It's nearly midnight on a Saturday in late May, and 50 strong are lined up behind the waist-high brick wall surrounding the Marquee Theatre's parking lot in Tempe. To the few motorists rolling past the Mill Avenue venue, it could be a post-concert crowd gathering after a Vampire Weekend or Okkervil River gig: mostly 18- to 35-year-olds, tatted up and clad in jeans and funky Ts, or in shorts and plaid Western shirts.
They're cyclists, getting ready to race, and they're focused on dozens of bikes haphazardly scattered across a wide concrete median in the middle of Mill. Aching to go, they've been awaiting the word to start for minutes.
Suddenly, standing off to one side, a race organizer shouts the magic words.
"Ready, set . . . GO!"
In an instant, the mob springs up, over, and around the wall. Whistling and whooping, the riders frantically dash across Mill Avenue en masse. Scooping up their cycles, feet hit pedals and rubber hits the road as they swarm southward across the historic Mill Avenue Bridge.
Volunteers follow slowly in a car, making sure traffic doesn't sneak up behind them. Most of the riders are furiously pumping their legs on a straight shot down Mill. Racers are bound for the crowded social war zone of downtown Tempe on a weekend night, and beyond that, to the Time Out Lounge near Southern Avenue.
The event is called Kill Mill Vol. 2, a sprint race that's entirely different from bike battles broadcast on ESPN, or from sanctioned criterium or category races on Valley streets. These riders are clad in street clothes (except for one guy in spandex who looks like a stand-in for Lance Armstrong), and only about a quarter of the racers are wearing helmets.
The rewards awaiting the top finishers at the end of Kill Mill Vol. 2 are hilariously different from the ones in the Tour de France. For instance, the first to pass the old location of Domenic's Cycling at 10th Street and Mill takes home a bottle of Jim Beam. And participants have paid a $2 entry fee, with the winner nabbing the entire pot.
There's also a surprise awaiting the racers, who believe that the finish line is at Time Out Lounge. After hauling ass three miles to the bar, they'll have to pull a U-turn and double-back another two to the former bike shop in order to win.
Ben Ko, a longtime rider who suggested the gotcha, explains:
"So people are thinking that this is a flat-out, 100 percent burn from one point to another, but when you get there, it's like, 'No, you gotta go back,' as an endurance test," Ko says. "It just makes things a little more interesting."
Something else worth noting: The majority of racers ride fixed-gear bicycles — a single-speed, direct-drive specialty pedaling machine that can't coast and usually has no hand brakes. While there are other kinds of bikes in the race (such as a powder-blue tandem cycle driven by local BMX riders KC Badger and Billy Franevsky), the main rides tonight are "fixies."
The bikes have exploded in popularity in many cities across the nation over the past decade, and they've been getting more and more popular in the Valley since 2005. The wheeled weapon of choice for bike messengers and competitive cyclists for decades, fixies have caught on among a young and cool crowd.
With the popularity of fixies have come urban bike races like the Kill Mill point-to-point sprint and races called "alleycats," multi-checkpoint scavenger hunt-like competitions originally spawned by bike messengers in New York and San Francisco. Since the first alleycat was staged locally in August 2005, almost two dozen more have followed.
The races flirt with illegality: State laws require bikes to have brakes, and though it's legal to ride bicycles on city streets, of course, riders participating in the dangerous alleycats routinely violate various traffic laws.
Evidenced by some of the action at Kill Mill, there's a "balls" factor in flaunting the law — though race organizers insist that illegal behavior is never encouraged.
Shawn Brick, a 35-year-old employee at Bicycle Haüs in Scottsdale, says that while racing Kill Mill, he and a few friends riding with him not only maneuvered around the Saturday-night gridlock on Mill but burned through the stoplight at University Drive.
"I think there was only one light we hit that was an issue," Brick says. "After we got through University, there wasn't any major traffic."
The race ended without injuries or incidents, and only one citation was issued: Franevsky was ticketed by Tempe Police when the chain came off his and Badger's tandem bike, causing the coaster brake to fail. This resulted in their running the red light at Mill and Rio Salado Parkway. (He also got popped for not having a headlight.)
The tickets set the BMX trickster back $287, but he got off pretty light, considering what happened to one racer the following weekend.
