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Hundreds of bike messengers converge in Toronto for world championships


Canadian Press, June 15, 2008

TORONTO — Low pay, no benefits, stiff competition and constant threats posed by aggressive traffic and car doors - being a bike courier is a tough job, and they've got the battle scars to prove it.

But as hundreds of bike couriers from around the globe descended on Toronto over the weekend, many of them said they'd never trade it in for a more traditional job.

John Campo was one of the approximately 400 participants from 20 countries in the annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, held on the Toronto Islands this weekend.

He has been working in downtown Toronto - an area he describes as a "war zone," where bike courier companies are in tight competition for clients - for three months.

Campo said he has been "doored" three times and hit by cars twice already, pointing out scars on his hands from someone's rear-view mirror.

But he's not deterred.

"It's a load of fun," Campo said. "You can't ask for a better job than riding a bike outside."

The downsides, however, are numerous, said Leah Hollinsworth, one of the organizers of the event.

One of the main focuses of the weekend event was an annual general meeting of the International Federation of Bicycle Messenger Associations, which works to improve conditions for bike couriers.

"We're not designated as employees so we're not granted the benefits of paid vacations, sick days, any sort of benefits, like no dental or medical benefits," said Hollinsworth.

"If you get injured on the job, chances are you'll just lose your job because you're not able to perform it and the companies don't care. There's not really the sort of loyalty or job security and we're working to change that."

She said a typical bike messenger might make between $70 to $90 a day, and those earning the most might get around $150 per day.

Robert Melnyk has worked as a bike messenger in Toronto for 24 years. Melnyk said he's been hit by cars 12 or 15 times, having once spent a year in a neck brace after a car made a right turn in front of him and he ended up going through the windshield before being thrown onto the curb.

He couldn't speak properly for two years after the accident but he said he still loves his job. Riding 50 to 100 kilometres a day, doing between 20 and 60 deliveries in "rain, snow, hail, sleet, sweltering heat, whatever they throw at you," is worth the freedom, he said.

"You get to be out on your own, you're on the road," said Melnyk, relaxing on a picnic table with his daughter, Norah. "You have your boss, your dispatcher on the radio, but that's not someone looking over your shoulder."

At the bike polo courts, some of the three-person teams donned masks and face paint and tore over the pavement, swinging mallets and shouting.

Quinn Shamlian came from New York City to compete in bike polo, a sport she picked up six to eight months ago, she said.

"Bike polo is polo because we're riding something and we have mallets, but it's much more like hockey, just because of the skidding and the blocking," said Shamlian.

Arik Jelonnek, from Berlin, Germany said he heard about the competition about a month ago and scraped together all the money he could to get to Toronto where he's had a "great time."

"I always ask myself what is it I am searching for in this kind of work," said Jelonnek.

"I think all the people are searching for something in it, something they don't get in their normal life.

"Because it's such bad pay, why don't I (find) a job that's better paid, and not so hard and dangerous? I don't want to, because everyday I see people in their ties in their offices ... No."