By Ben Fietz
It’s 11:45pm, and I find myself nervously pacing back and forth in the park trying to keep warm on a brisk December night in Philadelphia. Marco, one of the top messengers in the city calmly rolls up. He nods “hi” to me, pays $5.00 to the race organizer, and receives his manifest. I walk over to Marco and ask if I can follow him in the race, since I am from Chicago and don’t have any idea where the checkpoints are located within the city. “Sure” he says, and I ask him if he is planning on going fast, or is he just doing the race for fun. “Oh, I’m probably going to do the race pretty fast. I took a nap after work, and I feel pretty good.”
“That’s Cool”, I say, and then we turn to talking about bikes. Marco tells me about a custom frame he is having made.
“Where are you getting that from?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s from a local builder, there was an East-Coast alley cat series over the summer. I won the series overall, and got the frame as a prize,” he explains. I realize that I might have my hands full just trying to keep up with Marco. But there is no going back as suddenly the race organizer shouts: “Everybody ready? Go!”
The race has started, and it is mayhem because nobody is ready. Everyone is trying to get turned around and headed the right direction, towards the first checkpoint. It’s the only checkpoint that you have to do in any order, because it is at a bar in South Philly which has two strippers put on a show between midnight and 12:20am. You have to give one of the strippers a dollar in order to get your manifest signed, and the bar is a fast 15-minute ride from where the race started. So everyone is going balls-out trying to make it before the show ends. I look for Marco, but don’t see him, so I start moving up in the pack toward the front. I feel like the only chance that I have to do well in the race is to try to stick with Marco.
South Philly can be kind of a scary place, especially at night. As we are getting close to the bar, there are shouts and catcalls from a group of people walking along the sidewalk. Suddenly someone yells “watch out!” and I turn my head just in time to see the guy next to me catch a plastic soda bottle in his face.
“Fuck!” he yells as he veers off toward the middle of the street, hopefully out of range of any more projectiles.
I spot Marco in a group of the four leaders. I make it up to them as we are heading into a busy red-light intersection just before the bar. I cut the intersection at speed, and make it through. Marco is the only other racer to make the intersection against traffic cleanly, and we pull up to the bar together. We both throw our bikes down on the sidewalk, and Marco yells “watch our bikes!” to a guy who is just coming out the door. We rush in, and I head for the nearest stripper. She is a really cute girl, maybe 23, wearing only a garter belt and a g-string. All I have in my wallet is a five-dollar bill, so I shove it against her smooth thigh, and say “Hey, This is a five!”
“Aw, thanks sweetie” she says as she crouches down, presses her almost naked body against me to give me a hug. I start to pull up a barstool, and it is almost over for me, when I spot Marco running for the door. The other racers are just coming in, and I remember that we are winning a bike race, so I get my manifest signed and I go for the door also. By the time I make it outside, Marco is already on his bike, and is pulling away. The guy we ran into on the way in is still dutifully standing guard over my bike. He says, “can I go now?” as I grab it off the sidewalk, and do a running cyclocross-mount to try to stay with Marco.
“Yeah, thanks man!” I yell over my shoulder as I ride away, with the smell of baby powder in my beard and a big grin on my face. Spirits are high as I catch back up to Marco on the way to the pretzel factory, our second checkpoint. We pull up to a loading dock, and not seeing any other racers coming, ask the checkpoint worker what to do. He hands us each a big pretzel and says: “here, finish the pretzel and get your manifest signed.”
Marco and I both curse under our breath and dig in.
“They’re fucking stale!” Marco yells at the checkpoint worker.
“Yeah, they didn’t put the fresh ones out yet, so these are from last night. They’re kind of frozen too, but you have to finish it.” The worker says with a malicious grin. Marco dumps water on his pretzel and hands me the bottle. I dump a bunch of water on my pretzel and smash it together in my palms until it is about the size and density of a cue ball. I jam the whole thing in my mouth, and hand my manifest to the checkpoint worker. He signs it, and once again we are rolling.
Marco and I start a two-man paceline, and start tearing off for the furthest checkpoint in the race: the dogbowl in West Philly. We are going all-out as I try to deal with the huge ball of pretzel that is stuck in my mouth. It is too big and dense to chew up and swallow, and it is making it really hard to breathe. So I take off a glove, jam a couple fingers in my mouth, and start pulling out pretzel gobs. I gag a little bit, and almost throw up, but I manage to get the whole thing out. We are settling in to a good rhythm, taking turns pulling from South Philly to West Philly. Marco and I are hauling ass, and we still can’t see any other racers behind us. We make it to the Dog-Bowl, which is a huge pit in a public park in West Philly. It reminds me of Humbolt Park in Chicago; beautiful during the day, but someplace you shouldn’t be at night. There isn’t anyone there, so we pull out our manifests to see what to do. All it says is “Get a tennis ball”.