At an alleycat jokingly called "Race for the Cure," riders ended up entering the grounds of the Arizona State Hospital because of a mistake by first-time race organizers. A confrontation between riders and hospital security ensued, and depending on which side you believe, a guard was either assaulted or the guard attempted to run over cyclists with a hospital minivan.
One racer, Hannah Ruebbelke-Smith, 28, was arrested and charged with assault. She is facing up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, if convicted.
Despite what happened during the incident, fixed-gear scenesters say alleycats will continue to thrive.
After the Kill Mill race, riders gathered at old Domenic's, and prizes were handed out to the top finishers. Nate Holt, a 23-year-old pedi-cab driver (his ilk being the closest thing to bike messengers in the Phoenix area), took home $100 from the pot, a T-shirt, stickers, and a DVD of MASH SF (a 2007 documentary about fixed-gear culture in San Francisco).
Oh, and the Jim Beam? It wound up going to Chris Cunneely, 24, of Tucson, where fixies also are exploding in popularity.
Fixed-gear bikes have a badass image — which may be the main reason they're popular with racers.
Much different from mountain bikes or 21-speed road cycles, the contraptions take a unique skill to operate. Because there's no ratchet-like freewheel mechanism, coasting isn't possible. That is, the pedals are constantly in motion, owning to a direct connection of the chain to a cog bolted on the back wheel (hence the name fixed-gear).
The way the pedals push back on the feet when riding makes the bike feel alive. It'll also work a rider's legs, not only from the nonstop pedaling but because there's just one speed. Some models come with hand brakes, but most don't.
To slow down or stop, a rider must lift his or her backside off the seat while pushing back on the pedals, locking the rear wheel. If skilled enough at stopping the bike, a rider can even bust out with some tricks. There's a learning curve to it all, which is why novices sometimes use hand brakes.
Serious cyclists have long-favored fixed-gears for velodrome racing, and they're a mainstay in the bike-messenger culture. British cyclist Victoria Pendleton will be riding a track bike (virtually identical to a fixie) when she goes for an Olympic medal next month in Beijing. Hardcore bike nerds go even further back with their claim that fixies were born out of old-timey safety bikes of the 1880s and were the bikes used in the early years of the Tour de France.
One such gearhead is Ben Ko, a hairdresser at Scottsdale's Vidal Sassoon, who's been riding fixies since before he moved to the Valley from Washington, D.C. Ko sums up the bike's attractions like this:
"Simplicity, low maintenance. They're very sleek, fast-looking."
Ko, who also DJs weekends at the Mondrian Scottsdale, adds, "It's like a road bike but without all the brake cables, guides, bottle cages, gears, and chain rings."
Sammy Black, 26, an artist and walking tattoo canvas, offers this analogy of how fixies differ from other bikes:
"You see these guys on these huge mountain bikes with super-huge suspensions. It's like a barbarian sword. "Then you have these fixed-gears, like totally stripped down. It's like a samurai sword."
Over the past couple of years, local bike shops have reported an increase in fixie-related business. Ryan Cowling, owner of Kore Bike Industries in Scottsdale, estimates that 10 percent of his recent sales have concerned fixed-gears.
The bikes can be seen among other two-wheel rides parked outside joints like The Lost Leaf and LUX Coffee Bar in Phoenix, Green restaurant in Scottsdale, and Casey Moore's in Tempe.
The fixie scene in the PHX isn't just about tattooed-and-pierced types. It's also populated by white-collar workers, bike geeks, competitive pro-style criterium road racers, and college kids — who also gather at First Fridays in downtown Phoenix to hang out or hold impromptu rides around the Valley.
You can't buy fixed-gear bikes at chain stores like Costco, but certain bike shops offer models like the Bianchi Pista (suggested as a good starter fixie) for as little as $600. But most fixie fanatics are into building their own bikes. Gearheads on azfixed.com trade tips on where to get track cycle frames, how to convert old road bikes, and where to get parts.
Some fanatics often joke about spending more money doting on their rides than on rent or food.
Shawn Brick is the first to tell you that riding fixed-gears isn't for the faint of heart, that it takes a good deal of practice to be safe in traffic.
