| by Marshall Jon Fisher
The Atlantic Monthly July 1997 v280 n1
throughout the world have been staging urban
championships, seeing which messenger can best negotiate traffic and
reach the race’s destination first. The dangers and appealing aspects
of being a bicycle messenger are discussed.
Bicycle messengers, daredevil scofflaws every day, are holding
tournaments to see who can get through tough traffic fastest
On the afternoon of last Halloween in Manhattan the rising tide of rush
hour swept a curious group into Herald Square. The group’s monster
masks and black witch outfits appeared tame next to its everyday
accessories: chains, leather, shaved heads, dreadlocks, and lip,
tongue, and nose rings. And everyone had a bicycle: the square was
cluttered with road bikes, mountain bikes, dilapidated ten-speeds,
mint-fresh twenty-one-speeds, and customized fixed-gear bikes. At New
York’s second annual Halloween bicycle-messenger race it was hard to
tell who was in costume and who wasn’t.
Kevin, better known as Squid (messengers go by either first names or
nick- names), circulated through the crowd, mild jitters evident
beneath his ghoulish makeup. He had been one of the organizers of the
event, in which riders would have to go through six checkpoints around
the city, in any order, before finishing. They would face the
ever-present danger of accidents and, of course, trouble from the
police: it’s not exactly legal to conduct a race through Manhattan
As three o’clock approached, some twenty riders coalesced near the
appointed landmark, a statue of Minerva. Riders of fixed-gear bicycles
stood on their pedals like cowboys in their stirrups, making slow
semicircles. (Cyclists can’t coast on fixed-gear bikes; the pedals
always move forward and backward with the wheels. The bikes often have
no brakes, meaning that riders must use sheer leg strength to force
Squid’s brother James, a powerful-looking rider on a fixed-gear
mountain bike and the favorite to win, took off his monster mask. The
riders crowded to the starting line, waited for the signal, and broke
into traffic in a pack.
Within a minute they had diffused, separating by skill, speed, and
choice of route through the checkpoints. They looked the same as when
on the job, each bombing through the city with a bag slung over one
Messenger races have sprung up all over the world, ranging from
informal after-work events to highly organized world championships.
Last September, San Francisco hosted the fourth annual Cycle Messenger
World Championships, following ones in Berlin, London, and Toronto;
next month the fifth world championships will be held in Barcelona. In
San Francisco some 600 bicycle messengers from North America, Europe,
and Asia competed on fixed-gear bikes (revered among messengers), on
bikes with large, heavy boxes in baskets, and on cargo bikes. They also
raced in straight sprints--comparable to the 100-meter dash in
track--and in something called the Trials, in which riders must hop
over large rocks, cement walls, and other "extreme" obstacles.
In the main event riders followed a grueling course up and down the
city’s hills, picking up and delivering packages in a race designed to
simulate a messenger’s rounds. The highly stylized world championships
evolved from street races like the New York contest. These grassroots
competitions, called alleycat races, more accurately reflect the
profession that inspired them. Almost every city with a messenger
community has some form of alleycat race. No one seems to know who had
the first, but the first group to meet regularly was probably the
Toronto Alley Cats, founded almost ten years ago and still led by John
Englar--known to all as Johnny Jet Fuel, after his Jet Fuel Coffee
Shop. In the mid-1980s Englar and his friends--messengers or
ex-messengers like him—would take to their bikes for late-night
scrambles through Toronto.
"The whole idea," Englar explained to me recently, "was to ride through
the downtown urban environment and architecture, experience the city
for what it was, catch air, and mash our bikes up." In 1987 Englar
turned the rides into an organized event. "We make [entrants] ride
through parking garages, cross through buildings, up and down stairs,"
Englar said. "It’s at least an hour full tilt in traffic. The whole
idea is, Yes, you could get taken out."
