Messenger Olympics Hit Seattle
Real Change News, September, 2003
By Polly Keary
It seems like a terrible way to make a living. The work is brutally
hard, the pay is less than a good bartender makes, the hours, all of
them spent outdoors in every kind of weather, are long. It is
dangerous, and serious injuries are common. Yet Seattle's messenger
bike riders, who travel up to 50 miles each nine-hour day, love the job
so much that they are hosting the eleventh annual Cycle Messenger World
Championships, to be held at the south end of Lake Union on September
As many as 1,000 bike messengers are coming from as far away as Japan,
Hungary, and Switzerland to compete in the skills that they practice
every day on the job, including skidding, balancing, and negotiating an
obstacle course that includes a parked car and street debris.
Bike messengers, who deliver documents and packages around the city for
people who need a delivery faster than a car can get through Seattle's
congested traffic, share a considerable camaraderie because of the
danger and excitement of the job.
"The closest job I can think of is a fireman," Nick Dale, 23, one of
the central organizers of the event, says. "We do face danger. When a
fireman sees another fireman, it's like “Hey, I work for local 49' or
whatever. When we see a messenger, it's like the same thing."
"We put our lives on the line every single day," says Haddock, a
24-year-old bicycle courier from Denmark who flew to Seattle two weeks
ago to help Dale and the other members of the courier community
organize the event, which was held last year in Copenhagen. "At the end
of every day we've all got stories of how we nearly got killed."
When I go into the back room at Fleetfoot Messenger Service at the
south end of Lake Union, I find a workshop filed with bicycles, some
whole, some in pieces, where about a half-dozen riders repair bikes and
listen to punk rock. When I ask messenger Robert Kittilson, 25, if he
ever gets injured on the job, he laughs.
"I crashed today," he says, holding up an elbow that was scraped raw.
His leg, which sports a tattoo of a bicycle on the calf, is also
abraded. Several of the other riders display wounds, which, they
explain to me, are a part of the job. "There's a point where you stop
if you haven't figured that out," Kittilson says. "But I didn't want to
walk when I was 75 anyway."
The danger of the job is reflected in the events that make up the World
Championships, which is the Olympics for bike messengers. One event
that is planned is the track skid. Many couriers ride bicycles that do
not have hand brakes but that are slowed by pedaling backward. When a
rider is riding fast and needs to slow down but not stop, often he or
she will skid. The rider pedals backward to brake while throwing the
body weight forward, leaning far over the handlebars, causing the bike
to skid forward, sometimes for hundreds of feet. The rider can quickly
recover speed at the end of the skid.
"The instant you stop skidding, you still have your momentum,"
Kittilson says. Riders at the World Championships hope to set a world
record in the track skid this year.
"Tim Mason, the race director, has contacted The Guinness Book of World
Records," Dale says. "The main requirement is that you have to skid one
direction and then the other; the record is the average within an hour.
I think the longest is 341 feet."
"That's nothing," Haddock says. "I've seen riders skid for city blocks."
"It's going to happen," Dale says. "We just need to find the perfect
A rapid discussion breaks out among the small crowd of messengers
gathered around an outdoor table to share a pitcher of happy-hour
priced beer at the Lava Lounge (a dimly lit Polynesian-themed Belltown
bar so beloved of the courier community that it is recommended to
visiting racers on the World Championship web site). Various streets
are discussed and rejected. "It's got to be level," says James Newman,
23. "You have to go both ways."
"That's true," Dale says. "That street goes downhill a little. We'll
find something. It's going to happen."
Another event, the track stand, requires competitors to balance on a
bike that remains in place, lifting hands and feet away until the bike
eventually falls over. The person who remains upright the longest wins.
"During the day you stop at a stoplight but you don't want to take your
foot out of the pedal," Kittlilson says. "You track stand." He
demonstrates, jumping on his bike and standing on the pedals. By
rocking the bike slightly back and forth, he's able to stay upright.
Track standing is done to wait at red lights or to pause at the top of
a hill to wait for all the lights to go green. "You time the lights and
shoot the lights so you don't have to stop going down," Kittilson said.
I had seen this done on my way to Fleetfoot. A friend was giving me a
ride, and we weren't exactly sure of our directions, when we spotted a
"Just follow that guy," I said, at the top of a hill. "Yeah, if we can
keep up with him," my friend said. Sure enough, the rider was suddenly
blocks ahead of us, streaking down the hill through the green lights at
what looked like the speed of sound. My friend and I, although we were
in a fast Corvette convertible, were left in the dust, trapped in early
rush hour traffic.
Seattle traffic has been the bane of many business owners, but it keeps
about 150 Seattle bike messengers in business, because they can cross
town faster than anyone in a motor vehicle, no matter how fast the car
can go on an empty road. Seattle boasts over half a dozen bike
messenger services, and business is booming. Although fax machines and
e-mail have made message communication easy and nearly instant, many
documents that don't fax well or need signatures require swift and
"Blue prints are hard to fax," said Tom Stotler, general manager of
Seattle's Bucky Courier Systems, in an article on courier services
published by the Puget Sound Business Journal. Fleetfoot at the time
had at least 10 job sites to which they delivered architect's plans.
Legal documents also make up a good deal of the material carried by
Seattle's couriers, because they often need a signature, which isn't
legal if faxed. "When Howard Shultz bought the Sonics we made a lot of
deliveries," Dale, who co-owns Stealth Messenger Services, a company
that includes the basketball team on their list of clients, says. "We
might look like nuisances, but we make this city run. A lot of people
don't realize that."
