For the past two years, CrankShift NYC has been earning a reputation as a fierce young cycling team. With every Alleycat, Crit, and race - they become more and more of a household name. When we were first introduced to the team in Part One, we learned about their origins and goals with three of its members: Brenndon, Chelsea, and Jon. In this anticipated Part Two of the Spoke & Word, we go deeper and skitch with them right into the urban cycling scene discussing clashes with tradition and change, as well as Chelsea sending a powerful message against sexism and a rally for women cyclists.
The cycling community is made up of a bunch of subcultures. Fixed-gear bikes have become almost one and the same with urban cycling culture. At the same time, it’s also difficult to disassociate them with Alleycats. Why are they both synonymous with each other?
Brenndon: The history. That’s how messengers used to compare their skills with each other years ago. It started out only with people that were out there every day, excluding the people who don’t actually work on bikes.
Jon: I don’t want to say track bikes are solely an Alleycat thing. Originally, it was just any bike. Fixed-gears just happen to be synonymous because how cheap they are for messengers to maintain. It just so happens a lot of them race each other on these bikes. Branding has become really big now. You don’t find some big name who has won one or two dozen Alleycats without finding a brand he is sponsored by now. It has definitely picked up. It’s a good thing. It brings out the culture when you have companies willing to spend money like Red Bull, Rockstar, or Aventon.
Is branding ruining the whole underground cycling scene?
Jon: Personally (and I’ll speak for Chelsea as well), we’re both new. I don’t consider myself an old head. I consider myself part of the generation who got Leaders as a first bike. We don’t have Bridgestones that we had to dig up at a thrift store. I’m cool with the branding. I think it’s great. With more people picking up a fixed gear, getting into the culture, and showing that they’re competitive alongside us -- it’s nice to see a fresh face every year.
Despite the branding and cycling's growing popularity, there must be some clashes between new and old school.
Brenndon: There are plenty of things about the old school ways that no ones wants to see around anymore or continue on. No one wants to get paid less than a dollar to do a run that they don’t want to do. I think if the old traditions are still withheld in the new way of thinking - it’s the best. Postmates, Uber, and etc - a lot of these companies are changing the industry, but a lot of the old guys don’t like it.
Jon: …like using a phone.
Jon: It’s turns a lot of people off when their money is digital. I used to work for Postmates for a couple of months. You’d go to one of the restaurants and not find a delivery crew anymore because this company took it over. They’re more efficient. You’ll hear another ding from another courier. You’d go out in the street, get the same ding, see an old head, and they would look at you like “where the fuck that thing come from? I’m still using a radio.’ You can tell it’s definitely a generational thing. There is such a big gap between a walkie-talkie and a smartphone.
Brenndon: The young bloods are more accepting of new things and the old school not so much. The more money involved and potential for growth, then the more the old school way is not considered since there is less money in it. And eventually...they’re going to die... so, we’re going to get in there eventually. It’s something we want to try to have happen before that because it might not happen soon enough otherwise. It’s exciting though being a part of change, whether it’s positive or negative…it’s still change.
No matter whether it's the old or new generation, when it comes to Alleycats - you are definitely putting yourself at risk. In the end, is it worth it?
Chelsea: For some people it is.
Brenndon: The rush is worth it. Yes. You may hesitate, ‘I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do this. I shouldn’t do this.’ Then, BOOM! I’m gone.
Jon: I think everyone we talk to before a race is nervous as shit.
Brenndon: You have no idea what it’s going to be like. You could be waiting for someone to say ‘GO!’ and in 30 seconds all of a sudden – a six car pile-up three blocks away from a major checkpoint happens. It can completely change the outcome of a race. NYC is constantly moving and often has so much happening. That’s really where the excitement is. There is no Alleycat that is going to be the same.
Jon: Yeah, you just never know what you’re going to get. I hit a horse two years ago!
Brenndon: Let’s just say it was a working horse.
Chelsea: I think for the most part – just saying to yourself ‘I did it! I survived!’ can be the most fulfilling thing in the world. Some people don’t even finish the race because it becomes too much. Like Brenndon was saying, so many things can change in a matter of seconds. You can easily say, “Fuck this! I’m going home.’ If people are strong enough, you can amaze yourself thinking ‘Wow, this is who I am.’
