The Monster Track Race,
Editor's note: Velodrome racers aren't the only ones who race on fixes. Messengers do too. Among the messenger-sponsored race events, there's one that's *just* for fixes: the Monster Track race. Brian Petit came up from Houston to compete in the event. So sit back, you won't relax, and listen to Brian tell it. He tells it well.
Manhattanís veins donít stop flowing on the weekends. The blood might thin out somewhat in downtown and some of the residential areas, but taxis and tourists continue to choke Times Square almost to the point of cardiac arrest, just as they do Monday through Friday. Elsewhere in the city auto and foot traffic continue to fill the tight spaces between buildings.
Cyclists are out there too, be they working professionals knocking the dust off three-zero road bikes, food delivery guys coaster braking their way through Greenwich Village, or packs of messengers engaged in scientific study to determine who can ride the fastest through the city.
On a gray Saturday afternoon in March I anticipated learning the answer to such a question as I cruised south on 5th Avenue in the direction of the East Village.
The group I encountered in Tompkins Square Park, estimated at over one hundred, was drawn together by a common interest in the fixed gear bicycle. The more specific purpose was to determine who amongst those gathered was the bravest, fastest, most agile and knowledgeable operator of such a bike. This was to be done with the traditional messenger yardstick of a point-to-point race through the city and its traffic, in this case hitting five far-flung stops and then returning to the park.
The event, titled Monster Track, also served as an informal industry convention of messengers from the East Coast and beyond. The crowd of faces-some familiar, most unknown-milled around a section of park and loosely centered itself on the registration bench, waiting for the fourth annual edition of the race to start. Among the cities represented were Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., Montreal, Hartford, Baltimore and Houston. This yearís event was the fourth and largest of the annual races.
An overwhelming number of bikes were scattered about the place, some resting against chunky piles of dirty snow, others lain on the ground among bags and locks. Some had been shined to an angelic glow for the occasion while others retained their crusty winter coat; all were completely unique. Shawn, from Long Island, crouched over his clean ride, putting the finishing touches on the rich yellow KHS. Seeking maximum stealth for the race, he taped a rate sheet onto the frame and completed the bikeís taxicab camouflaging. Corey, from D.C., rode an experienced Eddy Merckx frame, the sides of the top tube buffed to bare steel from skidding in rain pants.
And steel was definitely the tubing of choice here while toe clips and straps served most foot attachment needs. The occasional upstart wore clipless pedals and rode an aluminum frame. Fenders were seen here and there and some of the bikes of the New Yorkers featured the additional accessory of an innertube-covered length of bike chain fixing the saddle to a chainstay. Handlebars came in every shape from simple track drops to flashlight-sized flat bars to laid-back beach cruiser bars.
The gathering didnít go unnoticed by the civilians and officials of the city. Folks from the neighborhood stared as they walked by and some stopped to ask what was going on. Eventually a blue NYPD cruiser slowly made its way through the park toward us. From inside emerged a gregarious, smirking, and inquisitive emissary of the government. He was met with ambivalence and so explained that a gathering of that number of people required a permit and wondered how many of our bikes had been registered with the government. The fact that most were not equipped with brakes escaped his notice. After a bit of generally respectful back-and-forth the officer was handed a manifest showing the stops for the race. He left shortly thereafter.
Not caring to wait and see if reinforcements were on the way, the organizers quickly finished registration and began announcing the rules of the race. No brakes allowed, hit the stops in any order, receive a sticker at each stop to be placed on the manifest, return to the park. The first person to place his or her completed manifest in El Diabloís hands wins.
We laid our bikes along the iron fence, crossed the path and hopped another fence. We stood there in a vaguely parabolic line in the middle of the muddy lawn and waited while the checkpoint volunteers confirmed their locations.
The crowd became more subdued as the start approached. A number of passers-by and their dogs stopped to observe. One of the organizers began counting backwards from ten but by nine the racers began rushing the fence. Slipping and sliding on snow and mud we vaulted the top rail and ran to our bikes. It was a happily chaotic moment.
