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The other Olympics

NYC messengers bike for the gold

City Limits MONTHLY, July/August 2005

By Tracie McMillian

New Yorkers antsy for some international athletic competition needn’t wait for the Olympic Committee’s upcoming decision: This Fourth of July weekend, New York will play host to the Cycle Messenger World Championships, a grassroots-y, slightly debauched take on global sporting contests.

Equal parts trade show, family reunion, party and sport, the “Worlds” began in Berlin in 1993. German messengers, inspired by meeting American messengers, decided to invite their compatriots from other countries to a well-organized, closed-course, insured race, a far cry from the informal “alleycats”--races through live traffic--that are staples of messenger subculture.

Now in New York for the first time, competitors will battle in a race designed to simulate a bike courier’s workday, though it’s the other events that get the crowd roaring. Trackskids, for instance, gauges who can skid the farthest on his or her track bike, a kind of lightweight, brakeless bike favored by American messengers (a Brooklynite holds the world record at 479 feet). The “bunny hop,” a sort of reverse limbo on bikes, requires participants to jump their bikes over a bar that’s raised incrementally after each successful jump.

The competition is a kind of coming out party for the New York Bicycle Messenger Foundation, a scrappy nonprofit founded by activists in 2003 to provide funds to messengers injured on the job. The group has raised $100,000 through registration fees and sponsorships (any profit will go to its messenger injury fund), and by late May had recruited more than 500 competitors, with another 500 expected by show time. International outreach is coordinated through the International Federation of Bicycle Messenger Associations, which represents more than 200 messenger groups worldwide and oversees a formal bidding process for cities hoping to host the Worlds.

The scale and scope of this year’s competition underscores the growing attention paid to street bike racing as an organic, urban sport--not unlike the early days of skateboarding. And, as with that sport, advertisers are taking notice. Puma, a hip sportswear label [if a slave laborer can be considered hip], is a primary sponsor for the Worlds and of a messengers-only racing team based at the Queens velodrome.

But the games are still young. “We’re amateurs in terms of event producing,” says Judith Max. A mohawked 28-year-old and working messenger, Max is heading the event’s personnel committee and is the NYBMF secretary. “This is the first one where we’ve had to deal with the police,” she says. Bike messengers in the city have held large events before, according to Max, but generally have only needed permission from the city parks department--and they rarely seek permits for alleycats.

After negotiations with the NYPD stalled, says Max, organizers reluctantly moved the main race to the New Jersey waterfront. “We’re very aware of our image as troublemakers or ne’er-do-wells,” says Max. “But there’s a lot more to us than that. We really hope people come check this out.”


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