18 years of Monster Track: Jc Ramirez on New York track bike culture

In Interviews, New York by Claire

It is raining when I meet the Jc in New York. It is spring and we are hiding under the Queensboro Bridge, a huge thing that echoes with the rumble of trucks and the smell of gas – “Hopefully it’s just a dead rat” he says, of the strange smell. Jc, or Diablo, has been a New York courier since 1994. In over 20 years, he’s been behind the birth of Monster Track. He’s between jobs but the second he starts talking about cycling, he’s beaming and we end up talking about the birth of Monster Track – one of the world’s biggest alleycats and New York’s first trackbike race – years spent riding around New York, why he loves the city, and his own brand, Street Kings.

How long have you been a courier in New York?

I started in 1994. November. So it’s been 23 years. I’ve seen a lot of things. Usually the life of a courier is like six months, or two or three years, maybe. It used to be that you’d see more people doing it for longer but now it’s getting shortened, the lifespan.

I used to work when it was a beeper and we used to use pay phones, because there were no cell phones. Then we started using cell phones and radios, and it started changing.

When you started did you think you’d do it for 10, 20 years, because that was normal?

Yeah, the people that I met were around probably doing it for ten, fifteen years. But a lot of people left and they’re doing something else. A lot of people came and they worked. This job is like that: sometimes you do it for a period of time and then do something else. Sometimes you come back.

Have you always been in New York?

Yeah, only in New York. I’m from Mexico City and I came here in 1994, so my second job was a bike messenger.

That must have been a crazy first job here.

Yeah – NYC was my first job. In Mexico City I was in high school and came straight here. It was totally different. Mexico City’s a big city and New York’s a big city too but not compared to Mexico City.. It’s huge. It’s spread out. That’s why it was quite easy to adapt.

I’ve always liked bicycles. In the beginning when I started it was so appealing to be able to work on a bike. What better way to get to know the whole city. I was so excited. I got the job and never left. I really liked the freedom. Back in the day we used to get good money, too – more than people who worked in corporate offices. Because of faxes and emails, the kind of jobs, it’s still going on but it’s not like before.

How’s it changed?

Well now it’s more easy. Everything got easier. Now you can use a cell phone for communication and you have the maps, which back in the days you used to have no maps. I mean, it was maps but with like a little book so you’d have to see the street, if you don’t know them. It was a little bit more challenging. Now it’s more easy and you get the jobs from [cell] phones.

How do you think the community itself has changed?

I would say it’s not as strong like before. Before, I’d say there was more unity. Now it’s a different look. Back in the day it was just bike messengers. Now there’s a lot of groups, like Track or Die, Lock Foot Posi, and others. But there wasn’t [this before], just messengers who used to hang out in Tompkins Square Park, and before that in Washington Square Park in the late or mid-80s, before I started in the early 90s. But every day after work, the riders would meet there, talk about things and after that going to the bars in that area, in East Village.

When you say there’s more groups now, you mean non-courier groups because cycling’s just exploded?

There’s a lot of these groups and little teams. Now they’re starting to get more into racing. A lot of people create teams for racing – not just alleycats but for racing Red Hood Crit, track races and road races.

“Back in the day there was no track culture”
I used to race alleycats and I also organised them. I kind of started this alleycat, a real 18 year alleycat: Monster Track.

Monstertrack is billed as the second largest alleycat in the nation

That’s the first track bike race in New York city. It started in the year 2000 and it’s been organised every year. I conceived the idea of the Monster Track with a bunch of friends. I’m kind of a godfather of the track culture, because back in the day there was no track culture. Monster Track was when everybody came [together]. We raced only track bikes.

When you all conceived Monster Track, what did you want it to be?

I wasn’t into races, just into alleycats and I got my first track bike. I brought a group of friends I had to an alleycat. There were three of us and we were riding track bikes. Everyone was riding road bikes and all kind of bikes. After the race we got together and were drinking, talking about the whole thing and we were saying we should do our track bike-only race.

[The alleycats] were kind of not fair because people had gears and we were riding with only one gear and no brakes. So we were saying we should make an alleycat for only track bikes to see what’s up, you know. To really see who is the best in that. So that’s how the idea of the Monster Track came alive.

