Dispatch from An Alleycat in Lyon, France [From BA 43-300]
The alleycat race began as a means for bike messengers to compare their skills in traffic navigation and route knowledge. Since then, it has evolved into an urban obstacle-course-meets-scavenger-hunt-race—by bike.
At the start of the race, each rider receives a list of checkpoints. The goal is to complete as many of them as possible in four hours. But the alleycat organizers provide additional challenges and tests at each checkpoint—you might also be tasked with finding and photographing a certain object, solving a riddle, or performing a stunt.
In the early days of October, I went to Lyon, France, for an alleycat race organized by a few friends. I’m a northern man; I live near the Belgian border, but I wanted to see my friends and check out the race, and I also knew the sun would be stronger in the mountains of the Rhone-Alps.
After a few days at Johan’s flat in Grenoble, I took a regional train to Bastien’s house in Lyon. Saturday afternoon, the alleycat began. Hundreds of cyclists met at the Place des Terreaux, deep in the heart of old-town Lyon. Most are from Lyon, with a few riders from Paris, Toulouse, Dijon, Besançon. We have fifteen minutes to choose our teams and plan our routes.
My racing partner, Quartzy, says it’s steep; in French, the race is called Alley-Côtes, or “hills.” Quartzy on his fixed-gear, me on my 50’s touring bike, we take the first hill, la Croix Rousse.
For the most part, we matched each other. I led in the descents, but trailed on the climbs. We photographed ourselves at each checkpoint, and never lost our way. We were allotted four hours to finish the 40-kilometer race, but I was sure we’d finish in an hour and a half. At one point, checking my watch, I asked myself how it was possible that we seemed to be so close to the finish.
I got my answer at the penultimate checkpoint. Our task was to find “Wally,” the French equivalent of Waldo, in his sailor shirt, large glasses and matching red and white striped winter cap. We were told he was lurking somewhere on a Lyon college campus. When we finally found Wally, he loaded us up with eight more tasks to complete. We were to find the strangest object, so we hit a dusty bookstore and chose an old book on Belgian professional cyclist Eddy Merckx. We dedicated it to the race organizers. Next, we were off to take pictures of three different swimming pools—a kiddie pool in a mall and two municipal pools.
Nearing the four-hour marker, we raced across the finish, having completed each checkpoint but one. We placed sixth out of 48 teams. After showers and a good meal, we all met in a park to camp out for the night. On the last T.G.V. to Lille a few days later, I realized I’d explored the entire city of Lyon, with minimal expense and a lot of fun—a far cry from the typical hackneyed tourist experience.