Street Racing Detroit: Alleycats Explore a Rideable City

The Alleycat riders slowly trickled into Hart Plaza. They rode mountain bikes, dirt bikes, vintage cruisers, custom road bikes and fixed-gears with 8-inch-long handlebars and no brakes. Some parked near Noguchi's Monolith and waited. Some continued coasting around the park, flitting between the sculpture and Dodge Fountain to kill time.

Ron Shelton entered the Plaza riding a custom road bike with hand-stitched saddlebags holding a brown paper bag. He parked his bike and climbed onto the base of the sculpture. From the bag, he produced a stack of cards and passed them out to be placed between the bikers' spokes.

The riders moved toward the street. They lined up at the edge of the sidewalk, shoulder-to-shoulder, straddling their bikes with front wheels hanging over the curb.

Shelton walked to the line, gave the signal and a horde of Alleycat racers rocketed out of Hart Plaza, tearing across East Jefferson traffic, screaming down Woodward Avenue. The race was on.

Bike underground

Since 2006, Shelton has organized Alleycats in Detroit. These unsanctioned cycling races draw riders from throughout the metro area to compete in a crisscrossing sprint down streets and through intersections. Participants fly from checkpoint to checkpoint, collecting clues and directions to their next destination while dodging cars and other riders. The course tests both the riders' knowledge of the city and their guts as they navigate a virtual collision course that backtracks and veers over 35 miles.

Although it may be synonymous with the automobile, Detroit is home to a thriving underground bike culture. But while the numbers are growing, many cyclists aren't connecting with one another. "I see a lot of cyclists who are jerks to each other," said Shelton. "People from different subcultures are hard to approach. Everyone seems to have his or her own scene. For example, there's a heavy fixed- gear culture here," he explained, referring to a growing group who modify their bikes into single-speeds and forgo the use of brakes. "The fixies don't talk to the roadies and the roadies hate the touring cyclists. I've been trying to break down those walls. I want the Alleycats to bring people together."

"In other towns, Alleycats are bone-breaking races, but here, I want people to have fun," Shelton said.

For the course, he tries to keep the focus on downtown Detroit. "I try to design the races to go where riders feel safe -- in cool places with landmarks that people want to see. It gets people out in the fresh air and gets cyclists meeting each other," he says.

Shelton's formula seems to be working. Although attendance for the races fluctuates greatly, Detroit Alleycats have attracted more than a thousand participants over the years with more than 250 riders at a single event in 2007.

Dedicated to promoting cycling, Shelton usually fronts the cost of organizing the races himself in an effort to keep it free for participants. He also designs and produces the distinctive spoke cards for each event that have become collector's items among cyclists.

Cycling city

"People don't realize it, but in Detroit, we have ridiculously wide roads that are ready to be converted to include bike lanes," he says. "Michigan has a lot of potential for cycling and has many fantastic trails already."

Aaron Wagner, an organizer for the annual Tour De Troit agrees. "Definitely there's been an upswing in biking in Detroit," he said. "With the opening of the Detroit RiverWalk and bike shops like the Wheelhouse and the Hub, it's gotten a lot more people into it. We're seeing more people leaving their cars at home and riding their bikes to work."

The Tour de Troit is a 30-mile, police-escorted bike ride that moves at a leisurely 10-12 mph pace through the city. What began with only a handful of people has blown up in recent years, with 2,000 people at the Sept. 19 event. The ride also featured a metric century or 62-mile course, designed for riders wanting to challenge themselves over twice the distance at a faster pace.

"By nature, events like the Tour de Troit and Alleycats showcase that the city is very ride-able," says Wagner. "On most days, After 6 or 7 p.m., many roads are empty and wide open for riding."

With new "rails-to-trails" initiatives and new greenways, cycling in Detroit continues to build momentum and has begun to attract considerable outside attention. In July, the international Bicycle Film Festival, a celebration of bicycling in the arts, included Detroit in its annual tour. Several cycling-based events marked the festival's arrival including an official BFF alleycat. "The organizers of the festival contacted me and we talked about coordinating a race," says Shelton. "It was a great honor to be included in something like that."

"Events like the Alleycat and the Tour de Troit largely grow through word of mouth and spread throughout the biking community," says Wagner. "Now that they're attracting large numbers of people, I liken them to big Detroit events like the Turkey Trot and the Corktown Races. They mix people together from all over the metro area. It shows that as fragmented as this region is, we can still get together for common goals and have a good time."

"Over the past several years, I've seen an increase in bikers in the city," says Shelton. "Maybe it's the price of gas but it used to be that if I saw someone riding a bike in Detroit, I probably knew them. Today, more people are riding but we're still not at capacity and I think there's potential here. As a biking town, Detroit is ready to explode."

The next Detroit Alleycat will be Friday, Oct. 30, 2009, starting at Hart Plaza. Find more info here:

Model D contributor Mike Gentile lives on the East Side. Send feedback here.

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