The sun had gone down on Central Park, and a crowd of close to 150 people had gathered around two bicyclists near Engineers’ Gate. Volunteers holding the seat posts steadied the bikes as the riders clicked into their pedals.

Then, when the coast was clear, a starter yelled, “Go!” and the first race of the night was off: a 300-meter straight shot uptown in the bike lane along the Central Park loop. Lose and you’re done. Win and move on. After 60 riders had gone through five elimination rounds, the victors were decided. Enzo Edmonds, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn (and a nine-time national juniors champion) won the men’s bracket. Among the women, Camie Kornely, 49, the reigning women’s national and world masters champion who also holds a world track-bike record, took first place.

And then the Central Park Raccoons, a small collection of track-bike enthusiasts, rode off into the night, agreeing to return whenever the next Shootout race is held. It was unclear when that would be.

Chris Salucci, one of the founders of the Raccoons, and his cohort usually announce a Shootout just days before the event, the result of whim and the weather forecast. Anyone with a bike is welcome to ride. In the past, the Shootouts have seen racers on mountain bikes, cargo bikes, CitiBikes, beach cruisers, and, on at least one occasion, a unicycle. The racing kicks off at 9, when the park is a bit quieter and the raccoons, the spirit animal of the bike racers, are starting to come out.

“We’re in black, they’re black,” Mr. Salucci pointed out. “We’re out at night, the park is covered with raccoons at night. They travel in straight lines,” he added, “a lot like bike racers.”

Mr. Salucci and Stevie Valentine founded the Central Park Raccoons a couple of years ago after a summertime “alleycat” — a kind of illegal bicycle scavenger hunt to crown the city’s best bike courier. Alleycats, the friends noted, had become less frequent. With the proliferation of electric delivery bikes, the messenger community was already somewhat in decline. Then, the Red Hook Crit folded, and fixed-gear bike racers had fewer regular races to train for.

One of the most prestigious bike criteriums, the Red Hook Crit drew world-class fixed-gear cyclists to a closed course in Red Hook, Brooklyn, once a year. It ended in 2019 after sponsorship dried up. Mr. Salucci and Mr. Valentine saw a void that needed to be filled.

“There’s a lot of interest in road racing in New York,” meaning the geared bikes ridden in the style of the Tour de France, “but not a lot of interest in track-bike racing,” said Mr. Salucci, who works as a prop builder and carpenter. By contrast, a fixed-gear bike has one gear and cannot coast; as long as the bicycle is moving, the pedals are always in motion. Messengers have long favored them because their lack of moving parts made them more durable on city streets and easier to repair. Brakes on fixed-gear bikes are famously optional. “And there are a lot of people around here who like track bikes but don’t really have a place to race them, especially after the loss of Red Hook.”

Before the pandemic, Mr. Salucci and Mr. Valentine held regular training sessions in Central Park, doing hill repeats to prepare for the longstanding late-night races held in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, known as the Not So Friendly laps. When those sessions grew too big for the duo to handle, the Shootouts were born. Mr. Salucci and Mr. Valentine posted an invitation to their social media channels, inviting anyone with a bike to come race.

Despite the intensity of one-on-one races, the Shootouts promote an atmosphere of camaraderie above all else, as one of Mr. Salucci’s main aims is to demystify the historically exclusive fixed gear scene. The first round of the Shootout begins with similar bikes racing one another: road bike against road bike, fixie versus fixie, cargo bike against cargo bike, unicycle — in the unlikely event — against unicycle. From there, the winner moves on, regardless of bike style. The only bike not welcome is an electric bike.

Generally, the more traditional road cyclists and fixed-gear racers are the ones who move on. But not always.

“We’ve had mountain bikes and cargo bikes make it as far as the semifinals,” Mr. Salucci said, before lamenting the fact that the most recent race featured only track and road bikes, and more serious racers.

Although they don’t actually have permits for the races, the Raccoons are careful to observe all the park rules, to avoid conflicts with people who might not like to see dozens of bikers whizzing past at speeds often in excess of 30 miles per hour. Mr. Salucci said that they’ve avoided any run-ins with the police, largely by keeping the racing within the bounds of the park’s bike lane and starting after the park starts emptying out.

“We don’t want to piss anybody off and we want to keep everyone safe,” Mr. Salucci said. “But we want to be able to race.”

And while the Shootouts are the Central Park Raccoons’ signature event, the aim is to eventually secure permits for more fixed-gear races around the city.

Earlier this year, the Raccoons helped stage a race, the multiday USA Cycling-sanctioned Randalls Island Crit series, and hosted a series of track races and clinics at the Kissena Park Velodrome in Queens, which the Raccoons consider their home track.

“A lot of people who live in New York have no idea Kissena even exists,” Mr. Salucci said of the 400-meter purpose-built asphalt bike racing track in Flushing. Constructed by Robert Moses in 1962, Kissena is one of only 26 velodromes in America.

Ms. Kornely, who led one of those clinics at the velodrome, sees the Shootouts as a recruitment tool to get people into the more traditional channels of bike racing.

“Let’s get people racing,” Ms. Kornely said. “Let’s get people to Kissena.”

For Enzo Edmonds, the stripped-down, communal atmosphere of the Shootouts is something that he doesn’t get while competing in the more staid and traditional ranks of bicycle racing. Rather than amassing points over the course of a race season or performing well enough in high-profile races to pique the interest of professional cycling teams, the Shootouts, whose winners walk home with a bit of cash and a wooden trophy bearing the likeness of a raccoon, offer a different kind of competition.

“The typical races I do are more — ” the teenager said before pausing to find the perfect word. “Sanctioned.”

The post The Raccoons of Central Park Move in Packs and Go Fast. On Bikes. appeared first on New York Times.

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