By Deaclan O'Neill
They ride bikes with no brakes, cycle in some of the most dangerous conditions
imaginable, do a job that they love and enjoy a freedom that few other modern
professions allow. If you drive around London you probably hate them, if
you walk, they probably hate you but the neon blurs that are cycle couriers
have been weaving their way into the mesh of London's streets for over 15
years, risking life and limb to facilitate the city's business needs, creating
an entire sub-culture and sporting some frankly outrageous Lycra.
This month Steal-Life peels back the scarred skin to catch a passing glance
at this group of extreme service industry workers who may just constitute
one of the last bastions of true Bohemian London. We spend some down-time
with riders and also take a silent minute to remember Seb, one of the industry's
best loved sons, fallen in the line of duty in what is becoming an all too
common an accident.
The archetypal cycle courier is easily spotted gliding through the capital's
congested streets, discernable from the average cyclist by his grace and
flow, random facial piercings, a bike that looks way out of his price range
and an outfit that looks borrowed in equal parts from Mad Max and Mr Motivator.
This stereotypical image is largely created by us 'outsiders', to help pigeonhole
a sub-culture that the general public has little access to or understanding
of. Looking deeper you find a disparate but close-knit community that operates
on many levels and enjoys a massive amount of unity. The diverse geographical,
socio-economic, cultural and professional backgrounds of the couriers, probably
help explain this bond, but the loyalty of this group could also be seen,
in part, as a stress-induced symbiosis, where a collective of individuals
in life-threatening situations forge close alliances to provide a tight support
network, a kind of regiment mentality.
When well-loved courier Seb was killed as a lorry mounted a pavement in late
February this year, what seemed like the entire cycle courier world converged
on the Duke of York in Clerkenwell. More than a couple of celebratory drinks
were raised before a ride to the scene of the accident (joined by the monthly
Critical Mass cycle go-slow in a show of unity) to lay a memorial, pour beers,
light candles and remember a friend.
The obvious danger of the job begs the question, why would anyone want to
do it? It is tempting to think that people become couriers because they are
unqualified to get other work or have no work permit, but in reality it is
the nature of the work that seems to be the attraction.
"We all do it because we really enjoy it, it's nice because you're not in
the office all day, seeing the same four walls everyday, counting the hours
and that. Even the work's not hard, it sounds bad, but you don't have to
think too much about it, you can listen to your music, watch the sights,
see the world going on".
"On a rainy Monday morning you can call them up and say I'm not coming in
and they can't really do shit about it, but you don't earn money. So really
you've got freedom, you can go away and do anything you want, travel, whatever".
"Its one of those jobs where you can just move company if you don't like
the place you're working for, you're not tied down because you're self-employed".
Needless to say that the answer to any question about the Tax Man is usually,
"Who?" But aside from the fear of a hefty tax arrears bill, what of the actual
physical danger, especially given the recent trend for couriers to ride track
bikes. These fixed gear machines with no brakes first came over from the
States around six years ago where the craze had evolved within the Jamaican
community who had been using traditional fixed gear bikes to courier.
"Its one of them, if you don't know what you're doing its dangerous but if
you've been on the road for a while you almost develop a kind of sixth sense,
where you can predict what's going to happen. You see a pedestrian 600 meters
on the other side of the pavement you think, right, the worst thing he can
do is run across and jump in the middle of the road, and he'll do it, but
you're ready for it because you've seen it coming".
"Everyday I have at least 10-15 pedestrians jump out in front of me, but
I'm more afraid of the taxi or bus, because that's what'll kill you. I broke
my wrist before Christmas avoiding hitting a pedestrian, so I've got a new
policy of riding straight into them".
But surely having no brakes makes the situation a lot more dangerous for
"Good brakes make bad drivers. It's grace against pace, you just have to
plan your moves a lot further ahead, you go round things rather than stopping
for them. When you can play chess good then you'll understand this world,
you have to plan ahead. Not one move, you're not planning the next road,
you're planning, like four junctions ahead".
"We're as good as a fighter pilot flying an F16, fighting for our country,
we're as good that because of our homing skills and judging distance and
the road around us".
"At the end of the day, it's as dangerous as you make it. Seb was killed
because a lorry came up on the kerb and hit him, you know, if it's your time,
it's your time. Some guys are riding round on the fixed gear bikes, skidding
their stops and all, but that guy was riding a mountain bike with full disc
brakes and all that, if its going to happen it will".
But are there any real advantages of riding the fixed gear or is it a matter
of pride or status?
"They are just so fun to ride, so responsive, it's an art".
"Each year there is a European courier championship, a track event where
couriers from all over, Poland, Holland England and that, get together, ride
against each other on the track and just have a laugh".
"During the summer we have Alley Cats (illegal road races) round streets,
point to point races. There are different styles of race, some are long distance
sprints, some are point to point races where you set up 6 check points all
over the city and have to down a vodka at every stop, so it gets pretty messy.
There's a bit of competition and pride involved but generally its just about
having fun and enjoying riding".
So are there any general tips for the London rider?
"There are things that you can't account for come out of the blue you've
got to make a space for. Don't go along side the fucking cars in the gutter
when you're waiting for the traffic to move, stay in front of them, make
sure they see you first and then let them pass. You are six feet wide by
law, though a lot of cyclists wont admit that. If you fall, you fall three
feet either way so if anyone gives you shit, you tell them, I'm six feet
wide by law, if you don't have the space to go round me then you wait".
Although most people would describe the average cycle courier style as a
sort of punk Jane Fonda, there is in fact a huge spectrum of style among
the riders from men wearing pressed slacks and knitted pullovers to women
sporting kilts and Lycra cycle tops through to the recent trend of blokes
wearing plus-fours, knee-high woollen socks and army jackets, looking like
a post apocalyptic Oliver Twist.
"You just wear what you need to keep warm, everyone wears the leggings, it
freezing so everyone has to wear them. You see people fully kitted out in
the full £100 Lycra gear and then others just kitted out in old £30
army jackets and that. Basically I only wear stuff that I wouldn't be gutted
if it got torn up".
The general rule seems to be, if it is functional, comfortable to ride in,
protective if you fall and expendable if ruined, it works. This rule is obviously
tweaked to the personal taste of the rider and what is born is a whole new
look, a diverse but identifiable style.
Having created a new community, opted out of the materialistic, give up your
life for money mainstream and created a whole new style, cycle couriers must
surely qualify as true bohemians in a way that the hippies could claim in
the 60's and the punks in the 70's They are far more important to London
that simply delivering our packages.
Keep on peddling.
RIP Sebastian Lukomski 10/8/1976 - 23/2/ 2004.