miller Light induced jock rage as I blew through them to keep looking for my phantom street. My assumption of being in the wrong area was solidified when I came up to the Summerfest main gate with no answer. I turned around and resumed my trek to Schlitz Park. I was once again on Water Street, this time heading north. At the intersection with St Paul I noticed an unmarked squad car, I wasn't going to be able to blow through this red. I stopped the bike like a good citizen and tried to remain inconspicuous. I felt out my moustache with my tongue only to discover it was made out of icicles. I wondered if the cops next to me could see that my facial hair was frozen in strands. The light turned green, I remounted and took off slowly, been out of practice for too long. As I went I wondered what the cops would have thought if I would have been doing a track stand, I really need to get my polo bike built so I can start practicing that, maybe if I get it down on a fixie I can figure out how to do it on a free wheel. The light was green at Clybourn but we caught a red at Wisconsin. Luckily the cop car had already gone through the intersection before the red so I was free to run it when I was clear. I pounded down Water but got hit with a gust of wind before Well's, the street was miraculously empty behind me, which is rare because some jag off in an Explorer usually tail gates me as I pass M&I, not this time. I put my head down and kept going, judging the lights and clearing the cross traffic, not stopping until I got to Pleasant where I had to stall for oncoming traffic before turning down the road. As I crossed the bridge over the river I saw two racers coming towards me, I motioned to them and kept going. When I came up to 1st street I saw another racer heading further up the road, then stall and come back around. I turned onto 1st and began scanning the addresses. In my mind I was looking for a light pole near the address of something like 1740 north, or so I thought. I stalled about halfway up the hill/block and pulled out my manifest. The address was 1718, I was in front of 1720-ish, good thing I looked. As I turned back the other racer was at the intersection circling around, then he headed back east on Pleasant. I found the sign and kicked myself for not thinking of it. The question asked what the letter was on the no parking sign. The sign was a large P with a circle crossed out. I wrote down P on my manifest. I mounted the bike and headed back to the bar. Heading east on Pleasant I heard the sound of the traffic behind me crushing all of the salt and gravel on the road, it was weird and at first I thought it was my own tires making that noise. I turned onto Water and headed south. I knew I wasn't going to win, but I wanted to keep up my face and pushed ahead at a steady clip. Even if I am no where near the top it is better for me to keep up my racing attitude for my own physical benefit. At around State Street the racer who had circled around 1st street caught up with me, he asked me how many I had, we both complained about having barely any of the answers. He wondered if I had seen the guy he was biking with. We passed along a bus and he put his left hand out to try and graze it, I've seen this sort of thing in race videos. We started to discuss the matchbook question when he cut back and headed east on Well's, I followed suit, crossing through the empty lanes of traffic, thankfully they were empty. We cranked up the hill and turned down on Milwaukee Street, heading south. He mentioned about the place being downtown and a new location, something about a grand opening. We headed south and ended up all the way back to Clybourn, he decided to try and find the 222 address and I shrugged and went along for the ride. After cutting ahead of the freeway exiting traffic we ended up heading westbound on St. Paul. He was thinking the same thing I was thinking, the address wasn't in Third Ward, it had to be over by 13th. We cruised down St. Paul. After 5th street I passed by him, when I glanced back after the freeway off ramp I didn't see him. I circled back to see if he went somewhere else when I saw him coming down the road again. He yelled something about that not being it and we kept going down St. Paul. As we got under the freeway 2 things happened, the road became incredibly dangerous and all light ceased to exist. I remember cursing oncoming headlights earlier in the race for eliminating my view of the road in front of me, now both oncoming headlights and ones coming from behind did nothing but obscure the treacherous road. Thoughts of a bikers conversation from the bar filled my head as he recounted his entire front tire being eaten by a pot hole he couldn't avoid the night before and having to drop a hundred and fifty earlier in the day to get his bike fixed. That's all I needed, especially with no money and a week before the biggest Alley Cat in Milwaukee coming up. I white