Track or Die NYC was born from a group of friends riding together, with Shardy Nieves documenting it through his photography. Then it took off and turned into something really big. Now, six years later, ToD hold a stack of tough, weird and boozy yearly events and are a solid part of New York’s bike culture.
Over my first New York pizza, Shardy talks about what Track or Die is. It’s responsible for some of NYC’s larger alleycats and it’s a huge part of the community, so we’re just 30 seconds in before someone he knows rides past and swings in.
We start with pizza, then bikes. I hit record:
CT: I went to a diner yesterday and had New York portions for the first time. What’s everyone doing, why is everything so big?
Shardy: That’s how it is.
Ah! there’s my boy Julian [gestures out of the window at a guy on a bike]. This guy coming up on the bike loves pizza. He has a tattoo of pizza. He has a pizza top cap on his stem. And a tattoo that says ‘In Crust We Trust’. Yeah, he’s a pizza addict. He’s one of the guys who’s been riding with us for a few years now.
CT: Who is us?
Shardy: Track or Die. I say ‘us’ a lot when it comes to Track or Die. I don’t look at it as myself.
I’m gonna call him.
[On phone] Dude, I just saw you ride by. We’re in the pizza shop you just rode by. I’m looking at you right now.
[Julian does a loop back outside in the street]
CT: Wow that’s a lot of spoke cards he’s got.
Shardy: Yeah, those are mostly from the Track or Die races. I throw a lot of races.
CT: And he does every single one from the looks of things. Those spoke cards are massive – like pamphlets.
Shardy: The smaller ones seem to fly out of the spokes.
CT: And Track or Die doesn’t do subtle.
Shardy: Yeah. I had to start numbering spoke cards cause people started stealing spoke cards. They would come by and steal them like ‘Yo that looks nice.’ So I had to number them.
Julian: Hey yo! I was like ‘who the fuck was that!’ [Goes to get pizza]
CT: I saw my first walking messenger today, charging down the street on a skateboard. I hadn’t seen one before. He was really going for it.
Shardy: Kurt Boon considers himself the fastest walking messenger. They had the NACCCs [North American Cycle Courier Championships] here and they gave out the Kurt Boon award – it was a metro card.
CT: So, proper questions. How long have you been a courier?
Shardy: Seven years.
CT: And you started Track or Die six years ago?
CT: What happened in that one year of riding that made you go ‘I’m going to start something’?
Shardy: I’d done photography for about eight years. I had a blog for photography and when I was learning photography I would just blog about anything – like different methods of shooting and lighting, all that stuff. I’d shoot photos and I’d blog about how I got those photos, so anyone who was interested in learning could see the steps I took.
I had a really bad accident with my knee, and I tore my ACL. Not from riding a bike, but I couldn’t walk for six to eight months. I had to build the strength back up in my legs. So I started riding bikes to build up the strength in my legs. I was shooting photography around that time and working for a cable company in an office – sitting there drove me crazy. I figured out that you could work on your bike and [get] money, and be all over the city. It works for me.
I’d just ride and started documenting things from not just the courier community but you know, architecture of the city. Over everything, I like shooting photos.
I started shooting a lot of bikes and people riding them. [Me and my friends would] meet up on Sundays, eat, drink and ride. We always had actual rides – that’s where the blog stemmed from, too. It was just like, Hey let’s go for a ride. Regardless of where we were from we’d meet up in Manhattan. I’m from the Bronx and my friends are from Brooklyn but we’d still come to Manhattan. Ever Sunday, 11 o’clock we’d ride out. Go to different places: to Jersey, to my boy’s house and go barbecue, or go to Brooklyn and we’d crash our friend’s houses and get some beers. Things like that. It was just about everybody riding.
I didn’t want my photography blog to be looked at as a bike blog. I started something separate as something separate for my bike photography, and that’s Track or Die.
Then people started taking notice. A couple of people started coming out and joining us – Julian is one of them – and it just grew from there. I’d go to races and shoot photos of the races. I wasn’t that confident in myself to do the races, because my knee was still healing and I have a really short temper.
CT: Which must be really great for courier life.
