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Wheel warriors

Vancouver Province, May 12, 1999

ByMike Roberts

Love 'em. Hate 'em. Just don't ever ride with them.

It all began innocently enough over coffee and cookies at the weekly story meeting.

"Can we get inside this bike courier thing?" an editor asked, after dispensing with Star Wars and Rod Stewart. "You know, the people, the job, those weird clothes, life on the streets?"

"Sure," says yours truly, not thinking straight, junked-up on a free-coffee-and-double-chocolate-chip-cookie rush. "Why don't I ride along with one of 'em for a day? Tag along, you know, get a real feel for things first hand?"

Oh, yeah, brilliant idea. (It should be noted that as I write this dispatch, my shoulders are locked in what can only be described as the seagull-wing position, my legs feel like two splintering two-by-fours and my posterior feels like, well, never mind).

So, next I get on the e-blower to buddy Dave Holden, a messenger-rights activist and accounts hunter with Relay Messenger. Dave sets me up with Des MacDonald, 27, a seven-year veteran of the double-wheeled dash and, as it turns out, one of the fastest bike couriers in the city.

He's going to meet me on what he calls a "slow" day (what I would call an Ironman-Megathon-and-six-Olympic-events-rolled-into-one day) and let me tag along as he goes about his business -- namely hauling packages around town for people for not a lot of money.

Next, I've got to prep my bike. The last time my 1986 Raleigh Record Ace 10-speed saw the road was last summer, when I wheeled it from under my stairs to the new bike lock-up in the parkade. Needless to say, it needed some oil. And the tires were flat. Oh, and it weighs about 180 kg, stripped to the frame.

Last Thursday's the day and it's just miserable out. Freezing cold, rain like mosquitoes and needles. But I fill my water bottle, strap on my helmet and pedal off to meet MacDonald.

The first thing Des does is look at my bike. He's straddling a Kona something or other, with all kinds of titanium and graphite parts fastened to its modified substructure. It weighs about as much as a peeled banana.

For the rest of the day, he will refer to my ride as "That Thing." As in, "Won't That Thing go any faster." Or, "Don't you want to lock That Thing up?"

Well, I'm on my Record Ace and I'm ready to go. And I don't care if my heart bursts, I'm going to keep up with this joker.

And we're off. From Harbour Centre to VTV's studios at Burrard and Robson via a wrong-way dash through the Hotel Vancouver's parkade ramps and a launch off the top of a metre-high flight of steps. We're there in 93 seconds. As Des dashes in for the package, I pull on the water bottle and gulp rainy air.

Des returns with a sandwich and two doughnuts. The package is delayed. For his trouble, the VTV receptionist has offered him the run of Vicki Gabareau's guest grub. He offers me a doughnut. Eat? I'm still trying to breathe.

He runs back in and grabs the package, which contains a video cassette that has to be on a Harbour Air flight to Victoria "five minutes ago."

"Sorry," says Des. "But I've got to get this there FAST."

"Don't let me hold you up," says I. "Right behind ya."

Off he goes down Burrard Street. Now, if you've never pedalled down that hill at 50 km/hr, first off the green lights, last through the reds, mere centimetres between the tips of your handlebars and two parallel buses gunning it at the same break-neck speed, well, you're probably a wise person.

Des drops the package, signs the way-bill and takes a few minutes to chat. The best way to initiate a dialogue with one of Vancouver's 160-odd bike couriers is to compliment them on their bikes, or "rides."

"There's not a helluva lot of stock on there anymore," says Des, stroking his precious, modified Kona something-or-other. "The forks could be lighter. But we all have different tastes how we like our rides to feel."

The Kamloops-born, Valley-raised bike courier "builds" his own wheels and performs his own tune-ups, which include frequent adjustments and greasings.

"Things I don't do exactly perfect, I do perfect enough," says Des, who like a lot of city couriers visits "Ed" at Mighty Riders on West Broadway for the big stuff. "He's really dependable and really good with messengers. He's a super-friendly guy, gets along with everyone. Guys are willing to go out of their way to get to him."

Des's bike has 16 gears, he uses just eight. The city-sanctioned plate wrapped around his seat stem, courier licence 163, costs him $13 every year. The money's nothing. The hassle is something else.