"You need to concentrate at all times [when operating fixies]," Brick says. "If you have a momentary lapse where you stop pedaling, [the bike] can buck you off [and] you could cause an accident."
Peter DiAntoni, editor of fixed-gear publication COG, says fixie culture has spread from cities that utilize legions of bike messengers, like New York.
Case in point: Dan Piatkowski is credited with bringing alleycat racing to the Valley.
Piatkowski, 29, was living in NYC in 2003 when he first learned about underground alleycat events there. Piatkowski, raised in the Valley, bought a fixie off Craigslist and got a job as a bike courier ("I kinda made up a story about how I used to be a messenger in Arizona, even though there aren't any here"). From his co-workers, he heard tales about how crazy the alleycats could get, though he never saw or participated in the races while living back east.
After returning to Phoenix in 2004 to attend graduate school at ASU, Piatkowski told bike buddies John Menard and Patrick Carlson about what he'd heard and about his desire to start something similar in Tempe.
"I was, like, 'There's nothing stopping us from doing that here,'" says Piatkowski, who's now working toward his doctorate at the University of Colorado. "We sorta went from there and figured it'd be good way to have a party, meet more people, and ride bikes."
In August 2005, the three organized the Tempe Structure Scramble. Racers were given a manifest with a list of checkpoints to navigate. About 20 people each paid a $5 entry fee, and the winner got the pot. Besides friends' houses and ASU landmarks, Piatkowski had stops atop campus parking structures.
Piatkowski says he designed the race to be a mix of speed, strength, and navigational know-how.
Ko, who worked one of the checkpoints during the race, described whence events like the Structure Scramble sprang:
"The whole thing emulates, essentially in fast-forward, the day in the life of a bike messenger. The term 'alleycat' is for a race that messengers put on for each other, to find out who's the fastest, who's got the most balls, who'll race through whatever intersection without stopping."
Since that first Scramble, there've been almost two dozen alleycats and sprint events around the Valley. Ko says races aren't just limited to fixed-gear bikes, as mountain or road cycles can be ridden in the events. It's just that fixies go faster.
Ko organized his first race in February 2007 and called it Numbers. The gimmick was that riders collected various street and building numbers and added them up to determine the final destination. The winner of the event, Billy Franevsky, took home a Centurion track frame.
The competition was tame compared to the more infamous Dagger Death Race last October. Put on by Franevsky's Daggers BMX crew, it featured such gonzo tasks as riding into a candlelit Tempe Butte Cemetery to get a rubbing from a certain headstone, slamming either a beer or a shot of hot sauce en route, and maneuvering through a darkened tunnel to a soundtrack of people getting murdered.
While Ko's alleycats haven't been as spooky, they've offered a different kind of thrill. He says he's set his races in downtown Phoenix to provide an alternative to ASU-oriented races and to interact with an active urban environment. His choice of location was inspired by alleycats he'd seen in his native D.C., where riders were forced to navigate traffic-clogged roundabouts to reach checkpoints.
To plan his races, Ko pored through schedules for upcoming events in Copper Square, for nights when lots of people would be out and about. For instance, his second race, Letters, occurred last August on the same night as a Phoenix Mercury game at U.S. Airways Center and an Ana Gabriel concert at Dodge Theatre.
"The cars, the people, the congestion are the obstacles that make the race more difficult," Ko says.
Shawn Brick, who regularly participates in criteriums and category road racing, says he digs the alleycats because they aren't as uptight as more mainstream competitions. (Brick isn't alone, as numerous competitive racers are regulars at the events.)
"The competition is just a lot more chill," Brick says. "Kinda nice to go out there and do this and not be super-serious, like when you're training for an event."
Another attraction, Brick acknowledges, is that the races are adrenaline-inducing.
"There's definitely a thrill because of the unknown," Brick says. "And because of the open environment."
Alleycats aren't against the law, but riders must obey the same rules of the road as motorists, which preclude blowing through red lights or cutting dangerously in and out of traffic.
Many riders don't like being pigeonholed as adrenaline freaks or Jackass-like daredevils, but that's exactly how some appear. YouTube has a video of a local fixie rider speeding along Loop 202 during the Dagger Death Race.
