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The dress code: sub-zero casual


What would you wear to weave through city streets in bitter temperatures? One bike courier shows his layers

By Maxine Mendelssohn

Montreal Gazette, March 08, 2007

Bike messengers are a staple in many big cities. You've seen them straddling salt-covered bikes as they weave between cars, braving the worst winter weather to deliver documents.

Sebastien Patenaude, 29, has been a courier for four years, through heat waves and deep freezes. This slim six-footer says he has always been in pretty good shape but wasn't prepared for the rigours of the job, which include cycling up to 60 kilometres a day. (The Tour de l'Ile, Montreal's annual bike rally, is 48 kilometres.)

"The first few days killed me. I couldn't walk and my knees were completely swollen. I didn't know the city, I would bike around in circles looking for addresses," the Lacolle native says.

When fax machines and email threatened to render bike messengers obsolete these two-wheel warriors pedalled on.

Their numbers are still almost as strong today as ever, according to Paul Etheridge, owner of QMS, a Montreal messenger service that employs bike and car messengers.

"All this new technology has brought business down about five per cent for the bike messengers," Etheridge said. "But we employ as many bike couriers as we did in the 1990s. Until everyone starts emailing and faxing every single document, there will always be a need for them. Technology can't always replace people."

After all, how else can you get cheques or legal documents across town as fast as possible?

Patenaude claims he delivers many times faster than a car. "I go down one-way streets the wrong way and don't stop at red lights. I don't really respect the rules of the road, so of course I'm faster." Patenaude's sometimes risky manoeuvres could get him in trouble, but he says police generally ignore infractions committed by couriers.

Though there are no statistics kept on the number of bike messengers in the city, Patenaude puts the number at about 300 in the summer and 150 in the winter.

"Not everyone has what it takes to do this in the winter," said Patenaude, who claims that biking in ice and snow are no big deal. It's the wind and rain that slow him down.

"Every morning I check the weather but I pretty much dress the same all winter. I put on lots of layers and keep moving - that keeps me warm enough. So far, it's never been too cold for me to work."

According to Patenaude, road rage is almost an everyday occurrence, but he's learned to deal with it in his own Zen-like way.

"I come close to getting hit two or three times a month. Honestly, I'd say half the time it's my fault. I learned to let things roll off me or else I'd get into fist fights all the time. Sometimes if I get cut off, I'll follow the car to the next red light and tell the driver what he did and why it's dangerous, but in general I just keep on going. You know, time is money."

A bike courier, layer by layer

Here's what Sebastien Patenaude wears for work in winter:

1. Giro helmet, $150. "It's broken, but I'm going to buy a new one soon."

2. Black Adidas tuque, found downtown. "I'm always finding things on the streets downtown. I've found money, new gloves, hats."

3. Oakley sunglasses, $150, at Sports Experts. "Some guys wear ski goggles but I think that's a little overkill. These sunglasses do the trick."

4. Fleece neck warmer, $8, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

5. Waterproof Outlast gloves, $55, at Sports Experts

6. Long-sleeve black polyester top, $59, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

7. Chlorophylle polar fleece, $150, at La Cordee.

8. Nylon bike jacket (patched with matching blue duct tape), $150, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

9. Walkie-talkie and cellphone, provided by employer. "The walkie-talkies are like on TV, we say '10-4' and everything. Sometimes we chat but it gets annoying because you have to talk one at a time."

10. Waterproof breathable stretchy black pants, $74, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

11. Loose bike shorts by Giant, gift from a friend.

12. Nylon knee-high gaiters, $45, at La Cordee. "They also use these for cross-country skiing, it stops the slush from going into your boots."

13. Salomon boots, $150, at Sports Experts.

14. Thermal socks, $15, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

15. Cocotte messenger bag, $150, provided by his employer. "It's got a single strap that wraps diagonally across so I can swing it around for easy access."

Total: $1,156





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