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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 far...

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 commercial purposes.

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...


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