Shardy: Yeah, don’t even wanna talk about that. That’s incriminating.
We started generating somewhat of a buzz and the guy who organised it was like ‘these dudes aren’t racing.’ I was like: ‘No, we came to actually document your event not to race it.’
After a while, I was like ‘Oh, you’re gonna be a dick? Okay, I’ll race it’ and I did. I did pretty well and took fourth place. Could have done better but I got a flat tyre.
CT: Does get in the way.
Shardy: So I took fourth on a flat and got thrown into the racing when I saw it wasn’t that hard.
CT: What type of race was that?
Shardy: It was an alleycat [Monster Track]. So I did that one and then we started throwing our own alleycats. Our first one was six years ago: the summer alleycat. Right now it’s the biggest summer race in the city. it’s still an alleycat: a point-to-point messenger simulation race.
Our first race had 54 people – even now races don’t get that many people. That was our very first one. I didn’t know what to expect – I was just like ‘I’m just gonna fucking say I’m gonna throw a race and maybe people will come out or not.’
Then it took off from there.
It took off a lot faster than I expected, it really did. I don’t think anyone could have expected it. It was really just a bunch of guys hanging out and now we have 50 people showing up to our first race. Ever since then we do one every year. Well, we do a lot of events but the summer alleycat and the winter alleycat are our biggest. At our last one I think we had 170 people.
“Then we have our alleycats. They’re balls to the wall wildest shit you’ve ever done.”
CT: Was there nothing like it before – why do you think it was so successful?
Shardy: I think it’s the way we present ourselves because it’s not just a courier group, so people that aren’t couriers can relate to us. People just saw we were just regular guys and we weren’t really promoting the whole ‘messenger life’ thing. We were just like ‘hey if you have a bike and you wanna roll with us.’ A few of us did messenger work, we had a couple of teachers in the group, we had a lot of different people with very different titles. Not necessarily working on their bikes. For example, Julian, since he’s here, he works in an office [as well as some couriering]. So, you know, he works in the city. One of our older guys that rides with Track or Die is the CFO of Planned Parenthood, one of the guys works for MCA and we have teachers. It’s a diverse group. Totally different from a messenger. It’s cool because it makes for really good conversations when we all get together.
We also travel a lot. We’ve done events in Miami, LA, Columbia, we’re doing one in Barcelona in August. We travel all over. We’re not the guys who are just like ‘nah, we just wanna chill.’ We’ve been in Puerto Rico plenty of times, always like, where’s your local bar? We’re gonna go there. The intention wasn’t to get noticed but we did get the notoriety I guess from being out there. We’ve done a lot of good stuff within the cycling community – fundraisers, we’ve done a lot of shit, and we party. We can be easily spotted.
CT: Of it all, what have been your favourite events that you’ve put on?
Shardy: So our charity event is the two lap jam. It’s two laps in either Central Park or Prospect Park and we just get people to come out, usually like a $5 buy-in. Normally get a couple of sponsors for prizes or we’ll have some left over from another event. It’s the fastest two laps. That event started out as a shit-talking event between us because the guys were always like, yeah I’ll smoke you, I’ll smoke you.
[It started with] two laps of Central Park and it started bringing out a lot of fast guys. It got to the point that our charity event got so big that Central Park tried to shut us down. They had cops at the registration at Columbus Circle, like if we see anyone racing in the park we’ll arrest them. We said: what if we do it around Central Park, in the street. They were like, well we can’t stop you. So we took it to the street. We raised money for injured cyclists. That’s just our event to give back to the community.
We do Memorial Day Barbeque, which is basically for everyone. It started off with a couple of us, and the second year we did it in Harlem and did a perverted flyer: something like slap your meat on our grill.
We also do a Fourth of July barbeque, and the day of the barbecue they also have an event called Broadway Bomb. The Broadway Bomb is basically up in Manhattan, by 225th all the way down to Bowling Green but you have to take Broadway straight ahead. You can’t leave Broadway at all. You’re going across major intersections, and it goes from being a two way street, once you get to 59th street it becomes one-way, so you know.
