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Checking in on alleycats, Portland’s underground racing events

Posted by on April 3rd, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Riders await the start of the Friday the 13th Alleycat in northwest Portland back in January.
(Photo: Brenton Salo)

Portland is well-known for its support of all aspects of bicycling, including the underground races known as alleycats.  Originating in bike messenger culture, particularly on the East Coast, these races are fast, fun, and usually take place in urban areas. If you haven’t participated in one yet, consider this a primer with some suggested events to check out this coming spring and summer. If you don’t think alleycats are for you, remember that despite the fact they’re typically associated with stereotypical “fixie kid” scene, they are accessible to anyone and usually draw a mixed crowd.

Before I go on, the issue of following traffic laws should be addressed. Lawbreaking is not condoned in the races, but some people do run traffic lights, stop signs, and so on. It’s a personal decision. Personally, in races, I follow laws, but I know people who do and others who choose not to.

Here’s how alleycats work: Racers meet at a given location, sign up, and are given a list of checkpoints known as a manifest (the same name given to a bike messenger’s list of stops). Racers must reach each location (sometimes complete a task) get “signed off” and then race to the end point. Prizes usually consist of a portion of the entry fees and there is often a gag prize for last place as well.

In Portland, alleycats have proven popular. There are already several events on the calendar, with even more to come as the weather warms up.

Typically, races are organized by one or two people and made possible with the help of volunteers and sponsors. Joshua Diep-Anderson is one of those organizers who has multiple events under his belt, including several “Friday the 13th” street races. His next event, the Friday the 13th Out and Back Rally Cat, is slated for Friday, April 13th.

Josh has held his informal race every Friday the 13th since August of 2010. In the past, the events have been two-block, one-on-one single-elimination sprint races. However, during a recent chat, Josh told me his event next Friday will be “an unconventional alleycat”.

What’s so “unconventional” this time around? Unlike a typical race, racers will return to a central “hub” between each of four stops, creating a more lap-like feel. In true alleycat form, the race will be held in a small area, with each checkpoint within one-mile radius of each other.

The Friday the 13th Ralley Cat begins at 9:00 pm at the Burnside Plaza (east side of the bridge). Race entry is $4, and the winner gets 50 percent of the entry cash, and their choice of a Chris King headset or bottom bracket. Helmets and lights are encouraged but not required.

Another upcoming event:

Smarty Cat – Alleycat Race and Trivia, April date and location TBA with a $5 entry fee. In this event’s first installment, racers were required to reach and take a photo at 10-15 different landmarks or signs within a two-hour period of time, each one with a set theme. Following the actual race, everyone will be required to participate in trivia, with each question corresponding to a theme in the race’s checkpoints. Points from both parts of the event will be totaled, and the team with the most wins. Prizes will include a portion of the entry cash, and whatever else the host is able to find.

Manifests fly as racers begin an alleycat in Waterfront Park. In this race, competitors lined up with one shoe off and then had to put the other one, grab a flying manifest, and run to grab their bike before riding off.
(Photo: Kevin Talley)

If you’re still curious about alleycats… Just show up and see what they’re like for yourself. They give anyone the opportunity to experience a totally different aspect of our local bike scene whether or not you’re the competitive type. So come check one out and remember that even last place gets a prize!

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • sw resident April 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    “despite the fact they’re typically associated with stereotypical “fixie kid” scene…”
    I was always under the impression that they were associated with, and invented by, messengers ever since Johnny Englar held the first “alleycat scramble” in Toronto in ’89. There were after-work races since at least ’85, too.
    And yet, not a single mention of messengers in this whole article.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      No one said this was meant as a historical piece. 😉

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      • joel April 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm

        but you *did* tell us to “consider this a primer” – and any primer on alleycats that omits any mention of their roots in the bike messenger subculture is, well, inaccurate.

        and theres no such thing as an “unconventional” alleycat, as they dont have a fixed format. also, when did having checkpoints within 1 mile of the start become “true alleycat form”? 🙂 additionally, id be pissed if i raced and knew that only 50% of the entry fees were being given back out as prizes… 🙂

        hold on, those kids are on my lawn again…

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        • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) April 3, 2012 at 8:45 pm

          Thanks joel.

          Please keep in mind I did not write this article. Jennifer is a participant in, and closer to this scene than I am. That being said, writing about this type of thing always brings out the fact-checkers. I love it. Thanks for sharing your feedback.