Even though tragedy hasn't occurred locally, there's definitely potential for it.
Matthew Manger-Lynch, 29, was killed in February when an SUV hit him as he was attempting to cross against a red light during the annual Tour de Chicago alleycat.
Brick says such races in the Phoenix area aren't designed to involve illegal activity, but he adds, "It's nice that [alleycats are] a little bit more uncontrolled. You just have to have your head on a swivel. It's not like we're out there to hurt anybody, or ourselves."
It's First Friday in June, and more than a dozen fixed-gear fanatics and other cyclists have massed in front of HoodRide in downtown Phoenix.
While art-walkers peruse spray-paint stencilings and stickerwork at HoodRide, Terrence Murtagh and a few other riders are busy putting on a show in the street.
As the 27-year-old bartender at the Rogue in Scottsdale cruises along, he swings his leg over the front handlebar of his jet-black Fetish track bike while simultaneously pushing back hard on the pedal with his left foot, causing the bike to come to a skidding stop. It's a cool trick (referred to as a "leg over" skid) and it's not the only one in Murtagh's repertoire. He'd just been poppin' wheelies while friends Tim Reynolds, Sammy Black, and Steven Ferrer watched atop their fixed-gears on the sidewalk.
The meet-up was arranged by way of local Web board AZfixed, which, since launching in May, has become the place where Valley fixie freaks congregate online. Garrett O'Dell, a 37-year-old service center manager at Chapman BMW, created the site when Fixie Hero, the alleycat he organized in April, had a poor turnout.
O'Dell says the site's "been bigger than I thought it was going to be," with about 4,000 page views a day. Besides dispensing advice on bike parts, discussing cycling news, or talking about bikes on Craigslist or eBay, a big thing on AZfixed is setting up spontaneous group rides and hangouts around the Valley.
The local fixed-gear scene is "very social," explains O'Dell, who bikes around to local bars with members of his crew, the Street Kings.
"That's really what it's all about; people just enjoying each other and the bikes," he says. "If you don't cycle, it's tough to understand what that means, but it's a big deal to people who do." (O'Dell is also something of a bicycle-riding badass, having chased down a petty thief, who had stolen a few of his co-workers' bikes, after encountering the crook in the driveway of a Scottsdale pawn shop.)
O'Dell has named one of his favorite bikes "Lucky." It's a custom-built fixed-gear conversion that was originally a rusted Fuji road frame he got from a friend. He estimates having spent 10 to 20 hours fixing up the bike, including stripping paint, applying custom vinyl and brazing a bottle opener onto the back of the rear seat stay.
It's orange and white with lettering across the top tube declaring: "One Fucking Speed."
Besides switching out custom components like cranks, wheels, and handlebars, some fixed-gear riders adorn their bikes with stickers or funky paint jobs.
"It's taking something that's essentially a utilitarian form of transportation and making it almost as personal as a girlfriend," O'Dell says.
And though O'Dell spent as much as $900 to create Lucky, Christopher Brennan's cycle cost about $180. The 23-year-old volunteer at Bike Saviours Co-op in Tempe constructed the bike in January out of super-cheap parts. Then, using wheat paste, he affixed photos of children from around the world and pictures of foreign writing to the frame. He finished by clear-coating the whole deal with varnish.
Brennan rode the bike while participating in the Renegade Roller Girls' alleycat in April. The race was fun, he says, but the party at the end of the race was even better.
"The after-party is what we came for," Brennan says. "We competed, but honestly, all my memories of it are from meeting up with friends."
Rowdy race after-parties are the norm — like the blowout following the Dagger Death Race, inside the graffiti-covered walls of Sunset Clothing Xchange's back room in Tempe. Put on by the Daggers crew members, it featured Ben Ko doing his DJ thing, a live band, and plenty of booze.
The whole idea of crews is a joke for many in the fixed-gear scene, where cliques adopt nicknames to poke fun at factions within skateboarding, BMX, and even their own fixie culture.
The most name-worthy bike crew, the Hot City Destroyers, is Ko and some friends who use the label to sponsor races.
Brennan says he and the other members of Bike Saviours started a joke crew called Los Bicicletas de Muerte as a way of parodying the Daggers.
