September 07, 2022
Hidden away at the bottom of my NY Times feed was a line about the raccoons who gather at night in New York City’s Central Park. What intrigued me was the comment that the raccoons were not only fast, but they road bikes. As I followed the article it described how as the sun went down a crowd of close to 150 people gathered around two bicyclists near Engineers’ Gate. The riders clicked into their pedals and when the coast was clear, the starter yelled “Go!”. The race was a single elimination 300-meter straight shot in the bike lane along the Central Park loop. After 60 riders went through five elimination rounds the victors were decided. Enzo Edmonds, a 15-year-old (nine-time national juniors champion) won the men’s bracket. Camie Kornely, 49, the reigning women’s national and world masters champion who also holds a world track-bike record, took first place for the women. As quickly as they had assembled, the Central Park Raccoons rode into the night agreeing to return when the next Shootout race is held. The Shootouts are usually announced just days before the event based on whim and the weather. Anyone with a bike is welcome to ride. The racing kicks off at 9 pm when the park is quieter and the bike racers spirit animals (the raccoons) are starting to come out.
When I looked online, I found Chris Salucci and Stevie Valentine founded the Central Park Raccoons several years ago after a summertime “alleycat”, an illegal bicycle scavenger hunt to crown the city’s best bike courier. The rise of electric delivery bikes has sent the messengers into decline and the alleycats have become less frequent. Messengers have long favored fixed-gear bikes because their lack of moving parts made them more durable on city streets and easier to repair. The bikes only have one gear and if the bicycle is moving, the pedals are in motion. Brakes are famously optional. Before the pandemic, Salucci and Valentine held regular training sessions in Central Park doing hill repeats, known as the Not So Friendly laps. When those sessions grew too big for the duo to handle, the Shootouts were born. It is usually the more traditional road cyclists and fixed-gear racers who move on in the Shootouts races.
Although the Shootouts do not have permits, the Raccoons are careful to observe the park rules and to avoid conflicts with people seeing the biker’s fly past at speeds more than 30 miles per hour (48kph). They have avoided run-ins with the police by racing within the bounds of the park’s bike lane and starting after the park is emptying out. While the Shootouts are the Raccoons’ signature event, the aim is to eventually secure permits for more fixed-gear races around the city. Early in 2022 the Raccoons helped stage the multiday USA Cycling-sanctioned Randalls Island Crit series and hosted a series of track races and clinics at the Kissena Park Velodrome in Queens, considered by the Raccoons to be their home track. For 15 year old winner Enzo Edmonds, the stripped-down, communal atmosphere of the Shootouts is something he does not get competing in the more traditional ranks of bicycle racing. “The typical races I do are more — Sanctioned.”
THOUGHTS: While I have never participated in the shootouts, I have enjoyed quite a bit of road work on my bicycle. When Melissa and I went to Maui we tried to rent bikes to ride the 24 miles (38.5 km) down the Haleakala Volcano. I called, left messages, and sent email requests through the website, but the company never responded. When we arrived, we learned several inexperienced riders had been injured that season when their bikes got out of control and went off the road. Having crashed my own bike on several occasions, I thought we might have been better off. The Shootouts are another example of how the pandemic has brought change, only to have the change itself morph again as restrictions are lessened. Calling something the New Normal implies things have stopped changing. What we call normal has always been changing, so why should that stop now. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.