After that, that’s usually around the time of the Tour de France. So we just started doing a ride to Coney. I believe one year we got really fucked up and some car was honking at us, we were like: go fuck yourself. It kind of stuck. You have about 50 people taking over the street and cars will honk. You have the Tour de France. Now you have the Tour de Go Fuck Yourself.
Then we have our alleycats. They’re balls to the wall wildest shit you’ve ever done.
CT: Can you define that please: wildest shit you’ve ever done. What makes them so special?
Shardy: I mean you’ve seen the traffic in New York right? Picture riding a brakeless bike throughout the city and I usually route the checkpoints and no one knows them – no one can ever say the checkpoints were leaked. When you get the paper and you’ve got to route it… It’s become one of the bigger events in the city.
“Our events are a little bit different to everyone else’s.”
We have a 4/20 race, which is a smoker’s race. It’s our first official race of the year in New York. I usually take all the money from registration and buy a shittonne of food and snacks and pizza. It’s a three person race, so you need a traffic guy, a distance guy and a sprinter. The distance, the long distance you ride and hand off it off to the traffic guy. The traffic guy will go do his portion and hand it off to the sprinter. The sprinter will go straight to the end. You have multiple teams racing against each other. It’s more like a relay race, with relay points but it’s in the city. It’s a very unique race and only Track or Die does it.
Then we have the midnight alleycat, which is just drinking.
CT: Is there any actual cycling?
Shardy: No no, there is. So it’s the same as an alleycat but it starts at midnight so you’re in a Saturday night in New York with midnight traffic and at every checkpoint you go to you’ve got to chug a beer. There’s eight checkpoints in total, so you have to have a beer koozie – you know, the little foam things that you put your beer in. That’s similar to your manifest. If you lose your koozie, you lose the race. So we normally print out a Track or Die-themed koozie for that race and when you register you get it. It costs $5 and you’re gonna get six beers and two shots. The faster you drink it, the faster you get going. So you’ve got a lot of guys chugging beers and they start riding and … but they wanna win. Then at the finish line at one in the morning; outside, belligerent – you know. So that’s the midnight race.
I have a relationship with Reload bags out in Philly and they’ll usually make me a prize bag for bigger events. And you wanna win it – that’s bragging rights. Our trophies.
We also do The Warriors race. I do that with Squid – Cycle Hawk [who started the race back in 2002] That’s a race from dusk till dawn. It starts at the Bronx and it ends in Brooklyn. It’s reenacting the movie The Warriors and you have a gang, I think seven people maximum. You have to ride around, three hours in The Bronx to do as many obstacles and checkpoints, three hours in Manhattan, then you have three hours in Brooklyn. We have things like billiards, sumo, tattoos – a couple of people from a team will get tattoos – got to a strip club, play a game of basketball, or a bunny hop contest. There’s so much shit. There’s cut-off times – times that you have to separate from your gang just like in the movie, then you have to come back together for a group photo. Then we end up at Coney Island at six in the morning. We have a tug of war battle in the sand and then everyone usually just passes out on the beach. So that’s The Warriors.
CT: That sounds intense.
Shardy: It is, but it’s all fun. We also have a Spring Formal race. That’s a very funny race.
CT: Where you all wear prom dresses?
Shardy: Well yeah, the guys do. The ladies come dressed up as guys and the guys come dressed up as ladies. We always end up at the Bike Expo. So you have a bunch of guys going through the traffic like crazy but they have dresses on and people are like, what the fuck is going on, did you just see that guy in a dress?
CT: That must be so effective for getting through traffic.
Shardy: There was one checkpoint on like 34th and 6th and this guy – his name is Cute Fish – he went to do a skid and he had a thong on, and he just slid. Then he got up and waddled over – the funniest thing. Right in front of the Victoria’s Secret store and everyone’s like, what the fuck, this guy in his thong outfit? Some of the outfits can get pretty crazy. It’s all in good fun.
And we do Friday Night sprints during summer if there’s not an event that someone’s holding, where we’ll do sprints in the city.