"Everyone rides together, and there might be a little bit of shit-talking," he says of the sarcasm, "but it's never amounted to anything beyond some friendly competition at alleycats."
Though there's traditionally been a lot of verbal jousting in the scene, nobody's joking around about what happened at Race for the Cure.
As Kyle Foster takes a smoke outside Silver Mine Subs in downtown Tempe, (where he worked at the time), the 20-year-old explains how he and the other organizers of Race for the Cure "felt terrible" about the incident that occurred during the event last month at the Arizona State Hospital.
The plan for the disease-themed alleycat that he organized with friend Josiah Kilduff (dubbing themselves "Ill Squadron") had participants stopping at nine checkpoints from Phoenix to Tempe, including ASU's Secret Garden and a parking lot near Mill. (Despite the title's being identical to that of the annual worldwide breast cancer fundraiser, Kilduff says, the race "wasn't any sort of benefit" and its moniker was simply a way of "having fun with diseases.")
The first stop on the event's manifest was labeled "State Mental Ward North 24th street and Van Buren," but Foster says the checkpoint was intended to be at the northeast corner of the intersection and not on the grounds of the restricted facility.
"We didn't intend for people to actually go into the hospital [compound]," he says. "This was the first race me and Josiah ever put on. There was a miscommunication, a mistake."
The race began at Edison Park at Roosevelt and 20th streets, and about 30 racers participated. Kilduff says the pair were running "a little bit late" in getting to the park and were trying to figure out last-minute logistics, such as assigning checkpoint volunteers their various duties.
"Everything was a bit chaotic just because it was Kyle and I trying to make sure everything was in place," Kilduff says.
After the racers departed about 8 p.m. and headed down Roosevelt toward the state hospital, Foster says he neglected to call the person tasked with manning the first checkpoint to ensure he was in place.
"We pretty much would have assumed from the time allotted that he got there," Foster says, "but I also dropped the ball in forgetting to call and make sure."
Complicating the situation was that the volunteer had gotten "turned around," Foster says, and was not at his post.
Shawn Brick, who was competing in the event, says when the riders couldn't locate the checkpoint volunteer on 24th Street along the facility's western exterior fence, they rolled eastward on Van Buren.
"It was kind of like a little hunt to see if he was maybe at a different section [of the sidewalk]," Brick says.
Eventually, the group rode through the main gates of the hospital property. Rider Russ LeFleur claims the guard shack on the main drive was unmanned at the time, and the bikers didn't see a "No Trespassing" sign at the entrance.
While LeFleur's correct that there was no sign with that specific warning, there are numerous signs near the facility's entrance indicating that its grounds are restricted, says Arizona State Hospital CEO John Cooper.
"There's a big stop sign they totally disregarded," Cooper says of the riders. "There's other signage about this being state hospital property and how to sign in if you're a visitor."
Also, Cooper says, "I can assure you there is someone in that guard shack 24/7."
Signage isn't the only point of disagreement between the hospital officials and riders. In a state hospital incident report, security officer Giovanni Vitte writes that he approached six to 11 riders in the facility's white unmarked Chevy Astro minivan at a parking lot adjacent to the hospital's dietary building.
Leaving the vehicle, Vitte wrote, he ordered the cyclists to halt and was repeatedly called a "Nazi." He was then hit on his right cheek by one individual and struck on his chest with "something very hard," Vitte wrote (hospital officials claim it was a rock or padlock). After falling to his knees, the security officer wrote, he was kicked, punched, slapped, and spat upon by riders.
When the alleged assault was over, Vitte wrote, he got back into the vehicle and pursued the riders back toward the hospital entrance, with one rider striking the van with his bike, punching its hood and calling him a "pig."
Racers refer to Vitte's account as "bullshit," claiming no assault occurred. They say Vitte was hopping curbs in the vehicle in an attempt to run over cyclists.
"He fishtailed around this corner so fast that, when he was coming around the bend, it was squealing tires just from the speed," Brick says.
The only security-camera footage of the incident reveals neither reckless driving by Vitte nor the alleged assault.
During an 84-second portion of the video during which riders are on camera, cyclists cruise by and through the facility's central gate, near its warehouse. In the footage, the minivan can be seen in the distance, turning into the parking lot and halting, engaging its brake and parking lights for 11 seconds.
