For those who have been following competitive urban cycling in any shape or form over the last ten years, Cooper Ray is a name that means something quite special.
A young New York kid with alternative leanings who found discipline and independence through the bike (and specifically track bikes) at a young age, raced some of the cities greatest races with great success, became a messenger, took extraordinary photos of being a messenger, inspired a new generation and new style of urban riding with his legendary Hotline video made together with Terry Barentsen (2.6 million views and counting on youtube…) before, late last year, moving to Mexico City to become the cyclist he always dreamed of becoming, Cooper is a unique being and athlete.
For over six months Cinelli and Cooper have been talking continuously, planning and dreaming as to what we can do together and we are now pleased to officially welcome him to the family.
Over the next few months Cooper will begin journaling for us on Cinelli-milano.com, telling us about rides, setups, landscapes and emotions that inspire him. But first a little back story!
So could you start by telling us a little bit about how you became a cyclist and then a messenger?
As a teenager hanging out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, I was in a punk band, had tight jeans etc.
Cycling came onto my radar thanks to the documentary Red Light Go which I guess just planted a seed in my head (and years later I would see the “stars” of that film out on the streets riding next to me). I began cycling and it just stuck because immediately it became what it still is today for me: the ultimate exploration tool. All of a sudden I had complete freedom to discover every inch of the city… I didn’t have to catch the subway… Soon after I joined the team of my local bike shop, Toga. Toga was not just a shop, it had an amazing legacy, Nelson Vails had raced for them on the track and George Hincapie as a Juniors, in the 80s they’d been sponsored by Richard Sachs…
Hanging out at the store there was an old school MPLS messenger called Chad who convinced me to buy a track bike. I still remember my first ride on that bike. It was 2007 and I was 14. I rode across central park at night, the bike had a front brake but I was still terrified. The very next morning when I got into the bike shop I took the brake off because I thought to myself “that’s the only way to really learn how to ride it”, and from that day I never put it back on. Interesting historical fact: Chad and all the MPLS messengers liked brakes on track bikes and thought it was faster. New York messengers on the other hand rode brakeless…
From there cycling just became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I was the kid who would skip school and go ride a 100 miles. On the weekends I’d go do races, be it road or cyclocross. In 2009 I rode Iron Cross, 100 kms of mixed terrain, the kind of race which was what gravel would become… and that totally changed my life too.
From these beginnings how did you become a messenger?
I didn’t become messenger for at least five years after I started riding. For those five years I was riding on road and cross and also participating in alleycats and was kind of just fighting to make my way into the messenger community.
But in 2011, one day when I was working at the Affinity shop, thinking how much I didn’t want to be inside on a beautiful late summer day, I got chatting to a friend of a friend called Josh Rovner who offered me the chance to work for a small courier company he co-owned, Clementine Courier. I jumped at the opportunity.
How long were you a messenger for in NYC?
What did you like most about the job?
The freedom! Cycling is already the ultimate freedom and being a messenger is the ultimate hack. Experienced in a certain way it doesn’t feel like you have a job. You move shit around and connect the city. You get to learn where businesses exist, you go everywhere and anywhere, any time of day, whatever the weather, no matter what. Being a messenger gave an extra level of depth to my perception of the city. It helped me understand what made the city tick. In new York there’s so much verticality that you don’t have access to, but as messenger all of a sudden I had it. And then I started taking the camera with me. In fact I felt obligated to take a camera just because of the breadth of things I saw on a weekly, or even daily basis. And it all clicked. The stuff I was seeing everyday, the inner workings, how the city was changing. People came and went. Businesses disappeared, new developments shot up. The city I’d grown up with was rapidly ceasing to exist. I couldn’t afford stay in the neighbourhood I’d grown up in but despite this the city now truly became my home. I was always in the street. In fact being a messenger went and touched this nerve that had always been so important growing up: belonging. As a kid we’d always been obliged to move from place to place because of rising rent and 1 year leases. I didn’t have a particular place to call home… but being a courier answered this question in a holistic way. The whole city was now my home…
What did you like least about the job?
The weather. The job is great for 7 months a year. But oh my god when the weather is bad… Having to co-exist with winter was a bitch. Freezing rain is probably the worst. So yeah, bad weather and bad pay are the down sides… I was struggling to exist financially in a changing New York city…
Tell me a little bit about your competitive racing history.
So as I said as a junior I was racing for Toga, which was a place and team with just such a rich and incredible heritage. There was this older guy on the team, a kind of godfather called Bill Montgomery, who didn’t race anymore but taught us how to ride the paceline and took me on big group rides upstate. If it wasn’t for him I don’t think cycling wouldn’t have stuck for me. He gave me the discipline. From there I moved on to CRCA Junion Development team and the first King Kog Cyclocross team… Then there was the urban racing side of things. The owner of Toga was old school and was of the idea that if you were the toga jersey you couldn’t ride alleycats. But that didn’t stop me. I won monster track once and placed second four times. I raced almost every Red Hook Crit and am the only person to have finished both the first and last ever Red Hook Crits as well as placing 5th at the legendary Navy Yard edition, which is maybe the competitive result I’m most proud of because that course really defined the limits of what a track bike criterium could be, in fact only five of us even finished…
Can you tell me a bit about how that Hotline video came about and any idea why it became so famous?
