When the buzz in the local bike community started building around Babes in Bikeland VI, an annual all-female/trans alleycat race, my ears perked. I’d never raced anything before, but it sounded like fun. Still, racing an alleycat, which simulates bike messenger riding, seemed a bit intimidating – finding addresses, and racing much more experienced riders with traffic involved and all. Maybe, I thought, I’ll volunteer this year, and check it out before I dive in.
I looked at the website for the race, which states that, “Women can volunteer on race day only if they have a very good reason not to ride in the event. A good excuse is something like ‘I broke my leg and I’m stuck taking the bus everywhere’ or ‘I gave birth two weeks ago.’ ” Dang. Since I am not pregnant and have all bones intact, it seemed the best way to check it out was to ride.
Alleycats, it turns out, are not terribly different from the kind of errand running I do regularly. A typical Saturday might be: go to the store for food, head to this address for a potluck, stop at a bike shop for a part, ride to such-and-such bar to meet a friend, head home. And since I’m usually running late anyway, having time pressure didn’t change the way I ride that much.
What changed the way I rode this race was the staggering number of women racing through the city with me. This year 450 people registered for Babes in Bikeland. Most people, it seemed, do the race with a partner or group of friends. A friend and I mutually agreed to ride solo, due to a difference in our stoplight running comfort levels. Even though I was riding “alone,” I rarely had a block of bike lane to myself. At every turn, I was with at least a handful of women, sometimes a large group.
Especially at the beginning, when riders were most bunched up, we didn’t fit into the narrow bike lanes. Experienced riders took the lane on city streets, positioning themselves to protect the peloton rolling towards downtown Minneapolis.
When I am riding solo, I am watching for car doors opening and unsignaled turns. In a group of 20 riders, these worries fade somewhat – all one has to do is avoid potholes and other bikers, and ride fast. It is exhilarating to ride with a group and have the regular hierarchy of the streets turned upside down. Whenever I was dragging, the women around me also sparked my competitive spirit, encouraging me to pedal harder just by being there.
My sense of direction is not stellar, and there were several extra blocks ridden as I circled checkpoints (I know it’s here somewhere…). I was also slowed by a mid-ride bathroom break (perhaps downing sport drinks prior to a 25 mile urban race is not such a good idea). Nonetheless, I pedaled hard and was happy with my respectable finish.
I was glad to see friends waiting for me at the finish. One friend who I estimate is old enough to be my mother beat me to the after party by almost 10 minutes. I knew she was fast, but I didn’t realize how fast. Since I am nowhere near the top of the 20-something category now, I doubt I’ll be beating women decades younger when I’m her age, but it’s encouraging to see that it’s possible.
During a pre-race group ride the day before, a new friend had lamented that she couldn’t find women over 40 who wanted to do active things, or friends her age who could keep up with her on a bike. I saw lots of them ride hard and finish strong in this race, and I hope they exchanged phone numbers. I suggest that next year organizers consider recognizing the winner of an “old souls” category (the name one group of riders gave themselves).
Bikes, bags, and champagne were given away to the winners, but there wasn’t a sense that anyone lost. The atmosphere was encouraging and welcoming throughout. New friends were made and people met new riding partners as racers, volunteers, and supporters sipped beer at the after party and celebrated a successful race.
After I saw how beginner-friendly the race was, I felt a bit silly that I’d considered not riding. If you’ve never raced an alleycat before, Babes in Bikeland VII would be a great place to start.