Alleycat race in London. Photograph by Rakan
On his last day of work as a bicycle messenger, my brother organized a race. Messenger races, known as alleycats, usually consist of straightforward if anarchic runs across the city. A raggle-taggle peloton will gather at some anonymous starting point, then commence on a mad dash from checkpoint to checkpoint, a wave of rubber and steel crashing through the streets. But my brother’s race was different: an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme. He strapped a huge bottle to his back containing a few gallons of paint, with a pipe running down the bike frame that terminated in a small tap. He attached a fox’s tail to one of his belt loops. At the start of the race he opened the tap; the paint started to flow as he pedaled off into the traffic, a line of white glistening on the tarmac in his wake. After a few minutes I released the racers, a pack of bicycle-hounds. With a blast of horns, the race was on.
We followed the splattered line of paint on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings as it traced a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey. It recorded the positions of cars and busses as they had been a few minutes earlier, swerving erratically around now non-existent obstructions. The line had also registered his speed. There were larger spaces between the splatters when he’d gone faster, smaller ones as he’d slowed down. At one junction it led onto the pavement, across some blue duckboards and dropped back onto the road. Some racers followed the route blindly. Other, cannier riders spotted the line continuing up the road and carried straight on, avoiding the now pointless detour. One fell off his bike and was left behind. Like a manic pied piper, my brother led the pack of cyclists around the East End of London, through parks and across wasteland, over the shifting pavé of old cobbled streets and down the dark tunnels that run under the railway lines around Brick Lane. After a while the splashes became irregular. The paint was running out, or the pipe was blocking up. As the pack crossed Bethnal Green Road for the second time we spotted a big splatter of paint in the gutter. My brother had slipped on a drain cover and buckled both his wheels. He was fine, able to limp back to the start, where the paint completed its Pollock-like circuit of dribble and splash. But his bike, which he pushed along beside him, was a broken, creaking mess. Though he is no longer a messenger, my brother still occasionally rides in alleycats. They’re hard things to give up. The white line can still be made out here and there on the roads around Brick Lane, a faint memorial to the route.