Riding an alleycat race, Brussels style

NOTE: There have been eight updates to this post since the original. Adding something every day. 

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike messenger doing hands-fee stunt before the alleycat race starts

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fixed gear and hands-free stunts. Warming up for the alleycat race.

“Sorry. I could not hold it.” (He thought I missed the shot!)

I went to my first Alleycat race for bike messengers yesterday. Brussels style. A mass of riders, mostly fixed gear, dressed in the de rigour outfits of baggy shorts over bike tights, some using the space and pre-race time to  practice a few more tricks, show off their skills. Helmets are common, but clearly optional. And there is the constant presence of the short U-lock along with essential keys on climbing clips that protrude from belts and pockets.


©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Alleycat racers at the AMrius Renard overpass and a new street art location

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Fixed gear and hands-free stunts. Warming up for the alleycat race.

The starting point for the alleycat race was the underpass on Marius Renard. What should have been an industrial venue of bare concrete and looming pillars is actually a new street art locale. Brussels artists have been commissioned to transform the support pillars with a deluge of graffiti art. There is this nice connection between alleycat racing and street art. And that we should be there as a number off the artists were there finishing their works was an added treat to the race. I am going to post a collection on my personal Instagram account @barrysandland, if you want to see more.



©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Functional art on wheels

“Do you want two hotdogs in your bun?”

If you are going to make an event like an alleycat race, then have a BBQ. But how do you make a BBQ a bicycle event? By creating a BBQ-Bike, of course.  I have seen this before, at some of the Day Without Cars parades and the MAD Bike exhibit. A three-wheeler with a BBQ behind the seat. I had always thought it was a joke, an artistic but of fun. It never crossed my mind int would be a functional device. But here it was, sausages and burgers being prepared for the small masses.

The trust system and basic generosity applies. Toss what you can into the hat and get yourself a burger or sausage. There are drinks as well. And then, instead of getting what you expect, they were offering double-sausages for the same bun. This is a fun event, not a profit drive.



Barry Sandland/TIMB – No pressure to start

Pre-race is the loud and smiling camaraderie, riders from the range of messenger companies all gathered in the sun. There is little pressure to start. I was late in heading out and thought I might have missed it. Fat chance.

Bike messengers might pride themselves on the speed of their rides, but they share a common trait with the rest of mankind. They will not turn up to an event on time.

Add the sleet that caught me on the ride out. I sheltered in a bus shelters in the worst of it, watching the painful white pellets pound on the rooftop. It was not like I thought the event would be cancelled. I mean, that would be ludicrous, given the “ride-in-all-weather’ mantra of the bicycle courier.


©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Alleycat riders with their bikes

As the race edged towards the start, bikes were littering the space, casually discarded on the bike path, standing in totem pole arrangements, or resting against the highway pilots.

The riders were distant, searching for the sunshine that had been so absent just minutes before. There is a cross-section of bikes. Some are dedicated fixed gear designs, the latest models.

Others are rough and ready vintage bikes, converted and repurposed into messenger steeds.


“Thank you everybody for coming. We start in ten minutes. You leave your bikes here, start behind the white truck and run to the other side of the road. Be careful. See you later.”

alleycat_start.jpgInstructions are thin. But then, these are regulars and know the design. They have a standing start and run to their pick-up point for the manifest, the list of check-points for the ride. Alleycat racing for messengers is not a circuit. The organisers arrange a series of checkpoints throughout the city. How you get to the checkpoint is why you are a messenger. Think about the city, the traffic, and then design your own course in your head. There is no obligation to do the checkpoints in the order provided, so the entire route has to be considered before heading out to the first one., Otherwise a rider might find that, in racing kilometres to the first location, he missed one that was only few hundred meters away. There is no assurance the riders will be together at any point on the ride. Or there may be small pelotons as groups gather for shared parts of the course.

running_start.jpgSTART WITH A SEPARATION

At the start, the riders are separated from their bikes. They then run to a second point to get their rider manifest. This is the list of locations, the check-in points, where they have to register in order to complete the ride.

There is no requirement the list be visited in any specific order. Instead, being messengers, they are to design their own route, whist they feel will get the job done fastest.

And you see them gathered together, trying to find the route in their heads before heading out.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bike messengers considering their manifests in an alleycat race.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Riders considering their check-in destinations for an alleycat race.


Manifests in hand, the first task is to sort the check-in points mentally. Where they are, their best order and the routes to take. Basically everything has to be sorted in advance. A simple mistake could leave a rider missing a closer destination in the rush to get started.

There is a lot of help here, as well. Friends, co-workers standing together, sorting the routes, devising there best strategy. They may ride toghether, they might ride off into different directions, believing their schedule will work better.



©Barry Sandland/TIMB – A bit of speed and even more technique.

There are basic realities to trying to survive alleycat racing and it is not physical condition. That is a given. The bike. Messengers run tougher tire and wheel combinations. None of the super fragile, skinny thin racing wheels. They have a bent towards cyclocross arrangements,ends, and for good reason. Within 200 metres, we had run across a mud trail, jumped a curb, rode across the grass field.

They are not as fast as road racers, but delude yourself into thinking raw speed will be your saviour here. I rested 30-odd metres off the tail of a small group, wanting to see how they rode the hills and the designs. Over the next intersection, I got caught in traffic and slipped back another patch to 50 m. I could still see them. They were in my sights when they took a sharp right. I was there in a moment, but they were gone. They had disappeared. Somewhere, somehow, they had veered right, left and poof, they were gone.


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