Jon: You won’t go to an Alleycat and only find messengers anymore. You’ll find people from all walks of life. They’re some people who are extremely educated, like ‘What the fuck are these people doing here risking their life?’ At the end of the race, you’re like ‘Whoa! You’re pretty fucking rad! You cut me off there and I didn’t expect it.’ You just don’t know who you’ll run into anymore.
Brenndon: It’s that face of someone who would never hop on a bike and race through NYC streets,
‘Oh gosh! You’re crazy!’
‘Yes. Yes, I am. Thank you.’
Whether it’s an Alleycat or just a casual ride, what makes NYC such a special place to ride a bicycle?
Jon: It’s a journey every day.
Chelsea: You see something new every day. It’s always an exciting feeling to be faster than a train or car in traffic.
Brenndon: No matter where you live or where you’re going, you have options on a bike. You don’t have to take the same route. Sure, you want to take the most efficient route – so you take it often. Maybe leave fifteen minutes earlier and you can take a completely different route and still get to where you need to be without even wasting your time. Maybe experience the waterfront of Brooklyn as you go into Manhattan, instead of cutting through traffic and going straight through the bridge. If you want to get to work by subway, you have to take this line to this line to this line. Plus, if someone is late you can blame them and NOT the MTA. For someone who has never hopped on a bike before, there is a bike shop on every other corner, Citi Bikes, or must know someone who rides a bike. Maybe it’s something they could try. I think riding a bike is transitioning from something that was trendy into something that could be a foundation.
So how do you feel about this ‘transition?’
Brenndon: I’m excited and scared for cycling. I’ve had more tickets from running red lights than a year ago, which is frustrating. At the same time, I think it’s exciting because the one time I rode in Europe, I would love to feel that way in America. It was a 30-minute bike ride in Amsterdam, but in those 30 minutes – I felt more like a human-being on a bike than I ever felt riding in any city here. What blew my mind was people stopping others from getting in my way. Walking pedestrians were like ‘No, that’s the bike path. You need to stay out of there.’ In contrast, here they are saying ‘Oh, don’t worry about them’ or ‘What’s your problem? Why are you doing that?’ I would respond ‘What? You mean ride my bike in the place that I’m supposed to be in and your stepped out right in front of me – giving me a split second for me to decide if I was going to run into you or the car and I didn’t have enough time to make a decision?’
Chelsea: Bike lanes are the most dangerous to me.
Jon: It’s for reasons like that I don’t even use the bike lanes, unfortunately.
Are you saying bike lanes are not safe for cyclists?
Jon: I definitely feel safer in the middle of the road like an asshole. People actually pay attention when you’re in the middle of road. It is what it was when it comes to safety on a bike lane. There are too many things that could pop out at you. I just feel safer taking my own route in the middle of road. There is nothing else to it. I could see what I need to see. I’m not going to worry about the pedestrian running from behind a parked car as opposed to these two cars making their signals. I could at least accommodate myself to their signaling. If they’re cutting me off, then I could just swerve around them rather than an actual human-being with (god forbid) a child in their hands. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I were to hit someone like that.
Brenndon: That way of riding also comes from riding a fixed-gear brakeless bike in the city. If you are willing to do that, you develop an awareness of your surroundings. You have to! You don’t have the ability of instant stoppage. You have reactionary stopping, so you need to prevent yourself from having a reaction that's going to be bad. You analyze a block or two ahead, watching the left and right lights, and constantly checking your blind spot. It’s developing all these things that allow the street to be safer because it’s predictable. You can use logic and reason while riding in the street and make it to where you need to go. You can’t use that on a bike path because people who are looking at their phone won’t move logically or reasonably.
Do you think cycling in the streets of NYC will ever be safer by your standards?
Brenndon: If we can slow down NYC, then yes. But that mentality of ‘I need to be there five minutes ago…’
Mission impossible, then?
Chelsea: Yeah, pretty much. Especially when you have the public considering cyclists as menaces. It’s going to be awhile for people to even start warming up to us because there is always going to be that ONE person.
Brenndon: Look at the incident in Central Park.
What are your thoughts on Citi Bike?
Jon: Four years ago, if you had told me there'd be a bike share program in NYC - I would've looked at you and laughed. Now, it's a reality. I don't mind it! There are it's cons when you have a drunk asshole riding a Citi Bike on a Saturday night when you are trying to get from Point A to B. Go to St. Mark's on a Saturday night, especially in the Summer and count the Citi Bike cyclists. The Bros! Which is another thing - I thought I would never see a bro on a Citi Bike. Overall, it'd say it's a positive thing. It's not like NYC is the only city to have a bike share program. You go up to Boston and you'll find a bike share program there, too.
