Babes In Bikeland: An Alleycat Unlike Any Other
The roots of alleycat racing go back to bike messengers setting up informal competitions where they could show off not only their riding prowess, but their knowledge of the city as well. An alleycat is a lot like a scavenger hunt: Riders are presented with a manifest, a list of destinations they need to reach. There’s not set route or course, so the challenge is not just to ride fast, but to pick the shortest possible route to complete the manifest.
Babes in Bikeland is an alleycat race, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Quoting from the race website, it’s “a race and ride for women/trans/femme (WTF) cyclists… You can either ride far and fast to win the speed race, or you can roll around town with friends in costumes for an afternoon to remember.” The first Babes In Bikeland was held in 2007 — the same year as our first ARTCRANK show in Minneapolis — and it’s been inspiring for me to see the event grow not just in size and scope, but also in influence.
Riders are drawn to Minneapolis from across the country to be part of an experience that’s all about helping WTF cyclists create friendships, get faster, stronger and more confident on bikes. And to do all of that in a Safer Space that’s built around eliminating the demeaning, hostile, intimidating, and even dangerous atmosphere that’s made a lot of cycling events unwelcoming places.
To mark the 10th Babes In Bikeland, we reached out to the people who could do the best job of sharing stories about Babes and what it means to be part of it — the riders, organizers, and supporters. Here are a few of their stories and photos.
All I remember where the blond curls flying out behind a black bucket helmet and the wind flipping her skirt edges and trying to match the motion of the cowboy boots pumping up and down on pedals. It was 2009, I was a total rookie and Britta took me under her wing. I spent the whole race huffing and puffing and trying to make sure I was never more than a few feet from her back wheel. There was a moment as we flew down that steep Franklin hill, praying on my flimsy rear brakes and the blue September sky that I knew without a doubt that I liked this alleycat thing. Still haven’t biked a faster race either...
My first Babes in Bikeland experience was in 2011. I rode in a very relaxed manner with a friend, our only goal being to finish before the 9pm cutoff and have fun at the after-party. We had a ball riding and doing the silly activities at stops — we even took a detour to pop into a friend's opening at a gallery close to our route! I've ridden every year since, except in 2013: I had to work past the launch time but was able to help out at a stop for a couple hours, so I've also had the wonderful experience of watching the event unfold!
The community spirit is fantastic, and unlike lots of other alleycat-style rides, speed is not the only goal: lots of folks ride in teams, dress up, ride silly bikes, you name it. In 2014 some friends and I covered ourselves and our bikes head to toe in silver and gold glitter and headed out, fetching a costume award with amazing gifts from all the great sponsors. Not just "winners" go home with treats--every rider gets a prize of some sort! I love that Babes has a masters category that gives us riders over 50 a chance to race against our peers, also a rare thing! This year, for Babes' 10th anniversary, the organizers really went all out and had an amazing celebration at First Avenue with a fantastic emcee and DJs. Until you see several hundred WTFs in bike garb and costumes line dancing on that old bus station floor you haven't really lived! Rock on, Babes!!!
My favorite memory from Babes is probably this year. My partner and I were dressed up like dancers from CATS the musical (mew-cycle in our version), and there were so many random people who meowed, asked to take our picture — even a group of kids who rode along with us for a bit after we told them we were dressed up for a bike race that we were never going to be the fastest at. Making people smile is the best prize I could hope for.
Babes in Bikeland inspired me to do my own organizing and use biking as a tool for queer community building. Babes sought to make a safer space for women and trans people, where we were the main event and not on the sidelines. So I channeled that into my own event called Cirque du SoGay, which I guess you could say is a queer alleycat that highlights queer spaces and groups in the Twin Cities. Getting involved in this type of organizing has helped me meet so many new, fun interesting people and learn about community happenings and resources I would have otherwise never have known about. I hope that Babes continues to inspire other women, trans and femme individuals to continue to build community.
The first year I did Babes, my friend Kati and I rode vintage bikes. We rode very slow, but it was still super fun. We had a coupla bummer stops. One bummer was a stop at a park where some dudes were duds and rude. Also, near the Sea Salt drunken onlookers filled us with annoyance. In spite of those things, the joy of the ride and routing and camaraderie made it a great time. I was happy to see the changes which occurred over the years as organizers worked to make the ride even safer and more friendly for all. I rode this year, and every stop volunteer behaved like a kindhearted human. The route was scenic yet easy, and the tasks were doable. I appreciated the emphasis on tasks being optional, too. I am impressed by the folks who have made the Minneapolis cycling scene a welcoming place to cyclists of all sorts!
