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Alleycats

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You’d think that after cycling several hundred miles during the week, bicycle couriers would be glad to hang up their bikes at the weekend. But, come Friday night, many are itching to up a gear, an impulse that is occasionally channelled into ersatz point-to-point races. Usually these alleycat races follow a series of checkpoints through London, where manifests must be stamped or strange rituals performed. They are fast, exhilarating and exhausting. Though non-couriers are welcome to enter, I don’t know of any who have won.

On my last day as a courier, I took part in a race with a difference: a steeplechase, themed as an urban fox hunt. Several litres of paint were secured to the fox’s back, with a pipe leading down his bike ending in a tap set to dribble it out in a gentle flow. At the allotted hour the tap was opened, and the fox (complete with tail) pedalled off into the traffic, a line of paint glistening in his wake. Five minutes later the hounds were released with a blast of horns, and the race was on.

Most of these races begin at the Foundry, a punky, ramshackle venue on Great Eastern Street. It is a bastion of cheap booze and anarcho-aestheticism in the heart of Shoreditch, the last outpost of the underground in an area which long ago lost its battle with gentrification. It used to be a bank, and the vault is now used to stage exhibitions. Layers of graffiti cover every inch of the toilets. The building is now under threat: Park Plaza Hotels, a French consortium, has submitted plans for a 350-room ‘Art’otel’ to be built on the site this year. The consortium describes itself as ‘a contemporary collection of hotels that fuse exceptional architectural style with art-inspired interiors, located in cosmopolitan centres across Europe’.

It remains unclear which artists will be represented in the new building, but the council does plan to preserve a six-metre-high mural by Banksy. Cofounded by Bill Drummond (of KLF fame and money-burning notoriety), the Foundry allows anyone to exhibit, so long as they are not funded by arts councils. The building is a focal point for psychogeographers. Iain Sinclair recently lamented its demise on Newsnight.

Our fox hunt ended ignominiously. After dashing down Great Eastern Street, the fox led the hounds on a short but intricate circuit around E2 before returning to Brick Lane, where he slipped on a drain cover and buckled both his wheels.

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