On Saturday, you may have been cut off by an octopus on a bicycle, her tentacles whipping behind her in the crisp fall air as she left you in the dust. There is no need to be alarmed. Olivia is just one of the 228 women who were careening through the Minneapolis city streets this Saturday for the fourth annual Babes in Bikeland alleycat race.
Alleycat racing began in the late 80s as competitions between street savvy bike messengers. Competitors are given a list of locations, and employ their knowledge of city streets to plot the quickest course. If you have a fiery desire to kick the other girl’s ass with your speed and sharp sense of direction, this race is for you. But even for the inexperienced urban cyclists, this event is a Saturday well spent. As coordinators Kayla and Chelsea explain, “Babes is meant to force women off of the sidelines and onto their bikes, and also to surprise yourself with how much faster or farther you can go than you thought.”
After one sweaty Saturday spent racing, I can say that it’s this type of organized chaos that makes Minneapolis a beautiful place to be.
But when I hopped on my newly-acquired, secondhand Free Spirit cruiser and pumped my way across town to join, I had never heard of an alleycat race. I was expecting just to ride my bike and see the city with a bunch of girls.
I rushed across town to arrive by the 5 p.m. published start time, only to find the starting point behind the Soap Factory sparsely populated by two registration tables and a small scattering of bikes strewn about the empty gravel lot. In exchange for $5, a volunteer sharpied a racer number on my hand and thrust a manifest at me (code for dimly photocopied map with seven locations to find on the back). With my bare-bones knowledge of the city, I felt a little lost before the race even began.
Over the course an hour I watched the slow accumulation of badass women fill the vacant lot. Flannel, piercings, and hair of all short cropped-cuts and colors abounded. I’ve never seen more artfully crafted mullets. Some came in full-on race gear, dressed to defeat, while others were decked in sequence and neon Lycra, and still others in hand crafted costumes. (Think fur vest with a bright pink vagina affixed to the back, or Olivia’s octopus ensemble.)
Clearly I was in with the right crowd.
With maps spread in the dirt, racers urgently traced out routes in highlighter. I jumped in with a group, and quickly began to plot a course to locations I’d never been on streets I hadn’t even heard of. Awesome.
By 6 p.m., the old tracks that run through the lot were buried under the bodies of bicycles, their metal frames glinting in the late afternoon sun. When the petite coordinators popped up on a stand to start the race off, the rules became pretty clear: “Get back to the Angry Catfish (the finish point) by 8:15. We don’t encourage you to break any laws….have fun!” And we were off.
The surge of two hundred women on wheels pouring out onto the same street is powerful. We propelled ourselves out into the city like a stamped of fixed-gear gazelles. I relished the luxury of taking up a full lane of traffic to accommodate the sheer volume of the herd.
The race went by in a blur. At each stop, we’d be greeted by a gaggle of mustached, mohawked male volunteers cheering us on and checking off our manifests. Then I’d hurriedly whip out the dingy map to navigate the side streets from Nordeast to downtown to Uptown, and leap back on again.
Crossing the Mississippi, I reached the crest of the bridge and was just able to catch the brilliant orange sunset to my left, as the dark low clouds enveloped the city skyline to my right. But there was little time to look—the frenetic energy of other cyclists whizzing by reminded me it was a race.
By the time we made it to the home stretch, the disparate groups of cyclists ended up clustered together to navigate the dark, empty streets. Finally, at 42nd Street and 28th Avenue, the light and noise of the Angry Catfish bike shop was a welcome conclusion to this bustling adventure. Being handed a beer and a bag filled with snacks you’d find in your lunchbox (when was the last time you had a fruit roll-up?) puts a nice cap on the event, as does mingling with the sweaty, glowing crowd during the jubilant awards ceremony.
For all its sense of chaotic disorganization, Babes in Bikeland is a well-oiled machine and a great display of community spirit. It’s an intense but totally do-able course, and the wide range of locations is still manageable in the two-hour time frame.
Because the event is billed as a scavenger hunt, I was disappointed that most of the checkpoints were literally just that. It’s a little anticlimactic to bike five miles without a challenge. That said, hats off to the volunteer group at Trash Bags, who devised a wicked four-flight climb up a back stairway that culminated in facing my fifth-grade nightmare. A volunteer at the top of the stairs withheld the stamp until I accurately named a state capitol. Thank God for Boise, Idaho.
As a recent transplant to the Twin Cities, this event helped me dig a little deeper into the fantastic local counterculture of alternative transportation, and was a great introduction to the WTF (Women/Trans/Femme) community. Considering that I just hopped on my cruiser this afternoon without a clue what I was getting into, I was surprised that I made one giant loop around the city in two hours! It was the best crash course in fearless navigation I could ask for, and I was pumped by the adrenaline of racing with some of the most awesome, self-sufficient women I’ve encountered.
Babes in Bikeland is a delicious dark-roast blend between focused, assertive competition and an open, populist celebration of female cyclists that made me say, “Hey, Minneapolis. You’re alright.”
And today, Minneapolis was a five-foot-six, tattooed woman in purple spandex leggings and a turquoise hoodie, who tossed her satchel over her shoulder as she leapt on her worn-but-cared-for fixed-gear and said, “Hey, you’re not so bad yourself. Let’s kick ass with two tires and have a beer.”