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.”
But, where do we go first, I thought, and what if we go in the wrong order? What should be a fifty-mile race, if done right, very well could turn into a hundred miles or more. And, since everyone took off so quickly, there was no one left that we could follow. Still, knowing that we had three to four hours to finish, we zoomed off to what seemed like the logical first checkpoint — breaking every possible traffic rule along the way. I ignored the glares from irritated drivers and enjoyed the sun and slight breeze as we rode through downtown and into West Oakland. Jimmy claimed his heart rate was “145 and climbing,” and that he needed a cigarette.
We pulled up to the Port of Oakland‘s lookout tower, out on a spit of land, surrounded by colorful stacked shipping containers and an expansive view of the bay. Four pretty girls in summer dresses and covered in tattoos waved at us from the top railing while their boom box played “White Riot” by the Clash. We ran up the stairs and gave them our manifests to sign.
In order to get manifests signed, racers have to do or say whatever stunt the checkpoint guards want — these girls made us recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I dutifully repeated all I could remember but Jimmy refused — instead he said, “I pledge allegiance to American Spirits and the United States of Budweiser.” Our laughing quickly stopped when one girl pointed to the street and asked, “Is that a cop out there?”
Since alleycats are unsanctioned, if cops catch wind of them, they’ve been known to crack down on bikers breaking traffic laws. As we began to ride to the next checkpoint, we saw several police cars patrolling the streets. Closer to the checkpoint, standing on several corners, fellow racers were getting lectured by the police for unlawful riding.
Jimmy and I tried to stick to the side streets that cops would less likely cruise. Riding along, we hopped curbs, cut through parking lots and under highways. We rode through the industrial parts of West Oakland, Emeryville’s shopping mall, and in and out of different boat marinas. For a moment, trying to orchestrate a shortcut, we somehow ended up on Interstate 580’s off-ramp as cars going fifty miles per hour flicked pebbles at us.
We found the second and third checkpoints without a hitch and headed up the Bay Trail toward the fourth — somewhere in Richmond. We felt pretty secure about our route by this point and riding on the Bay Trail seemed to be saving us time since it hugs the bay’s shoreline, has no cars, and very few traffic lights. A crosswind drummed off the water and carried strong smells of fish and brine. As we got a steady pace going, we passed a pack of fixie kids. I looked over to say “hi” and saw that they were disdainfully looking at my gears and brakes. Then, they passed us back — straight-faced, without even a nod of the head or a “hello.” We back-and-forthed a couple more times. Then, full of energy drinks (and nicotine), pedaling as fast as his legs would go, Jimmy sped ahead of them yelling, “activate spinergy.”
The next time they caught up with us, instead of passing, this fixed-gear mafia held back — letting us figure out where to go. Knowing it was a race, and wanting to shake them, Jimmy and I decided to take a random street route through Albany to see if they’d follow. They did. Ducking into a Target parking lot and hiding behind a mini-van, we waited to see what they would do. The pack blindly followed us into the parking lot, serious as could be. Between the shoppers wielding their red carts and running their daily errands, the posse stopped and looked around for us. Then, they became noticeably confused and annoyed. We waited, giggling. “Is this mean?” I whispered to Jimmy. “It’s all in the game,” he said. They finally left and we passed them a few blocks later, studying a map — it was clear they wouldn’t follow us again.
But, shortly, we got lost, too. The gap between the third and fourth checkpoint was the longest distance, probably around fifteen miles. The manifest was no help. The address for the fourth checkpoint read “Miller/Knox Regional Shoreline/Ferry Point — Brickyard Cove Rd & Dornan Dr — via sea cliff — Pt Richmond!” I worried that we were riding in circles and we’d get too worn-out to finish the race. Jimmy was starting to get exasperated and just when I thought he might give up, we ran into a group of friendly lost riders who offered to work with us to find the way. Eventually, after taking a series of convoluted street routes through the outskirts of Richmond, we found the fourth checkpoint.
“You hangin’ in there?” the checkpoint guard asked me when I finally rolled up. By this point, I must have looked a little haggard and windblown. But actually, I felt all right. It was completely picturesque out on Point Richmond — people were flying kites, and there was the rare clear view of the entire Tamalpais mountain range. And, they had tons of water for us to refill our bottles.
To get our manifests stamped, we had to draw a little picture of our bikes. As we were getting artistic, a checkpoint guard nudged me and said, “You need to go now if you’re gonna make it.” The final checkpoint was supposedly closing soon.
Several people hopped on their bikes and we began the trek back to Berkeley together. We knew where the final checkpoint was — up the North Berkeley hills near Tilden. We rode in a pack to conserve energy for that final climb. As we were riding, I looked over at Jimmy and could see he had lost his zing. He wasn’t complaining about needing cigarettes, telling jokes, or spinergizing. In fact, all he could talk about was sandwiches, Snickers bars, and leg cramps. Then, he defeatedly told me he wasn’t going to make the final checkpoint, but would ride with me to the base of the hill and meet me at the finish.
We broke off from the pack and raced along the flats with the wind at our backs. As we rode into El Cerrito, I vaguely made out a familiar-looking posse ahead of us. Who? Yes, the fixed-gear mafia.
It was on.
As they waited to cross the heavily trafficked San Pablo Avenue, Jimmy and I pulled up next to them. We all exchanged menacing glances, then the light turned green and we were off. Jimmy and I dodged in and out of El Cerrito Plaza, through Albany and toward Berkeley.
Something had come over me — just when I thought my tired legs couldn’t pedal a block further, I was ready to charge up the hill. And, even though all of us were the stragglers of the day, the only thing I could think about was that I still had the chance to beat that crew once and for all.
As we reached the base of the Berkeley hills, I dropped Jimmy and started to pedal furiously. I silently thanked my bike for having gears. Soon, though, not even gears could help me. With sweat dripping into my eyes, mixing with my sunscreen and blinding me, I dragged my bike next to me as I crawled up the nearly vertical street. As I passed a couple working in their garden, they just looked at me pitifully and said, “We know. We’ve biked it.” Clearly, I’d picked a bad route. But still, the pack was behind me. I had to continue.
I made it to the checkpoint, a small park, at 4:28 p.m. and a checkpoint guard waved me over, “We’re closing at 4:30,” she said. She made me slide down a cement slide on a broken-down cardboard box then signed my manifest. From that high vantage point, I could see the entire panorama of the Bay Area, stitching together the narrower views I’d seen throughout the day, from the Port of Oakland to the Golden Gate Bridge to Mount Tam. As I caught my breath, I looked behind me and rounding the bend was the fixed-gear mafia coming my way. Their pack had slimmed down to just three, but they were still determined.
I bombed down Spruce Street, with a sudden burst of energy, toward the finish line at Willard Park in South Berkeley. As I breezed into the park, bikes were everywhere, Blake was barbecuing, and most racers were lying in the grass relaxing. There was a huge pile of prizes waiting to be parceled out, including bike frames, messenger bags, and boxes of energy gel. Next to it was a stack of manifests, torn, crinkled, and soggy. I lay mine on top and looked around to see who else had made it. I learned that what took me nearly four hours to ride, the winners did in a little over two. And that a lot of people, like Jimmy, were too tired to make the final checkpoint. I also found out that no one got ticketed by the cops — just warned.
On the outskirts of the crowd, I spotted Jimmy’s yellow hat. He was sitting in the sun, waiting for me. As I walked up, he held out a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos and a Bud tallboy as my trophy.