Mess Media

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For Manhattan Couriers, Brakeless Bikes Are The Way to Go

New York Times, June 14, 1987

By Sarah Lyall

Bicycle messengers, the speeding bane of New York's pedestrians and motorists, have a new weapon - the brakeless bicycle.

The word on the street is that messengers are abandoning their traditional 10-speed bikes in favor of faster track bikes, which have no brakes and are made for racing.

Track bikes are built with a single gear ''fixed'' to the back wheel, so that whenever the wheel spins, the pedals rotate. This means the rider has to keep pedaling as the bicycle moves.

When traveling at messenger speeds of 25 to 30 miles an hour, the bikes, which are intended for use on oval slanted surfaces like those in the Olympics, are hard to stop. The rider has to stop pedaling and apply backward pressure to the pedals until the back wheel stops spinning and skips up slightly. The Option: To Crash

Usually, the bike then skids up to 20 feet before halting completely. As a last resort, the rider can grab the front wheel with his hand.

When traffic makes all that impossible, the other option is to crash into something.

Messengers with track bikes said experienced riders had enough control to stop when they needed to.

''After a while, you get used to it,'' said Mozart Augustin, a messenger for Rapid Couriers, who said he grew accustomed to his bicycle after several mishaps, such as hitting a taxicab. ''Most of the guys who have them have been using them for a long time and are really good.''

Owners also said that track bikes were cheaper to maintain because they had fewer parts to break and that their light frames allowed riders to go faster and make more deliveries. Leather and Spandex

Although many courier services said they required their messengers to ride bicycles with hand brakes, messengers said that the rules were only loosely enforced and that the number of track bikes on the streets was increasing rapidly.

''They're calling them future bikes,'' said Delroy Grant, a courier with the Supreme Messenger Service.

''You're seeing a lot of people who think they're Greg LeMond,'' said Darrell Paschall, a messenger for Choice Courier, referring to the American bicycle racer.

Bike messengers have always been a wild bunch, with their leather and spandex outfits and their way of negotiating traffic at top speed, as cars swerve aside and pedestrians leap onto the sidewalk.

But even some messengers are afraid to ride track bikes. These messengers said the Olympics were nothing compared to the streets of New York. 'You'll Hit the Car'

''You really need to be able to stop more quickly,'' said Raymond Ramos, a messenger for Access Couriers. ''When you're doing 25 miles an hour, and a car stops suddenly, you'll hit the car.''

''They're very dangerous,'' agreed Eddie Rivera, a messenger who once saw a track bike slam into a woman on Wall Street, knocking her out.

Bicycle messengers are generally paid by the delivery, which gives them an incentive to pedal quickly amid some of the most harrowing traffic situations in the world. Many messengers said that unless a courier wanted early retirement, he should avoid track bikes.

''They're terrible city bikes,'' Stuart Taranto, a courier for the Pacesetter service, said. ''I have a hard enough time with good brakes.''




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