Spoke Cards and Alleycat Races

The world of urban cycling has a way of turning simple elements into vibrant expressions of culture and identity. Take spoke cards, for instance. These colorful, laminated cards tucked into a bike's wheel may seem like mere ornaments at first glance. Delve a little deeper, and you'll find they hold a rich history and symbolic value within the world of cycling, particularly in the thrilling underground realm of alleycat races.

Spoke Cards

History of Spoke Cards

Spoke cards have their roots in the bike courier scene, where they originated as a way for couriers to identify themselves and their affiliation. Usually vibrant and unique, these laminated cards would be wedged between the spokes on the courier's back wheel.

The use of spoke cards as identifiers first became widespread in the 1980s, corresponding with the rise of alleycat races. These unsanctioned urban bike races were, and still are, primarily organized by and for bike messengers. The races require participants to navigate through city streets and traffic, often ignoring the conventional rules of the road.

Due to these races' unsanctioned nature, traditional race bibs or numbers were impractical. This is where spoke cards came into play. Participants of these races began using spoke cards as race identifiers. The card, often custom designed for each race, would list information like the name of the event, the date, and sometimes the checkpoints or course.

Spoke Cards as Trophies

Over time, spoke cards served as more than just race identifiers. They became a trophy, proving participation in the various alleycat races. Some cyclists began collecting these cards, displaying them proudly on their bikes as a visual chronicle of their racing history. Fabian Baumann, a long-time bike courier from Zürich, describes spoke cards as "souvenirs, nothing more."

Political and Cultural Symbolism

The use of spoke cards expanded beyond the courier and alleycat scene into the broader cycling culture. During the 2008 American election campaign, Barack Obama spoke cards circulated. Even though this use was far removed from the alleycat races and courier scene, it demonstrated how spoke cards could be adapted for other purposes.

Making Spoke Cards

Creating your spoke cards is a great way to add a personalized touch to your bicycle. You'll need some cardstock or thick paper, laminating sheets or clear packing tape, scissors, and whatever you want to use to decorate the cards, such as markers, colored pencils, stickers, or printed images.

Decide on a design for your card. Typically, they are the size of a playing card or postcard, but the dimensions can be adjusted to your preference. Ensure you leave some space around the edges when you cut it out and laminate it.

Once you've got your design, it's time to start decorating. This is your chance to get creative and personalize your spoke card with unique artwork, a message, or maybe even your name.

After completing your design, cut out your card, leaving some additional space around the edges. The next step is laminating your card. If you're using clear packing tape, you can sandwich your card between two pieces of tape, ensuring the card is completely covered. If you have laminating sheets, place your card on the sheet and follow the instructions to seal it properly.

Once the laminating process is done, cut out your laminated card. Be careful not to cut too close to the card's edge to ensure the laminate stays sealed. Finally, your spoke card is ready to be inserted into your bike spokes, adding a unique touch and showing off your creativity as you ride.

How to Insert Spoke Cards in Bikes

Inserting a spoke card into your bike's wheel is relatively straightforward. Start by selecting the spot where you want the spoke card to be on your wheel. It's typical to place the card near the wheel's outer edge, between two spokes where they cross each other. This cross provides a secure grip for the card.

Hold the card at a slight angle and slide it between the chosen spokes. It's important to be gentle during this process to avoid damaging the card or the spokes. The card should be oriented so that it lies parallel to the entire wheel, and the design should be facing outwards so it can be seen when the bike is stationary.

Apply a slight bend to the card to match the curvature of the wheel. This will allow it to slide more easily between the spokes. Continue sliding the card until it is wedged firmly in place. It should be secure enough to stay in place while riding but not so tight that it risks damaging the wheel, the spokes, or the card itself. If the card is loose, you might need to adjust its position or choose a different spot where the spokes cross more tightly.

Once the card is in place, give the wheel a gentle spin to ensure that the card is secure and doesn't interfere with the wheel's movement. If it stays in place and the wheel moves freely, you've successfully inserted your spoke card. Now, your bike carries a personalized flair that can showcase your participation in events, your political affiliations, or your unique style.

Alleycat Races: The Birthplace of Spoke Cards

Alleycat races began in the 1980s as unsanctioned, checkpoint-based competitions designed for bicycle couriers or messengers. The term "alleycat" perfectly encapsulates these races' chaotic and adventurous spirit, where participants nimbly navigate city streets and alleys, much like a cat darting through urban landscapes.

The typical alleycat race is not just a test of speed but also of navigation skills, city knowledge, and the ability to handle a bike in potentially challenging urban environments. Routes are not defined, and participants choose their paths between checkpoints scattered throughout the city.

As these races were often held without official approval, the racers had to be creative with identification. Visible racer numbers could attract unwanted attention, so racers adopted a more clandestine form of identification – the spoke card. Each alleycat race would have its unique spoke card, typically laminated and featuring the race's details, tucked into the spokes of the participant's rear wheel.

In this context, spoke cards served not just as race identification but also as a form of trophy or proof of participation. Each spoke card represented a specific race, moment, and a shared experience among those daring enough to participate.

Although born from the courier culture, Alleycat races have since expanded and become popular among the wider urban cycling community, attracting non-couriers who enjoy the thrill, camaraderie, and sense of adventure these races provide. This has also led to the broader adoption of spoke cards as symbols of identity, creativity, and participation in a unique aspect of cycling culture.

Despite the evolution of spoke cards and their use in various contexts, their roots in the raw, thrilling world of alleycat races remain central to their charm and appeal. These races are the heart of the spoke card tradition, a reminder of the spoke cards' origins in the spirit of adventure, rebellion, and community that characterizes urban cycling culture.