Brenndon: I love D.C.'s! I think it's an exciting concept. Just like anything else, it's looks like a business person designed it as opposed to someone who had cycling in mind. One of the most frustrating things I've heard about the Citi Bike program is that they feel like it's pointless because of how slow they are. There are three gears, but with all extremely low ratios, which I can understand why it was done that way. I think the lack of an option to be able to move a little bit faster (for some people) is part of the reason that you only have people who are dicking around. They start weaving and drinking a lot more before getting on a bike. They think 'well, it's safe because I can't go very fast.'
Would you say you're a bit resistant?
Brenndon: I wouldn't say resistant. Transportation Alternatives is doing an awesome job on their initiatives. I'm more than willing for change, but I don't want the change to be negative. The focus shouldn't be solely on cyclists and what they're doing wrong. Yes, I should be responsible for the red lights I go through, but I also think the car breaking the speed limit should be, too. Right now, the cops would be more likely to go after me because I'm the easier ticket. You'll force cyclists to leave the city as a result.
Chelsea, I noticed you are definitely out there competing at many cycling events and races. You are often not only representing yourself, but also all women. Is it safe to say many cycling events or the cycling community here is rather male-dominated?
Chelsea: It definitely is. I try to get out there as much as I can to show face, prove my stuff, and show everyone that I'm dedicated.
There are some females that come and go and get discouraged because some of the guys (not our group) get overly aggressive. During a race, there are so many guys who try to cut me off or sabotage my racing. I've gotten to the point where I'm like 'NO! You stay there! I'm going forward! I know I'm faster than you!' Even though, they're not faster than me - they're going to try their hardest to cut me off to give themselves the satisfaction.
I love showing my face because I want to inspire more girls, so they can do it, too. We're fast! We just need more confidence. I still have little doubts in my mind, but at the end of the day...I know where I am in cycling. It inspires me to push myself further and prove myself even more.
What is one of the main reasons why women are not being represented?
Chelsea: Sexism. There are some females that come and go and get discouraged because some of the guys (not our group) get overly aggressive. The guys click and cling together. They push the women away or single them out sometimes. 'Oh, look. Who's that? She ain't shit! She is just a girl.' During a race, there are so many guys who try to cut me off or sabotage my racing. I've gotten to the point where I'm like 'NO! You stay there! I'm going forward! I know I'm faster than you!' Even though, they're not faster than me - they're going to try their hardest to cut me off to give themselves the satisfaction. Others treat women like a piece of meat. 'Oh, that's a girl on a bike. She is hot. Let me hit her up.'
Jon: I'd say it's like that about 75% of the time.
Brenndon: You remember that 12-hour girl walking in NYC video? A bike hang-out is in part of that video. I stopped hanging out there because it's a big issue. Guys, in the biking industry in the New York scene, don't have as much respect for women. When I rode out in L.A. and Seattle, there was a totally different mentality towards women.
Chelsea: Within the first month of getting into cycling, I was already dating Jon. He introduced me into getting a fixed-gear bike. Guys would just message me everyday on Facebook like 'Hey! Hey! Hey!' They know nothing about me! They just know I have a bike and they don't care. It's wrong! I'm more than that!
Jon: ...More than just pretty bike.
Chelsea: Exactly! I'm more than just a fixed-gear pretty bike with Omniums. For the girls that I do know who continuously race, they are really competitive. If they lose, then they don't want to do it again. They get upset or get discouraged. I've lost plenty of times. I've lost as many times as I've won. It makes me want to come back and prove to them like 'I can do it. I'm going to win this time around.' You witnessed at the Bikestock Gold Sprints last year - Ayesha comes around and kicks my ass all the time! But it makes me want to come back saying to myself 'Next time, I'm going to beat her. Next time.' One time, I actually did beat her! Then, she came back and kicked my ass again! You develop that comraderie. It's an awesome feeling to have that consistent competition. It's sad that there isn't as much of it for us as there is for the men. For men, it's 'Next time, I'm going to beat that guy!' and get a response like 'Next race!' Meanwhile for the women, it'd be something like 'Maybe I'll see you. Please come next time, maybe?'
What message would you give to women to encourage them and not be so intimidated by competitive cycling?