I've been involved with Babes as a racer, supporter, and organizer for seven years! I remember my first race, with BFFs Buzo and Corrine, and how significant it felt to be surrounded by all these BABES on bikes- wheeling around as fast as we could, relying on our mental maps, and high fiving and hollering at every other racer we crossed paths with. The event has evolved over the past ten years into something that truly includes me thanks to the tireless dedication of the organizers who came before me. (Especially my housemate, Kat, who organized the event for five years!) This is also largely due to the work of other WTF communities, such as Grease Rag.
The first years of Babes focused on familiarizing women, because that was who Babes was for in the beginning, with racing alley cats and making space in male-dominated bike messenger culture. Every year, we are able to push further. We are able to celebrate accomplishments outside of "fastest," we are educating our racers and community about WTF identities, we are de-centering cis male culture and ego, we are talking about safer spaces, we are working to have events free of abusers and perpetrators. My work with Grease Rag supports this progress.
As an organizer, I was not able to ride this year, but I heard happy reports from most racers about stops, volunteers, and the course. And that's all good. But the real reward was seeing the shine and glitter in people's eyes as they realized and experienced a better world for WTFs. At the starting line, being surrounded by WTFs, scooting and whooping all over the city together, and finally, celebrating together at First Avenue main room. As Sweetpea lead the group in the wobble, I was tearing up as I shook my butt and pumped my fists. The solidarity and beauty of WTFs gets me every time. I love you, Babes!
Please check out greaserag.org for more of my thoughts on safer spaces, WTFs biking, and Babes!
I have participated in Babes in Bikeland for the past five years. I rode as a rookie at Babes in Bikeland 6 in 2012. I was VERY nervous, and I got my partner, Judy, to ride with me. We had a BLAST! We had no idea what we were doing, but the amazing energy from the other babes helped propel us through all the stops in our manifest, and the after party was wonderfully celebratory.
As the following years flew by, each Babes was a bigger and better experience, every time. At Babes in Bikeland 9, our daughter, Erin, joined us. She LOVED it, and we were touched by how effusive she was about riding around together, loving the challenge and the camaraderie. Babes X brought on a whole new level! The number of participants, the short race and long race choices, and even better-than-ever volunteers, the sponsors and prizes, and especially the fact that the after party was at FIRST AVENUE made the 10th anniversary Babes the best EVER.
As a teacher who works as an advocate for LGBTQIA identity in our school community, I have developed the (somewhat corny) philosophy that "If you build it, they will come out." That certainly is true of Babes. Beginning as a women's only race, being inclusive of trans identity and finally listing the identities of WTF (women/trans/femme) as the descriptor for participants in this race, I truly SEE women, trans and femme folks in this beautiful community, and that makes all of the difference.
I have often said that if Babes were still a "women only" race, I probably would not participate, as I use they/them pronouns and have never felt very comfortable in women-only spaces. But when the space is welcoming of WTFs, and people learn how to create intentionally safer spaces, then ALL of us benefit from that wider and more precisely named group. I have witnessed firsthand this growth, and I am proud of our community for making and holding this safer space. There was a wave of love overflowing at First Avenue as the dance floor was made into WTF only space! It was truly an astonishing experience.
Women/Trans/Femme folks and their allies, creating safer space for WTFs to ride bikes and feel alive in a welcoming community. To me there is nothing as good as that! I am deeply appreciative of the organizers, volunteers and sponsors who made this event happen... And of course to all the rad WTF Babes who participated in Babes in Bikeland X. Here's to 10 more years! What will the world look like then?
In an age when cyclists tend to scoff every time I say the word “alleycat,” I am a fierce defender of alleycats. How could I not defend alleycats when I have raced Babes in Bikeland twice? How could I not be when I have seen the power of WTF (women/trans/femme) alleycat spaces all over the world – seeing places like Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Copley Square in Boston, or Parque Carolina in Quito, Ecuador, filled with babes waiting to take to the streets, and not be filled with a sense of awe about the power of alleycats?
It is a cliché truth when I say that Babes in Bikeland, and the copycat events that I have started because of it in Boston and Quito, changed my life. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to explain to people the feeling of complete and total wonder when standing in a field of 500+ WTFs awaiting the start horn of BIB. Since I can never explain it right, I just figure I need to bring something like Babes to them, so that they can experience it for themselves. Watching streets full of WTFs riding fast, slow, in costumes, glitter and more will forever change how you see those same streets every day afterwards.
Thank you Babes in Bikeland for letting me experience the revolutionary community of WTF alleycats, and for inspiring me to start similar events in other cities to try to share that same sense of awe with others.