The location of the five checkpoints made a loop through Manhattan, stretching from the southern tip of the island up to 108th Street and across to both rivers. From the start the racers faced the basic choice of going first north up to 108th Street and 5th Avenue and then coming back down, or going first south to the stop at Lewis Street under the Williamsburg Bridge and completing the loop from there. I went north and so after leaving the park found myself among perhaps 20 other racers sprinting for 100 blocks along 1st Avenue, outpacing the taxis and barely slowing for red lights.
After the long-ass sprint I arrived at the first stop on the edge of Central Park. We had to hop the chest-high stone wall, climb up a jungle gym, slide back down and do 20 push-ups. Then we got a sticker on our manifest (and t-shirts and beverages) and continued on.
With sore arms I climbed 5th Avenue, passing big money real estate and famous museums as I skirted the east edge of the park. I joined two other bikers to cross Central Park on the 86th Street transverse to the next stop at 86th Street and Riverside Drive.
From there was a brutal dash south into a strong headwind through slightly more industrial surroundings towards Houston Street at Greenwich Street, passing racers who were following the course in the opposite direction. After that stop I took Hudson south and made my way over to Broadway towards the southernmost checkpoint at One New York Plaza.
I didnít know my way around that part of town so well and it took several minutes to find the correct office building. After receiving another sticker I then headed back north on Water Street towards to the last stop. I left the checkpoint with two other people but they had more juice left and soon dropped me.
I made it to the stop under the Williamsburg Bridge at Lewis Street alone and exhausted, received my sticker and pushed the last few blocks to the park. A number of people were there already and I handed my crumpled manifest to the organizers. The effort of the past 75 or so minutes quickly settled into my body and I walked around dazed but happy with the high-speed tour of the city. More racers finished and soon a big group was once more assembled in the park. The general mood had changed, however, from one of nervous anticipation to one of satisfied accomplishment.
The winner was NYC resident Squid, as were most of the top ten finishers. He ran the course, which I estimate to be a bit more or less than 1 8 miles in length, in only 55 minutes. I would have liked to have seen the looks on the faces in the cars he passed, with his face painted white like a ghost and framed by a black hoodie, riding a shiny dark blue, decal-less track bike at impossible speeds.
After waiting for the stragglers a track stand contest was organized. Participants threw in a couple of dollars each to a pot going to the last man left standing. Two people remained balanced with no hands and just one foot on a pedal but fell at the same time. There was a stand off, starting with no hands and then going to one foot. One of the guys held on and took the loot. He mightíve been from Hartford but Iím not sure.
I vaguely remember the police cruiser returning for one last, post-race look but otherwise they let us have our fun (until the party several blocks away). I never saw a cop at any of the checkpoints, or any place else during the race, it seemed.
With darkness now comfortably settled among Tompkinsís trees racers began moving to the after party in a nearby storefront. After waiting on some friends we located the party with the help of a pile of a hundred bikes chained to a fence. We crammed in the small room, bobbed our heads to the DJís beats and sipped from a frosty keg. The results were announced and the prizes bestowed, including some for a couple of folks who crashed. One had to accept his in absentia, as he was in the hospital after intersecting paths with a motor vehicle.
Everyone participating in the race was well aware of the possibility of injury. One reason for the euphoric feeling among the finishers in the park was that they all had avoided bodily harm. We had hauled ass through the city and survived. Except for the unfortunate fellow lying in a hospital while we celebrated the success of the race.
"Is he bad?" someone asked.
"Yeah, he's bad," came the answer.
Most of the heads in the room shook slowly in empathy, knowing the pain that he was probably experiencing at that moment.
See more results and photos at www.nycmassive.com/_beta/monstertrack4pics.htm
© Brian Petit, 2003
Brian Petit Brian works as a messenger in Houston, and is beginning a career in journalism. He recently finished an article on the fixed-gear scene in NYC. Here's hoping to see it in a bike mag one of these days. You can see more about the Monster Track race in the 2003 film RED LIGHT GO.
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