Today I raced and placed in an annual alleycat race called the Frigid Bitch, an all-womyn urban bike race in Pittsburgh. This was the 5th annual race, organized by epic local cyclist Anna-Lena Kempen, but it was my first time competing. This year, the race pledged to donate a portion of the money to the Women’s Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, but they then upped the ante and pledged to donate ALL of the money collected if the race drew 100 riders. It did! And in the meantime, two generous people decided to match the total, so this race even raised a ton of a money for a great cause. The ride was incredibly empowering — it was amazing to see so many ladies pushing themselves up steep hills and having a blast doing so. The cycling community in general has a very heavy male dominance, among messengers, mechanics, and riders, but there are still TONS of womyn hitting the pavement everyday, and the Frigid Bitch is a great way to celebrate those badass bitches.
Alleycat races are a tradition that comes out of messenger cycling communities, largely focused on fixed and single-speed bikes, the preferred style of riding for those folks. They are a creative style of race that is some version of a scavenger hunt, meaning rather than having a set route that everyone is racing on toward a finish line, there are various checkpoints on the map that you have to reach in a given amount of time. Designing your route or your team’s route is the key feature of an alleycat, playing off of the skills of bike messengers whose brains have very detailed maps of city streets because of their work. Speed is, of course, a major factor, but strategy and execution are equally important. Additionally, these races challenge the street warrior skills messengers and urban cyclists have to learn fighting for space on the road. All through the race, you’re dealing with angry drivers, stop lights, gaping-huge potholes, and in Pittsburgh: enormous hills, so alleycats here specifically challenge your body’s adaptation to our local geography.
I have been participating in alleycat races since I got my first bike in college back in 2008, a green single-speed mixte Motobecane. I got introduced to cycling through some pretty hipster friends, and they convinced me that single-speed was the way to go. Gainesville, FL wasn’t entirely flat, but it was easy enough to get around most of UF’s campus and the city on a single-speed bike. I used that Motobecane for my first race, the Alleygator, which was about 30 miles and WAY above my skill level, but me and my teammate pushed ourselves anyway! The only reason we didn’t win the award of DFL (dead fucking last) was because one person got completely lost and turned around. Ha!
That alleycat was the beginning of my cycling era. For years I had admired the freaky fast Jimmy John’s bike messengers who zipped around campus on their flashy bikes. A year after I started biking, I joined their team and started my career as a bike messenger. By that time, all the cool kids I knew rode fixed gear, and I had decided to join them. I started to fall in love with the way you become connected to your bike riding a fixie. For messengers, it provides an extra amount of control over your speed that is helpful when navigating heavily trafficked pedestrian areas, sidewalks, and alleyways because you have braking capabilities with your legs in addition to handbrakes. You can have so much control over your speed with your legs alone that some extremely skilled fixed gear rides have no handbrakes at all! I definitely saw the practical potential of fixed gear riding for my job, and I just loved the culture of fixed gear bikes and the way they ride.
The alleycats I raced in college were reflective of the cycling community there, very heavily centered on fixed gear bikes but also including geared riders. The top two awards were always First Overall and First Fixed, recognizing the extra difficulty associated with taking on a race with only one gear. There was also often an additional First Female award given out, and then tons and tons more prizes — the most fun part of alleycats! There was also sometimes a hilarious prize for the person who had won the title of DFL.
In Pittsburgh, alleycats are equally reflective of the cycling community here, which is much more geared bike focus because hello! It’s Pittsburgh! Still the style of race is translated completely and is always incredibly challenging because of the topography of the city, no matter what kind of bike you ride. There are a million different ways to design an alleycat race and Anna-Lena always crushes the maps and the fun. I have ridden in several of her races at this point. Sometimes you don’t know the checkpoints ahead of time and have to solve riddles for locations. Sometimes you can only go to certain checkpoints after you have gone to others. Sometimes there are activities to complete at the stops. Add in themes and there are a million ways to build a fun alleycat.
This time we got the manifest (the name for the map/instructions in an alleycat) up to an hour before the race, which was a hand-drawn not-to-scale map of Pittsburgh with 7 checkpoints:
- The Button
- The Wheel Mill
- Troy Hill Steps
- Pocusset St Bike Way
- Stanton Ave Fire Station
- Polish Hill Water Tower
- West End Pedestrian Bridge
The instructions said to hit as many checkpoints as possible in two hours and then get back to Spirit. At each stop, you would have the volunteers record your spokecard number and carry on. The distance to hit all of these points is 25-30 miles, which is very tough to do in under two hours! Several badass ladies made it happen today! Most people missed at least 1 checkpoint, those who did largely choosing to skip out on the furthest stop (West End) or the tallest hill (Water Tower). My teammate Bernadette and I decided to go for distance and saved the Water Tower for last in case we didn’t make it that far in time. We made it to our 6th checkpoint with just 5 minutes to spare before time was up. I bike multiple times a week and have biked all over the city of Pittsburgh and still there were multiple stops that I had never been to before. It required careful planning ahead of time! And deciphering what some of the stops even were.
The route I designed for the course ended up being 20.8 miles, and we climbed over 1,000 feet! Even leaving out the steepest hill in the ride! Bernadette and I have been riding together for a while with the intention of competing in an alleycat together. We have been getting out on the warm days that pop up this winter for 15-20 mile rides here and there. Bernadette is fast and has amazing stamina. As a messenger at heart, I am the navigatrix and leader of the pack, but Bernadette plays an equally important role by following closely and trusting my risky but calculated choices on the road. She also pushes me to climb hills I never thought I could master!
Today we had the chance to test out our dream, and it was an absolute blast! We were both so happy with the route and our combined execution. The checkpoints were so challenging but so much fun. The organizers and volunteers really did an excellent job creating a fun and smooth ride! Bernadette and I both placed in the top 20 and I was First Fixed, a goal of mine since the alleycats back in Gainesville! As I was racing against the clock toward our last checkpoint, I was channeling all of my awesome cyclist mentors from back in the day who taught me how to be a skilled and confident cyclist on the road. 10 years later, I’m still improving as a cyclist everyday I hop on my workhorse and hit the roads! I look forward to so many more fun cycling events in Pittsburgh. Despite our city’s complicated layout and relatively sad amenities for bikers, we have a strong and dedicated cycling community here in Pittsburgh and I’m proud to be a part of it!