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Bike for Beer

Alley cat race takes to the streets in the name of cold beer

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The date is October 26, 2005. On this day, your favorite alternative newsweekly has just put out its latest issue. As you painstakingly pore over its content, pondering the material therein over a cup of hot joe in the blowing pre-Halloween autumn weather, you're engrossed in a Rec feature that divulges the secret world of two-wheel courier services and the subculture's extra-curricular festivities bike messengers like to call "alley cat races."

But that's a distant memory, long before you killed innumerable brain cells whacking your head on clumsy descents from the chair lift and long before late nights of Mardi Gras (and Cinco de Mayo and summer wedding) celebrations. Your synapses may not be firing well enough to remember the details of the alley cat. So allow me to recap the nature of this sporting event because in conjunction with the Coldest Beer of Boise issue, Boise Weekly and Northstar Cycle Courier are throwing an alley cat race.

But first, reach back into the circular file of your memory where all those old MTV's The Real World episodes reside, just waiting for current pop culture to repress them into oblivion. Filed under the San Francisco installment of The Real World, you'll remember AIDS activist Pedro and, if you were really hooked on the show, you may remember overachiever and doctor-in-training, Pam. But the star of the show—like him or not—was that cocky bike messenger Puck, who took daily beatings from car doors on the city streets in his quest to be all the courier he could be.

Grab on to the memory of Puck's battered and scabbed face (and legs and arms and torso) and drag it back to the here and now for this little analogy: The alley cat race is to a bike messenger what a pickup game is to Michael Jordan. It's the stress-free, friendly competition version of the activities a bike courier performs day-to-day to earn a living.

See, all the live long day (except federal holidays), Boise's Northstar Cycle Courier, Inc. bikes all over town on fixed-gear speed racers without brakes, running documents, files, disks, packages and the occasional explosive device (no wait, that last one was the Unabomber) here, there and everywhere while dodging inattentive motorists. That's right, no brakes.

If you've been Boise-bound for the duration of your life thus far, it's possible you're not familiar with the phenomenon of bike messengering. In larger cities, bike messengers are the silent heroes of the courier service, able to zip through traffic and cut through alleys in a blur. In Boise, Northstar Cycle Courier, Inc. is Chris Scuglia and Patrick Sweeney, who push pedals ferrying whatever goods fit in their messenger bags and providing notary services in the rain, sleet or snow.

Here's where the alley cat race comes in. When the daily grind grinds to a halt for the Northstar guys, as with almost the entire population of bike messengers worldwide, Scuglia and Sweeney like to throw together a little game of pickup, courier style.

"I think we had the first one last year on Cinco de Mayo," Sweeney says hesitantly. "This is our fourth [alley cat]."

The modern alley cat race can trace its roots to a distant ancestor in France called the Championnat des Triporteurs, established in 1922 for bike cargo transporters who raced with a load of 65 kilograms (143 pounds), a weight that was later increased to a whopping 80 kilograms (176 pounds). Though the Championnat des Triporteurs is no more, the prude mother of all alley cats is the Cycle Messenger World Championships, which beckon cycle couriers from all corners of the globe for a yearly test of speed and skill amidst days of courier culture revelry. Last year's world championships in New York City hosted hundreds of bike messengers, with at least as many returning for this year's festivities in Sydney. However, while the CMWC 'tween race time may be debaucherous fun indicative of courierdom, the race itself has a far more competitive edge than a typical alley cat.

A typical alley cat mimics the rapid, multi-stop, cross-city daily treks of messengers. Alley cats are open to anyone and everyone who arrives at the starting location with the appropriate entry fee. Racers get an envelope--the contents of which remain a complete mystery until the commencement of race festivities. All you know going into the race is that the envelope contains a series of stops, at which various tasks must be completed.

"An example of what is done," says Sweeney, "is answering a trivia question, locating something in an establishment or getting a phone number." But Sweeney also admits that a favorite task of course planners is to assign racers the task of sucking a beer (or two) through a straw. And when alcohol becomes a factor, oftentimes a racer's sense of urgency can get a little warped, causing groups of racers to congregate at stops to socialize and imbibe rather than racing on to their next destination.

For those not easily dissuaded from their task, socially accepted race rules do apply. That is, the first person to cross the finish line with all tasks completed takes the cash prize. Ready to sign on the dotted line? Bars & Stripes, a race through town highlighting a select few of the purveyors pouring the coldest beer in town, is Saturday, July 8, at 3 p.m. Ten bones gets you a copy of the route and a commemorative T-shirt. Pre-register at BW's offices at the corner of 6th and Broad streets, or show up on that same corner (which is also the race's starting point) early on race day.

Bars & Stripes, July 8, 3 p.m., $10. Start line at Boise Weekly, 523 Broad St. Visit www.northstarcourier.com or www.boiseweekly.com for more information.

Questions? Comments? E-mail sports@boiseweekly.com.