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A master of city traffic and mountain trails

Bicycle messenger, racer David Duvall gets a rush from a good, hard ride

Baltimore Sun, August 8, 2004
By Tom Dunkel

Every day brings the relentless drumbeat of pressure. To move faster. To pull off another miracle.

"I feel like I have no control over my life," says David Duvall. "Sometimes I feel like it's so intense I can't stand it."

He must be a world-famous brain surgeon.


Gotta be the commander of some counterterrorism SWAT team.

Not quite.

David Duvall is a professional bicycle messenger. But perhaps the best Baltimore has seen.

"He's like a Greek god," says Gary Boukis, owner of Magic Messenger, the company where Duvall - 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, with the physique of an Olympic decathlon champion - has spent 16 years delivering rush packages.

What's the fastest way to get from downtown Baltimore to Towson? It's not light rail, says Doug Shanahan, a dispatcher at Magic Messenger. It's not by car, he adds. Nothing beats Duvall pedaling his bike. He can make it from the Inner Harbor to the center of Towson in 25 minutes flat. With headwinds.

"I've sort of gotten a reputation for being the hard rider and the distance guy," says Duvall, who knows every alley shortcut to take and every potholed street to avoid. "I probably don't live up to my reputation."

Oh, by the way, he's also perhaps the most modest professional bicycle messenger Baltimore has ever seen.

A 36-year-old man is supposed to be settled into a respectable career. He should have a wife and 401k retirement plan . He should own a nice home, a nice car, and a nifty snow blower. He should be established.

Duvall lives rent-free in the basement apartment of a friend's house in Hampden. He drives a Buick station wagon with 185,000 miles on the odometer. The love of his life is his Belgian sheepdog, Ahri. He doesn't lose sleep over his investments because bicycle messengers have no pension and no benefits, and must crank like crazy to make $500 a week.

Roger Bird met Duvall 15 years ago, back when Bird was a mechanic at Mt. Washington Bike Shop. He now lives in Wisconsin and has a wife and house and a respectable job as Eastern regional sales manager for Trek Bicycle Co., which co-sponsors the semipro mountain bike team Duvall races with in his spare time. This weekend alone, Duvall will compete in a pair of 20-milers: On Friday it was a National Off-Road Bicycle Association cross-country event in Sandpoint, Idaho; today he's riding the Iron Hill Challenge in Newark, Del.

"David just seems to be one of those people who doesn't care about the money, the success and what other people think about him," says Bird. "As long as I've known him he's never had a girlfriend or any job other than bike messenger."

"I wouldn't call him a slacker," says John Posner, who currently serves Duvall's mechanical needs at Mt. Washington Bike Shop. "I'd call him happy where he is."

If you have to ask what makes David Duvall tick, you probably live your life by a conventional clock. Cycling, like a fringe-party presidential campaign, attracts more than its share of iconoclasts and free spirits. For Duvall, bicycle messengering is a lifestyle. It's fitness trumping materialism.

It's, well, fun.

He claims to have never had a bad ride. No matter how rotten the weather or how rough the roads, two spinning wheels always grind his cares away: "Once you're on your bike, it's just you, your bike and the wind."

Rich in bicycles

Duvall didn't cycle much in his youth. He grew up in Rodgers Forge and attended St. Mary's School, where he ran track and played tennis without particular distinction. His twin brother, Lindsay, was a stellar distance runner who earned a track scholarship to the University of Maryland, College Park. David became an English major at Towson University.

College life didn't appeal to either Duvall, and they dropped out after the sophomore year. There was no Plan B. One day, Lindsay spotted a Magic Messenger ad in the paper and both walked in and applied.

"I didn't even have a good sense of the city," David recalls. "I was a sheltered, suburbanite kid."

Lindsay worked at Magic Messenger a few years, then moved to Seattle, married and settled into the construction business. David kept on pedaling, eventually taking the plunge into mountain-bike racing.

He doesn't make much money on or off the job, but he's bicycle-rich. There are five parked in his apartment, all freebies from Trek. The carbon-fiber racers are worth about $4,000 apiece, but Duvall's workhorse model is nothing special.