Hospital administrator Cooper claims this is when the assault occurred. He provided photos, allegedly taken after the incident, that show swelling along Vitte's cheekbone and red marks on his chest and leg.
But Brick counters, "There's no way we had time to get into a fistfight with a security guard — we were only there for, like, two minutes."
Riders say they sprinted back to the hospital entrance, where a rolling gate had been closed and locked. They began tossing their bikes over the fence and climbing out. Everyone made it off the property (and continued the race) except Hannah Ruebbelke-Smith.
A stagehand and light-board operator at the Herberger Theater Center, Ruebbelke-Smith says she was "forcibly stopped" on her bike and detained by hospital security. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound woman claims she was "manhandled" and thrown to the ground by guards before Phoenix police arrived en masse and arrested her.
In the incident report, Vitte described a female matching the description of Ruebbelke-Smith as one of those who'd assaulted him.
Police impounded her purple-and-white fixed-gear bike and seized her canvas bag, which held a plastic container filled with 12 ounces of vodka, which she says was for the race after-party. Officers did not perform sobriety tests.
"I never touched a single person, I never got off my bicycle, and I was still charged for things I didn't do," Ruebbelke-Smith says.
After looking into the matter and reading discussion of the incident on the AZfixed Web site, hospital security chief Stan Bates says he sees nothing "nefarious" about the riders' presence on the facility's campus.
"I believe that they just were here to look for their stop [along the race course]," Bates says. "But this is a restricted area, and we can't have stuff like that here."
Despite the incident, Kilduff and Foster (who've apologized to Ruebbelke-Smith for their foul-up) want to continue organizing alleycats.
"I wouldn't say it's even possible to make sure that mistakes won't happen again; that's why it's a mistake," Kilduff says. "But we'll definitely be more careful."
One thing's for sure, Foster adds: "We'll have no stops near the state mental ward ever again."
The FixEd race after-party is in full swing atop a four-story parking structure in Old Town Scottsdale (spoke cards for the event bore a marked resemblance to the FedEx logo). The mugginess of the monsoon-season evening has dissipated, and more than 40 fixie cyclists are doing the post-race hangout thing. Some are pulling skid tricks and other stunts on their bikes.
The FixEd alleycat had consisted of two-person teams (with members being allowed to hit checkpoints separately). At one stop, riders had been handed a 12-inch plastic tube, baton-style, as they rode past. And at each of the seven other checkpoints, teams had been given a fluorescent-yellow ping-pong ball to put inside their tubes. Every ball had a playing card painted on it, and the team with the best hand (in addition to the top three teams across the finish line) received a prize at the end of the race.
Once Ryan Hales and Jesse Robles, the top-finishing men's pair, had accepted the prize of $50 and various fixie gear, then had their photograph taken with the other winners, Robles popped open a bottle of champagne and started spraying everybody.
After officiating over the winners' ceremony, Garrett O'Dell's perched on the open tailgate of his white BMW X5, a couple coolers full of Tecate, Coors, and other "road sodas" sitting next to him for everyone to share.
"Thank God!" he says. Between sips of a Stella Artois, he says he's "relieved" that there weren't any problems with the alleycat (the first since Race for the Cure).
O'Dell spent five weeks planning FixEd and took precautions against potential incidents. He kept checkpoints away from major thoroughfares and alongside side streets and the Scottsdale Greenbelt to avoid traffic. He picked stops that were in public parks, empty parking lots, and other "out-of-the-way spots." Checkpoints were plotted on Google Maps, and O'Dell answered scads of questions on AZfixed about locations of stops, to avoid confusion.
"I learned from someone else's unfortunate mistakes," he says.
But in addition to attention to precautionary detail, O'Dell issued a terse warning to riders just before the start of FixEd, underneath the Mill Avenue Bridge:
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"Everybody rides at their own risk. This isn't a sanctioned race. I'm not insured. If you have a problem with that, I'll refund your money."
A kind of verbal waiver.
But as any attorney would tell you, few event organizers (no matter how unofficial) are immune from a lawsuit.
"I worry about it, yeah," O'Dell says about his liability potential. "But you can't live your life worrying about getting sued."