Mess Media, October 9, 2007
What’s going on with messengers and the media?
Everywhere you look the media is hyping some new aspect of messenger
culture as the next big thing. And they may be right. Messenger culture
and its youth oriented styles, street edge and outlaw image has been
making inroads into the mainstream since the first Cycle
Messenger World Championships (CMWC) in 1993 in Berlin Germany.
Since then messenger bags have become the accessory of choice for
office workers and students.
And now recently many urban cyclists have started trading in their city
mountain bikes for the fixed gear bikes associated with bike
messengers. They even refer to messenger events as part of their “fixed
who lock their bikes only once or twice per day imitate the messenger
practice of dangling their Kryptonite key from their wrist to save a
few seconds when locking and unlocking. Young urban cyclists make
homemade spoke cards to resemble the ones messengers distribute at
When my bike shoes were wearing out and I couldn’t afford new ones I
would tape the sole to the shoe with duct tape twice a day to keep them
from falling apart. Often while riding in an elevator, an office worker
would lean in to quietly inquire if the duct tape was a special new
technique that messengers had discovered to improve the shoes. Some
would ask if it “meant” something as if it were some badge of honour or
secret code. I grew so tired of the truth turning their anxious look of
excitement in to disappointment that I sometimes lied to confirm their
expectation of discovering some latest street trend.
Young Fit Fast Folks
Whether it is to admire or despise, the message from the mainstream is
clear, messengers are worth watching and imitating. Back in 1995,
legendary San Francisco messenger Markus Cook mused that “one thing
that the public senses is that couriers have community. The other thing
that fascinates the public is that we’re young, fit, fast folks.”
Stylist John Steinberg describes messengers as being “ahead of their
time.” He says “They’ve got that edge. You see something on a courier.
Maybe in a year later it will hit the mainstream. They’re slick.
They’re cool. For want of a better word, they’re cool. The real world
for them is cool.”
Today messengers are more influential than ever. It’s as if they are
followed by celebrity stalkers so that every aspect of messenger style,
function and culture can be closely studied and copied by those who
desire to align themselves with the image of the strong, independent
yet vulnerable courier who races through traffic for the satisfaction
of a job well done.
Messenger bag makers give away their bags at messenger races hoping
that whoever wins will wear the bag while working to make their bags
more desirable by non-messengers. Advertising Age recently named
messenger-bag company, Timbuk2 in its “Marketing 50” list of
up-and-coming brands. Timbuk2 used its sponsorship of the Cycle
Messenger World Championships and other messenger events to build an
image that attracted young urban students and professionals to their
products. The company has now expanded into an urban lifestyle brand
with about $20 million annual sales and growing.
Pabst Blue Ribbon used its sponsorship of messenger events such as bike
polo and alleycats to turn its brand around. As a result, in 2002,
sales of the beer, which had been sinking steadily since the 1970's,
actually rose 5.3 percent. From the start of 2003 through April 20,
supermarket beer sales were up another 9.4 percent.
As the New York Times reported “the growth started and is most
pronounced in Portland -- a city best known in the cosmology of beer as
a haven for fancy microbrews -- where most agree that bike messengers
have been in the P.B.R. vanguard.”
It’s not just messengers at work that is influential, a number of
messenger sports are predicted by all types of media outlets to be the
next big lifestyle sport to make it big and excite the mainstream.
"It’s not inconceivable that future
championships will be broadcast live
on ESPN, with the same treatment as given to any other well-funded
The Morning News described the Cycle Messenger World Championships
(CMWC) as “a real contender” to be the next big thing.
“In a world where
formerly fringe sports such as skateboarding, surfing, and snowboarding
have been packaged, marketed, and sold to the highest bidders aiming
for the young consumers of the world, a search is on for the next
untamed, broadcast-friendly athletes. Bike messengers are real
It’s not inconceivable that future championships will be broadcast live
on ESPN, with the same treatment as given to any other well-funded
- The Morning News, July 26, 2005
CMWC is a contender because it’s a spectator friendly festival
that celebrates youth, speed and adrenalin. Events such as skids, bunny
hop, and track stand and bike polo are not only interesting and
exciting to watch they also inspire fans to document them with digital
cameras and video and then publish them for the world to view.