He hammers around town on an aluminum-framed Trek 8000 mountain bike equipped with plastic fenders and rear rack. Reliable transportation. The only custom touch is an extra-large chain ring that has 56 teeth as opposed to the standard 53.

"I've never heard of anybody riding close to that size of chain ring," says bike mechanic Posner. "He's a diesel. Once he gets up to speed, good luck catching up to him."

Lindsay Duvall once rode up Mount Rainier in Washington state with his brother. He couldn't keep pace. David burned 10 uphill miles in 38 minutes, at an elevation of 6,800 feet. Lindsay doesn't know anyone who has broken 40 minutes on that same ride.

Roger Bird, who spent nine years on the professional mountain-biking circuit before joining Trek, says David Duvall could have turned pro long ago. But he never had that fire. He's content carrying envelopes and boxes across a different kind of finish line on what he calls "paid" training runs.

Technically speaking, he's "about as unscientific as they get," admits Duvall.

He doesn't keep a training log. He doesn't wear a heart-rate monitor or follow any particular diet. What he does do is cross-train (rowing machine, a side order of jogging) and churn out grueling half-day shifts at least four days a week, averaging about 20 mph while making from three to 15 deliveries. He has covered as much as 63 miles in five hours.

For the record, the worst traffic light is at the intersection of Northern Parkway and Falls Road. The most beautiful hills are found in White Hall, the dark side of the moon in his business. None of Duvall's peers ventures that far afield. For good reason. Bike messengers pocket 60 percent of their delivery fees. There's more money to be made doing quick, downtown sprints. Unfortunately, Duvall can't abide the stop-and-go hassles.

"I like to ride my bike," he says simply. "I don't like to stand in elevators."

Someday he might retire and become a full-time pedestrian, maybe pursue a career in music production. However, Duvall adds: "I don't think in the future that far. I kind of live day-to-day."

When asked if he can imagine Duvall ever hanging up his wheels for good, Magic Messenger dispatcher Doug Shanahan answers that question by posing an equally intriguing one: "How long will Lance Armstrong ride his bike?"

On the job

It's a hot, humid Tuesday afternoon. Duvall, dressed for work in a plastic helmet, sleeveless shirt and Lycra shorts, is standing outside an office building at 225 North Calvert St. Trek delivery bag slung across his shoulders. Black Trek mountain bike leaning against a signpost. Right ear pressed to his cell phone. He's getting next-stop instructions from his dispatcher.

"That's a real steep one," Duvall says. "What's the last name? I've delivered to two houses on the top of that hill before."

Already, he has picked up architectural drawings in Wyman Park, picked up a pack of bank receipts at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, delivered the drawings to Fells Point, picked up legal documents at Pratt and Charles streets, and brought the bank receipts to North Calvert.

Now he's about to fetch a package at Maryland Institute College of Art and shuttle it to Ruxton, then continue to Towson.

Go ahead, try to beat him there with your nice car. He will stick to your bumper while grinding uphill on Calvert Street. He will breeze by when you stop for the lights on Mount Royal Avenue. He will leave you in the dust as he weaves through heavy traffic on North Avenue.

Suddenly, David Duvall is a speck on the horizon, a contented man heading away from downtown elevators and toward open roads.

Just him, his bike and the wind.

The Duvall Routine

David Duvall the bike messenger will never be mistaken for David Duvall the golfer, but he is exercising more restraint at age 36. He used to cycle 350 miles a week. Now his work and training rides total 150 to 175 miles weekly.

Here are a few other components of his fitness routine:

# Duvall weighs himself several times a day to make sure he's well hydrated. He can lose 8 pounds on a long ride. On the bike, he drinks only water, sometimes flavored with Emergen-C energy mix.

# To maintain bone density, he balances cycling with "impact training." He runs, lifts weights and plays tennis.

# Pushups are a pre-cycling ritual. Because of minor back problems, he does them in a pike position (backside pointing in the air), feet elevated on a step. He does three sets of 35, or one superset of 55.

"They're difficult," he says, "and the intensity gets me in the frame of mind I need to be in."


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