Chelsea: First off, cycling is hard - but it's also a beautiful thing. You have more of a chance of succeeding in cycling as a woman than a man. We need more females, especially to represent New York because there is not enough. The few girls who do are absolutely exceptional! They're amazing and fast women! If we inspire more women to do that, there would be even more competition and we'd get even better. This way when we go out to other states or countries, we have a better chance of winning than having our three girls who usually represent and get their ass handed to them in Europe because these Euro-women all cycle! They're a whole big clan and they're all together! There is about forty women that compete against each other in velodrome, crit racing, or whatever it may be - they all come together. I feel it should be that way here and try to represent New York, regardless of the cattiness. I know that is how women are. Some of them are very catty, but we should all put that aside and love each other because we all ride. Pretty much that.
Besides CrankShift NYC, I know there are lot of other teams and crews in this city. You all seem to get along with everyone, but are there rivalries or beefs between the others?
Jon: Oh, there are definitely beefs between crews. One of our mottos to live by is to always be nice to people. You just never know who the hell knows who. You'd be surprised as to how many people don't take that as good advice. They don't.
Brenndon: I guess the only beef, not necessarily brought onto CrankShift, is when issues occur during races. For example during one Alleycat, I technically came in 3rd Place, but I was officially 5th because two people cheated. They didn't go to a checkpoint, but claimed they did. I'm not mean, but it's hard to have a pleasant attitude.
Jon: That race was so fucking hard. It was in the middle of a blizzard.
Chelsea: It's so hard to get a Chrome jersey in every race. Every body knows what kind of rep you have once you have a Chrome jersey. The person who cheated gets a Chrome jersey, while everyone busted their ass, fell in the snow, froze to the point of frost bite! I could not feel my thumbs! I went home and cried hysterically because I couldn't feel my thumbs for two hours. It's literally blood, sweat, and tears - yet someone cheated? Whatever. I have no respect for them. It's not necessary a face-to-face beef. It's just we don't respect them. We keep our distance, but we stay professional and say 'Hey, what's up?'
What makes CrankShift different than other crews?
Jon: We're small. I think we can all agree that we like that because we get to know each more intimately. Because we are a small team, we can focus on things pinpoint. Like when we made these skin suits, we put our brains together to make them. If we want to make a schedule for our races, we'll put our heads together to make a schedule.
Chelsea: We're constantly talking.
Jon: We talk every single day. We say 'hi.' We say 'goodnight.' I talk to these guys than most of my family. I think that's what makes us very unique.
Brenndon: For someone like myself, who came from another race team, this is one of the biggest differences why I like being part of this team more so than the other. It's also why this team is still around and why my old team dissipated. We hang out even when we're not on bikes. We go to the movies, the bar, and etc. It's not just about cycling, but it is a big focus for us. We have so many similar interests on so many similar things. It's easy to have a life with each other outside of just cycling.
Chelsea: It's like a brotherhood.
Jon: ...with one sister.
What would you all be doing if you didn’t find cycling?
Jon: I think I’d still be a Behavioral Therapist.
Chelsea: Damn. #SadLife
Jon: I’d also be bored out of my mind and probably drinking more. Probably doing a lot of unhealthy shit. Maybe even fatter, too.
Chelsea: You were fatter when I first met you.
Jon: That’s mean! I guess I’d be of the thick variety. Anyway, I’d just be a fuckin’ unhappy person.
Chelsea: I probably would be drinking a lot and be with the wrong kind of people. Most likely my old shitty friends. Sorry, old shitty friends! My mother and I would probably have a terrible relationship. I feel like I’d still be at Westchester Community College wasting away without having any motives. I’d still be searching to fill that void. Before I met Jon and started cycling, I was constantly changing my majors and job positions because I was just trying to find something I’m meant for. I was always depressed because I would never know. What was I living for? I wasn't doing shit with my life. With cycling, it's like WOW! This is it! This is a beautiful feeling. From there, it’s just blossomed.
Brenndon: I had the very fortunate or unfortunate experience in my life where I hit a very low point. Everything has been better after that, especially changing your mindset for a positive way of thinking. Ever since that point, I’ve always thought as long as I’m doing things that I enjoy in my life - I can accept things that I don’t. For me, I probably would be working a job that I don’t enjoy, but yet experiencing things I wouldn't want to be in my free time. Is that exciting to me? Not really. I don’t want my day to be half exciting and half resentful. I’d just be in the middle of the line. Just floating by. Maybe to the next place. Maybe not. Maybe just nowhere.