With the decline in the effectiveness of traditional forms of
advertising and promotion, events such as CMWC offer ground-breaking
companies new and innovative ways to connect with today’s youth.
Messenger culture and messenger events have embraced the new media
effectively promoting themselves on video sharing, photo sharing and
social networking communities.
Videos and photos of messenger events and their sponsors are prevalent
throughout the new media. One of Lucas Brunelle’s videos of a
New York bike messenger race has received well over 1.5 million views
Youtube alone surpassing the viewership of most snowboarding,
skateboarding and surfing videos.
Fixed Gear bikes, alleycat races, roller racing (goldsprints) and bike
polo are all being hyped as the next big urban lifestyle trend. Not
since surfing in the 1960’s and skateboarding in the 70’s has a new
youth oriented lifestyle received this kind of attention.
Recently the New York Times reported that “just as die-hard
skateboarders 15 years ago stood on the cusp of providing a new
lifestyle, so the fixed-gear bike culture could be the tip of something
that nobody can accurately predict but something that is huge.”
The Times goes on “but something about the trajectories of surfing and
skating from unexamined, semi-underground secret societies to blown-out
cheesy “sports” could forecast the future of the fixed-gear bike.”
“It’s surely only a matter of time before
Nike or Coke or Sony discover urban bike polo.”
The Guardian in London reported that “Urban
bike polo - like its riot-girl sister roller derby - is an autonomous,
anarchic, DIY punk sport as yet untainted by professionalism. It's a
mosh-pit on wheels, enjoying pretty much the same position in the
hipster hierarchy as skateboarding did before commercialization and
sponsorship turned it into a sold-out 10 cent whore.
“It’s surely only a matter of time before Nike or Coke or Sony discover
urban bike polo.”
The Christian Science Monitor notes the similarity to skateboarding.
"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."
And London’s Independent describes competitive messenger racing as
“some of the most intense cyclo-sport on the planet.”
In a separate report the Independent asks “Is roller racing the next
big thing in competitive pedaling?” It paper describes the event as a
“beery atmosphere of a closely packed crowd stoked up to fever pitch by
rival factions, and set alight by faces contorted by the pain of a
sprint duel nearing its end.”
“some of the most intense cyclo-sport on
Traditional media is also hyping messenger culture as national
television productions such as Ellen DeGeneres and NBC World of
Adventure have recently aired feature segments on messengers. The
Canadian sports network TSN produced an entire hour long program on
messenger racing, sponsored by Jeep. The new local sports network in
New York City chose a messenger alleycat race as the first episode of
its new sports program. PUMA has sponsored a five-person
messenger racing team to compete all over the world. A PUMA press
release proudly brags of its association with messengers:
embody the individuality, style and athleticism that is synonymous with
our brand," said Barney Waters, PUMA North America , Marketing
Director. "For them like us, sport is a way of life; it doesn't just
end when the days is over, it is part of who they are and how they
define themselves. Bike Messengers are connected to the city in ways
that no other group could be. Through their community, they have shaped
modern culture and have become part of the urban landscape."
And it seems unstoppable. In June 2008 in Toronto, CMWC will return to
North America for the first time since the advent of the web 2.0
services such as Youtube, CurrentTV, My Space and Facebook. At the same
time messenger culture has exploded as messenger bags, fixed gear bikes
and bike polo receive more and more attention from the mainstream.
Toronto last hosted the CMWC’s in 1995. It was the festival’s first
appearance in North America and only the third championship ever.
Although the CMWC has grown immensely since then, the Toronto race
received vast media attention and exposure including the production of
2 documentaries of the race and national live coverage of the final
race day on MuchMusic. Much of this coverage is still viewed 12 years
later on Youtube.
Whatever 2008 brings it’s certain that the influence of bike messengers
on mainstream society will continue to grow as more young people look
to messengers for their inspiration.