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Jan. 24, 2006

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be alley cats.

Yes, I am conflicted by the ethics of alley-cat racing. That's why I didn't write much after last week's stage of the Tour da Chicago, and that's why I changed the subject when my mother asked about it. (Hint: If you can't tell your mother, it's time to have second thoughts.)

Scooting through red lights during my commute is one thing. Racing through open streets, however cautiously, is another, and I've had second, third and fourth thoughts since hearing about last week's accident. It didn't happen in my pack, but I understand a rider cracked his hip and a driver cracked her windshield, losses for which all of us racers share blame. Collectively we own this race. Collectively we own its consequences. Organizers passed a hat for the rider, but I don't think the $5 I threw in covers my portion of the responsibility. (No hat was passed for the faultless driver.)

Ideally these alley cats would take place early in the morning and would be no more dangerous than normal urban riding. I gather that's how the Tour went down back in the day. Riders would stay up all night and ride at dawn. The messenger crowd must be aging. This year's events are starting at 9 on Sundays, an hour when the city begins to rub its eyes and traffic begins to flow.

And still I ride. I give in to the thrill and to the fun, risks to myself and others notwithstanding. After all, if I wanted a life without risk I'd live in Naperville. I'd order my meat well-done and use paper towels to open restroom doors.

Sunday's Stage 2 was a three-way time trial, a menage-a-TT: from a Starbucks on Division to Buckingham Fountain to Hyde Park and back to Division, about 20 miles total. Riders picked their own routes. I felt better about a time trial. We'd stagger our starts and, in theory, there would be no drafting. I wouldn't be taking anyone else's chances, and nobody would be taking mine.

For an hour before the race, 60 riders crowded the Starbucks and debated which routes to take. It was a comical scene, like 60 Betty Crockers comparing recipes before a bake-off: Everyone wanted to show off their expertise and creativity, but all held something back, lest their secrets help the competition.

The leg from Buckingham Fountain to Hyde Park caused the most grief. Take the streets, and deal with broken glass, cars and stop lights? Or take the lakefront path, which was safer but less direct and could be sheeted in ice?

Like most riders I took the streets for all three legs. Luck was with me. Traffic was negligible and most lights went my way. I had to stop for only one and cheat through only a few others. My biggest mistake -- other than riding in the first place, that is -- was taking the overpass at Roosevelt and Clark instead of going up State. I don't know what I was thinking. It easily cost me 20 seconds, especially when traffic prevented me from taking the descent at speed.

Nonetheless, I made good time, as my father would always say after a road trip, less than an hour total. My 6th place finish was one spot behind the three-time champion who'd come out from California to ride, and I finished ahead of the 2005 winner. I'm now in 5th overall.

I hesitate to commit to the remaining stages. This may be a race where the most decisive moment occurs before the first stroke of the pedal. The hesitation suggests that indeed I should take a pass -- if something don't feel right, it's probably wrong -- and wait till summer to risk life, limb and bike. At least then USCF points will be on the line and not merely the admiration of messengers. I've already proved I have better legs than most of them. If I have a weaker stomach, so be it.

Photo taken: Jan. 22, 2006