I’ve always been very apprehensive about filming myself. I don’t like egotistical social media videos of terrible riders glorifying horrible types of riding… to be honest because I knew I was a better rider than them! So yeah, I never wanted to be filmed, I just wanted to concentrate on letting my riding evolve and grow. I wanted my reputation to precede me. But at the same time I was seeing all these really inauthentic shit being shared on social media being recognized as real, and that bothered me. So I guess the Hotline video was borne from this frustration.
When Terry [Barentsen] moved to New York we ended up meeting and I noticed that he could really ride. So from there – since now I’d met somebody who was a brilliant cinematographer and could also ride - I started having an idea. And this idea was to just shoot something totally uncut, totally focused on showing my riding style and flow. Over the years in NYC people would come over to me and say “you have crazy flow” “ you’re the smoothest rider I’ve ever seen”. So the idea was to show me riding casually, not racing or anything, just getting my flow, riding smoothly through the city. None of that choppy skiddy shit. I wanted to preserve this style of riding in a video as at the time I was watching new protected bike lanes, new timing of traffic lights and increasingly less space kill the NYC flow I grew up learning. There was more and more shit in the way (i.e. built in the street) in cities. And the kinds of cars on the streets were changing. From big V8 sedans that had a particular kind of flow in traffic to new smaller cars with faster acceleration. You know, track bikes are like freight trains they don’t like to stop and can’t slow down quickly, they flow… I wanted to immortalize the flow.
So I said to Terry let’s do Broadway and lower 6th avenue. One shot. I’d ridden this piece of road thousands of times. I knew every light, intersection, hole. I had it down to a science. So that’s what we did. We went down broadway and up sixth, uncut. Terry found a way to shoot it that made it look even more smooth and fast capturing the feeling of what it felt like being there, right behind me. Nobody had shot like that before… He had the chops to follow me, I trusted him… it was magic. I think there is something really hypnotic about the video; my flow that day, the way the traffic moved around me, just how tight everything was… Terry uploaded the video and it became a kind of new standard of street riding.
I had grown up watching Lucas Brunelle’s videos of New York messengers and now all of a sudden things had come full circle and people who were the age I was when I watched Brunelle were watching my and Terry’s video and getting inspired.
Amazing… so what about the next step in your evolution… Mexico City? Why did you move out here?
I moved here in July 2022. Why? I guess the stars just aligned. I didn’t have a direct intention to move here even though I'd traveled here since 2014 and always heralded it as a 'mecca' for cycling and the only place that has blown my mind more than NY in feeling like a city with a pulse… In fact I always wanted to move to California but my partner at the time didn’t want to…
I moved here because I wanted to get out of New York and become the cyclist I always wanted to be. I wanted to get out of New York and out of the states to get outside of the go-go-go hustle of the USA, to escape the New York bubble.
So yeah last year the stars just aligned: I had a big break up in my life, I started working in web3, I came here to stay for two months in February 2022 and it was clear to me that this was where I needed to be: and I never left. And what an amazing place! I live at 2300 metres, that goes up to 3300-3600 metres right outside the city. I can ride about 3000m on my regular training ride. What a cool place to ride! What other place in the world is a high altitude valley that was once a lake surrounded by massive volcans, an ecological paradise to various native peoples for hundreds and hundreds of years? And here the bike is a huge hack. It’s the fastest way to get out of the city and to enjoy the natural beauty of it.
At the same time it’s super hard to learn a new culture. And it is humbling to realize what a place of extreme privilege I come from, even as a lower-middle class Estadounidense. The whole experience has not been at all what I expected and I absolutely love it…
Would you consider working as a messenger here?
I wouldn’t completely rule it out, not for the money but for the experience of getting a deep understanding of place. I’ve been offered work but the reality is you make no money. Throw in some torrential rain and I don’t think it’s the best option. Maybe for fun but not as a job.
What kind of riding are you into now and why?
My interest in riding these days is much more about the history of the place, the geology, topography, what kind of terrain am I riding, and really appreciating the places I’m passing through. So I’d say adventures, really long day rides carrying the least amount of stuff possible. But it’s hard here… I want to go on 12-18 hour rides but it’s so dangerous… I’d have to leave at 1am if I wanted to do something like that and it would still be dangerous. But yeh my objectives are: riding far, riding slow, climbing a lot, understanding where I’m at. There are cultures that are almost untouched here, so rich…
To be clear my entire approach to riding has changed. I’’ve had to start to force myself to unlearn and evolve the adventuring tendencies I’ve developed over the year because of the true dangers of finding your way through off-the-beaten-path places. Also transitioning from a mostly solo rider to embracing a new meaning of community and necessity for safety reasons to ride in numbers. It's not something to be taken lightly.
What are your riding goals for this year?
I want to do a long tour. I just completed my first ultra, Tour de Frankie, which was cool but I think I just want to – like I said before – ride slow, stop as much as I want, understand the place better…
Last question, I remember we spoke about this the first time we connected; what’s it like riding a track bike in Mexico City compared to New York?
In Mexico you have to ride a bigger gear to keep up with faster overall traffic flow. Here there are no rules, very little accountability, orchestrated chaos, fast traffic and much longer timing of lights and the biggest potholes you’ve ever seen in your life. You really can’t fuck up without paying a serious price. So it’s chaos and mayhem and on a track bike I can really fly in those conditions. Basically I had to gear up because I was going to slow and the traffic was going around me. I had to go faster than what was possible in NYC. Also the drivers are better here, or at least: they are paying attention to the road not on their phone. There’s no honking no yelling, little ego, but crazier than you can imagine… maybe we’ll film it on my new Cinelli Supercorsa Pista one of these days, I’m slowly getting some beautiful pieces to build it up with.
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