Locals bike around the city for fun, glory in monthly alley cat


Last month, a new era began at the Lansing Bike Co-op’s monthly alley cat scavenger hunt when reigning champion Mike Dombrowski was unseated by newcomer Jacob Robson, a student at Michigan State University. Aside from the one event he organized, Dombrowski had won every competition since they began last October. Before the start of the event, he said, “There’s a lot of pressure, but it’s the alley cat, so it’s all in good fun,” adding, “I’m running out of room for cards.”

The spokes of Dombrowski’s bicycle wheels are filled with the laminated spoke cards given to the winner of each scavenger hunt. Spoke cards originated as a method to identify competitors in bike messenger races, a history alley cat organizer and co-op volunteer Trevor Benoit is very familiar with.

“Alley cats go back to bicycle messengers in New York, San Francisco and other major cities. That’s where they started, although I’m not exactly sure when. They were prevalent in the 1990s bike messenger scene and were a test of how well the messengers knew their city, a skill they would pride themselves on.”

The scavenger hunts aren’t about racing, although timing can play a role in the final point tally. At April’s event, Benoit was trying out a new format: Participants were instructed to look for “categories of things, as opposed to specific locations.”

“It’s a specific time limit of an hour, and it’s points-based. You’re looking for self-fix-it stations for bikes, bike shops and bike lockers. You have to find as many as you can, and you’ll get so many points per place,” he said. “It’s about managing your time and the distance and deciding if it’s better to get fewer points but come in first or more points and come in second or third.”

Participant Michael Osier was working out his route with a manifest, a list of rules provided to participants when they arrive at the co-op. When asked about his chances for success that day, he said he was looking forward to another opportunity to beat Dombrowski.

“Last time, I missed him by 30 seconds,” he said.

Bob Peña had participated in the co-op’s annual Bike and Seek event, but he came out to try his first alley cat that day.

“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” he said, noting that he feels bicycling is good for both physical and mental health.

Benoit said that while some bike-related groups in Michigan focus on infrastructure and safety or group rides, the Lansing Bike Co-op is more focused on community and helping people with their bikes. He started the alley cat series “as a way of promoting the co-op and building a cycling culture that may be a little different than what other groups are doing,” he said. “The reason I like alley cats is because it’s not about who goes the fastest; it’s about navigating the city. I like to promote cycling as transportation. Recreation is fine, of course, but my focus is on cycling as transportation.”

Participants take selfies to prove they visited each location. Benoit said that in the past, the events have sometimes had themes, such as boating.

“Get a picture of a dam, a boat for sale. People liked the flexibility of deciding how to interpret the theme,” he said.

The events typically draw about 10 people, but Benoit has seen as many as 20. He said the hardest part of organizing the competitions has been thinking of ways to keep the routes fresh.

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to come up with different, interesting locations. There are only so many pleasant places to bike here. You’re sort of limited to the east side, downtown, REO Town and the River Trail,” he said.

Aaron Fields, executive director of the co-op, was out riding for fun at April’s event.

“I’m not in it to win it,” he said with a smile as he posed for a picture with Dombrowski outside the shop.

Fields incorporated the co-op as a nonprofit 10 years ago alongside a dedicated group of volunteers. This year, his goal is to grow volunteerism.

“It’s time for some new faces. We’re going to have our building paid off pretty soon, and that’s a huge accomplishment. We’re open five days a week and, with more volunteers, we have plenty of room to grow.”

Both participants and volunteers are welcome at the next alley cat on May 25. Details are available via the Lansing Bike Co-op’s Facebook group (facebook.com/groups/LansingBikeCoop). There’s no charge to participate in the event, but Benoit encourages


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