Let’s Race! If Only in Our Minds

I was rolling up the bike lane on Eighth Avenue on my way to work recently when a man on a Trek roared past with legs pumping like Greg LeMond.

I didn’t think much of it as I immediately caught up to him — with his casual office clothes and drop handlebars — at a red light on 23rd Street. I cruised past as the light changed, but by the next block he had come charging back, outside the lane and in traffic this time, and zipped ahead of me for good.

Had I been defeated? Were we even in a race?

It is a question that often comes to mind in a highly competitive city increasingly filled with cyclists. Many commuters and casual riders admit to engaging in such unspoken competitions, though it’s usually only in their own heads.

Some have even coined a term — “Cat 6” — for these street level, just-for-fun contests. It jokingly refers to a made-up sixth category of amateur bicycle racers, one below the five official levels.

For my part, I was not racing. Not at first. But when I failed to catch my ersatz competitor before reaching the office in Midtown, I was a little disappointed.

For Bryce Engen, 26, an Amtrak engineer, the occasional spontaneous race with other bike commuters is just part of his ride to work.

“I can’t help it; they can’t help it,” he said. “It just happens.”

Since June, Mr. Engen has encountered the same group of Spanish-language cyclists about a dozen times on his nighttime commute between his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Sunnyside, Queens, where he works the graveyard shift repairing Acela trains.

Though Mr. Engen says his Spanish is “poor,” he communicates in other friendly ways with the three or four men, who ride beat-up mountain bikes and share a portion of his route along Greenpoint Avenue. “It’s an unspoken thing,” he said. “Everybody just seems to race each other. Even if they’re not hustling to pass me, if I look back and I see them coming, I hustle.”

A recent article in Good magazine about competitive commuting has sparked lively conversation on cycling blogs and across the Web. Some cyclists cheered the notion, admitting to frequently speeding up to challenge others, while many, including racers and the die-hard all-weather commuters, thought the whole notion was laughable.

But these sorts of impromptu competitions are as old as the bicycle and just as universal. For years, cyclists in London have been sharing anecdotes about such races on cycling forums and through an active Twitter stream under the tag #itsnotarace.

In this way, Cat 6 is something like the “man date” of the cycling world: a common experience that few ever thought to give a name.

Commuter racing illustrates the essential and unique aspects of riding to work: unlike other modes, bicycling is perched between transportation and exercise. After all, who worries about being passed by a hurried walker along Broadway or getting beat through the subway door by a motivated straphanger? There is competition here, perhaps, but it is rarely athletic and never fun.

By contrast, bicycling in an urban environment, with all its hazards and potential shortcuts, can be a kind of game that brings out a cyclist’s essential competitiveness, said Robert J. Bell, professor of sports psychology at Ball State University in Indiana. For better or worse, commuting by bike still feels more like play or exercise than a tedious slice of the daily routine.

“I think the majority of cyclists who bike to work are just more competitive by nature,” Dr. Bell said.

The common response from actual bike racers to stories of ad hoc commuter contests: Join a team and race for real.

“Riders who don’t race lack an outlet for their competitive drive on the bike, so a pass can be taken as a challenge,” said Andy Shen, who covers professional and local amateur racing on NYVelocity.com.

“The odd thing about these ‘races’ is that the rider never makes eye contact,” he added. “The way to confirm that they’ve engaged you in a battle of wills is to gently ease up behind them and see if they speed up to stay ahead.”

If they do, it’s on.

But in these unofficial races there are no rules and there is no finish line. The best way to win, then, is to pull off the road the minute you take the lead.

So with that in mind, my brave Trek-riding competitor, if we meet again on the commuter race course to Midtown, I’ll know my finish is at 40th Street, and, in my head, I’ll race you there.

Only this time, I’ll win.

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