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        • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm

          I believe he wanted to differentiate it from the typical check-point to check-point format which is pretty typical.

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    • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      They were invented by and associated with messengers – I am not denying that whatsoever. However, ask anyone in Portland who knows of alley cats, and for the most part, they’re going to mention something about “fixie-kids”, “hipsters”, etc.
      And, as Jonathan said, I did not intend for this to be a historical piece on alley-cats. Rather, this is a primer on the current alley-cats scene in Portland.

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      • sw resident April 3, 2012 at 10:10 pm

        But by not even mentioning the messenger roots of alleycats you have perpetuated a misconception that some may have that alleycats somehow began with hipsters or their fakenger ilk. These “alleycats” already cross the line into culture biting, don’t make it worse.
        All it would have taken was ONE sentence in your article and you would have been in the clear, something like “Messengers invented alleycats and now non-messengers have taken up the spirit of those creative races.” Credit where it is due. Such an omission is straight up disrespectful and makes me doubt you were ever a messenger or know any.
        Some would even say that if you are not a messenger or exenger you have no business participating in an alleycat or calling such an event an alleycat in the first place.

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        • Marsh April 3, 2012 at 10:54 pm

          That’s a little extreme dude. They’re just words 🙂

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          • Scott April 4, 2012 at 9:08 am

            Spoken like someone who has never been co-opted and bastardized.

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        • Caleb April 4, 2012 at 3:01 am

          Before this, I never knew alleycats were started by messengers, but reading her article, I didn’t assume their origin had anything to do with “hipsters or their fakenger ilk”. In fact, thoughts of their origin didn’t even occur to me. Her words don’t perpetuate any misconception as you say, but rather it’s the minds of the readers that might do that.

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          • joel April 4, 2012 at 7:14 am

            we messengers are still grumpy about “our” subculture being co-opted by other groups. itll take us time to get over it. of course, were also happy to sell out our own subculture, and were grumpy about that too, unless were the ones who did the selling and got paid. its rough out here on the streets, especially when youre riding around shaking your cane at kids on your lawn. 🙂

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            • matthew vilhauer April 4, 2012 at 10:32 am

              somebody pee in you cornflakes this morning? the couple messengers i know aren’t nearly as self righteous.

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              • Case April 4, 2012 at 10:57 am

                Nor as well traveled, nor as long lived, and likely haven’t given nearly as much to the messenger community as Joel, and that’s a fact.

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              • Carl April 4, 2012 at 11:10 am

                Bingo, Matt (and seriously, folks: get off Joel’s lawn).

                Also: a “race” on a public street is inherently illegal so, while it’s possible to race RELATIVELY legally, if you’re racing, it’s illegal.

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              • Scott April 4, 2012 at 11:46 am

                I bet when you google your “messenger” friends, the first 2 pages aren’t 100% about them. Joel gets to be as grumpy as he wants because he has been there and has done that. Learn respect before you talk to your elders…you young whipper snappers.

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              • jocko April 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm

                Respect these YEARS!!!

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              • joel April 4, 2012 at 6:14 pm

                1) apparently the internet has once again disguised my obvious attempts at being facetious and self-deprecating. adding the internet to the list of kids who should get off my lawn. also, i would be really amused if one of the not-quite-as-self-righteous messengers you knew happened to be me. its happened before. do i have to put smiley faces on everything anymore?

                2) case, carl, etc – AW SHUCKS

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              • matthew vilhauer April 4, 2012 at 9:26 pm

                this 45 y/o kid has no qualms about taking a # 2 on your lawn.

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        • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 4, 2012 at 8:25 am

          I want to note that I have added back a mention of messenger culture. I was under the impression that I had kept that line that was there originally. I was not intending to ignore its roots!

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          • Alex April 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

            Happy now? Sheesh….is this Oregonlive or something?

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            • oskarbaanks April 4, 2012 at 12:05 pm

              Ha ha ! sometime’s it seems worse!

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  • Geoff April 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    “Lawbreaking is… a personal decision.”

    I doubt a judge would agree.

    One of the great things about living in Portland is that there are hundreds of OBRA-sanctioned amateur bike races every year that are legal and have safe courses.

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    • Uncle Muscles April 3, 2012 at 7:59 pm

      You don’t think a judge would agree that lawbreaking is a personal decision? Did you read that after you wrote it or did you just hit post compulsively? I’m an OBRA racer and I have absolutely no problem with some kids getting together and “racing” fixies through the streets at night. This ain’t exactly the Fast and Furioso amigo. If there were a rash of deaths from illegal alleycats the Oregonian would have a ten-part series running on the front page in 9/11 font.

