Go to any major city in the United States or Europe and you'll likely encounter bicycle messengers. Since the mid-1980s, cities around the world have relied on the contemporary incarnation of bike messengers to deliver packages efficiently. Their selling points include their ability to maneuver through traffic faster than the cars, and to navigate the backroads, alleys and shortcuts around the city, which allow them to deliver packages unencumbered by the hassles that accompany driving. Their hands-on delivery method has survived the arrival of the fax machine and the rise of electronic office communication.
Bike messengers are an urban phenomenon that have provided a gateway to hipsterdom for many a young person moving to the big city. The lifestyle that surrounds the job feeds off of its effects: the adrenaline rush of speeding through city traffic, the exhaustion of a physically demanding day and the knowledge that they are an essential part of the city's commerce while existing outside the realm of the well-dressed business professional. There is some satisfaction in being "different" than the status quo while working right alongside it; in existing outside of the mainstream while demanding to be a functional part of it. They are the rebels-with-a-job, and their ranks include tattooed hipsters, gutter punks trying to make a difference, hippies sticking to their environmental ideologies for another year, gearhead bikers whose machines are their lives, and believers in the cult of human power. These stereotypes and their offshoots form a loose-knit subculture based around their jobs, and their jobs are their way of life.
Messengers have developed a well-organized network, with a strong online presence and several international events intended to bring messengers together. There are significant messenger populations in Boston, New York, Chicago, Montreal, Berlin, London, Toronto and San Francisco. These cities are home to frequent races that test messengers' skills against each other, from the Stupor Bowl in Minneapolis to Beer Not Bombs in San Francisco. There are World Bike Messenger Championships, held in a different location every year. And there are smaller races put on in messenger communities as well. Known as "alleycat races," these events traditionally pit messengers against each other to ride through the city and visit various designated stops. These underground races are not sponsored by corporations or sanctioned by organizing bodies, but are put on by messengers for other riders.
Boise is set to enjoy its third alleycat race this year on October 29. The race, named "Hellracer" in the spirit of the season, begins at Lucky 13 in Hyde Park at 3 p.m. After that, it's hell on wheels and every rider for themselves.
Alleycat races are intended to simulate the everyday activities of bike messengers. Riders gather at a designated starting point. None of them know the route of the race beforehand because there is no set route. Instead, riders are given a manifest that lists all of the stops they must visit to collect verification from a designated point person. Often the stops will have specific tasks that riders must complete. Tasks can range from drinking a particular beverage to picking up an unwieldy package to pumping up a flat tire. There are no rules, and the rider is free to map their own course. The first rider to reach a finish point with a completed manifest is the winner.
Lacking a significant courier culture here in the city of trees hasn't stopped local business owners and bike messengers Patrick Sweeney and Chris Scuglia from organizing the Hellracer event. The co-owners of Northstar Cycle Courier held their first race in May.
"We thought we were bringing a taste of messenger culture here, but there was some already going," said the duo of their first Boise alleycat.
Their first race was populated with former messengers, bike mechanics, couples on cruiser bikes, speed demon kids, local racers and everyday bike riders out to try something different.
There was also a messenger race as part of Boise Bike Week.
"The Boise Bike Week race was a more intellectual course," says Nikos Sawyer, a self-described flunkie at George's Bike Shop on Front Street who ran a bike messenger company in Boise called True Flight. Sawyer came in second place at the alleycat race in May. That race was won by Jason Bauer, the shop manager at George's. Bauer, like Sawyer, has raced in all kinds of bike races. So how does an alleycat race differ from a sanctioned race?
"There's not too many ways to compare them, except that you're on a bike," says Bauer.
"Alleycat races are more madcap," adds Sawyer.
"We're hoping to attract people that appreciate bikes rather than being 'cyclists,'" explains Scuglia. "And it helps if you're a bike-riding drunk," adds Sweeney.
Hellracer promises to be a great way to get a taste of the fabled bike messenger lifestyle while still keeping your day job. Chances are, it will taste a lot like beer.
Hellracer Halloween Alleycat Race, Sat. Oct. 29, 3 p.m., begins at Lucky 13.