Bike Racing in La Course des Morts

Ride ‘Til You’re Dead

  • Cyclists raced down Ste. Catherine. Photo Carl Bindman

  • Caro Baab, a courier, was among the many racers. Photo Carl Bindman

  • Cyclists gathered at the George-Étienne Cartier Monument before the race. Photo Carl Bindman

DFL means Dead Fucking Last. Earning it means finishing the cross-city nocturnal zig-zagging bike messenger-inspired-and-supported La Course des Morts in last place. It’s a badge of honour.

But less about the end: The night began at Foufoune Electrique, around 7:00 p.m., on Oct. 29. Riders had come to pick up their registration kits and to have a beer and chat before the race.

Over 140 riders pre-registered, from full-time bike couriers to people like me—normal folk.

Étienne Leblanc and Mireille Aylwin, two Université de Montréal students, were racing for the first time, together.

“We’ll see about finishing,” Aylwin said. “But ideally,”

“There’s more competition for DFL than for first,” Leblanc interjected.

The DFL competition was mostly among the non-messenger crowd. People who had done the race before, like one of my riding partners Jonathan Hubermann, knew what it meant to finish, because he already failed to. My other partner, Noah Sadaka, was in the same boat as me—we didn’t know what was coming.

Among the couriers who participated, some from as far afield as Chicago and San Francisco, there was only joking of being DFL.

Robert Bigelow-Rubin, from Chicago, had come to do the race for the last four years and to see his friends. Was he there to win?

“In the vague aspect of winning,” he demurred, before being shouted down by a chorus of “yesses” from his friends.

Amanda Bloodoks was one of the friends. She’s a tattoo artist and a race sponsor and was very excited to see how many rad women were around. She pointed out that this year, the International Women’s Bicycle Messenger Association had donated a prize for the first-place woman, trans, or gender nonconforming person who has never done the race before.

A vast majority of the race’s sponsors were local companies catering to messengers. “It’s a very insular group,” Bloodoks said.

Caro Baab, a courier, couldn’t tell how many participants were pros. “I only know the people that I know,” she said, “Who are all messengers.” She was there to finish.

After hearing that again, I thought: I bike a lot all around town, how hard can finishing be?

Just before 8:00 p.m., everyone left the bar for the start point. About 150 riders got their bikes from the myriad posts and poles and grates up and down Ste. Catherine St., and took off, going the wrong way into traffic.

From there, we rode in a pack to the George-Étienne Cartier Monument on Parc Ave. Then we waited. It was cold when we weren’t moving, but at least it wasn’t raining. Still, the air was wet from afternoon showers.

Up on some stairs by the monument was a man holding a beer. Chris MacArthur was his name.

“Is this real?” MacArthur asked, gesturing down.

Yes, I said.

“Well I was here five minutes ago with my friend and we went over there and ate some mushrooms,” he said. “And, uh, I came back and all these bikes appeared.”

Once all of the competitors arrived, instructions passed through the crowd to put all of our bikes on one side of the monument and lock them. Then we gathered under the watchful brass eyes of Cartier for a photo and some information.

“If the police stop you this is not an illegal bike race,” said the man giving the briefing whose name I never had a chance to learn for reasons that will shortly become clear. “This is a rally with checkpoints.”

Then he announced that the manifests were in the Mordecai Richler Gazebo, and the crowd bolted, some to the gazebo, others to their locked bikes. I ran to my bike, picked it up, and ran with it to the gazebo, then abandoned that idea when I realized I could just unlock it and ride. I arrived and got my manifest.

A note about manifests: La Course des Morts is an alley cat style bike race. This means riders follow a manifest: a list of addresses, or checkpoints, they need to visit around the city. They go to a checkpoint, get their manifest signed by volunteers, and then go to the next one. The thing is that there isn’t an order to the checkpoints, and knowing where they are in relation to each other is vital. Riders need to reach all of them to complete the race.

It’s bad to have to double or triple back to parts of the city you’ve already visited to get checkpoints you missed, after all, or to ride up the same hills twice.

I met up with Sadaka and Hubermann at the gazebo, and we looked at the manifests. An address on Rachel St. seemed close, so we hopped back on our bikes and got going. The plan was we would ride together the whole night.

After the first red light we got separated, and we didn’t meet again. I was alone. And I got lost. A lot.

I made it to the spot late, after biking the wrong way up Parc Ave. for a good five minutes. I left my bike on the street, unlocked, and ran inside. My manifest got signed.

Outside, I ran into Baab, the messenger I spoke to at the bar. She was on her way in. We smiled at each other.

That was the last meaningful human interaction I had with another rider all night.

My strategy was to look at the manifest and see what checkpoint seemed closest, and then go to it. That led me out to Hochelaga, and then further.

Inadvertently I’d headed to the farthest-east part of the race, which is supposed to be the end, first. I’d skipped the dense checkpoints in the Plateau and in the Mile End. I goofed hard, and had to ride back.

The last checkpoint I made it to, after biking all the way to Outremont from Hochelaga, was on Clark St. and St. Joseph Blvd. My body was broken. I was lightheaded and had a headache simultaneously. I’d been riding nonstop since 8:30 p.m. It was 10:40 p.m. I usually just commute.

When I got there, a volunteer told me the last person before me passed 45 minutes ago.

As I was getting ready to leave, the man who signed my manifest told me to hurry.

“They’re closing the others soon,” he said. Then his phone lit up and he looked back up at me. “Nevermind. They’re closed.”

My race was over. I could’ve biked from the corner of St. Joseph Blvd. and Clark St. to the finish party underneath the Jacques Cartier Bridge, or I could’ve gone home, 15 minutes away. I went home. I mean, I wasn’t even DFL, so why bother?

I later learned that my friends Sadaka and Hubermann finished—they stopped after the first checkpoint and planned a route.

I don’t know who won. I don’t know who was DFL. But I know that I’m probably the only person who was surprised to see the Olympic Stadium looming out of the mist in some forgotten industrial park, glowing purple like a monolith in a dream. Is there a prize for that?

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