Bike couriers hit the saddle in Edmonton
Globe and Mail, July 3, 2004
By Jill Mahoney
EDMONTON -- With its broad flat streets, lack of
gridlock and ever-so polite drivers, Edmonton is pretty much nirvana for
300 bike couriers who have descended on the city for the Cycle Messenger
"I mean, my God, the streets are so wide. That's
the beauty of Alberta, I guess. Plenty of room for everybody," said
John Kenda, who lives in Minneapolis.
But Tom Appeldoorn, who owns a messenger service in
Eindhoven, Holland, and employee Rob Beijsens can't understand why there
are so many stoplights downtown.
"They are really annoying," Mr. Appeldoorn
said, shaking his head as he sat surrounded by half-empty cups of beer from
the festivities the night before.
"Every 200 metres there's the next one," said
Mr. Beijsens. "And they told us don't ditch them like you're used to
because you have to pay $300 or something, and you can't leave the country
before you pay the bill. . . . So we're not very fast in the city."
Mr. Kenda, 37, Mr. Appeldoorn, 32, and Mr. Beijsens, a
26-year-old mountain-bike racer who placed second in men's sprints in 2002,
are again taking part in their trade's Olympics, which features races, a
forum and even an art exhibit that celebrates messenger culture.
"The joke we always make is this isn't your
father's trade show," said Mr. Kenda, who is helping organize the
The event, which is part race, part reunion and part
party, gives couriers who work relatively solitary and often maligned jobs
a chance to hang out with like-minded people.
"No matter where we're from, we're all into the
same thing, and that's kind of a neat thing. It's fun to meet people that
are kind of like you, but a bit different," said Spencer Morris, 27,
Mr. Kenda said the championships, which began in Berlin
in 1993 and were held in Toronto in 1995, are the focus of many couriers'
social lives and have even produced marriages.
"It's a travelling carnival for sure, and I'm glad
to be a part of it."
Johanna Reeder, a 24-year-old from Stockholm, who placed
second in women's sprints last year, says the competitions give her
"new stories to talk about" as well as perspective.
"Sometimes you get tired of your work and you just
want to quit because you think your life sucks or something like that, and
you come to this place and meet different people and . . . there's some
great bikers here. They have, like, no money at all, but they're extremely
happy because they ride a bike, so you get happy because you know you have a
The events also give couriers a sense of life in other
countries. In Europe, being a bike messenger is seen as a legitimate
blue-collar job, while in some U.S. cities, couriers are ill-treated by
impatient, aggressive drivers and condemned by society at large.
Indeed, Mr. Morris, who is known as Lunchbox for his
husky frame, said messengers in Seattle are seen "as scum of the . . .
Earth." He was sitting on a ratty couch in the event's headquarters,
his big green messenger bag, complete with yellow cellphone and digital
watch, still strapped to his back. His hair was dyed coral, though his
trimmed beard was dark brown. His feet, were of course, shod in cycling
"I can't stop swearing, as you've noticed. We don't
smell good. We don't look very good. We don't dress well. If you bring us
into a room, we sort of look out of place almost everywhere we go," he
said, sprawled beside Mr. Appeldoorn.
"And you don't really like anybody because they ask
you stupid questions like, 'How many miles do you ride?' And 'Boy, what's
the weather like outside?' when they've got a window behind them."
(For the record, Mr. Morris's average day consists of
about 40 kilometres. Mr. Appeldoorn and Mr. Beijsens, who do deliveries
outside their city, usually clock about 150 kilometres.)
The championships, which got under way on Thursday,
consists of several events, including sprints; team championships; a cargo
race, where competitors lug heavy objects; track skids, the "perennial
crowd-pleaser," where participants skid as far as they can; a race on
a course that resembles "an apocalyptic cityscape of the future";
bunny hops over parallel bars, and backwards circles.