Track, road and skill tests – 2016 Cycle Messenger World Championships

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Part 03: The Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) is a blend of events, each one more important to participate than win. Track events blend with alleycat races, then qualifications for the main event – and then the side bar hill climb, track stand and foot down. There is something for any style of messenger. And, if not, then it is just a  stack of fun.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Messenger fixie on the velodrome

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Messenger on his vintage fixie racing the velodrome at the Championships

The first real day of racing was at the velodrome. Hundreds of riders there and more arriving every hour as they rode in from the city, or appeared from flights, trains and buses. And the rain that brought the rain delay. And the first signs that this was going to be a far-from-normal event. A wet track has inherent dangers and, when the rain ended, people started sweeping the track with squeegees. A slow process, unless you are a cargo bike messenger. The you have an improvised Zamboni – that big sweeper they use on ice skating rinks to clean the ice surface. Set a rider on the front of a Bullitt bike with a squeegee snowplow and five turns of the track and you have a safe track to ride.

And a sign that the unorthodox might be the standard. Like the baby strapped to a rider’s back for the speed lap (don’t stress, speed was slow) so the entire family could enjoy the event. Or the clanging tandem, metal cup hanging from the seat, hurling themselves with ambition around the banks. The city velodrome is gentle enough that any bike can ride the banks. Road or track. And any vintage, gratefully.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Bikes resting before the events at the Paris velodrome

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Messenger on his vintage fixie racing the velodrome at the Championships

In case it is not clear, the event is a photographic dream. Add the spectators with tattoos, the riders testing the skills for the future.

On the one lap speed event, riders and a single turn from a standing start and had to exit the track immediately after crossing the line. There was a furrowed row at the top of the entry to the first bank as riders used the velodrome bank to decrease their speed before exiting the track with force before the next rider was sent along.

The reality is, the Cycle Messenger  World Championships are extremely well attended and the sheer logistics of getting all the eager riders to have their turn was a logistical challenge. Do the math. Each rider was about two minutes from start to finish. Thirty per hour. Just to clear 200 riders was going to take about six hours. It had a certain time forced structure. The track was a one day event.

There has to be some relief from administrators when it was clear many of the riders were missing the track day and were only competing for the road-style events.

Now add the catch race eliminations – eight of them – and then the finals.

No requirement to compete, although that is half the fun. There were enough events on the track to make the Messenger Championships a spectator event.

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Evade and merge on the Alleycats

When all the track was done, this was also the first alleycat race. This is what messengers are most famous, and possibly most infamous, for. They start in a gathering, a few dozen metres from their bikes. A manifest has been stuck in their wheels and, at the shout, they run to their bikes, check the manifest for the checkpoints and then head off in whatever direction they feel is best, given their manifest. It is fast. It had about 100 messengers racing from the start and it is unsanctioned.

Unsanctioned means there is no police escort, n0 closed roads, no designated routes. This is a wild ride event, dozens of messengers clustered in separate pelotons, racing to their destinations – and the rules of the road are a distant memory. The first riders will slip through the red light and cars will, just as a normal reaction, come to a stop. And then dozens of other riders race through in the wake, that space between shock and movement. Messengers swarm intersections, riding across the front or back bumpers. Any space is used. Riders are agile and able and will jump sidewalks to use any available gap for their advantage. Then they will bunny-hop their bikes back onto the road a slight distance further down the road.

It seems like chaos. It likely is, when seen from the outside. For the riders, there is a working madness attached to it all. Some real skill. This is a fragmented peloton. In a road race, the peloton has some rhyme and reason. They ride the same course, using the same basic line. A rider would enter a corner knowing the cyclist beside them are all using the same line.

Alleycat pelotons have none of that reassurance. Entering an intersection, the rider on your shoulder may suddenly veer away and take a different line to evade the car now present in front of them. Or choose a second corridor to use between the cars, caught in traffic, slicing between the two lanes.

They will reappear alongside you in the near distance, the obstruction evaded, the riders merged back into their changing peloton until the next break in their form. This will happen again and again over the night.

Checkpoints are madness. Messengers lunge to these points, their manifests in hand, urging the monitors to stamp their manifests so they can escape and head to the next. Checkpoints are where the small pelotons can be broken into as stream on solos and paired riders. Harder and harder for a group to form.

And then there are the individual stories. Like one of the lead riders breaking a cleat so his foot was stuck in the cleat. I mean jammed in there. So badly that, when they had to climb a flight of stairs, he had to do it with a bicycle attached to his foot. And he was still a contender.

So much so, I was at the finish, standing their innocently, minding my own business – maybe a little too close to the final manifest monitor – when the lead riders arrived. Free of his bicycle, finally, he hurled himself at the checkpoint, literally running into the barrier twice in an effort to throw his body over the rail and slam his manifest into the hand of the monitor. Now, that is how you win an alleycat.

©Barry Sandland/TIMB - Riders moving to their bikes at the first alleycat race

©Barry Sandland/TIMB – Footrace to the messenger bicycles before the first alleycay

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