Bicycle messengers have existed for a hundred years in San Francisco
and New York. They became cults of cool in the 1980s, when the number
of messengers in New York reached a peak of around 5,000. E-mail and
fax machines have attenuated their ranks (there are currently 1,000 to
2,000 New York messengers), but this has only added to the mystique. In
an age when information travels around the world in a millisecond,
these urban warriors still zip through the city on their own legpower
to deliver legal documents, plane tick- ets, and other nondigital
Why bicycle messengers gather with such pride has little to do with the
quantifiable rewards of their job. In the United States they work on a
commission basis, which makes for long, hard days of riding; stopping
to rest means loss of income. The best ones might earn $500 a week;
messengers have no paid vacation, and most courier companies don’t
offer health or accident insurance. Riders must buy their own courier
licenses in those cities (Boston, for example) where they are required,
and must pay their own traffic fines.
What many messengers share, besides poor working conditions, is scorn
for the constraints of professional careers and a joyous enthusiasm for
bicycles as urban transportation. Anyone who has sped on a bicycle past
a five-block-long backup of rush-hour traffic understands this zeal.
But trying to beat the clock while racing through traffic can be
suicidal. A number of couriers die on the job--last year at least five
in Manhattan alone. After the awards ceremony at the San Francisco
world championships racers took a slow memorial ride in honor of their
fallen comrades, throwing an old bike into the harbor near Pier 54 to
commemorate their dead.
"Everyone gets hit," Adam Ford told me recently, washing down spring
rolls with a beer after work one evening at The DeLux Cafe, in Boston’s
South End. Ford was easy to recognize when he came in: red hair in a
ponytail, as he had said on the phone, all-black full-body Pearl Izumi
Lycra racing outfit, sleek metallic-gray helmet with black visor, and
messenger bag with a pager and a two-way radio strapped to it. The
DeLux Cafe is one of two main bicycle-messenger hangouts in Boston; its
owner sponsored Ford and other Bostonians at the San Francisco world
championships. As we talked, several other messengers joined us,
unburdening themselves of their copious paraphernalia. Ford looked like
a racer, as befits the tenth-place finisher (and top American) in the
1995 world championships in Toronto. His colleagues exemplified the
other courier look: studiously unkempt, in careful antagonism to the
fashions of the careers they had forgone.
Although couriers spend their days delivering the packages that keep
corporate America running, they share a distrust of authority and a
disdain for the pal- lid indoor worker. Ford, who is twenty-six,
graduated from Wesleyan University with a dual degree in studio arts
Like a number of messengers I have talked to, he was thoughtful and
articulate, despite the "dude"s and "like"s peppering his speech. His
goatee twitched and his tongue studs flashed as he spoke in a
machine-gun rhythm. "I was thinking about medical school, but this is
just so much more entertaining. Why would I want to forfeit my youth to
go to medical school?"
For messengers the job becomes a sport in itself--a race to deliver as
many packages as possible in the shortest time. Ford, who races
mountain bikes on weekends, is known as one of the fastest messengers
in Boston. A fellow courier at The DeLux Cafe was astonished when he
saw Ford’s delivery log: fifty packages on a bad day, more than seventy
on a good one. Most messengers would consider fifty to be a banner day.
Alleycat races are the truest gauge of a messenger’s skill, and they
also demonstrate the spontaneity, recklessness, and extremism so valued
in the messenger community.
The world championships ought to be as capricious, disconcerting to
motorists, and, above all, dangerous. But organization has its price:
the world championships are sanctioned and safe. Achim Beier, the
proprietor of the company Messenger Berlin, was criticized for
organizing the Berlin world championships too well. "There is always a
contradiction between professional organization and the character of
messengers," he told me recently. "Some messengers think money is
suspicious, and they don’t want to be dependent on sponsors. But to
have these big races you need money." The difference in attitude
between Europe and North America was evident at the 1995 and 1996 world
championships. The Toronto and San Francisco events, in contrast to the
one in Berlin, were as much festivals celebrating an alternative
lifestyle as athletic competitions. "The Americans," Beier said,
sighing, "love it more the freaky style."
Adam Ford told me, "Kids don’t do a lot of training. To go out of your
way and make sacrifices goes against the spirit of a courier race."
