Alleycat Insights: Q & A with Billy Sinkford
Alleycat Insights is a series of interviews about the evolution of alleycat culture that took place over the course of putting together the Urban Velo #38 feature story, Alleycat Explosion. In this installment we catch up with Billy Sinkford. Sinkford began working as a bike messenger in Boston in 1999, and spent a collective 10 years on the road between there and his time spent working for Godspeed Courier in San Francisco. In 2007 he was one of the key organizers of the North American Cycle Courier Championships in San Francisco. Today Sinkford is a partner at Echos Communication, where he works with cycling-oriented businesses, including Chrome Industries, Bern Unlimited, and Levi’s Commuter Series.
When did you first get involved with alleycat races?
I started in 1999 on the road in Boston; I was a bike messenger there off and on for 6 or 7 years and then I moved to California and worked with Godspeed—probably a collective 10 years out on the road.
What are some of the big alleycats that you’ve been involved in organizing?
The biggest one would the North American Cycle Courier Championships in San Francisco, I believe that was in 2007. And then for a couple years after that I ended up in some way either helping or advising.
What was that like?
My role was to deal with the police and the city. I went to the city council meetings and got street closures, and police detail. My main partner, Fergus Liam, who was a messenger in San Francisco for a long time—he dealt with mapping out the race course and I dealt with the logistical backend, making sure that we paid the right people the right amount of money that would get the streets closed.
NACCC’s is one of the few alleycats that was ever kind of sanctioned, or had the streets closed. Most about of the time it’s about really knowing the streets, but this one was more about what you could do.
How have things changed since NACCC’s in San Francisco?
The biggest change I saw happen would be that when I first started there was no such thing as a non-messenger showing up to an alleycat. They were smaller; there weren’t a plethora of sponsorships. It was more about folks just getting together and having a good time. People weren’t really that concerned with the financial aspect of it; the prizes were not what they are now, but it was more of a tight knit community. And now—not that’s it a bad thing—but there are tons of non-messengers racing every year. More non-messengers, with the exception of the messenger championships, show up to an alleycat than people that are actually working on their bikes during the day. So that was probably was the biggest change, was the transition of that happening, which was not welcomed at first, and probably still not welcomed by some messengers, but for the most part I think it’s an accepted fact that urban cycling is not just about the messenger anymore, and other folks want to be included.
Were there non-messenger racers competing in NACCC’s in 2007?
Yes, they were. At the NACCC’s they’re always pushed into a separate category and generally not allowed to race with the messengers, because the messenger championships–you want them to go to working messengers. This year, the non-messengers had a separate heat on qualifying day and they did not race on Sunday; they were given one opportunity where everyone was pulled together and given one shot at it (Non-Messenger NACCC Champion).
That’s kind of how things have played out at the big ones. In a regular alleycat there’s not going to be a separate category. There may be separate prizes—the winners may be first messenger and first non-messenger, but everybody races together now at the smaller ones, or the “non-sanctioned” events.
Other than NACCC’s there are few alleycats that are permitted, and so they look a lot different. What has been your experience with those kinds of races?
With some of the smaller alleycats out in Boston before the advent of the Internet it was word of mouth and flyers getting passed around at all the messenger spots. Everybody told each other and talked about it over the radio and we’d all meet up at a set location and get our manifests and go forth and go do it—it was a lot more mellow.
Even the ones that are not sanctioned nowadays, there’s a lot more corporate involvement to some extent, and companies wanting to get representation for being involved, there’s a lot more posts online, which has helped grow it for sure. I think it’s awesome, probably taken away a little bit from the spirit of the event itself, because it was an underground illegal alleycat—you know, you don’t need the police being able to just go online and find out about it—but they’ve got bigger fish to fry than a bunch of people drinking beer and riding bikes and having a good time, so that’s not really been a problem unless somebody gets hurt or gets caught by the police.
Have you been at a race where someone was seriously hurt?
It’s never happened at anything I was involved in or organizing, I’ve never had anybody get seriously injured. The closest I came to that was working with Squid on the Velo City Tour for a few years. One of those years I was also helping with stuff for Monster Track out on New York and a messenger in Chicago was killed while he was racing. After the Chicago death we had to technically shut down Monster Track and not be involved because we didn’t want to jeopardize with the actual legal racing (of Velo City Tour) that we were trying to get everybody to do. We didn’t want to have our name associated with any illegal race that year because it would have possibly done harm to what we were doing, which was trying get people off the streets and racing their bikes on the track where they were actually intended for, showing them that they can have fun cycling outside of rippin’ through the streets.
You’ve seen alleycats bleed out of the messenger world; what do you see as some of the misconceptions people have about where alleycats came from, and where they are today? A lot people think alleycats must be raced on a brakeless track bike, for example.
When it started it didn’t matter what kind of bike you were riding, it was about who was the fastest out on the streets—and it was just messengers, and a lot of bike messengers didn’t and still don’t ride a fixed-gear bike; they ride whatever they can get their hands on, or whatever seems like the most efficient way to get around town. Some cities, like San Francisco, it makes no sense to ride a track bike in the hills like that, with no brakes. People still do it; I did it, but it’s not always the best way to go about it—so it was not based around fixed gear culture, it was based around messenger culture.
As fixed gear culture blew up the alleycat turned more and more towards fixed gear culture, and there were events like Monster Track in New York where, for years, you could only race it on a fixed gear bike with no brakes. The times have shifted as the track bike has become more popular and more accepted. Now there’s 16,17,18 year-old kids out there doing fixed gear freestyle and the whole sport of urban cycling has shifted; now it’s probably waning away from brakeless fixed gear to just “ride what works for you” again. It’s kind of almost coming back around, full circle, although there are probably still more brakeless track bikes that are being used than any other kind.
It’s shifted with the times, but it all started with everyone just wanting to compete. You’re out there riding and hustling, working together, and sometimes against each other during the day, if you’re at a competitive courier company. That competitive spirit is what has driven and does drive the messenger culture. That doesn’t stop when you hand your radio in at the end of the day; you still want to see who’s the fastest.
About Krista Carlson
A regular contributor to the print edition of Urban Velo, Krista Carlson is a cyclist obsessed with bike polo, baking, pickles, and all things bike-y. She is a native Angeleno and is madly in love with the city and everything that makes it the beautiful, crazy place that it is.