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Two wheels good

Boulder business aims to change the stereotype of the bike messenger

The Daily Camera, July 21, 2005

By Cara Hall,

On a Monday morning, business doesn't appear to be hurting in the Boulder office of Denver-Boulder Couriers.

Bike dispatcher Josh Fortenbaugh, who's taking calls every two minutes from couriers in both cities, claims it's a slow day. It's what Boulder bike messenger Chris Miller calls the "summer doldrums" - a time when people make their own deliveries because the weather's nice.

But with phone calls, faxes, riders coming and going, and drivers coming in to exchange pagers, it's anything but slow.

Owner Chris Grealish arrives just after 10, half a muffin in hand, with apologies. He'd have been there earlier, but he was riding his bike all night, helping a friend train.

To say that Grealish loves cycling is a monumental understatement. He's never owned a car, and he's participated in several state-to-state endurance races.

Grealish's philosophy on bike messengers doesn't exactly match up with the stereotypical image of an aggressive courier on a bike.

It's about the job, not the attitude.

"We want to be part of the community, not this gritty, urban warrior," Grealish says. "There's no standard for the industry. We're trying to be the standard."

Unlike many bike messengers in big cities, Denver-Boulder Couriers' employees are required to wear helmets and carry bags with emblazoned with the company's logo and phone number - and they must obey traffic laws.

Grealish says couriers have to be blue-collar workers in a white-collar world. Being a smelly, rude misfit doesn't make it any easier to fit in.

"There's a romantic image of bike messengers," he says. "It's been hard because people that come through want to be involved with the lifestyle. It's a tough nut to crack."

Grealish would prefer his couriers be more concerned with the cycling aspect of the job, since they'll have to ride 350 to 500 miles a week.

"We select people who love riding a bicycle to the point that they can't really stop," he says. "Our people ride farther - and with more (stuff) in their bags - than anyone else."

Boston was just too cold for Grealish.

After freezing for three years as a bicycle messenger in Bean Town, he decided to look for a warmer city to do his job - a less-harsh place where he wouldn't have to worry so much about getting "car doored."

"I kept getting hurt," he says. "I had this vision of being 40 and in a wheelchair."

This was pre-Internet 1987, so Grealish grabbed the Yellow Pages in several warmer cities to find out which ones had a market for bike messengers.

Boulder was the first city he visited, and, as it turned out, the only one he needed to see.

"Seeing the bike lanes, the friendly people and the mountains, I was blown away," Grealish says.

A month later he moved to Boulder and started researching the market. It would be hard to convince people who weren't used to seeing bike couriers that Boulder needed them.

But he had faith.

"Because people here are environmentally conscious, it was possible," Grealish says.

It took a while to build the business, which eventually expanded to include a Denver office, but Grealish stuck with it. He even worked at an ice cream shop for a while to make ends meet.

Now Denver-Boulder Couriers, the only bike-messenger firm in town, employs about 50 people: four to six bike messengers in each city, plus delivery drivers, dispatchers and RTD bus riders. Each rider makes 30-60 deliveries in an eight-hour shift.

Grealish says it helped to have a lot of law and architecture firms in Boulder - the kind of businesses that typically use bike couriers. Even so, the business remains a challenge.

"Customers' needs change," Grealish says. "The electronic age is stripping away what we traditionally did. We're looking for things we weren't previously attracted to."

That includes a lot of deliveries for the medical community and service of process documents, such as court summons and divorce papers.

It's hard work, baking in the summer sun - Grealish says they buy sunscreen by the gallon - and slipping on slush in winter.

And then there's the car factor.

Sharing the road with two-ton vehicles means the occasional run-in with a car. And the car usually wins.

Miller recently crashed into a car, shattering the passenger window and requiring stitches to close a gash on his face.

Miller, whose helmet sports a "Your SUV sucks" sticker, says his biggest fear is a distracted driver in a sport-utility vehicle.

"You learn people's mistakes and you look out for them," Miller says.

Jonathan Tamesui, who rides in Denver, agrees that experience is key.

"The whole city has patterns," Tamesui says. "It's almost like the city is breathing. It becomes your friend and you can get into it and read it."

Tamesui says it's frustrating to share the road with drivers who don't think bikers belong there.

"If you look at cycling, it's been demonized," he says. "We're considered inferior. You have to act like you aren't doing anything wrong because you're not. People will get used to it. It should be taught in driver's ed."

Like any job, Miller says being a bike messenger means good and bad days.

"Some days I'm tired and I feel (terrible), but other days I feel like it's the best job I'll ever have," he says.

Fortenbaugh, who's now a dispatcher, recalls a rough day delivering rocks for an architect when he was a messenger. But he says that on other days, a messenger can get off easy.

"Occasionally there will be a delivery from one floor to another, so they'll pay someone $8 to take the elevator," he says.


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