Mikey Hodgson and Cecilia Lanyon are early.
“Well, technically we’re on time,” says Hodgson as he surveys the tree-lined square outside of the Lake Merritt BART station in downtown Oakland.
It’s empty. Hodgson and Lanyon are the first to arrive. They wheel their bikes over to a low brick wall and sit down. It’s 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon and the sun beats down mercilessly. Sweat pools beneath Hodgson’s grey beanie and Lanyon presses a can of Diet Coke against her cheek to cool down.
To pass the time, they talk. Hodgson tells her about how he brought his Doberman into a pizza joint last night, but admits that he can’t remember much else because he drank so much that he blacked out. They both confess to having painful hangovers, and say that neither of them got more than four hours of sleep.
“But I had coffee. Lots and lots of coffee,” says Lanyon whose eyes are still caked with last night’s shadow and mascara.
“Me too,” says her friend. “And a super taco from the Mexican market on the corner.”
You wouldn’t know it from looking at them, but Hodgson and Lanyon are about to compete in a 30-mile bike race. They’re not wearing helmets or cycling shoes or moisture-absorbing fabrics. But they do have bikes—which is all that is required.
“I’m ready to race,” Hodgson declares, stubbing out his second cigarette. “I’m ready to go. And I’m gonna win. I seriously think I can get first place this time.”
Eventually, other cyclists trickle in, and by 2 p.m. the once vacant square is filled with over 30 racers. Most people have brought track or fixed gear bikes, but there are also a handful of road and mountain bikes, as well as one cruiser bike. Helmets are in the minority. Lycra jerseys and cycling shoes have been replaced with more comfortable apparel, such as frayed jeans and Keds. The crowd is young and their excited voices rise in crescendo as they greet friends and discuss the as-yet undisclosed race route.
“Nobody knows what the route is yet because it’s an alley cat race,” explains Kate Coysh, one of the race’s organizers. Coysh and a number of other cyclists competing in the race are members of the bike club, Fix Without Dix (FWOD), an Oakland-based biking group for girls and transgendered people. For the past five years, FWOD has hosted Wednesday night social bike rides throughout Oakland. Today’s race, dubbed “The Tumbleweed Race,” is their first foray into hosting co-ed races, but it is certainly not their first time hosting an alley cat race.
“Alley cat races are the most fun,” says Coysh, “because the whole route is a secret up until a couple of minutes before the race starts.”
Alley cat races are more informal, less competitive and have fewer rules than most organized bicycle races. Instead of conventional race numbers, riders are given a laminated “spoke card” to wedge between the spokes of their back tire. The design on the spoke cards differs with each race and many cyclists keep their old spoke cards in their wheels as a sign of their physical prowess.
Five to ten minutes before the start of a race, cyclists are given a piece of paper, known in the biking community as a “manifest,” that lists the checkpoints they must visit in order to complete the race. Because there is no set route, cyclists can visit the checkpoints in whatever order they like.
“But you have to make sure you get your manifest signed or marked by the person waiting at the checkpoint,” warns cyclist Adam Schwartz, who has been competing in alley cat races since 2006. “Otherwise, they won’t know if you really biked there.”
Most alley cat races are free, although a small donation is generally expected from each participant. Proceeds from the Tumbleweed Race will go to the Broken Bone Fund, which was started by FWOD members in order to provide emergency financial assistance to bicycle messengers who have been injured on the job.
Once everyone has registered and all of the donations have been collected, the race is ready to start. “Okay, so here they are! Come get your manifests!” Coysh yells to the crowd, slapping a pile of small white papers onto the brick wall. Within seconds, a mob of eager, thrashing bodies has swarmed around Coysh, arms flailing to retrieve a copy.
After the cyclists pick up their manifests they are free to start racing. Maps are jammed into pockets, headphones are popped into ears, and with one cyclist, a dog is strapped into a backpack.
Despite the preponderance of smart phones in the group, most cyclists prefer to use old-fashioned paper maps to chart their route. “It’s easier and a lot more clear with a map,” says participant Tim Anderson, who has the image of a bicycle tattooed down the length of his left calf. “You can see which checkpoints are closest and farthest and go from there.”
“Remember you have two hours to complete the race!” Coysh yells to the swiftly departing crowd. “Two hours and then you’re disqualified!”
Despite the casual, do-it-yourself attitude of the race, the course is anything but easy. Drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, the cyclists weave their way through the city, hitting the various checkpoints as they go. The five checkpoints are scattered throughout the city and include diverse locales such as the Cypress Freeway Memorial Park, Mountain View Cemetery, and Spokeland Bike Co-Op. FWOD members wait at each checkpoint to initial the cyclists’ manifests or, in the case of the Willard Park checkpoint, to paint one of their fingernails with yellow polish.
Part of the fun of the race is traveling around the city and seeing sites and neighborhoods that you never before knew existed, says Carmen Aguilar-Wedge, the Willard Park checkpointee who came up with the yellow nail polish idea.
Like any race, prizes are a motivating factor for the competitors. Although placing first is still the most ideal, prizes are also given to those who place second, third, fourth, and so on.
“We were lucky to get a lot of sponsorships for the race, which means we have a lot of prizes,” says Coysh. Except for a one-pound bag of coffee and an espresso drip machine, all of the prizes are cycle-related and include such items as a cycle hat, hip bag, water bottles, $45 gift certificate to Mike’s Bikes, biking gloves, and a radio holster. Cyclists are free to choose their own prize, except for the person who comes in last place.
“That person gets a special prize,” says Coysh. “They get the DFL prize which stands for Dead Fucking Last.”
Unlike most competitions, placing last place in an alley cat race isn’t something to be embarrassed about. In fact, the belief is that it should be celebrated, or, at the very least, humorously mocked. One of the best DFL prizes that Coysh remembers from a race was a $50 gift certificate to Good Vibrations; other cyclists remember prizes such a big bowl of potato salad or a flask with a hole drilled in the bottom.
When asked what the DFL prize for the Tumbleweed Race is, Coysh smiles and leans in close. “A vegan chocolate chip cake,” she whispers. “Homemade, of course.”
By 4:15, almost all of the 35 registered cyclists have passed the finish line (which is Coysh’s front gate) and are relaxing in patio chairs in her backyard drinking beer and grilling Boca burgers. Dogs of all sizes weave through clumps of cacti vying for the exhausted cyclists’ attention as they compare road notes on the routes they took.
“So how’d you do?” asks one guy with long hair.
“Pretty good,” his friend responds.
“You know what you placed?”
“Nah,” says the friend, shrugging his shoulders.
Winning doesn’t appear to have been anyone’s main focus. Few cyclists know how they actually placed. Most were content to simply find Coysh’s house before the beer ran out. In fact, most of the cyclists don’t even know who won: Matt Sardine, who works as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco.
“I just got lucky. Really lucky,” says Sardine. “I hate races where people become too competitive and only care about winning. That’s not what it’s about it. It’s about putting it all together and routing your way through the city.”