Allez, cat.

April 28, 2013


spoke card designed by Pablo Laune

“Have you seen these videos on YouTube of alley cat?” my friend asked me. “We should be doing that in Aberdeen.” He was somewhat taken aback to learn that we were. Sort of. The recent event here was the sixth of its kind, according to my slightly unreliable count. Some things have become traditions, some things have been left out; it depends on who’s organising the race. So what is it? Well, it’s a race format invented by bicycle couriers. The encounter between this and Aberdeen, where professional bike messengers are thin on the ground, is an interesting one. See, the above-mentioned video streaming site will offer you your heart’s content of speeded-up helmet-cam footage of idiots riding against multiple lanes of traffic, skidding to avoid going under buses and bunny-hopping onto the pavement to overdubbed black metal music, but Aberdeen isn’t New York or London and it’s just done a bit differently here. To begin with, we don’t start the race until nine o’clock at night so the thickest of the traffic has given up and gone home to bed, leaving the streets largely free as our playground. Secondly, it’s a small city and getting between two points quickly has more to do with your navigational abilities than covering ground quickly.

The concept was introduced by someone who used to be bike courier in Cologne and Berlin and some aspects of his style have remained. The events are always contested by teams of two, whereas it seems to be an individual competition in most places. As per standard rules, though, you get given a “manifest”, the word couriers use for their list of parcel drops. In the race, it directs you to various points around the city, usually accompanied by grid references so you can find them on the map (if the grid references are accurate, that is.) You are responsible for picking your route and for getting various pieces of information and sometimes things from each checkpoint. You get the most variation of individual styles here. We’ve been instructed to carry foliage or unwieldy cardboard boxes around, given unfathomable crossword-style clues, and directed to obscure places you’d struggle to find if you didn’t know they were there.

One thing that I’ve been sad to see fall by the wayside was the practice of substituting playing cards for race numbers. Since it’s technically illegal to have a bike race without notifying the authorities, actual race numbers might be a bit embarrassing to any participant stopped and questioned by the powers that be. But a playing card jammed in the spokes shouldn’t arouse suspicion. This, I’m told, is the origin of the now-ubiquitous “spoke cards”, though most of the hipsters who use them probably don’t know it.

Anyway, the actual race. Well, it was all rather straightforward. The points on the manifest were in logical order, nothing was too hard to find (for this Aberdonian of eight years’ residence), and what made it even better was that the weather, having varied between the tolerable and the foul all day, was kind to us. This helped me a lot. I’m not afraid to admit that I’m scared of cycling really fast in the wet, or the snow, or on ice, or when I don’t know where there might be ice. I particularly dislike anything that interferes with visibility, and this city, which counts hail, heavy mist and horizontal rain among its specialities, frequently supplies that. So I was all the happier to get a dry night. I had even prepared my bike specially, swapping my regular front wheel for one with more vertical stiffness (radial spokes) and a grippier tyre, and I was pleased with the improvement in cornering. Unfortunately, due to a stupid oversight I failed to inflate it properly, leading to an unfortunate disagreement with a kerb by the train station while trying to find out the time of the next train to Euston,  and some time messing around with tyre levers, pumps and inner tubes. We didn’t really lose any time with this, happily – the advantage of being a pair is one of you can go and collect information from a far-off checkpoint while the other waits at a different one close by where the flat happened.

Partner selection is crucial in these two-up events. I arranged to ride with someone who I’ve spent plenty of time cycling with (referred to as E in the previous post). We know each other’s riding styles well and can anticipate what the other is going to do, understand each other when we shout directions and know how fast to go, where. There’s no point wasting energy sprinting for that green traffic light if you’re going to have to stop two hundred yards further down the road, and no point taking blind corners too quickly. Between checkpoints, we kept our momentum up, took good lines through the corners, made sure junctions were clear and got away with running the red lights we had to run and the one-ways we had to run down. As with any kind of cycling, though, I think it’s all about the rhythm. Sure, it’s not the same as long-distance ride across country: more staccato, sudden bursts of low-gear, high-cadence acceleration followed by cruising, followed by sprinting again, followed by stopping and fumbling around with maps, pens, and manifests. Then the mental exercise part, which you need to keep a clear head for (another reason not to ride too hard.) The simplest of questions become confusingly ambiguous when you’ve been chasing around the city for an hour.

It is all fun, though. One place which has become a fixture on these rides is the Blue Lamp bar on Gallowgate, and the atmosphere in there after the end of the race can be quite special. Those who’ve forgotten to bring bike locks tend to bring their machines inside, cycling intensifies the intoxicating effect of beer, post-ride pizza can be seen being consumed, and at a table in the corner is usually a strung-out race organiser trying to make sense of the unintelligible scrawl of answers on a crumpled manifest. The whole thing is a bit less glamorous than it might look on YouTube, and all the better for that.


One Response to “Allez, cat.”

  1. […] bit like in alleycat racing (as described here:, information controls ask you a simple question about a place you ride through. It has to be said […]

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