We darted around Campus Martius in downtown Detroit on a warm Wednesday evening amid traffic, streets and sidewalks dotted with pedestrians.
I leaned left into a long sweeping turn, pedaling furiously with a teammate on my tail, my shirt flapping in the wind.
Heading into Cadillac Square I misjudged a right turn and my pedal smashed into a sidewalk curb, sending the back wheel of my Peugeot single-speed skidding across the slick brick road.
My heart shot straight to my stomach. I heard my tire scream.
I'm a dead man, I thought.
Suddenly it was if the bike had a soul all its own. At the very precise moment I was to eat shit, the bicycle decided to correct itself. A miracle, I say. I was saved.
An adrenaline boost blasted my sinuses clean. I told myself to relax and that this race is for fun. That I didn't need to wake up in the hospital wearing a head-wrap with doctors picking rocks and asphalt and glass out of my burned flesh.
And then my teammate screeched from behind me, "Dannng, that was close!" I took a deep breath. I pedaled like I hadn't missed a beat.
It was nearly 15 minutes into Alley Cat Detroit Bicycle Race, and some of the contest's teams had become disorganized and scattered, scrambling to find the next stop as detailed in their instructions.
Other teams were well on their way to glory, haulin' ass in search of the "coveted" laminated awards cards that are affixed to the wheels of the first, second and third place teams.
Although people come to the Alley Cat Detroit Bicycle Race to win, many come for the competition and others to enjoy zipping through the streets of inner-city Detroit.
It's a scavenger hunt-style "team" race that zigs and zags you back and forth throughout the city while challenging your sense of direction. The course varies from race to race, as do the list of clues and random objects that need to be retrieved, be they a rotten piece of fruit or a paper airplane. Basically, the more objects you find, the more points you get, and whichever four-man team has the most points and fastest time to the finish (taken from the team's slowest rider) wins. The race covers about 15 miles.
Earlier, when I joined the rest of Team Blumpkin at the starting line near the monolith sculpture in Hart Plaza, the race was running late because of people like us. Our delay? We forgot to stop drinking beer at my house.
Some teams lazily stood with their bicycles. Others sneaked off for shots of whiskey, cigarettes or whatever. I kept busy observing the variety of people in the race and the originality of their bikes.
There were lightweight track bikes with no brakes and fixed gears (which means you can't stop pedaling until your bike stops). I saw 50-pound Schwinn cruisers with fenders. I saw BMX bikes and road machines that looked all Tour de France circa 1970s. There's even a tandem bike lined up (which, in retrospect, is brilliant one-and-a-half times the weight with twice the horsepower).
The race was set to start at 8 p.m., when traffic is lighter and it's still light out. At 8:30, we lined up to begin. My heart pounded. I looked around and nearly everyone had big grins on their faces.
The cement echoed sounds of clinking pedals and zips of chains spinning backwards on metal cogs. Our first clue in the race had us facing north over Jefferson.
And then it was quiet ...
"1 ... 2 ... 3 ... GO!"
A pack of almost 60 riders squeezed through a 5-foot wide barricade in Hart Plaza and shot into the vast concrete city and tall blue-and-orange sky in front of us.
The pace was set early and the competition fierce. One thing was clear this race was definitely not your grandma and grandpa's Sunday ride.
Not 40 feet from where the race had begun, I saw a group of riders stop at the intersection of Jefferson and Woodward while cars motored off the Lodge Freeway. I watched them hesitate then move through the first break in traffic.
It was widely known among us that for the next hour, we'd be flying through intersections and red lights, betting our safety that we could be faster than traffic.
By the time my rear tire hit the black pavement on Jefferson, it had also become clear that my wheels wouldn't grace any sidewalks.
Sidewalks are good for pedestrians, but there's just too much glass, too many bumps and driveways with cars seemingly waiting to mow you down. It's like a Detroit version of Nintendo's Paperboy.
Down & dirty
When the finish line nears, there's still a checkpoint where all teams must stop and receive four clues, each with a special instruction.
We were catching our breath as organizer Ron Shelton waded through the impatient teams explaining directions to somewhere near Lafayette Coney Island. The clue instructed teams to separate in order to retrieve, in fact, rotten fruit and paper airplanes. These absurd items, when collected, mean sacred "bonus points" for each team.
It was bad news for our team considering that two of our members couldn't navigate downtown Detroit, let alone its outskirts. We had to sacrifice some points, though we did get some.
The finish line was at the top of the spiral concrete walkway (dubbed "the Death Spiral") that leads up to the Joe Louis Arena covered skywalk. A finish line perhaps so heinous that Ben Chodoroff, one of the two organizers claimed, "It will rip the cog off your bike."
As my teammate Joe and I headed to the finish after finding our objects I realized that there were two death spirals, not one. I knew of the exact one specified for the race, but I was sure the other half of my team didn't; my fear was they'd tackle the bigger spiral that leads to the Cobo parking-roof.
As we trucked through downtown, riding one-handed for me was becoming easier as my calls to teammate Matt's phone went unanswered. Reaching my team pals felt like another puzzle necessary to complete the race.
Joe and I sped to the entrance of the spiral, winded and frustrated. Once we entered the tall concrete structure that housed the finish line, we stood on our pedals and pushed until we reached the finish line.
Our half of the team was done. And other riders had started to camp out while waiting for the rest of their broken teams.
More phone calls to my absent teammates. Still no luck.
I ran back down the spiral, completely oblivious that taking my bike would've been faster. My cycling shoes clicked and clacked while the hard plastic soles slipped on the cement with each frantic step. As I made it to the bottom, I ran through the door where riders were zooming by. I heard my teammates hootin' and hollerin' from above and realized my fear had come true. They were pushing up the wrong death spiral!
"It's the wrong one!" I bellowed. They must've heard because they turned around. I could still hear them hootin' and hollerin' a reminder that this race is all about the fun.
They picked up speed as they rolled down the wrong spiral. They shot back onto the street. I watched both of my teammates hammer their pedals as they entered the small opening to the correct death spiral.
I ran and clapped and yelled, "GO! GO! GO!"
The price paid for not collecting all of the bonus points and sprinting up to the wrong finish line dropped us out of the top three placed teams.
The Silent but Deadlies won the race for the second time in a row. One racer said he'd like to see friendly rivalries in the Alley Cat Races competing for some sort of farce token championships. "That would be just so much fun," he said.
The next Alley Cat Race begins at 8 p.m., Wednesday, July 11, in Hart Plaza. The race is free and open to all with a working bicycle. For more details go to myspace.com/alleycatdetroit.
Achille Bianchi is an editorial intern at Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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