Alleycat racers

A British cyclist who goes by the online name gaz545 on YouTube has posted a version of one of Lucas Brunelle’s “alleycat race” videos, with voice-over commentary. Bravo gaz545!

Lucas Brunelle is, or was, a bicycle courier, but he distinguishes himself by shooting videos of the alleycat races — anything-goes races through cities, in urban traffic. The racers are mostly from the bicycle courier community. A Brunelle video is now making the rounds of 40 cities in a bicycle film festival.

Brunelle’s colleague Kevin Porter, who appears in some of his videos, served with me on the massbiek Board for a ocuple of years, something of an attempt to draw the courier community into mainstream advocacy.

Allow me to describe the fundamental difference between alleycat racing and responsible, sane cycling (or responsible, sane driving a car, for that matter — it’s the same idea).

The rules of the road establish who may go and who must yield right of way, so road users know what to expect of each other — but also, beyond that, in every situation where it is possible, both the road user who may go and the one who must yield are in full view of each other and able to avoid a collision if the other makes a mistake. Where sight lines are obstructed, traffic signs and signals direct road users to slow or stop, and allow them to take turns where flows of traffic cross.

Alleycat racers flout all this. They rely on their wits, and on guessing what other road users will do. They ride as if they were invisible. Much of the time, they are invisible, hidden behind sight obstructions where they can only guess what is around the corner. They ride opposite the direction of traffic, between lanes, where one driver’s slight change of direction will result in a head-on collision. They ride in extremely close quarters with vehicles which, if the driver doesn’t do as the alleycat has guessed, will sideswipe them, collide with them or run them over.

Alleycat racing is an extreme sport: a sport that involves a serious risk of severe injury or death — but more than that. Most so-called extreme sports, for example motorcycle jumping, involve only self-imposed risks. Participants in extreme fighting sports impose serious risks on their opponents, but by consent. Alleycat racers, on the other hand, impose serious risks on other people without obtaining consent and without warning. There’s an expression to describe this: breaking the social contract.

Brunelle’s videos are of high technical quality. Also, I’ll admit to some admiration for the skill of the alleycat racers. It is a level and type of skill normally required of a soldier in combat, a police officer confronted with an armed and violent offender, a cyclist or motorist facing an imminent threat of a collision. Skill is good. Any cyclist, any driver will face emergency situations occasionally. I’d think that perhaps the most skillful cyclist imaginable would be a reformed alleycat racer, if such a character exists.

Tamer motorists and cyclists can learn anticipation of hazards, braking, swerving — through training, and practice in the controlled environment of the skid pad or empty parking lot. My Bicycling Street Smarts turorial is one of a number of resources that teach these skills. But to put these skills intentionally to the test in the public streets is to court unnecessary risks, and to put other people at risk as well. The crash types and crash rate described in the Dennerlein-Meeker study of Boston bicycle couriers reveal the risks that couriers take — and the couriers aren’t even riding at nearly the extreme level seen in alleycat races.

Gaz545 doesn’t know of any injury that occurred during the London alleycat race, though I saw a number of very close calls in his video. However, in an alleycat race in Philadelphia which passed through the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, a participant came racing down off an overpass on a campus walkway — going from right to left here —

View Larger Map

(The break in the image of the overpass is due to the boundary between photos used in the satellite view)

The alleycat racer collided with a pedestrian — a student’s mother who was visiting the campus — knocked her down, injuring her seriously, and raced off. Other racers witnessed the incident. Police interrogated several but were unable to obtain identification of the hit-and-run racer from any of them.

Let’s describe the alleycat racers for what they are: outlaws who pump each other up to ever more extreme conduct in traffic, endangering others, not only themselves, and then when that danger results in injury to an innocent bystander, they adhere to a code of silence.

The pedestrian in the Philadelphia incident filed a lawsuit against the University for allowing the race to take place on its property, though the University had no idea that there would be a race. Suing the University was the only way that she could hope for any recourse.

It isn’t too far-fetched also to ask whether police might infiltrate the alleycat community to find out where a race is scheduled and perform an effective sweep-up. Alleycat racers are not “silly cyclists” (gaz545’s term, describing the cyclists in his other videos) making dumb mistakes in traffic because they don’t know any better. Alleycat racers act in wanton disregard for public safety. They do serious damage to the reputation of other cyclists as well, and I have very little sympathy for them.

(And here’s a link to Lucas Brunelle’s Web site, now that you have read what I have to say about it. There is no mention on it of the Philadelphia race, for whatever reason.)

5 responses to “Alleycat racers

  1. Pingback: Jesse James Chopper bicycle ride through the neighborhood!

  2. In the late 1800’s, yes that’s EIGHTEEN hundreds, scofflaw cyclists known as “Scorchers” would speed through city streets wreaking havoc on pedestrians and on what then passed for “traffic” back then – some cars along with horses, carriages, and the like. None other than Teddy Roosevelt, then NYC’s Police Commissioner, developed a Scorcher Squad, tasked with the assignment of stopping and arresting scorchers. This is discussed at some length in “Bicycling & The Law” [Mionske wrote this, and most of the book. I am a co-author]. You can also find some stuff here –>
    and here

    There is nothing funny or fun in what I see here. Its a bit like sticking your hand in and out of a punch press to see if you can avoid getting it smashed. Except, in these races, there are many hands – some belong to the racers, some to innocent pedestrians, some to innocent other cyclists, some to motorists, innocent or careless… It’s gonna happen – the hand smash – & the odds, in my math brain, are approaching 1:1 on that…

    While I’m sure they feel all hip, cool and nuvo-chic, it seems the Alleycat idiots are picking up on an old theme from the 19th century…


    Fascinating article includes this paragraph on early police efforts to control “scorchers.”

    “…An important impetus for these patrols beyond community patrolling was the control of “scorchers” as bicycle speeders were then called. In July 1896, after experimenting with 25 citizen wheelmen to patrol the streets and apprehend scorchers, the City of Denver began its two man team of “scorcher herders.” They arrested twenty scorchers during their first day. The Denver “wheelcops” refused to use the sling shot device then reportedly being used in Chicago to hurl small lead balls at bicycle wheels in order to break spokes and bring the bicycle to a sudden stop (Whiteside1991, pp. 13-14). Similarly, in Grand Forks Minnesota, a bicycle patrol was started in the summer of 1896 to control scorchers and sidewalk cyclists (Spreng 1995, p. 281). Naturally, it fell to the bicycle police to catch the early automobile speeders as well (Held for Speeding Autos, 1902). Indeed, two police managed to catch and pull over a car transporting then President Theodore Roosevelt at a speed of 25 miles per hour when the speed limit was 15 mph (Held Up President 1905). The large chain ring on Arnold Kurth’s bicycle from Stamford pictured above would likely have been used to catch scorchers…”

    • How gloriously ironic that Theodore Roosevelt figures both as the police ocmmissioner who went after the “scorchers” and the President riding in the speeding car!

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