The Alleycats

March 5, 2008 2:30:29 PM PST
The alleycats: Chicago bicyclists who race on city streets without permits or police protection. Since a bike racer was struck by a car and killed Sunday morning, the I-Team has been looking into the alleycats.

Alleycat events are outlaw bicycle races, during which riders blow through red lights, ignore other traffic laws and confound motorists. After a rider's death a few days ago, those who defend alleycats say it is car drivers who need to be more careful.

It resembles an official bike race. But it's not. The "Tour da Chicago," as these alleycats call it, takes to the streets-- even in wintertime. It has become so popular with some cyclists the past six years there are even lengthy video diaries of the Chicago alleycats on the internet. The races take place on makeshift courses that are drawn up by hand shortly before the competitions. And it is a contest, on streets that are open to traffic and pedestrians, with racers speeding between unaware motorists. Without city permits, insurance or police to block off streets, one video shows, the alleycats blast through red lights and even dart into oncoming traffic.

"Racing through red lights for the sake of winning some relatively meaningless event, it's a tragedy and it shouldn't be allowed to continue," said Mark Mattei, Cycle Smithy owner.

Last Sunday, Matt Manger-Lynch was killed racing through a red light. The 29-year-old chef and Chicago catering executive was in the lead during a 40-person alleycat race on the Northwest Side. As the group approached the three-way intersection of Irving Park, Damen and Lincoln, police say Manger-Lynch ran the red and was struck by an SUV.

Longtime cycling organizer Alex Wilson was Manger-Lynch's friend.

"To blame the victim for dying such a tragic death I think is an injustice. And I think it's an injustice that our culture is so embedded into auto use and the convenience of autos that we are willing to let our friends and loved ones be killed," said Wilson, West Town Bikes.

A similar bike event held in Seattle was featured in an episode of Grey's Anatomy. As in the Seattle event, many of Chicago's alleycat riders are downtown bike messengers by day.

"The city should attempt to reign this in," said Mattei. "It's not healthy for the participants, it's not good for cycling as a whole in Chicago. Racing through red lights for the sake of winning some relatively meaningless event is a tragedy and it shouldn't be allowed to continue."

Chicago's transportation department calls last Sunday's alleycat race "unsanctioned" and says "bicyclists were disregarding traffic laws." The police department calls the tragedy "a solemn reminder that avid cyclists should adhere to the rules of the road just like motorists and pedestrians."

And the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation says: "alleycat races put participants in danger by encouraging them to break traffic laws."

"Bicycles don't kill people, cars kill people. I believe laws should be written to protect the lives depending on your mode of transportation. If you get hit by a bicycle you probably won't even have to go to the hospital. If you get hit by an SUV there's a good chance you're going to be killed. The laws don't reflect the liability of the vehicle," Wilson said.

The funeral for that cyclist who was killed will be held this week in his hometown of Milwaukee. He leaves behind a wife. A memorial ride in his honor is tentatively scheduled for a week from this Sunday on the North Side, with a white, riderless bike parked at the intersection where the accident was.

As for what's next with the city, no one is saying whether police will shut down the next alleycat race.