Saturday mornings in Washington Square Park are quiet, almost meditative. Families are out for strolls while tourists snap pictures. But on Saturday, Oct. 7 there was a different crowd in the park – many of them tattooed and pierced, donning huge satchels.
There was an excess of cut-off pants, mini-skirts, Chuck Taylors and Kryptonite locks. And there were all brands of bicycles on hand – Raleigh, Bianchi, Fuji, Trek and Schwinn.
The motley crew gathered to participate in the unofficial “alley cat” bike race, “Quest for the Holy Grail,” to benefit cyclist, Tim Walsh, who had recently suffered injuries in an accident involving an uninsured motorist while riding his bike. According to Walsh, who organized the event, 39 people registered before the race which kicked off at 2 p.m.
“Most of the participants look familiar,” Walsh said, “although there are a few who are not from Philly.”
The registration process was quick and informal. Racers were asked for a $5 donation and were given a checkpoints sheet – a list of the 10 required stops, ranging from Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore near 5th and South streets to Rittenhouse Square and Boathouse Row along Kelly Drive.
Before the start of the race, each cyclist had to figure out the fastest route through the checkpoints.
“Alley cat races are not only about how fast you ride,” said Chris Wright, a 20-year-old Community College of Philadelphia student. “They are also about how good you are at strategy, choosing best routes and avoiding traffic.”
For those who have never watched an alley cat race, it can get confusing since there is no official course. Organizers of “Quest for the Holy Grail” recommended trying to see what was happening at the checkpoints, rather than passively waiting for the bikers to reach the finish line. At each of the checkpoints, participants were required to complete a different task which could earn them anywhere from one to 10 points.
When contestants reached the South Street Bridge, for example, they had to answer
trivia about “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Riders were also required to obtain a receipt from Whole Foods Market, bring a piece of fruit to the steps of St. Paul’s Church and play rock-paper-scissors at the entrance to Rittenhouse Square.
In as short as 40 minutes after the start, several cyclists made their way back to Washington Square Park, with their race sheets completed.
“I planned the route ahead, and it seems that the race went pretty quick,” said Max Knee, a senior accounting major at Temple who was among the first 10 to finish. Knee also explained that since the out-of-town people were unfamiliar with the city, the race was more challenging for them.
Following the race, participants reunited at The Dive, a South Philly bar at 947 Passyunk Ave., and the winner was announced. Shane Watters, 25, received the maximum number of points possible and had one of the best finishing times.
The cyclists were competitive, and everyone
wanted to win, but “Holy Grail” was more than just a race. It was a laid-back social event that gave twenty-something bike enthusiasts a chance to spend time together, discuss bike-related issues and most importantly, take part in what is more than just a hobby to them – riding bikes.
The next alley cat race event is set for New York City on Halloween.
Inna Spivakova can be reached at email@example.com.