Every day in New York City, young cyclists—fueled by gender battles, competitiveness, and good old-fashioned fun—race each other to work. Welcome to the world of cat-6 racing.
Cyclists have a joke about “racing in cat 6,” which, despite the name, is not exactly a race nor does it refer to an official category of cyclists. Cat 6 refers to commuter cyclists, and racing each other to work is their sport. Also called "the great commuter race" and "hipster racing," cat-6 racing is the unspoken urban tradition of trying to go faster than, and not get passed by, a stranger on your bike.
How do you know you are being challenged into a commuter’s race? "You just sense it, or the other person is making it obvious,” says Johnny Hsu, a graphic designer who lives in Greenpoint. “There's no formula.”
“Competition among cyclists is a reality,” says David, a self-employed 47-year-old who rides over New York's Manhattan Bridge every day on his way home to Brooklyn. “[For me,] it starts before the bridge. Once you start jumping to the wrong side of the street you know you’re in a commuter’s race. Everyone wants to go faster. I get smoked sometimes and it’s embarrassing if you’re challenging the person. Once I know I can’t [win], I let them go.”
Why would one stranger want to ride faster than another? “There is a sort of natural urge to compete,” says psychoanalyst and cyclist Pascal Sauvayre. “We see this competition in children: When they’re running to the end of the block, there has to be a winner. What happens is, it gets translated or perverted as we age where your self-esteem is riding on the line in ever-so-subtle ways. It gets played out in a commuter’s race."
According to some female commuters, gender alone is enough to spark a race. “If I pass a guy, sometimes they go out of their way to pass me again in a way a girl wouldn’t do, even if that means cutting me off,” says Amy Armstrong, a Brooklyn-based artist who usually rides on the Williamsburg Bridge.
Jessica Meany, a 23-year-old fabric buyer and track racer, agrees. "Once, I passed this guy who was so pissed that he stood up to pedal hard to pass me again and he got so tired,” she says. “So I just rode next to him at an equal pace. Finally he was like, 'You're fast! Jesus, I am dying.'"
Sauvayre has a theory about the gender-fueled races. “I assume this kind of competitiveness is even more intense when it’s a woman passing a man,” he says. “Fear of being humiliated then takes a natural kind of competitiveness into fear of failure that drives it into pretty ridiculous and often very aggressive forms. Literally almost like road rage.”?
Still, many commuters prefer to take a more relaxed approach. “I always called it 'hipster racing,'" says Chris McDade, 28. "I generally just ride my pretty consistent, natural pace and let what happens happen. If someone's going faster, I let them pass. If I’m going faster, I wait until the way is clear to pass and try to make every effort to not be a dick about it and unintentionally invoke a hipster race.”
Justin Levinson is another commuter who isn't interested in competing with the other bikers on the road. He still likes to race, though. “The only thing I race is the train over the Manhattan Bridge,” he says. “I need to be prepared in case I am ever called upon to do this in an action movie.”
Image: Allison Burtch and Alan Tansey