Still, in San Francisco, despite the party atmosphere (and predictable
appearances by naked riders), the course was a tortuous run through
Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and the Financial District. Racers
received higher scores for carrying pack- ages longer distances or
across greater changes in elevation; bulky and heavy packages were also
worth extra points. As much as the San Francisco committee tried to
simulate common challenges to couriers, though, one crucial factor was
inevitably absent: traffic. The scale of the world championships
requires closed streets, thus obviating a messenger’s most prized
skill--the ability to negotiate traffic at top speed. As one San
Francisco competitor told a reporter, "If they really wanted to make
the race authentic, they’d have us run through traffic while people
opened car doors."
I remembered his words as I rode my rickety rented ten-speed through
Manhattan last Halloween, trying to catch racers at a few of the
checkpoints. As I approached the Williamsburg Bridge, one rider shot
down the ramp past me and turned into oncoming traffic at full speed,
finding an opening between two cars where there was none.
As the racers would have to, I climbed the stairs to the bridge and
rode out to the checkpoint, a quarter of the way across. One by one
racers appeared, slaloming between workers walking home to Brooklyn,
negotiating hazardous crevices, bumps, and narrow passages, spinning
and stopping on a dime as they pulled out their manifest sheets to be
I rode to the finish line, in a vacant lot at 20th Street and the East
River, where riders, organizers, and friends drank and relaxed. Even in
this crowd, where presumably no outfit would be out of place, I managed
to be a misfit pedaling up on my Sunday-rider’s bike in blue jeans,
windbreaker, and rented bulbous pink helmet. The further the messengers
drifted into party mode, the less approachable they became to an
outsider. Few would divulge their last names, fewer still their
employers—some companies, I was told, are unlicensed and uninsured.
Chris Schmidt, who came in second (after placing fifteenth in San
Francisco), was an affable exception. He held up a bleeding hand and
explained, "One car stopped for pedestrians in the middle of the
street, right in front of me. I cut my knuckle but I didn’t fall off my
bike." John Yacobellis, the winner, found a way to avoid pedestrians
altogether. After covering the uptown check- points he "caught a ride"
partway down the West Side Highway, grabbing a car’s window frame,
bumper, or wheel well and riding like a remora on a shark.
This wasn’t cheating: in alleycat races anything goes. The same applies
on the job, of course; a client cares little how the package travels,
as long as it reaches its destination fast. In most cities "towing" is
not very helpful, since bikes are usually faster than cars in downtown
traffic. But in New York, where long straight stretches are common,
towing is a valued skill. James, Squid’s brother, was the odds-on
favorite before the New York race in part because of his fabled towing
expertise and daring. "He just lays his hand on a side window," one
rider said admiringly, "and lets the friction pull him along." James
added to his legend one year in San Francisco when he took part in the
annual Russian River Ride, an eighty-mile messenger pilgrimage from the
city out to rural Sonoma County. James rode for miles on a tow at about
35 mph on a fixed-gear bike with no brakes, his legs "going like a
blender" the entire time, according to one witness, as they kept pace
with the pedals.
Derring-do wasn’t enough for James last Halloween: he skipped one of
the checkpoints and was disqualified. He didn’t seem to mind, though,
as he lingered with his colleagues on the rocks by the water, watching
the late-afternoon sunlight recede across Brooklyn. Squid, surveying
the scene, explained, "It’s competitive, but it’s also a bonding thing.
You’re racing people, but you’re also racing against the city."
That race is no contest. From my vantage point on the Williamsburg
Bridge, I’d had a view of planes and helicopters over the river, the J
train crossing the bridge, and thousands of cars stuck on the FDR
None offered a more efficient way than the cyclists’ of traversing
Manhattan. The early finishers in the race covered about 300 blocks, or
fifteen miles, in rush-hour traffic, stopping for six checkpoints, in
less than an hour.
Here is another
article about the same race:
Does New York" - Hideousewhitenois, #33, Summer 1997