I try to do events to cater to everyone. Most of them are track bike, fixed gear, or single speed. Some races are open up to any kind of bike but for the most part, we like to keep it single gear. You run what you run but most of the time, guys on road bikes – if they know what they’re doing – can dominate track bikes. So we like to keep it very simple.
CT: How do you see Track or Die changing in the next year?
Shardy: Everyone’s getting into sanctioned racing. Crit racing isn’t sanctioned racing, but more towards that form of racing. Less traffic racing because it’s really dangerous.
[For Track or Die], you just have to keep it interesting, cause the faster guys are always going to come out and dominate but you’re trying to get people who haven’t raced into these races, and they’re usually a foot in the door for them to do other races. So you’ve just got to keep it interesting – and fair – that’s the most important thing.
This year should be pretty good. We have a lot of collaborations with other companies, which should help what we’re doing here and help it grow.
Our events are a little bit different to everyone else’s and I think people are used to doing the same kind of events. They wanna try something new. We don’t just throw straight-up alleycats. There’s always some kind of theme to it. It’s creating memories. As long as you’re on that bike, you have a memory of you riding whether it be New York, or anywhere. If you’re surrounded by good people and you have good vibes, you’re always gonna remember that. But I didn’t expect Track or Die to get this big.
CT: It sounds like you may have put some effort into it though. It didn’t just come from nowhere.
Shardy: Ah, I did put effort into it, but I’m just one of those guys who has to be like perfect. Like, we’re launching a podcast – we’ve done two recordings and I do not really like the audio of it so I’m learning how to fix audio levels by myself.
The premise behind it is that we talk … not just about bike-related shit. Sometimes, bikes come up, but anything that happens to be to do with the person we’re interviewing. And we drink beer.
CT: How do you choose the people?
Shardy: People I think are interesting. For example, our friend that’s the CFO of Planned Parenthood, so we’re going to talk about that. He does a lot of long rides and he did the Paris–Brest–Paris, which was 500 or 600 miles or so. I may be wrong on the mileage overall but he did but it’s a long ride. I think he did like 250 miles a day on a fixed gear bike. It’s very impressive. He does a lot of these really long endurance rides, but he does them on a fixed gear bike. He’s also raced plenty of Red Hooks. He’s a VJ. And he holds his title at Planned Parenthood. He just had a really big story to tell. That’s something we want.
You can only talk about bikes so much, but if you can have something where people walk away learning something from the conversation that you’ve had, I think that’s important. That’s what keeps bringing people back.
And we do beer facts. So whatever beer we’re drinking that day, we tell a little something about the beer, because we like beer – and the conversation always gradually gets a little better after a few drinks.
Between the blog, the podcast and the events, it’s a lot of shit.
CT: Do you still do ‘normal’ photography, in the same sort of way you were doing before?
I don’t, and that’s something I want to get back into doing that.
CT: Do you find it’s changed the way you cycle – do you only ride in groups now because of Track or Die?
Shardy: The rides we [originally] started kind of died out because everyone moved on to their own thing. We all come together in passing. We still come together as a small family. In the summer we always come together for the Tour de Go Fuck Yourself, but the Sunday rides not so much now. We do a lot of Karaoke and you always have to end the night with Bohemian Rhapsody.
CT: What kind of bike are you riding right now?
Shardy: The bike that I have outside, it’s a Continuum Super Macchina Pista. I like it because it was made for me. One, it’s a really nice bike and two, that company never made that style frame. They usually make standard geometry. I wanted more of an aggressive pursuit-style. When I spoke to Jeff [Underwood], the owner of Continuum, they ended up making it. I don’t know if it’s one of their best-selling bikes now – I’ve seen multiple people on that bike now, but that’s the actual prototype of it. That’s the number 1 ever made, and it was specifically made for me.
I’m into vintage builds, too. I like to find an old frame and get it back to an era-specific build – projects to restore.
All my bikes have a Track or Die sticker and hopefully people see that are are like, I’m not stealing that bike. I’m always posting pictures of my bikes so if anyone rides my bike that’s not me – and I don’t really have common bikes – people will know that’s not theirs.
CT: Sweet. I think those are all my questions.
Shardy: Alright. Now let’s go get hammered.