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Speed Freaks

A biker gang takes Manhattan.

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At 7:50 p.m. on April 1, a 26-year-old bike messenger called Hermes stands in front of the Village Idiot, a bar on 14th Street just off Ninth Avenue, and yells: "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . ." At "Zero!" the 21 assembled riders -- a ragtag brigade of messengers in baggy shorts and no helmets -- launch their bikes off the curb. Fanning out, the seventeen men and four women streak across four lanes of blacktop, their wiry frames silhouetted in the headlights of a sanitation truck. After a day spent hustling packages, the racers have each forked over five bucks to participate in an "alley cat" -- a foot-powered drag race that uses the city streets as its course and pure adrenaline as its fuel.

Publicized through word of mouth and hand-scrawled flyers, alley cats are friendly but fierce competitions that test knowledge of the city, fearlessness, and flat-out speed. In tonight's race, at each of six stops in SoHo and the West Village the messengers are handed a slip of paper with the next destination.

At Sixth Avenue and Spring Street, the honking of car horns heralds the arrival of a breathless rider who hops the curb before skidding to a stop. A messenger called Moonshine sits on a bench with a sheaf of papers. Before handing them out, he harasses each contestant -- "You're late, hurry up!" -- imitating the abuse messengers endure every day from doormen and dispatchers.

The race ends back at the Village Idiot. Those who collect the most papers receive small prizes, but the real payoff is the camaraderie of the finish line, where it's all high-fives and back-slapping hugs as the racers savor the rush of dodging bumpers and running red lights. "It's the adrenalina!" shouts Felipe, his Colombian accent still thick after eight years in New York. He cut his time by grabbing onto a BMW speeding up Greenwich Avenue.

The winner is a tall, freckle-faced redhead called Fixie-Girl. In a raucous awards ceremony, she receives a bicycle bell and a $40 gift certificate from a Brooklyn bike shop. Lambchop, a 30-year-old veteran who has worked in nine cities in eight years, says alley cats are not unique to New York (they're also popular in San Francisco, Chicago, and D.C.), but here the races provide more than a simple thrill. "The scene's been splintered by Giuliani's harassment at Washington Square, where messengers used to hang out," she says. "Alley cats are helping to bring about a lot more unity."


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