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      • Chris I April 4, 2012 at 6:35 am

        It is a personal decision, yes, but it can also be a crime to organize illegal activities.

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        • Case April 4, 2012 at 10:53 am

          Alleycats aren’t now, and have never been illegal.

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          • Alan 1.0 April 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm

            If that were true, wouldn’t it kill half the fun?

            (psst… ORS 811.125, 811.127)

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            • Case April 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm

              Exactly, alleycats were never about being the fastest bike rider, they’re about being the smartest router and knowing the city the best. Totally legal. 🙂 Also, in my day, if anyone participating in an alleycat were pulled over by the fuzz we certainly would use “but I’m racing in an alleycat” as an excuse for lack of judgement (read: breaking the law in front of a cop).

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              • Alan 1.0 April 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

                Yes, seems a better option to not talk about the fight club than to try and convince a judge that it’s not “(f) A race. …an attempt…to arrive at a given destination ahead of another vehicle…”

                (ITYM ‘would not use’)

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  • Spiffy April 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    sounds like a nice casual way to get into racing… I like the Smarty Cat one, sounds fun…

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  • eric April 3, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    FYI: alleycat races and obra races have very little in common besides they both happen on bikes and the first person to the finish is usually the winner.

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    • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 4, 2012 at 9:11 am

      Very true. I am a participant in both and enjoy them both for completely different reasons.

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  • Mumbledymumble April 4, 2012 at 1:04 am

    sw resident
    Some would even say that if you are not a messenger or exenger you have no business participating in an alleycat or calling such an event an alleycat in the first place.
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    Yes, and we call these people “killjoys.”

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    • Scott April 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      Naw dog. We had all the fun before your parents even met.

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      • Mumbledymumble April 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm

        Thankfully, fun is a renewable resource.

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  • Evan Manvel April 4, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Thanks for the interesting piece, Jennifer! And welcome to the opinionated diverse world of the bike community…

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  • oskarbaanks April 4, 2012 at 7:59 am

    Wow,20 some odd comments on alleycat, while a local guy gets accepted to the oldest classic on the planet, only drawing a third of the interest! First off, this “subculture” is east coast anyway. and is over 30 years old. Cant we all just get along? No lifestyle is owned by anyone. In two more years, you will be able to “messengerize” your wardrobe at Hot Topic.

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    • Mike April 4, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Actually, I do own stock in “fakenger” – a few hundred shares of Apple.

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    • Scott April 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

      We made fun of Jacob the first time he came to an alleycat and he was a good kid who took it in stride. I got $$ riding on him to whip Boonen’s a$$ on Sunday! Go Jacob!!

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  • are April 4, 2012 at 8:48 am

    i can’t believe you didn’t mention freaking hermes

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  • craig harlow April 4, 2012 at 9:54 am

    The “Easy Coast”. I like it. Poetic typos.

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  • Scott Larsen April 4, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Is the Dude Bro Alleycat on May 30th? April 30th? It seems odd that it would be 5 days before the article was published or 360 days before next year’s. Thanks.

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    • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm

      The race took after the article was written but prior to publication. It’s no longer listed – sorry for the mix up!

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  • Josh April 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    Just so everyone knows, I am donating the Chris King prize for the race on 4/13/2012. The company has no affiliation with the F13 events.

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  • Dabby April 5, 2012 at 11:54 am

    I may try me one of these “alleycats” one day……

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    • Case April 5, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      Oh boy, now the Mayor’s in on it. See you in Tarpytown.

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  • Joshua April 5, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Is there a website or more information on the Friday the 13th race? I’m definitely interested in going, but wanted to verify the location and check if there’s a need to pre-register. I searched “Burnside Plaza” and it keeps coming up with a strip mall past 60th… I’m hoping that’s not the same Burnside Plaza.

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    • Jennifer Haliewicz (Contributor) April 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm

      No pre-reg. It is a relatively informal race – just show up, sign up, pay entry fee. Burnside plaza is the fountain at Naito and Burnside on the waterfront. Hope to see you there!

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      • Joshua April 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

        I’ll definitely be there! I’ve been aching to do another alley cat race since leaving San Diego. I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure out Portland has all sorts of races as well.

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    • Josh April 5, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      Hey Joshua, here’s a facebook event page for the Rally Cat:

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      • Joshua April 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

        Thank you!

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