The Cycling Association of B.C. tests would-be couriers for the City of Vancouver.

"It has almost nothing to do with the job," says Des of the exam. "They're out of it. The test doesn't even scratch the surface of what goes on out here. If all you knew was what's on that test, you'd be dead in six months. Or injured pretty badly."

Des says it doesn't matter how conscientious or skilled a courier may be, it's the other guy, the guy in the car who refuses to follow the rules of the road, that causes the crashes and casualties.

"People drive like idiots in this city," he says. "Just because I pull a billion illegal moves a day, it doesn't mean they're not clean. I have to. You've gotta anticipate and keep your head up -- it's like hockey -- or you'll get hurt."

Unlike most of the city's bike couriers, Des carries personal liability insurance. For a hundred-and-change each month, Des will be paid out $1,000 per week on top of any ICBC payout if he gets hurt on the job and laid up with injuries.

He's been there.

He's been "doored" downtown. (Translation: Come cheek-to-steel with a carelessly opened car door.) He's "gone over the roof." (Translation: A car in front of him comes to a sudden and inexplicable stop, sending him sailing over its back bumper.)

So, he got the insurance.

"It doesn't matter that you're not at fault," says Des. "What's that worth when you're in a hospital bed? When you can't work?"

As we talk, the two pagers and the cell phone strapped to Des's rigging beep and chirp. This can happen up to 125 times a day. Hopefully, one of those customer calls will involve a "long bomb," a ride out of the city core, across any of the bridges, into higher-paying territory.

Thankfully for me, this is not the case. I do not have to take the Record Ace over those steep, hellish curves of modern engineering.

This call's for Yaletown, an office on Mainland. Des informs me we'll be taking the "Nelson highway." The highway -- or "jetway" as it's alternately called -- runs from Howe Street to the Cambie Bridge. It's a hill. It's full of potholes. It's slick with rain. And like any hill, we're going to have to come back up it.

"If you time it right and keep your speed up, you can nail them all," Des hollers over his shoulder as he prepares to race the traffic lights eastbound on Nelson. "Vancouver's really well sequenced."

Which is the last thing I hear before Des is gone. The last thing I see are his two wheels counting airtime as he stunt-jumps off a raised manhole and vanishes over the horizon.

As I pull a fast and precarious right turn onto Mainland, my balding back tire continuing along its forward trajectory, Des is locking up his bike and digging his aluminum-bound log-book out of his courier bag.

When he returns, I ask the independent operator how much all this is worth to him.

He tells me Vancouver bike couriers make anywhere from $60 to $200 per day. The master messengers, like him, consider $130 a good day.

"It wasn't something I planned to do," says Des of his fast-paced profession. "But a job I had was ending and the money was good, so I tried out being a messenger and I liked it so here I am."

A bicycle messenger will typically spend two to three years pushing parcels around the city before moving on to another job or further education or skills training. But some couriers, says Des, have been at it for seven to 10 year years and are affectionately referred to as "lifers."

The Kona something-or-other and the Record Ace spend the duration of the day zig-zagging across the rain-slicked city at high speeds. I'm making split-second, life-or-hospital decisions. Des has a Fruitopia drink in one hand and a Snickers candy bar in the other. Which leaves his handle bars with no hands.

During a brief stop at a stale red, I ask Des if he still gets an adrenalin rush riding like a madman through the busy city streets.

"You get used to it," he says, waiting for the opposing light to turn amber, which signals our launch. "I guess it depends on my mood. Sometimes I have a down day, sometimes I feel the rush."

At the next light: Is there enough work in this town for indies like his company, Relay Messenger?

"The big guys are so busy with the large- volume accounts that they don't see the little stuff," he says. "This is our gravy, we're the bottom feeders servicing a smaller, unique demand."

By mid-afternoon, I admit defeat. My legs are so severely locked, I can't dismount. My arms ache. My face is streaked with road spit and my eyes are stinging from the relentless rain. I'm near hypothermia.

I tell Des, wimp that I am, that I've got to get back to the office. He takes another look at the Record Ace shaking in time to my muscle spasms and smiles.

"Well, I'm off to Burnaby," he says. "Long bomb. Gotta fly."

I point the Record Ace's front tire in the direction of my parkade bike lock-up and start pedalling. Very slowly.


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