knuckled my way through the minefield and was once again on even road after the overpass. We shot down to 13th and I yelled at him to turn left, we cut between indecisive drivers and headed on the search for our address. I thought it might be down the access road that leads along the train tracks and down to the back of the post office, but at that intersection we both spotted the street sign we were looking for, a quick glance at the address of the building across the street from the sign confirmed the correct location. Judging by the number of that business the one next to it would be our target. I yelled out to him as he circled in front of a bridge over the river. We both pulled into the 2nd businesses parking lot and began to scan for the address, I spotted it on a pillar and it was the target. We both stopped, jotted down the name and mounted up to get back to the bar. We were done. I feared the ride back east on St. Paul, given the minefield heading west. As we hit the area I was amazed and relieved to find the south side of the road in good condition, the north side must have been driven over repeatedly by the plows and they must have ignored the south side. Oh well, all the better. The other biker pulled into the westbound lane, I followed suit, and I wasn't sure what he was up to but went along. When he pulled into the free way off ramp I lost the urge to follow and yelled at him freeway. He kept going. I kept heading down St. Paul, hoping he wasn't going to get himself killed. The thought of me being the last person to see him alive was odd and I wondered what my story to anyone would be. At the same time the thought that he might have just been hit and killed was incredibly creepy. I pushed that out of my mind and began to visualize his successful freeway excursion. It didn't make any sense and I don't understand why he would have thought it was quicker. Did he easily not realize that he was trying to get on the freeway the wrong way? I glanced back a couple of times to see if I could spot him, but couldn't tell. I decided to keep heading to the bar, he would show up eventually.

I turned down 2nd street, heading the wrong way on a 1-way. The road was in shambles due to the freeway construction. I road along the east side of the street, hugging the construction barrels. Clybourn apparently deadened with 2nd due to said construction. There was a large Expedition sitting at said intersection, stalling for some reason, I took the initiative and crossed the intersection, receiving an angry honk from the SUV. My only thought was; are you joking or are you trying to tell me I'm heading the wrong way down the road? Either way I thought the driver was being a bit ridiculous. I cut down Michigan and once again wondered exactly where the alley to Breakaway was located, I'd find out in another week. I came to a red light at Water, stalled for a second then cut across when I saw a break in traffic. Spotting the bikes up ahead I could see everyone was pretty much back, 2 people where outside. I pulled up to my usual parking spot and began the un-layering ritual. As I locked up my bike I saw the other biker come back, a car didn't hit him. He shouted over to me that that wasn't a shortcut. I asked him if he heard me yell to him that it was the freeway. The bar was relatively full, mostly from the bikers. I wrote down my answers and handed the manifest to Meg. She looked at it, crossed my name off of the list and shook her head and gave the manifest back to me. I wondered how many questions I got wrong, but I wanted a beer more than anything and to just rest. I went over by some people I recognized, ordered a beer and talked about the race, that lead to talking about bikes and me showing off the picture of my mountain bike I am building. The final racer showed up just after the places were announced, no one got all the answers correct. I stuck around for a while, had some more beer and chatted with people about music, racing and bike polo. A friend of mine came to the bar and at 10 pm I took off. As I road up Water street, just north of Michigan, I saw a line of people about a half block long, all lined up waiting to get into some kind of Hip Hop club. I threw them the devil horns and stuck out my tongue in some sort of homage to Ozzy Osborne, I was greeted with laughs. Inside I was the one laughing, I was out here sweating and exercising, keeping myself warn, you were all standing around freezing your asses off to pay a five dollar cover and drink 8 dollar mixers while listening to the current blend of top 40 R&B hits…in my mind I had the better evening. Now it was off for home and planning and preparing for the following Saturday…the 7th annual Milwaukee Messenger Invitational. With it being the biggest Alley Cat of the year, hopefully the lower 40's and the first daytime race since August or September everyone was excited.

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