As runners participating in the Los Angeles Marathon were just starting to rouse for their big race in the early hours of a Sunday morning earlier this month, the city's underground cycling community was already several beers deep, celebrating the victors in their own event along the same 26.2-mile route.Men's geared winner and overall champion Evan Stade crossed the finish line of the pre-marathon cycling event -- officially known as the L.A. Marathon Crash Race -- at around 5:15 a.m., followed closely by fixed gear rider Craig Streit.
Geared rider Jo Celso topped the list in the women's category, followed by Beatriz Rodriguez -- another geared rider.
Riders had gathered for the mixed gearing race before dawn, at around 4:20 a.m. -- hours before the official start of the footrace, when police had just begun closing off traffic along the majority of the marathon route.
The race, organized originally by the Los Angeles-based Midnight Ridazz cycling club and taken over later by the faster-paced Wolfpack Hustle, was held for the first time in 2009 after the marathon route was changed from a loop to a cross-city race, leading race organizers to cancel a popular bike portion of the event.
The Midnight Ridazz -- known among Los Angeles cyclists for the club's popular late-night party rides -- refused to lay low and ignore the 20-plus miles of open streets in its automobile-run city. Instead, the club gathered a few of the regulars from its monthly rides and other cycling enthusiasts in the Los Angeles area and plotted a new bike event -- a high-speed, open-invite, unpermitted and (at that time) illegal street race.
In its pilot year, the crash race attracted between 25 and 30 riders, according to Don Ward, a founding member of the Midnight Ridazz and Wolfpack Hustle groups. This year, Ward said Los Angeles police estimated upward of 4,000 riders competed.
"I'm actually really kind of scared of this thing," Ward joked of the race's popularity. "I've created a monster."
With little promotional effort, minimal sponsorship, and a winning prize of cheap metal dog tags, the crash race gathered an almost immediate cult following among the city's riders and eventually cyclists around the country.
Similar alternative cycling events are popping up in cities around the world, with race organizers opting to forgo officially registering with national governing bodies like USA Cycling and instead arranging their own unsanctioned events.
Alley cat urban races, involving scavenger hunt-style obstacles and serious traffic navigation, have long been a staple of the bike messenger community. Over the past few years, however, these previously small, casual, fixed gear-dominated street races have begun expanding into increasingly competitive and prestigious large cycling events. Lycra has replace cut-off jeans, corporate sponsors are beginning to take notice, and the races have begun attracting some of the most competitive racers in the world -- battling it out in the saddle for sometimes little more than a case of beer.
Changes to the underground racing scene
According to Kevin Ehman, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based street cycling blogger and veteran in the underground bike scene, changes in the urban, underground racing culture have been on the horizon for years.
"For anyone who has paid attention, there's been a visible trend with how these unsanctioned races have gone down," Ehman said, noting examples like New York City's popular Red Hook Criterium, which has grown into one of the city's most popular bike events.
Part of the change, Ehman said, could be attributed to improvements in the fixed gear bikes that have dominated the urban cycling scene. As the fixie bike culture began to gain momentum over the last three years, it started attracting the attention of mainstream bike manufacturers, who started producing higher-quality fixed-gear bikes to replace the run-down, semi-homemade versions Ehman and other riders had been using for years. In conjunction, the vibe of the underground fixie races, he said, began to shift.
"There was an influx of Lycra on the scene," Ehman said, explaining that racers wanted to test how far they could push their improved bikes and began swapping in their cut-offs for full kits; the races became more serious and competitive.
At the same time, more and more fixed-gear races have begun accepting geared riders into their events, and road racers and mountain bike enthusiasts are organizing unsanctioned events of their own.
In 2008, for example, cycling apparel company Rapha Performance Wear hosted its first Rapha Gentlemen's Race, a rigorous 120-mile co-ed team road race outside its U.S. office in Portland, Ore. The idea behind the race, which has expanded to include a northeast event and an all-women's ride in San Francisco, was to create an event that was rigorous and challenging but less competition-driven than similar, pro races.
"It spoke against the speed habit that cycling had gotten where everything was about equipment and results," said Rapha communications director Chris DiStefano. "This was about riding and riding hard, but really just exploring."
The cost of sanctioning
Many unsanctioned races, including the Rapha Gentlemen's Race series and the Marathon Crash Race, remain unsanctioned events. Other events, however, like the Breck Epic six-day mountain bike race outside Breckenridge, Colo., spend thousands to get permitted and officially recognized by the state. Getting the race sanctioned by USA Cycling, organizers said, would just be an unnecessary added expense.
"My customers just want to ride," said Breck Epic organizer Mike McCormack, theorizing that the glory or prestige of winning a sanctioned USA Cycling race means little to Breck Epic participants. "It doesn't have to be sanctioned to be legitimate."
For McCormack and other race organizers, sanctioning their race also threatens to take away from the camaraderie and sportsmanship that comes with their independent events.
"It's competitive but the vibe is different," McCormack said. "It’s not dog-eat-dog. It's a shared experience."
According to USA Cycling officials, the popularity of unsanctioned events has not threatened the success of their races and the organization continues to add dozens of events to its race calendar each year.
"Unsanctioned racing has been around forever and the individual races come and go and tend to be self-limiting," said a USA Cycling spokesperson.
USA Cycling has rubbed many organizers wrong in recent months after informing UCI-registered professional mountain bike teams that it would enforce an international rule barring pros from competing in unsanctioned events. USAC began enforcing the rule on the road in 2011.
USA Cycling vice president of national events Micah Rice told the Denver Post this month that the UCI has pressed the issue in recent years.
"The UCI has not bugged us to enforce the rule, and we haven't enforced it much, but now it's something that has come to light more recently in the last year or two," said Rice. "As the governing body in the U.S., it's our job to uphold a certain level of event."
For veterans of the underground race scene, like filmmaker Lucas Brunelle, who has been filming alley cat messenger races since the mid-1990s, the goal of unsanctioned races is not to take riders away from USA Cycling events; in many instances, the competitions overlap.
"Even the people who are the best at urban riding tend to cross over to do pro races sometimes," Brunelle said.
For other race organizers, sanctioned races are simply not bringing enough new riders to competitive cycling.
"I love cycling champions as much as anyone else," McCormack said. "But they are not necessarily helping grow the sport."
Ward expressed similar sentiments.
Over the past year or so, he said, the Marathon Crash Race and other Wolfpack-sponsored events have become more renowned in the cycling community and have begun attracting some pro participants. For Ward, however, the elite riders will never be the focus of the events.
"I'm not excited about pro anything unless you're willing to come ride with us," Ward said.
The key to growing the sport, according to Ward, McCormack and others, is to create events that attract the average person to participate and are popular enough to force political leaders in cities like Los Angeles to reconsider their positions on how to accommodate cyclists.
"L.A. has always been afraid of having bike riders on their streets," said Ward. "We are out to prove that they are wrong."