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The great human race

Alley Cat bicycle racing is a mix of kitsch, fitness and fun

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In an epigram celebrated by cyclists, H.G. Wells said, "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." So it is that the author of The War of the Worlds would have been utterly tickled by the Alley Cat race in Raleigh May 3, with 80-plus cycling enthusiasts romping through downtown as part of a space-themed competition.

Alley Cat races began in the late 1980s with the aim to test bike messengers' skills and have since spread internationally, with regular installments in cities such as New York (known there as Monster Track), Chicago, Philly ... and Raleigh.

The Raleigh races, which attract participants from Asheville, Wilmington and places in between, can take on any number of identities—past races have seen Cinco de Mayo, Halloween and Independence Day themes. Alley Cat races vary in formality. New York's Monster Track is one of the more serious races, exclusive to fixed gear cyclists, while Raleigh's races occupy the more lighthearted end of the spectrum, with cyclists of all skill levels encouraged to participate.

Alley Cat races are unsanctioned affairs that anyone can organize: This time out, the job fell to N.C. State senior Miles Holst—who's participated in six Raleigh races in the last year—when he realized there wasn't a race scheduled soon. So, the kitschy, Jetsons-tinged "Space Race" was born.

In Raleigh, and elsewhere, costumes are appreciated. For the Space Race, Holst is decked out in Luke Skywalker garb, entirely in white (even his shoes are wrapped in white towels). He completes the outfit, if not the effect, with a ratty wig and a WWI French artillery case for a fanny pack.

Before the race begins, Holst stands on the bench surrounding N.C. State's Bell Tower to encourage safety awareness among the crowd—repeating the red blinking light mandate and stressing the importance of riding in packs, proper signaling and adherence to traffic rules. "[The police] will give you a ticket if you defy anything," Holst warns, with an edge of social commentary. Below him, his listeners—wearing tin helmets, space cowboys gear and scientist apparel—nod in agreement.

Click for larger image • Three-dimensionally enabled checkpoint monitors direct an Alley Cat rider to his next destination. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Holst explains that the race is broken up into a series of required checkpoints, but with no set path—so route lengths vary. Holst has designed missions for participants to accomplish as they travel from checkpoint to checkpoint. For example, cyclists must transport lab modules (empty triangular UPS packages picked up at the top of a parking deck) and dock them at the international space station (the silver egg sculpture in the NCSU design school's courtyard).

Participants also have to, in Holst's words, "recover lost Saturn capsules that have crash-landed in the wilderness" of Pullen Park. The capsules contain astronauts' beverage of choice, Tang, which cyclists then use as a chaser at the next checkpoint after a mandatory shot of whiskey or vodka, depending on whether they registered as an American astronaut or a Russian cosmonaut. Root beer and strawberry soda are also available.

This penchant for space-themed details permeates the event—even those manning the checkpoints wear elaborate costumes. On the sidewalk of Raleigh's South Boylan Avenue bridge, two checkpoint monitors spray "space mist" (water) on tired cyclists. Donning 3-D glasses, their bodies are wrapped in duct tubing, with intricate wire art around their necks—one of these art objects looks like a shortened hoop skirt; the other resembles the Tasmanian Devil's erratic path on a vertical, circular plane. As cyclists hit the checkpoint, the two monitor-aliens initial the competitors' "flight plans," a list of all the checkpoints. After the flight plan check, the cyclists are gone. Some have capes that fly behind them as they race to the next checkpoint.

Click for larger image • Alley Cat racers pick up their "flight plans." - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Once the cyclists have completed their flight plans, they congregate at "mission control"—the parking lot behind the Wilmont at Hillsborough and Shepherd. After determining the winners of the Space Race, Holst presents them with five handmade trophies, which included signed photographs of NASA astronauts, laminated and presented on little plaques.

In addition to the trophies for the race winners, there's the "Time Trial Super Star" trophy and the "DFL" trophy—an Alley Cat tradition that stands for "Dead Fucking Last." (This latter award is highly contested this year as two contending teams creep toward the finish line while the award ceremony is in progress).

Winners also divvy up the profits from the race—participants throw down $5 to cover materials costs, and any remaining cash goes to the winners.

After the race, there's a party, but this time they skip the usual round of bike games like Foot Down, Skid Gear and Track Stands.

Holst loves these events because they "bind the cycling community" and allow cyclists to meet other cyclists they routinely see on the street.

So the next time you're driving in downtown Raleigh and you see a caped man protecting a balloon over his handlebars as he furiously pedals toward the N.C. State campus, be uplifted, as Wells would have been—and know there are likely 10 cyclists like him around the corner.

At press time, the next Alley Cat race had not been scheduled, but organizers are certain a summer race is imminent. If you would like to receive updates on future Alley Cat events (as well as other area bicycling activities), send an e-mail to bicycle.squadron@gmail.com.

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