Bike Messengers Take
the Street to the Track
New York Times, June 10, 2005
By Corey Kilgannon
Gilbertson for the New York Times
of the New York Bike Association include, from left, Massamba Niang,
Todd Marszalek, Kevin Bolger, Carlos Ramirez, Hugo Giron and Alfred
Need a package rushed across car-clogged Manhattan? Hand it to Alfred
Bobe Jr., a 31-year-old bike messenger from Brooklyn.
He lays claim to the title of America's fastest messenger on a track
bike, the type of high-speed vehicle preferred by some messengers who
favor its single fixed gear and lack of brakes.
Mr. Bobe is a member of Team Puma, a cycling team consisting of city
bike messengers that, since forming last July, has been dominating many
of the messenger races held across New York and the country.
"We're taking urban street biking to the track to represent New York
and show we have the fastest messengers," said Mr. Bobe, who finished
first among all track bikers participating in last month's North
American Cycle Courier Championships in Portland, Ore.
According to Mr. Bobe, working as a city messenger is the best training
for track races, where bikers ride in tight packs.
"Messengers have better instincts and reflexes and a lot sharper
peripheral vision," he said. "If you're not conscious and in the moment
at all times, you can die on someone's car door. That's what separates
us from regular racers. We have a different inner core and strength
because our messenger work is our training.
"We ride wearing a 20-pound lock and a 40-pound bag," he added. "When
you finally get to the track and take all that off, you feel explosive,
like you have wings or you just took a shot of Red Bull or something."
After work on a recent Thursday, Mr. Bobe gathered with five other team
members in front of Trackstar, an East First Street bicycle shop that
sponsors its own messenger team. The messenger-racers unloaded their
heavy chains and large messenger bags. They checked their route sheets
from the day's deliveries and traded work stories.
The team was formed by Puma after it sponsored weekly races last year
at the refurbished Kissena Park Velodrome, a 400-meter cycling track in
Flushing, Queens, said Kevin Bolger, the team captain and a veteran
racer. Puma officials selected nine cyclists for the team and provided
them with expensive racing bikes, uniforms and other apparel.
Puma, the athletic footwear and apparel company, also provides its team
members with emergency medical insurance for the track and the street,
and picks up the tab for them to race around the country.
Puma's involvement reflects a recent rise in the popularity of track
racing, which team members think will become as prevalent as
skateboarding, in-line skating and snowboarding.
Along with Mr. Bobe and Mr. Bolger, other team members include Felipe
Robayo, Eddie Ortega, Hugo Giron, a master of bike tricks, and Carlos
Ramirez, 30, from Brooklyn, who organizes Monster Track, popular races
held on bustling Manhattan streets that emphasize messenger skills and
allow only track bikes. Then there is Todd Marszalek, 29, a Polish
immigrant who is also a well-known graffiti artist, and Massamba Niang
of Harlem, 22, a handsome Senegalese immigrant with a flashy smile.
Charlotte Blythe, 17, is the only woman on the team.
Mr. Bolger, 33, has worked full time as a courier since 1992 and is
known by his nickname, Squid. He lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn,
with his wife, Amy, a former bike messenger. He works for several
courier services and delivers take-out food in Williamsburg for extra
"We want people to think more of us than just that guy who ran over
their foot," he said. "We also want to improve work conditions, since
most messengers are underpaid and get no medical insurance."
Mr. Bolger rarely wears a helmet despite having suffered five
concussions as a messenger, he said. He has been hospitalized only
once, after "dooring," a term for slamming into a quickly opened car
Most team members work their routes on their custom-made Cannondale
team bikes. Each bike weighs 14 pounds and has the Puma emblem and
colorful graffiti built into the red glossy finish.
Mr. Bolger has attached a hip flask to his bike. "In the winter, you
put your Schnapps in there," he explained.
So how does one stop a fixed-gear bike barreling 30 miles per hour down
crowded, bumpy streets of Midtown Manhattan with no brakes? By sharply
locking up on the pedals and applying reverse pressure. Riding a
fixed-gear bicycle takes much practice and is a badge of honor for many
elite messengers, said Bucky Turco, publisher of Fixed magazine, which
is devoted to fixed-gear bikes.
Team Puma members frequently invoke the name of Nelson Vails, a New
York City messenger who won a silver medal in cycling at the 1984
Olympics in Los Angeles.
Last month, at Kissena Park in Queens, several Team Puma members raced
against Marty Nothstein, America's most decorated track cyclist and a
gold medalist in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Puma members came in
several seconds behind him. After the race, a winded Mr. Nothstein said
he was impressed with the caliber of their riding.
"There's a certain ability you get by messengering that you can't get
from the road or the track," he said.
Last Friday, Mr. Bolger knifed effortlessly through a herd of taxis and
trucks, delivering packages and running errands in preparation for the
Cycle Messenger World Championships in New York City that will take
place over the Independence Day weekend. He was trying to solve a visa
problem for the Warsaw Car Killers, a Polish messenger team.
Experienced messengers earn about $100 a day, Mr. Bobe said, but a
really good one can almost double that by "being fast, knowing your way
around the city and having a good dispatcher." Mr. Bobe has worked as a
bike messenger for 12 years and supports his two children with his
courier earnings, which he supplements with prize money and bonuses
from Puma for top finishes.
Mr. Bobe hopes to qualify for the Olympics. "I'm one second off the
qualifying time for the 200-meter sprints," he said.