Suddenly Marco reaches down and yells “got one!”
I am looking, but don’t see another ball. Marco takes a closer look at his ball and realizes that it isn’t a tennis ball, but an old baseball, which must have been lying there for a while. So we take out our cell phones, and start shining them on the ground. We are not having any luck when we see three more bikers come rolling down the hill. At the same time I notice the silouhetts of about a half a dozen people without bikes at the top of the hill. I am pretty anxious now, because not only have Marco and I lost our lead, but we don’t know who these other people are in the park with us at 12:45 am. Just then, Donovan, another fast Philly messenger finds a big pile of tennis balls about 30 yards from where we are looking. We each grab one and get the hell out of the Dog Bowl, towards the next checkpoint.
The next checkpoint is only about a mile away. It is a house, and the manifest says to come in through the back. The five of us ditch our bikes, and run through the gangway. We are making a lot of noise running in our cleats, and I hear a couple dogs start to bark. Just as I am coming in the back door, Donovan is running out yelling “I’m first!”
I run into the basement clutching my tennis ball and realize that I am in some kind of a speak-easy in West Philly. There is a full bar, and about 15 people hanging out drinking. They are cheering for us as I hand my tennis ball to the bartender, who hands me a rocks glass full of liquid. I ask him what it is.
“Moonshine!” he says with a grin. A girl signs my manifest as I slam it down. Everyone in the place cheers and I grab my manifest and run for the door with tears in my eyes. I hear the barking as I round the corner to head back out through the gangway. There are two pit bulls blocking the only exit back to the street. I grab my mini u-lock out of my pocket and threaten to hit the nearest pit bull with it. He barks at me but backs up enough for me to get through. I grab my bike and take off.
We have to head back into downtown Philly, which is several miles away. I can barely see the other four guys a couple blocks up. I wasted a lot of time at the speak-easy trying to figure out what to do and dealing with the dogs, and am feeling pretty exhausted. I almost give up, but then realize that they aren’t working together, and aren’t getting any farther away. If I pick up my pace, I might be able to catch them. So I start spinning my gear, and try to settle my breathing. Sure enough, by the time we reach the next checkpoint at the post office, I have closed the gap. We get our manifests signed without any problems, and head back out.
The last few checkpoints are close to downtown, and I can sense that Marco is worried about Donovan. He is a fast rider, and he seems to be the real threat. Marco is pushing the pace through downtown trying to shake the other guys. It is frantic as we make our way to a tunnel that goes to an underground loading dock at one of the big skyscrapers in downtown Philly. We have lost the other guy, and now it is Marco, Donovan, and me. We pull up to the dock, and the checkpoint worker asks, “Who was the 42nd president?”
“I don’t have a clue,” says Donovan.
“15 push ups!” Yells the checkpoint worker. Donovan drops and starts to do them.
“JFK!” Says Marco and he gets the same task.
I say “Reagan”.
“Bill Clinton, give me 15 push-ups.”
Fucking Clinton. I do my 15 push-ups, and follow Donovan and Marco out through the tunnel. We roll a little way to the next checkpoint, which is in an alley. I hit some gravel at the alley entrance and almost go down, but don’t. The three of us run up some stairs into an apartment. There are three girls in the apartment. I am out of breath, somewhat delirious, and maybe a little drunk. I think they must be angels, because they are very cute, and they don’t make us do anything to get our manifest signed. Marco, Donovan, and I run back down the stairs an get on our bikes. This is it. We are in the final stretch. We only have to get from downtown to the finish line, which is at a bar called the Sidecar in South Philly. Marco is still pushing the pace, but it doesn’t look like we are going to be able to shake Donovan. I am thinking that the race is going to end in a sprint, when Donovan says to Marco, “We just need to go to the pretzel factory, and then to the finish.”
I look at Marco, and we both smile. “Dude, we already went to the pretzel factory.”
“Fuck!” Donovan hisses under his breath as he turns off by himself.
Marco and I are in high spirits once again as we cut through what little traffic there is at 1:45am in downtown Philadelphia. I don’t know exactly where the bar is, so I pull up next to Marco. “Hey, I won’t sprint against you if you just don’t try to lose me on the way to the bar.”
“That’s cool, dude. I think we are going to win this!”
We ride about 10 more minutes, and see the bar. The race organizer is standing outside the front to collect manifests. I don’t see any other racers, but there are a few people hanging out to see the finish. I keep my word, and follow Marco in. Sure enough, Marco is first, and no one seems surprised. I hand my manifest to the organizer to claim second place, and he does a double take.
“Hey, you’re the kid from Chicago, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” I say.
“Kick-ass. Good job.”
“Thanks.” I say as I stagger into the bar to get a $2.00 tall boy of Colt 45, which is the special. I finished the race in 2nd place overall out of 30 racers, and claimed first place out-of-town.