Indeed, many messengers feel misunderstood by the community and the
police, who often take a dim view of the daredevil antics that
messengers employ to get their cargo to its destination. In an article
published by Iron Lung, the now-defunct 'zine that served the messenger
bike community of Seattle, most messenger bikers said that they had
been harassed by Seattle police in the course of their jobs.
Part of the reason may be that bike messengers sometimes organize
illegal and dangerous races on Seattle streets, including the annual
"Dead Baby" race, named for a dead baby doll mascot owned by former
race organizer Dave Ranstrom. In the event, bike messengers race from
one location (usually a bar, undisclosed until immediately before the
race) to the next (also a bar), often ignoring traffic lights.
You have to be at peace with danger to do this job. Occasionally a
messenger is seriously injured or even killed, as in the case of Yianni
Philippedes, a 22-year-old bike messenger and Fleetfoot employee who
was killed in June 2000 when he was struck in a crosswalk by an SUV.
His death resulted in several unofficial memorial events at Spring
Street and Alaskan Way, the intersection where Philippedes was killed.
At one memorial, more than 100 bicyclists blocked traffic during rush
hour, laying their bicycles in the street and leaving flowers.
Philippedes' family and other supporters worked with the Washington
State Senate to broaden the definition of vehicular assault to make it
possible to prosecute people who cause injury through inattentiveness
when driving, even when the driver is sober or driving within the speed
limit. The driver who struck Philippedes admitted that he was looking
for a restaurant instead of keeping his eyes on the road when he hit
the cyclist, but his only penalty for the death of the youth was a $250
fine for failure to pay attention.
Although bike messengers have worked hard to improve safety on the job,
injuries still happen.
"Just today, I was walking my bike half a block, I saw a guy fling open
a car door and hit a cyclist, smash!" Dale says. "[The driver] didn't
even look, didn't say anything, not even ÔI'm sorry.'" Getting
compensated for an injury caused by a motorist can be difficult. The
web site of CAoS, the Courier Association of Seattle, of which Dale is
the president, includes steps to take when injured in a collision. The
steps, which include calling for witnesses and remaining lying down
until medical help arrives, are designed to increase the likelihood of
a favorable judgment on behalf of the cyclist.
"It's better in Denmark," Haddock says. "In an accident, it's always
the driver's fault."
"Always?" Dale cranes his head forward.
"Always," repeats Haddock. The messengers gathered around the pitcher
shook their heads in envy.
The danger is part of the reason that the messenger bike community is
so tight-knit, not only locally but worldwide, with web sites,
magazines, and many local and national events.
"You get up hung over," Dale says, describing the life of a courier to
the laughter of his friends at the Lava Lounge, "and you drink some
coffee and wait for jobs to call. And you cross your fingers that you
make it home."
Dale and his colleagues are hoping that the World Championships will
increase awareness of the couriers in Seattle. "Seattle's going to get
a message about the messenger bike community," Dale says. "A lot of
people are going to be inspired."
Organizing the races has been a long process, going back to 2001, when
a half-dozen local couriers headed to the world championships in
Budapest to promote the idea of Seattle as a host for the next
"We lost to the stupid Danes in Copenhagen," Dane says, grinning at the
"Yeah, we sent like 60 people," Haddock replies, grinning back.
"Then the next year we went again. You have like two minutes to talk to
the committee. You have a packet, a promo kit. We just said that we
have a small, tight-knit community of messengers, we got lots of hills,
we're ready." Dale says, "I remember getting a phone call later saying,
ÔDon't tell anybody, but you got the World's.'"
Organizing the event is an intense job, requiring finding sponsors,
recruiting volunteers, and meeting with the police and the Parks
Department to present plans for security and permits for street
closures. Although the plans were still incomplete two weeks before the
race, organizers felt optimistic and were very pleased with Seattle's
Special Events Committee.
"They're awesome," Dale says. "They said we were one of the most
organized they've ever seen. The police are excellent, Lieutenant
Paulsen [who is instrumental in organizing street closures] has changed
my view of police. They've made it a pleasure." Although the plans
aren't finalized, the event is planned for the area between Denny and
Mercer and Westlake and Fairview.
Haddock said that the event in Denmark used about 60 formal volunteers.
"But every day new volunteers showed up, or people that were hung over
and didn't want to race, or just wanted to help," he says. "It's a
Sponsors including Taco del Mar and Snapple are helping defray the
expenses of putting on the race, as are entrance fees, which are $54
when paid in advance and $74 after August 30. If any profit is made, it
will benefit CAoS.
Anyone can race, but to win an event a racer must provide proof of
employment with a messenger bike service in the last year.
Occasionally, professional bicycle athletes will enter, trying to win
titles that fill out their résumés, people Haddock calls
"ringers." Haddock said that ringers were a problem in Denmark but that
they are easy to identify.
"Ringers are the ones with the shaved legs who go to bed at nine
o'clock and eat spaghetti," he says.
Most competitors aren't training formally, considering their job to be
training enough. "Yeah, we're training," Kittilson says. "We're going
to work every day."
"I'm training for a world title," Haddock says. "DFL." Everyone laughs
while I sit confused. "Dead Fuckin' Last," he explains.
The four-day event will include live music; competitions including the
track skid, track stand, cargo race, obstacle course, bunny hop,
sprints, backward circles, and track slalom; and "bar crawls," wherein
racers drink their way through several Seattle bars.
When it's all over, messengers who have saved up all year to come to
this event will head home to save up for the next one. Dale, for one,
looks forward to getting back to his normal life after having spent
nearly two years putting this event together. His normal life, after
all, is doing the job that inspired it all. Kittilson sums it up. "It's
like someone who likes video games getting a job playing video games,"
he said. "You can't really explain in words how fun this job is."