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Wheels on fire: London's cycle couriers

Khaleej Times Online, 14 April 2004

LONDON - It's three cyclists deep at the bar - and not a helmet in sight - as London's bicycle messengers relax at the Duke of York pub on Clerkenwell Road.

On a typical Friday night, over 100 of London's 200 to 400-strong two-wheeled fleet gather amid a tidy cluster of multi-coloured pushbikes, rucksacks and other logo'd gear. Number 88 might trade news with Number 62, while Nelly, Mulapaluza and Smiffy catch up on a week's gossip about fellow couriers - sometimes called "pushies" (for pushbike).

"You might know someone very well, but not know their real name," explained Number 88 - Bobby Furby, a three and a half year veteran of London's streets. "In this career, contractors go by a nickname, others become a number." (Contractors work specifically for one company, while non-contractors work for a courier company.)

Furby, who coached extreme sports in New Zealand before moving to London, was attracted to cycle delivery by the freedom and flexible hours; the opportunity to spend most of his time outdoors - even in the winter; and not least, the physical and mental challenge of doing a job that a 2002 Harvard School of Public Health study indicated was among the most dangerous, ahead of meatpackers and professional (American) football players.

"I'm basically my own boss," he said. "I ride about 350 miles a week, and I use my own steam to help others. It's true, our clients are some of the most powerful corporations in the world but unlike motorcyclists or van drivers, I go to sleep knowing that I have not polluted the air."

Clearly there's far more to this group than low body fat and an affinity for brightly coloured Lycra. They are an oxymoron: a tight-knit, fiercely loyal community of resolute individuals who look out for each other, but live by their own rules.

"Trying to organize bicycle messengers is like trying to herd cats," said Buffalo Bill, chairman of the London Bicycle Messengers Association (LBMA, londonmessengers.org). Established last year as a local cyber-hub for the European Cycle Messenger Championships, the LBMA is part social catalyst, part advocate, part repository of cycle courier history. "But we want to foster a spirit, an informal community, and be a unified voice - if such a thing exists."

Simone, formerly Number 58, rides for Metro Imaging, a photography and digital services specialist with 17 contract couriers, and is one of a small handful of female couriers.

"This job doesn't appeal to many women. It's very strenuous, and sometimes you smell bad. It's not for someone who wants to have perfect make-up," she said. "But the camaraderie is amazing, and I have always been treated very well. Male couriers are very gentlemanly. If I have a puncture - even though they know I can take care of it - they will stop to make sure I'm all right."

London's cycle couriers may spend five to six hours of a 10-hour day on a bike, going at an average speed of 12.5 miles an hour - twice that of all other London traffic. "We are eating machines," said Furby, who estimates a busy courier eats between 4,000 and 5,000 calories a day of "cheap, but healthy food" - supplemented by copious quantities of chocolate and Red Bull, an energy-boosting drink consisting mostly of caffeine and sugar.

Although the possibility of serious injury and death does not deter them, cycle messengers nevertheless take the loss of a colleague very hard. When a lorry killed Polish cyclist Sebastian Lukomski on February 23, 2004, the messengers spontaneously took up a collection to help his family, and they will compete in his name at this summer's Championships in Warsaw.

"Seb's death really galvanized us," said Nano, a courier for seven years. "I have never felt a part of anything before. We are all square pegs. But I can truly say I feel privileged to be part of this group."

Couriers earn per delivery - starting at three pounds (4.5 euros) - which can total up to 500 pounds (760 euros) a week, self-declared. But good equipment can be expensive. "Couriers can quite easily spend between 700 and 1,000 pounds (up to 1,500 euros)," said Grant Young, owner of Condor Cycles, the messengers' choice. "But professional ones want the best, and they are also the best testers in the business. Manufacturers come to us all the time."

Indeed, though the career of choice for cyclists has ebbed somewhat with the advent of fax and email, there will always be a need for fast delivery of 3-dimensional items and legal documents. And being a courier seems to have earned some cachet.

In the past few years, MTV "Real World" featured a less than salubrious example of this subculture, while experts on another reality TV show, "Faking It", turned a cycle courier into a polo player in four weeks.

While there are better ways to make a living, Caspar Hughes, fleet manager at Metro Imaging and a nostalgic former cycle courier himself, understands the job's appeal. "This is something anyone can do, as long as you can hack the pace, and know the streets very well - there's nothing better on a summer day."


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