Then after that, a friend of mine from the ground wanted to celebrate his birthday. He threw the first Monster Track on his birthday. It was February 28th, 2000. It’s been every year since that day. This year it was the 18th. It’s like a teenager, you know. It’s been a long time. Johnny Carolino, his nickname was The Snake – back in the day he was very skinny and in this job, usually they nickname people.

And you’re Diablo.

Yeah. In the year 2001 I threw my first alleycat on July 4th and I called it El Diablo. I used to have a saddle called Diablo, after a famous world racer. It’s got the little Diablo on it and I was like ‘what shall I call this race?’ So I got the nickname.

A drawing from my friend Greg Ugalde. It’s the Monster Track IV poster, that’s me holding the track culture in the hangs.

So do you only ride track bikes?

I love it, you know. I started riding track bikes in ’97. I’ve been riding it for so long. I don’t ride [the track bike] for work because I’m getting older, and I don’t race no more. I used to ride it every day but now it’s harder for me because of the knees – you start feeling it – but I’m still able to ride it at a good pace. I love it on rainy days because you’ve got more control over it than a regular bike. On a regular bike, the brake pads, they really disintegrate. It makes the bicycle so dirty. I like to keep mine clean cause they last longer, and it’s easier to clean a track bike without gears or brakes.

I’ve only got two bikes. This track bike and a single speed. The single speed’s got brakes – it free-wheels and it’s got fat tyres. It’s really comfortable to work.

I don’t like to take the train. I’m always on a bicycle. For me, since 1994 it’s been my lifestyle. You’ll always see me on a bicycle. That’s why my clothing and all that goes in that area.

I have a small clothing company called Street Kings NYC. We started as a bike messenger company. We were making the clothing for the messengers. Little by little we did little things here and there. But we lost the courier company and now we try to do like caps and jackets for cyclists – not just for couriers.

What are your favourite places and areas in New York to cycle around?

”It’s like a wave, like a river, and you are inside of it.”

Now it’s Midtown. My office is on 42nd and 8th, that’s my neighbourhood. I really like it, you see a lot. it’s not boring. And Time Square. 58th – 34th is midtown. The heart of Manhattan, I would say, is 42nd, which is like where all the lights and theatre area is. All the fancy areas are on 42nd. A lot of tourists are there.

I’m slowly starting to piece together an understanding of New York…

When I came to New York in 1994 my Grandma was living in El Barrio (East Harlem) on 117th between Lexington and 3rd. That was my first place. I’ve been moving since. I’ve lived in Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx – never in Staten Island – and right here in the Lincoln Centre. So I’ve been kind of like everywhere. Now I’m in Astoria.

JC pulls out his cell phone.

This is how I do my signing. Here’s the manifest and look, I’ve already got one.

The cell phone makes some loud exciting beeps.

That’s how I contact them.

So much easier than a pay phone.

The beepers, they used to ring then you had to look for a fucking pay phone. It was so crazy because they were not working or the coins were stuck or maybe because a lot of crack heads used to stuff the pay phone. So when you’d put it on and it didn’t work out, the coin never came out because they’d stick something. They were sticking this and [then later, when they removed it] all the coins were coming down, and it was like Las Vegas or something. That was crazy.

I want to ask you about your photography quickly.

I’m very into photographs. I don’t do it for work, it’s just my hobby. I always like to capture my day, you know. I’m always in the city and you always see interesting things. Sometimes you wish you had a camera and that’s why I got into it. I always carry it and I always take photos of things that I see.

What do you like to photograph most?

My favourite thing? I’d say traffic. It’s like a wave, like a river, and you are inside of it. You have to wave through it. You cannot stop, especially if you have a track bike. The less you stop the better, so the most efficient way is to navigate the river, like going through with the flow. I like the rhythm of the city, you know. I love this city. It’s never in peace. But hopefully one day I can retire and live in a beautiful place.

A well-timed car honks loudly in the background.

Yeah, maybe with some palm trees.

Find JC on Instagram, Flickr, Facebook and on his website Diablotronyc.com. Cordell also caught Jc snapping photos at Red Hook Crit for a quick fire six questions.

Street Kings on Instagram and Facebook.

See more of Monster Track: Cordell took photos of this year’s race. There’s more info on the Monster Track site, Bike Blog NYC, or Wikipedia.

Claire18 years of Monster Track: Jc Ramirez on New York track bike culture