they came screeching out of the night, swarming like bats in the dark, some braking suddenly, others leaving their seats while still in motion, letting their bikes clatter violently against the stone steps. there was something altogether spontaneous about it all-a lone figure appearing down a shadowy side street, sprinting along the pavement; a pack hurtling down the sidewalk, leaving pedestrians ruffled and even terrified; a rider weaving between traffic up the avenue, avoiding a turning bus and slithering past a swerving taxi.
it was quick and it was scary: it was the life of a bike messenger. but last friday night, no one was delivering packages. the evening was reserved for an alleycat, a quasi-legal underground street race for bike messengers.
"to be a good alleycat racer, it's not about being fast," said eric daniels, a 25-year-old bike messenger while manning a checkpoint in front of the new york public library at fifth avenue and 41st street. "if you're not already fast, you wouldn't be a biker in new york city. it's about sense of direction and knowing where you're going, how to work through traffic. it's all about how well you know the city. if you know the city well, you don't even need the streets. you're practically jumping over buildings."
it's also about how aggressive, foolhardy or just plumb crazy you are. daniels has been a bike messenger in new york for two years but recently retired from alleycats after his 15th race ended with two broken ribs and a bruised spleen when a cab sideswiped him.
"it's about 15 too many," he said. "i'm too old. i'm broken down. i've heard that the average length of a messenger's career is six months, but i think even that's too long."
others were more sanguine. cali cal, one of the organizers of friday's race (most messengers go only by nicknames), said the emphasis was on fun rather than competition, though he admitted there were always some who took the event far more seriously than others. as a veteran of 50 alleycats and the winner of a dozen, he would know.
certainly, the first group to arrive at the new york public library on friday seemed intense. they showed up in a horde at around 7:15 p.m. about 12 figures on sleek, pared-down bikes stormed up the sidewalk of fifth avenue, looking for the checkpoint. daniels flagged them down, signed their paper manifests and told them the location of the next checkpoint, several blocks away. then they were off, leaving rubber tire marks and some startled onlookers in their wake.
"they're booking," daniels said. "you win this [race]-you're the man. it's all about clout. that's how it goes."
friday's race, named "midtown nightmare," started in tompkins square park and went up the east side. the route then zigzagged across midtown, headed south down the west side before hitting the village and crossing back over to tompkins. but one of the signature features of any alleycat is that there really isn't any defined course. racers are given a set of checkpoints (13 in this case) and have to navigate on their own, using their experience and instincts to decide upon the best route.
"midtown nightmare" was a fairly small event, the first alleycat in new york since november. the friday night rush hour setting did nothing to make it any easier, though the course was shorter than usual. thirty-one of the 35 entrants finished, with a messenger known only as the fox taking home the victory. an award also always goes to the last-place finisher, so the competition for that dubious honor can also be fierce. prizes are usually bike parts or accessories. and all alleycats raise money for charities. the beneficiary on friday was the new york bike messenger emergency fund, which helps injured messengers.
next up on the calendar is monster track, the biggest alleycat of the year. tentatively scheduled for the end of the month, it leads racers from manhattan into brooklyn and admits only six-gear bicycles with no hand brakes, a limitation that intensifies the skill requirement. other races include their own eccentric variations. sometimes racers have to carry packages to mimic real working conditions or perform tasks at each checkpoint.
as with most cycling activities in new york, there's often a question of legality, even in a city increasingly embracing alternative methods of transportation. alleycats are always self-organized and unsanctioned, and racers occasionally violate practically every traffic law in the book. but the police typically don't interfere, perhaps because the races are too small and short to attract major notice. and if trouble does come calling, daniels has an answer.
"we own the streets," he said proudly. "a good messenger would never get caught." thankfully, it hasn't been a problem yet, but that attitude typifies a sense of reckless bravado among these unique urban adventurers.
"it's not normal to do this: maneuver in traffic faster than anything in the city," daniels explained.