I was recently speaking about the insanity of fixed gear biking, that is, bikes that don’t have brakes. I first discovered them many years ago one memorable Halloween night on the hot sticky-duck streets of Hong Kong. More recently I discovered my unpublished article about that experience, which was used as part of the script for the Hong Kong and Macau episode of Word Travels. Fans of biking, couriers and fixed gears will definitely enjoy. It also feels good to find a home for my long-lost and wayward words.
My bicycle accelerates into the crowd, zigzags through a small gap into the street, dodges oncoming traffic before turning sharply left into a side alley. A brick wall brushes my shoulder as I slice across two trams, ramp over a sidewalk, and pedal towards a major intersection. Sweat has drenched the shirt beneath my daypack, and in a city known to rush, people stare and wonder: why the big hurry? I have just a few minutes to get to the White Stag bar, do ten push-ups in front of someone called Big Glenn, have him sign my manifesto, and shoot off into the traffic to find the next checkpoint. I’m too busy playing chicken with traffic to ponder how many times I’ve almost tasted road burn. In a city famous for its pulse, fixed-gear Alley Cat bike challenges really gets Hong Kong racing.
A growing worldwide underground sub-culture, local Alley Cat races have their origin with bicycle messengers in North America. In order to test local couriers’ streetwise knowledge, their speed and ability to navigate obstacles, Alley Cat races were set up in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver. Legends were born as couriers, often seen racing around these urban centers in dangerous traffic, challenged each other for titles, prizes, but most often fun. Races consist of checkpoints to be reached, and in some cases unusual tasks to be performed on arrival. Upping the thrill factor, most couriers ride fixed-gear bikes that have no brakes, no gears, and require an expert level of control and ability. Fixed gears are popularly used in the courier messenger community because they’re easy to maintain, and for anyone with a job requiring them to run into buildings to deliver packages, the bikes are confusing and difficult for thieves. Hong Kong has seen the emergence of an urban cyclist community, attracted to the lifestyle and challenges of riding on fixed-gears. Amidst the choking car and foot traffic beneath the late-night neon lights of the Central district, I went along for the city’s first unofficial Alley Cat race. When it comes Alley Cat racing, it's important to note that nothing is official anyway.
Em, where's the brakes on these things?
“In Hong Kong, you have the taxis, the cars, the trams, the mini-buses, buses and pedestrians, it’s a little crazy but we’re doing it for the challenge,” says Brian Fu, one of the organizers. “The key is, you never stop, you run into a problem, you turn right, you keep moving,” says Jeff Welch, a native of Washington DC and courier veteran who designed the race route. “People have always looked at messengers in a special way, with a mixture of envy and lack of respect,” he tells me. “They’re attracted to the freedom and the lifestyle, but repulsed because of the sweat, danger, and dirt.” With road rage, traffic, and pollution, it’s a high-risk game, but the money can be good - top couriers can earn more than $70,000 a year delivering envelopes. “You’re on the bike nine hours a day, you’re almost killed nine times a day, but you get used to it, and you begin to need it,” says Jeff, who has a few dozen Alley Cat races under his belt. For some messengers, including some of Jeff’s friends, the job costs them their lives. Messengers trade war stories about accidents, reminisce about fallen comrades, hold parties, and even attract groupies.
About half a dozen riders meet at 10pm outside a coffee shop. The manifesto is handed out, including a checklist of destinations and tasks that must be reached in order before reaching the finish line. One of them requires racers to find two girls and tells them that they are “sooo... beautiful!” Another requires us to find a bald man named 9-Ball and rub his head. In each case, a third party must sign our manifesto to prove the task has been accomplished. We count down to the start, and the race is on, each contestant racing off into the crowds. I decide to shadow a more experienced veteran, since without him I’d be lost in the traffic and spaghetti streets within seconds. We pedal frantically, every second counts. A policeman shouts at me from the sidewalk, but I’ve already disappeared around a corner. Alley Cat racing is a do-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of activity. Biking in a light drizzle at night in Hong Kong traffic is not for the fainthearted, neither is racing on a bike that, perhaps I forgot to mention, doesn’t stop with squeeze on the handlebar. But with the wind in my hair, the exhilarating speed and the quasi-legal thrill , I can certainly understand the attraction – it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun, and hopefully surviving to trade stories at the finish line.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.