|Don't shoot the messenger
Road Cycling UK, February 10, 2004
By Andrew Warterman
"It's the traffic, that's what I like, it pumps you up." Patrick, 29,
from Basel, Switzerland.
Most cyclists go out of their way to avoid contact with motorised
traffic. But for one cycling group, cars, lorries, taxis and buses are
constant companions. Cycle couriers spend more hours on a bike in any
one day than most cyclists do in a week and for every minute they're in
conflict with the internal combustion engine. It's man versus machine -
and if man weren't winning, cycle messengers would be extinct.
The first cycle messengers hit the streets of London in 1983 when two
companies decided that two wheels were faster than four. By 1987 the
media had picked up on the messenger sub-culture and a six-page fashion
spread appeared in The Face showing couriers from On Yer Bike, the
first London courier company, wearing garish Lycra outfits. Messengers
have a very strong group identity to this day and it's easy to spot the
courier out of a bunch of commuters, leisure and racing cyclists. Simon
Bateson, 32, has been a courier for a year:
"It's a real sub-culture. The style is quite utilitarian, mixing racing
gear, army surplus stuff, T-shirts and other stuff. You just put your
own look together. You kind of take things down to their bare minimum
and then style it up a bit."
It's not just the get-up. Couriers' bikes are fairly distinctive too.
Riding all day every day means that the common goals of light and trick
can be completely ignored in favour of reliability and making the bike
as unattractive to thieves as possible. Messengers' bikes typically
have one gear, black tape wrapped around the frame, and often no
braking system more advanced than the rider exerting backwards pressure
on the pedals. Nick "Disco", 32, has been a messenger since 1996:
"I ride a fixed gear with no brakes. It does make you a better rider
because you have to learn to react. You can't just stop - well, you can
skid - but you need 10 metres to slow down properly. It means you have
to think ahead more."
It also makes the bike simpler, more reliable and less likely to get
stolen. Or at least, if it is stolen chances are the thief won't get
Courier culture has extended far beyond wearing similar clothes and
riding similar bikes. In the autumn of 1988 courier 'zine Moving Target
was launched and distributed free in bike shops. The mass media had
just picked up on cycle couriers and had been complaining all summer
about their alleged dangerous riding and lack of respect for other
peoples' safety. The first print run of 1,000 gave the writers their
chance to rant about misinterpretation in the media - the whole run was
quickly snapped up.
At around the same time, mountain biking was becoming popular in the UK
and a number of magazines started up to cover the trend. Many of the
original Moving Target writers were able to jump ship and get 'proper'
(ie paid) jobs writing about bikes. Soon the editorial team at Moving
Target was down to one and the project had to be shelved temporarily.
Moving Target is now produced regularly (in an erratic kind of way) and
has a more active role politically as the mouthpiece of the London
Bicycle Messenger Association (LBMA). There's a strong history of
activism within London's messenger community - London's messengers have
sometimes been credited with sparking the world-wide Critical Mass
movement by 're-taking' Oxford Street to mark the death of messenger
Edward Newstead in 1992. But in spite of this history, London's
couriers had fallen behind other cities in terms of presenting a
unified body to the powers that be. The LBMA is looking to get
couriers' voices heard and promote the use of pedal power for
It's a common theme talking to messengers that many feel dissatisfied
working in the offices they now serve and came to couriering as a means
of getting paid to ride a bike. It's not all good news, though. The
typical contract between a messenger and their company seeks to absolve
the company of any responsibility, financial or otherwise, for bike,
clothing, communications, accident cover, sick pay, holiday pay and tax.
Nick "Disco" says, "I've been couriering since 1996. When I moved to
London I hadn't really considered riding a bike since I was teenager
but I was living in Streatham and working in Covent Garden, and every
morning I'd see people cycling to work. I ended up buying a bike and
got more and more into it and before long I'd bought a really expensive
bike and was pulling sickies at work to go out riding. I didn't really
notice the couriers in London. It was in San Francisco that I first
noticed bike messengers and that kind of gave me the bug. I took a job
as a courier as soon as I got back."
"Working conditions aren't great though - most messengers are classed
as self employed by the companies they work for and that's
unacceptable. That way they don't need to worry if we pay tax or not or
even if we die while working for them."
But there's a living to be made if you work at it. And one thing's for
sure - you get really good at riding a bike...