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Couriers skid across Jersey

Bike messengers love their underground image, but their Olympics is becoming more mainstream.

Christian Science Monitor, July 5, 2005

By Aaron Clark

Participants in the 13th annual Cycle Messengers World Championships make their way to their bicycles at the start of a heat of the Messenger race, Saturday, July 2, 2005, in Jersey City, N.J.(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

James Newman looks like a statue. He is leaning so far over the handlebars of his single-speed, fixed-gear bicycle that his body is nearly parallel to the ground. Gaze fixed straight ahead, he glides through the center of a boisterous, heavily tattooed crowd. Keeping his foot on the brake, his speed slowly declines from his earlier sprint until he is barely moving forward. Suddenly, he falls over his handlebars and onto the asphalt. A crowd surges around him, not out of concern but out of awe, slapping him on the back and praising his effort. He has just skidded over 300 feet.

Welcome to the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC), three days of sprints, skids, bunny-hops, courier-inspired mayhem, and raw displays of athleticism. Set this year in New Jersey and New York, the event has showcased the talents of bicycle couriers for 13 years. More than 700 riders from 30 countries competed in this year's main race - a simulated messenger working day of picking up and dropping off packages at checkpoints.

Though couriers have long been dominated by antiestablishment ethos - even though they are the lifeblood for many corporate businesses, as they deliver everything from legal briefs to film reels - bike messenger culture and the athletic events they inspire may be going mainstream.

Puma, the athletic shoe- and apparelmaker, has become the first major corporation to champion the event, and perhaps more important, messengers themselves. Last year, the company chose five bike messengers (with five alternates) from the streets of New York City to form a new Team Puma that would compete in both traditional indoor bike racing and Alley Cats, illegal, late-night city street races held by messenger groups around the country. Its members compete individually in CMWC.

"Its like the next skateboarding, a lot of people really want to get into it," says Jason Chaste, a former Los Angeles messenger. "People are always trying to look like messengers and have their style."

Mr. Chaste recently launched 4916, a clothing company with apparel inspired by the messenger lifestyle. But he is concerned about the marketing of messengers, believing the commodification of the underground subculture has affected the community.

"Its definitely created a lot more tension," he says. "For those Puma kids, it's great, they're getting chances to fly around and tour, everything paid for. But for the kids who aren't really into those corporate brands, it's kind of bad because it's blowing their scene, you know?"

But for many of the competitors this weekend, nothing could blow their scene.

"Delivery!" shouts one of the cargo-race competitors. "Delivery!" echoes a woman from the back of his bike that looks like a combination of a tricycle and a small pickup truck. The couple pick up and drops off car tires, watermelons, and an egg (which must be delivered unbroken) to checkpoints.

The 2005 CMWC displayed a vast amount of a talent. The main event, which established the fastest male and female racers, was won by Karl Strandsky of Basel, Switzerland, and Johanna Reeder, of Stockholm. Though he works full time as a messenger, Strandsky is also finishing his doctorate in geology. Reeder, a two-time defending CMWC champion and full-time messenger, took home the women's title.

But the final and most memorable event of the weekend was the skids. After Newman's effort, Houston messenger Gerardo Atilano, (aka The Flying Squirrel) came barreling down the straightaway. As cameras flashed and shouts of "Squirrel!" came from the crowd, Atilano shot past Newman's mark. Although an official measurement was not available at press time, estimates put Atilano's skid at close to 500 feet.


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