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Bike 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 12-14.

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 course."

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 messenger.

"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 personal delivery.

"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 championships.

"We lost to the stupid Danes in Copenhagen," Dane says, grinning at the Danish Haddock.

"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 tight-knit community."

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."


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