For me, a bike is more of an adventure machine than a racing apparatus. So I generally don't get involved in races unless there's more to it, like embracing a neighborhood community (Powderhorn 24) or empowering women-trans-femme racers (Babes in Bikeland). After the buzz of seeing all of our group's months and weeks and hours of planning come together so beautifully, culminating in a slow-sway to Purple Rain at midnight as we closed down the after-party, I had to take a step back and take a hard look at just how brilliantly lucky I am. I moved to Minneapolis a decade ago with no job, no bike, and only a couple acquaintances, and all of those things found me!
I'm incredibly thankful that our city has such a fiercely strong network of WTF cyclists eager to raise each other up, shake some hips, turn some cranks, and cheer each other on!
I hadn't been able to race in Babes in Bikeland for the last two years, so this year was like experiencing it for the first time all over again. I was reminded that we have such a beautiful, strong, and unique cycling community here. I met and hung out with so many awesome women and I spent time catching up with those I hadn't seen for a while. It was empowering and invigorating and I loved every second of it!
Babes in Bikeland 10
Eight stops, all over the town
Two hours, twenty-five miles.
We met in the rain,
Sped off with the manifest
Got stamped, got challenged
Waved “Yeah, Babes!” all night.
—collected memories too
Great planning, great time!
The Loppet Ski 'n 'Hike 'n Bike 'n Swim 'n Run 'n Tri 'n Quilt 'n Craft Club rocked it around town on the Babes in Bikeland 10 alley cat race and ride and spread smiles where ever we went.Talked a couple of riders into checking out our ski club this winter. Happiest thing we've all done in a long time! OH: "I've never been noticed by so many people before!"
Babes In Bikeland is one of the highlights of my summer, and I travel 1100 miles from Denver just to come to it. This year I had a major bike malfunction, and even though my bike suffered some damage, the love and support the Babes community gave me and it made this trip worth the adventure. This is one of the few events I’ve been to that has a community so supportive and dedicated to creating safer spaces that allow W/T/Fs to grow and flourish.
This year was my third Babes. It started with Babes 7, then Babes 8, a gap year, and Babes 10. My friend Nina Clark (pictured in both images), also a regular user of bikes-as-transport, has ridden the course with me each time. Our first year we came in 200-something. I suggested we stick to trails as I still felt somewhat nervous on city streets. Our second year, we came in 60-something. I remember being so surprised when I saw that I had finished in the top-100 finishers. It felt like a confirmation that I was stronger in my body, more in tune with my bike, and more familiar with this city that has become my home over the past 8 years. This year, I came in 59th on the longer course. It was a great ride.
The timing of Babes 10 was perfect, as it was the weekend before I started my new job as a high school Spanish teacher. I felt nervous about this new beginning (I've been at Perennial Cycle for 4 years), but I was able to get out and ride — something familiar, something that felt like me — as I have before with Nina. Babes has taught me that I can ride fast and ride competitively, though it remains the only competitive bike race I have participated in, other than the somewhat-competitive Powderhorn 24 and Brompton events through my work at Perennial Cycle. I hope to continue riding Babes with Nina and look forward to riding it on my Brompton some day.
Representing three different decades and varying degrees of ability, my friends Emily, Janet and I set out on Babes in Bikeland 10 circumnavigating the city in style – our own unique, individual style. Along the way we encountered other cycling beauties, seasoned riders, helpful rest stop volunteers and soon-to-be new friends. The route – we took the long one – offered its fair share of challenges and fun. The vibe, from start to finish, was inclusive, empowering and positive. I’m so proud to live in a city that fosters and promotes such an amazing cycling culture and truly appreciate the passionate cyclists who create and execute events like Babes in Bikeland to bring us all together.
As a shop sponsor over the last few years, I have been encouraged watching the evolution of Babes in Bikeland. It has become more welcoming to trans and femme individuals and has worked harder to educate and hold the cis-male volunteers accountable to creating safer spaces. At the Cherry Cycles stop individuals were asked to write or draw something that they would like to dismantle. One thing was repeated over and over. As one person said, "Oh, someone already wrote the patriarchy." Cherry is the only solo woman-owned shop in Minneapolis, a true example of a crack in the patriarchy. Babes is critical to encouraging confidence and connections so that one day more women, trans, and femme individuals will be empowered and supported working in or own their own bike shop!
It's been splendid to see how this women-trans-femme alleycat has grown over a decade's time, increasing 871% from year one to year ten, into North America's largest alleycat (according to my meager internet research). This speaks volumes about the need for this event.
My favorite part about Babes is that for WTFs it is 100% come as you are, run what you brung. There is no prescribed gear or body type, no requirements for skill, seriousness vs. levity, costume vs. spandex, group or solo; you bring to it what you've got, without any pressure.
Cheers to the organizers and volunteers, past and present!
It was a complete honor to be asked to create the 10th anniversary Babes in Bikeland artwork. I'm so proud to live in a community that celebrates and supports bikes and babes.