'Do You Really Think You're That Fast?': The Underground World Of Dublin's Bike Courier Races
"This isn't a job, it's a f*ckin' lifestyle"
The bicycles go by in twos and threes – but there's no dance in Billy Brennan's barn tonight. Just a growing congregation of Dublin's underground bike racers.
The meeting point is the Wolfe Tone statue at the corner of St Stephen's Green, it's a rainy evening and the numbers are slowly growing as the couriers and bike enthusiasts arrive for the night's 'alleycat' race.
The anticipation is palpable as the competitors are unsure if they will get the go-ahead. Unfortunately for the eager cyclists, there will be no race tonight: it's been deemed too wet.
"Safety is always the first priority," says one of the few people who is willing to discuss Dublin's 'alleycat' scene. He wishes to be known as 42 Boycey for the purposes of this piece – and of course, the reticence of Dublin's alleycat fanatics is to be expected: the races are very much illegal.
While participants are reluctant to talk to the media about their activities, the evidence of these races is all over YouTube, with videos of alleycats posted in places like Buenos Aires, Copenhagen and New York just this year alone.
I’ve been to Paris to race, London twice, I’ve been to Los Angeles, Mexico City, Tijuana. We're a massive worldwide community.42 Boycey
42 Boycey says the alleycat races kicked off in Dublin back in 1997 and that the race effectively "simulates a working day."
Every competitor has a manifest in their front wheel with a list of checkpoints around the city. The racer can get to these checkpoints in any order they choose, and at each point they are met by someone who signs the manifest to confirm their arrival – the racer to get to the finishing point first with all the required signatures is the winner.
Like the original Toronto races – the series kicked off in 1989 to celebrate Halloween – Dublin's alleycats are often organised to mark special occasions, with the biggest annual event being the infamous Paddy's Day Massacre, a three day event which has been taking place for 18 years.
One of the first generation of Dublin's alleycat racers – who also wished to remain nameless – spoke to us about when the races first started here.
Back then we had a race once a month, no more than that, because this was supposed to be a way for messengers to relax. It was a social thing, you wanted to have fun with the other messengers in the community and be like, "Do you really think you're that fast, that good? Well, let's see then." It takes a certain type of person to make a career of being a messenger, we're a strange breed.
The reason these covert street races have been able to take place for so long is because the racers do their best to minimise any dangerous elements that would draw the attention of the Gardaí to the scene. Careless cyclists, according to 42 Boycey, are not tolerated in these races.
People don’t do stupid things, these are all experienced riders, they’re spending 50-plus hours a week on a bike. They’re not breaking red lights or pulling stupid manoeuvres, they’re not endangering themselves or anyone else, they know what they’re doing. The organisers wouldn’t let people who didn’t know what they’re doing enter a race because there would be that danger, that kind of unknown element.42 Boycey
The 24-year-old Boycey has been a bike messenger for six years and has been racing for four. Despite the dangers of racing through the streets of Dublin, where they must be ever-vigilant of Gardaí and ever-aware of their own safety, the racers are driven by a simple desire to win.
It’s all about competitiveness, the bragging rights for being number one – just the same as any sport. And we do see this as a sport. People want to claim that they’re the best courier in the city. People still compare job counts ‘Who did the most deliveries today?' or 'Who was top dog in the company?’42 Boycey
But for all its apparent dangers, 42 Boycey states that there has only ever been one reported death from alleycat races worldwide in over 25 years of existence – of course, this figure is impossible to verify due to the secretive nature of the races.
Public awareness of these races is so low, in fact, that while researching this article we asked several Irish cycling advocacies groups and even government departments for their opinion on the alleycats, but they were unable to provide us with any comment as they simply did not know enough about them.
As with so many underground activities, there's a growing movement amongst the current generation of alleycat enthusiasts to take the scene out of the shadows and into the light of legitimacy.
Bike messengers already have their own legitimate championships in the European Cycle Messenger Championships (ECMC) and the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC), closed-course events that have existed for more than 20 years. The ECMC was even held here in Ireland in 2005 and the CMWC was held here in 2007, attracting thousands of couriers from around the world to our shores.
While these annual events provide an outlet for couriers with the racing bug, alleycats persist because these official competitions are not quite frequent enough to satiate the adrenaline junkies need for speed. But Dublin's new-blood bike messengers have plans to bring legitimacy to the scene.
We’re focusing on doing larger events at the moment. We’re trying to organise more legitimate races with closed-courses, more Goldsprints, more skids, more checkpoint races, and just focusing on generating as much as possible for the fund.42 Boycey
The fund in question is the Dublin Messenger Fund, an initiative by and for bike messengers, its goal is to bring the courier community closer together to "get more things happening, have more races, a better spirit and more socialising".
The organisers behind the fund want to present a bid in Copenhagen next year to have the ECMC hosted here again in 2017. In order to organise these kinds of events the couriers need to raise upwards of €10,000, which is where the fund comes in.
"We’re trying to kick-start the community but in a more legitimate direction," says 42 Boycey.
This new direction includes fortnightly get-togethers where couriers and cycling enthusiasts move away from the alleycat races and towards performing free style tricks, skids, and group games like 'footdown,' where players can't put their foot on the ground while their competitors try to knock them off balance.
At these events merchandise is also being sold for the fund, such as stickers, T-shirts, and spoke cards, with cycling caps and jerseys hopefully becoming available in the coming months.
Those who attend also like to get involved with Dublin Bike Polo Association, where everyone is welcome to come and play every Saturday (and every Tuesday during the summer) in Eamon Ceannt Park.
The scene is largely comprised of bike couriers but not exclusively, some attend these events with no intention of racing but are simply attracted to a subculture that welcomes anyone who decides to be part of it. This is plain to see from the congregations which form at their events, where participants of all ages and nationalities can be found.
No matter where we are in the world, the messenger community looks out for one another. We call ourselves the Messenger Family, or the MessFam, because that's what this community is: just one big family.42 Boycey
This physically demanding job requires messengers to spend from 40 to 50 hours cycling, Monday to Friday, week after week, month after month; this invariably places an incredible strain on the cyclist's body over the course of their career. However, 42 Boycey has no plans to abandon his bike anytime soon:
I hope to keep doing it until my legs fall off, it's not just my sport, it’s my passion. For me this isn't a job, it's a fuckin' lifestyle.42 Boycey