[messengers] A Tale of Two Bike Rides

Date: 2 Feb 2012 22:18:41 +0100
From: Joe Hendry <messvilleto@xxxxxxxxx>

A Tale of Two Bike Rides 
Riding to promote bike safety by day, riding to be badass by
 By Kevin Charles
Washington City Paper,  February 3, 2012
Three miles and 11 minutes into the Fixt of Fury 2 alleycat
bike race, I wobble through the first checkpoint, get a signature, and push
off. I’m trailing a pack of guys toward Hong Kong Carryout, on East Capitol
Street, where we have to find out the price of an egg roll. “I have no fucking
clue where we are,” says a courier named Patrick Sudduth, as we run smack into
the Brentwood rail yards. “I’m from Baltimore.”
Just after 10 p.m., a scrum of fifty-odd messengers and
wannabes—fortified by National Bohemian and shots of Jim Beam—had pushed off
outside Looking Glass Lounge, a bar on Georgia Avenue NW. The true masochists
among them were still smoking as they Velcroed their bike cleats. Steve
Spencer, a courier and tonight’s race director, handed out copies of the
manifest—a list of nine checkpoints to hit between here and the finish line,
from a bulletproof-glassed carryout near the D.C. Armory to the National
“Be safe, because”—what, exactly, is unintelligible—“is not
worth dying over,” Spencer announced. Then it was 4-3-2-1 and we were off, the
veteran couriers screaming down Georgia Avenue and the rest of us cranking like
hell, trying to keep up.
Alleycats were born in Toronto in the late 1980s, the
halcyon days of messenger culture. “They were literally sprints through the
alleys, which, in Toronto, go on for miles,” explains Shawn Blumenfeld, a
retired D.C. messenger. Courses are designed to wend through the city, with
each rider devising her own way to hit all the checkpoints. There’s no rule
against pulling out your iPhone, but the best messengers win on mental maps—and
But fewer and fewer riders fit that description. Blumenfeld
says that when he retired in 2004, “There were four hundred active bike
messengers in D.C. Now there’s a hundred.” E-filing has gutted the business.
“In the mid-nineties, there was competition for real money.” A crack messenger
might have made $1,000 a week. “Now, I gotta guess they’re pulling in $500,
tops.” As more couriers succumb to the scan-and-email future, alleycats keep
the diaspora alive.
The first checkpoint is on 12th Street NE, and almost
immediately, half the peloton peels off down a side street. You’d think it
would be easy enough to hang on to the back wheel of an experienced rider. But
then, you’d be wrong. The flashing red lights quickly divide again. Soon, I’m
sucking air alone.
As it happens, this isn’t my first group ride of the day.
Twelve hours earlier, I’d joined another group of pedal-pushers—this one decked
out in enough reflector strips and red blinkies to worry an epileptic—for the
Washington Area Bicycle Association’s Ride for Responsibility.
If alleycats are the last gasp of a badass, golden-age bike
culture, the WABA responsibility ride is a pretty good harbinger of what comes
next: rosy-cheeked adult commuters, their suit pants tucked into dark socks,
cruising along dedicated bike lanes toward federal office jobs. Three percent
of Washingtonians who commute to work do so by bike, the fifth highest rate in
the country. In this world, letting your freak flag fly means wearing that
ankle cuff with pride, brother.
The morning ride, designed to encourage bike commuters to
set a good example by obeying traffic lights and yielding to pedestrians, was
notably short on adrenaline—and velocity. “Stopping!” yells Greg Billing,
WABA’s outreach and advocacy coordinator, at a yellow light. The phalanx of
riders behind him waits patiently in the bike lane. “No reason to push it,” he
This peloton obeys each and every stop sign. “That means a
complete stop,” Billing reminds us. In Chinatown, we patiently weave around the
pedestrians and jay-walkers. It was here, in 2010, that a bicyclist—riding on
the sidewalk—struck an elderly couple, killing the man. “The guy rode off and
was never heard from again,” D.C. Bike Ambassador Daniel Hoagland tells me. A
homicidal cyclist is the kind of man-bites-dog story that editors love. “We
were anxious to get out in front of the ‘bicyclists kill people’ idea,”
Hoagland says—hence the Ride for Responsibility.
An hour later, after a group photo outside the White House,
we pedal up the 15th Street NW cycletrack toward Adams Morgan. Hoagland is
hauling a trailer with the sign, “Bike Lanes Aren’t Parking Spaces.” We lock up
in front of a café and un-muss our helmet hair. Verdict: success; friendly
honks; good, clean optics. “This ride might do more for making sure that bikes
are respected on the roadway than last night’s Critical Mass ride,” muses
Hoagland. Riders check their brakes, ding their bells, and soberly head home.
Bike messengers, unlike commuters, are still divided over
the utility of brakes; many of the riders in Fixt of Fury 2 make do without.
Instead, they weave and skid through intersections, dodging buses and howling
profanities, their tires smoking. Logan Stommel, a mechanic turned Marine, hops
the median on New York Avenue NE and nearly wipes his map across the hood of an
oncoming car. It’s relevant to point out that he’s wearing headphones—dubstep,
metal—instead of a helmet. What would his poor mother think? What would any of
our poor mothers think?
Hong Kong Carryout’s egg rolls cost $1.15, tax included. 
At the Titanic Memorial on the Southwest waterfront, the
marshals make us do the Leo/Kate pose over the Potomac River before signing our
manifests. Then it’s two miles straight up 7th Street, into the heart of
Chinatown, to copy down the hanzi on a Subway sandwich shop’s sign. We churn
across the National Mall, fighting an awful wind, the Capitol and monuments
looming huge and pale in the sky’s black blanket. “Push it!” yells Sudduth, as
we hurtle through a red light, kissing a taxi’s bumper.
We lose Stommel for a while, but he catches us in Dupont
Circle. “One of the guys we were riding with just took out a pedestrian and the
cops stopped him,” he says. Later, we find out that the rider fractured his
face and got carted off in an ambulance.
A straight shot down M Street NW, through Georgetown’s
Saturday night circus, to a checkpoint at the Key Bridge, followed by three
molar-rattling miles along the canal towpath. It’s now midnight.
Around Mile 21, we climb straight up from the river to the
National Cathedral. With just one gear, the effort is lung crushing; the
pre-race cigarettes aren’t doing anyone any favors. On the descent to the
finish line, in Mount Pleasant, Stommel jumps a curb to avoid a bus, blowing
his tire. “Shit, I’m down!” he yells. The group doesn’t even slow.
We sprint up Mount Pleasant Street like it’s the Champs-Élysées,
standing on our pedals, tongues lolling. Bikes are strewn about the finish line
in front of a group house. The winners have already tapped the keg.
Inside, I find Mike Pearce, an 11-year vet who took top
honors. Was it something about his gear ratio? His frame weight? “You don’t
have to be the fastest if you know the city better,” he says, smiling. Over in
Northeast, “if you take one wrong turn around there you’ll be like, ‘Whoa,
where the fuck am I?’ A few guys accidently rode to Anacostia tonight.”
Pearce will be back at work on Monday, riding like an
absolute banshee. Don’t expect to see him in a bike lane.

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