Team Pleasant comrades Sam and myself (Joe), along with Gainesville hotboi TA, journeyed to Jacksonville on Saturday to race an alleycat.
The race was called the Suffercat, presented by Heavy Pedal. It was sure to be appropriately named, as the claimed distance was 50 miles. Oh, and only fixed gear bikes were allowed.
I have been riding fixed gears for years — in fact, riding fixed with a mob of friends on the Hawthorne rail-trail is what got me into riding more than just my commute. However, this was my first ever race on a fixie.
After rigorous calculations, I decided that the best gear ratio to use for the race was the one already installed on my bike. 44/14, which if I remember correctly, comes out to around 79 gear inches. This puts my comfortable cruising zone between 19 and 23mph, and still (barely) capable of spinning past 30 for a sprint.
Sam had high aspirations for dialing in his gearing just right, but some late night hay bailing and tricycle riding the night before got in the way. We started to attempt to break his chain with a multi-tool in the parking lot moments before the race, but being very well-versed in last-minute disasters before a race, I advised that he keep it the way it was. He was concerned that his gear was a bit too easy (can’t remember exactly what it was… 52/18??), but our decision ended up working out great for him.
Near the conclusion of our long drive to Jaxonville, we were nearly creamed by a Honda downtown. If it weren’t for Sam’s fantastic evasive maneuvering, we wouldn’t have raced at all. The incident set a tone of optimism that lasted the rest of the day.
One thing I know about alleycats, or any sort of racing for that matter, is that it rarely goes as planned. Regardless, we engineers of the void must formulate our idealist scenario to work from in order to begin the race with a false sense of confidence. Sam pointed out a few of the fast locals, and we decided to follow one in particular that he picked to win. I think his name is Cody. The plan was to stick with Cody, help out however we could, then try to make a move in the last 1/4 of the race if we had a good enough grasp of the area.
This plan was awesome. Perfect, even. It was totally destroyed in the first 50 feet of the race. After running to my bike and hopping on, I had lost sight of Cody. I stuck myself to a group of 6 other riders, and I didn’t see Sam anywhere. I thought that he had gone with Cody. I was bummed that Sam and I were separated, but there was one fast local and a few strong looking riders in my group, so I felt good.
My group fell into a fairly organized rotation cruising between 21 and 23mph through the streets. We were headed to our first checkpoint (we got to select the order), which was the furthest away from home base. The race was an out-and-back format, where you must return to home base after you hit each checkpoint.
I pulled through a couple of times, but mostly sat in to see if anyone would try any moves. We made it to the zoo, where I realized my first error. It took me forever to fumble my spoke card out of my Camelback to have the checkpoint person sign, which cost me precious seconds while my group pulled away. By the time I made it back on the bike, they had a gap of about 10 seconds. Not the end of the world, just have to ride hard for a few moments to catch back on.
As I began my chase, I heard someone calling my name from behind. I look back and see Sam! Apparently he saw me go with the group in the beginning and chased us all the way to the zoo. He was another 15 or so seconds behind me and I was gaining on my group, but I wanted to work together more than anything, so I sat up and slowed to 17 or 18mph to let him catch me. Once he was on my wheel, the chase was on.
The group had about a 30 second gap on us and I was very hopeful, excitedly exclaiming to Sam that we had a chance at winning if we could catch them. I was burning along at 25mph watching them slowly get closer and closer, but bad luck with red lights elongated the chase to uncomfortable levels. It started to rain hard, making the scenario all the more bleak. As we reached downtown with the gap to the group down to about 10 seconds, I was starting to crack and Sam took a stout pull. This gave me just enough rest to get back on the front and seal the deal. It was supremely difficult, but we made it back to our group.
We wound through residential roads on the way to the next checkpoint at a park, reminding us of the importance of being with people familiar to the area. Sam took a 2mph dive off of his bike at this checkpoint, with no harm to himself or his bike besides a slightly crooked stem. I also became hyper aware of the grating on the draw bridges, as I almost ate it when I moved slightly to one side and lost traction of both tires. We marched on with our group unscathed and still at a pretty brisk pace.
After hitting a few checkpoints together, we all eased into a more moderate pace and got to chatting. I forgot everyone’s names, but everyone was very nice and the sense of camaraderie was high. There was the local fast guy on a Bianchi, maybe named Andrew? He was a solid rider and called out good directions for us. There were a few guys from Miami, all pretty strong and nice to ride with. One had the same frameset as me (pink/grey Cinelli Vig).
We were headed back in from our second to last checkpoint when I decided to get a little frisky. The pace was lulling and there was a bit of sandbagging going on, which set off red flags in my head, indicating that someone was bound to try to make a move. To amend the situation, I pulled through on the front and yanked the pace up to 25 or 26mph and held it as long as I could without totally cooking myself. This served the dual purpose of burning any sense of freshness from everyone’s legs, and letting them know that Sam and I were ready to respond to any attacks. Sam was second wheel, and hopped on the front for a second soul-crushingly Pleasant pull after I was done. Then a series of extremely sketchy traffic maneuvers brought the pace down to “clear vision” levels.
A moderate pace continued until the last checkpoint. By this time we had shed a few riders and picked one up. The pace had slowed to about 18mph. I hopped on the front to up the pace to 21mph or so. I noticed a gap was forming between me and Sam with the rest of our small group, which had me worried. I slowed a bit, slowed a bit, but it seemed like they were slowing quicker than I was. I kept checking over my shoulder, then poof, they were gone. We raced back to the road they turned down, and no sign of them. Sam quickly pulled up Google, and shouted directions to me while I rode at 23mph to our checkpoint. Somehow we got there at the same time as the rest of the group did. When we were leaving, Sam immediately took a different direction than the rest of the group. I was confused, but after some convincing, I went with him. It turns out he had home base saved on his Gamin, which was navigating us to the finish. So again, I pulled at 23 or 24mph while Sam shouted directions from behind. It was just him and I, and without much of a hitch, we made it to the finish line. We pulled in 3rd and 4th, landing us two coveted spots — one on the podium, and first out of town. Without discussion, Sam insisted that I was third and he first out of town. I reckon he felt like I did more work, but I can honestly say that neither of us would have been likely to be top 5 had it not been for our collective efforts.
Sam and I were enjoying a beer at the bar recounting our urban adventures when TA rolls in, demanding three shots of tequila. We asked if he was finished, he said not yet, we asked how many checkpoints he had left, he said none. He was going for the lantern rouge, the coveted DFL position — the last one to roll through the finish within the time limit. He had the whole day planned down to the second to where he could enjoy some drinks at the bar along the way (He started a tab at home base mid-race.), and finish off with a few shots and lumber his bike across the finish line with not a moment to spare. We were proud of him.
Congrats to race winner Kyle Long and second place Gavin Triplett… two very fast locals who rode the whole race together (I think). Super nice guys, too!
Everyone rolled out with a box of goodies, all of our skin, and some weird stories to tell. Thanks to Heavy Pedal for presenting this event, and to all of the sponsors for administering the swag and supporting cycling culture.