Charlotte Blythe and her bike, My Baby
To tangle with this alley cat, you better ride fast
By Judith Stiles
Eighteen-year-old Charlotte Blythe sips her tea and apologetically admits, I feel so bad because I left my baby out in the rain one night. With a sigh, she describes in detail how she rebuilt every single part of her track bike that she lovingly calls My Baby. And although she concedes it is not an infant, just a bike, it is the set of wheels that has brought her triumph as the youngest female Alley Cat bike racer in New York City, winning prizes in races such as the Lady Libertine Race and the Rumble Through the Bronx.
During the day, My Baby and Blythe team up to make speedy deliveries, working in the bike messenger industry, which peaked in the 1980s before the advent of fax machines and the Internet. With same-day service, bike messengers are still thriving, promising to rush documents and packages through snarled traffic and alleyways faster than any other courier service. After hours and on weekends, Blythe is part of an international network of bike messengers who compete in Alley Cat-style racing, in which participants have no clues in advance about the race route or final destination.
The Alley Cat racers start at a common point and receive a manifest that is a treasure hunt-like map of the designated route for the race. Bikers can choose their own path to 10 to 14 checkpoints where they collect verifications, or notes, to prove that they stopped there. Sometimes they are asked to perform a task at the checkpoint, such as pick up a package, pump a flat tire or drink something, before they hop back on their bikes to test their ability to navigate through city traffic at top speed. According to Blythe, My Baby and most track bikes have no brakes, which she does not find unusual or dangerous.
I prefer no brakes because I feel more connected to the bike, she nonchalantly explains. As a messenger, I have developed a sixth sense to see everything around me in anticipation of dodging an obstacle or having to stop, adds Blythe as her eyes dart around instinctively, surveying the surrounding street. For an emergency stop there is always the option to deftly jackknife one of the wheels, which Blythe almost never needs to do. She has been Alley Cat racing for more than two years without an accident, and last June she won New York Citys Lady Libertine race, coming in first place for women and a stunning third place overall.
With a smile she describes her first Alley Cat race a few years ago when she was awarded the D.F.L. prize, which stands for coming in Dead F Last. For this honor, she was given a rubber cupid horn for My Baby to wear.
Some of the first urban bike messenger races emerged in Toronto in 1987 where the name Alley Cat was coined to describe this style of street racing. By the mid-1990s races began popping up in Europe and all over the world, including the Stupor Bowl in Minneapolis, the Tour de Nez in Reno and the World Bike Messengers Championship, held in different locations every year. There are no corporate sponsors and the races are organized by local bike messengers. In New York City, the most recent events were Halloweekend and the Seventh Annual Cranksgiving Charity Race, the latter which began at the Jacob Javits Center, with a stop at 96th St. and Third Ave., followed by several stops all the way down to Battery Park, and then ending back at the Javits Center. Potatoes, canned soup, stuffing and cranberry sauce were donated to St. Marys Food Pantry at 440 Grand St. on behalf of the racers.
The slush and snow of winter are around the corner for bike messengers, although inclement weather never bothers Blythe and My Baby. When I go to these big office buildings, sometimes I am dripping wet and people in the elevators feel sorry for me, she says, laughing because she is very happy not to be sitting and working in a stuffy office like them all day. Think of it, I get to ride my bike all day and get paid for it! she adds.
This winter, Blythe plans to take a break from the rough-riding streets of New York City, when she will take her hard-earned money and travel with a friend to Guatemala. She wistfully reports that she will leave My Baby behind, perhaps in the good hands of her grandfather, Art DLugoff, who owned the legendary Village Gate nightclub on Bleecker St. She knows there is a chance in Guatemala she will find some hunk-of-junk bike that needs some rebuilding, no match for My Baby, of course, but a contraption to take her around on new adventures. Hopefully, this time she will add a good set of brakes, that is, unless she decides to rustle up the First Annual Guatemalan Alley Cat Race.
For more information about Alley Cat races, contact the New York Bike Messengers Association at www.NYBMA.com.