Mess Media




Cycling demons

Local cyclists Joe Dias and Tommy Quesnel are the top two prospects in the World Cycle Messengers Championship set for next weekend in Toronto

The Toronto Star, August 6, 1995

By Peter Cheney Toronto Star

Tommy - Joe 1995

With the World Cycle Messengers Championship looming, what passes for anxiety among the riders has reached its peak, which is to say that it is business at its laid-back usual.

Unlike the Olympic Games, which are preceded by brutal stress and earnestness, the impending Messengers Championship has not cracked the trademark cool of top prospects Joe Dias and Tommy Quesnel.

"The championships? Yeah, they're cool," says Quesnel with a distracted air, turning his mind to something else."

As usual, Quesnel and Dias spend their days on the bikes, and their evenings in the fevered round of courier parties and hanging out that are the trademark of courier life.

There are obvious similarities between the two: Both wear dreadlocks, shorts and cycling shoes. Both are 23 years old. Both have the laid-back style and two-wheeled mastery that marks the serious courier.

Dias and Quesnel have both won countless times in the underground "alley-cat" races that Toronto couriers have run for years, events like the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, which take the riders through routes that feature parking garages, stone stairways and construction sites.

And both are generally acknowledged as Canada's top candidates in the world championships, which will run for three days in Toronto beginning Friday.

At last year's championships, held in Berlin, Quesnel was 14th out of hundreds of riders, and Dias managed to place 32nd. Under the circumstances, those results were superb: Dias was riding with a malfunctioning bike, and Quesnel only joined the competition at the last minute, riding a borrowed bike and wearing the only shorts he had - a pair of torn underwear.

Despite their similarities, Dias and Quesnel are two different animals. Dias operates with the efficiency and organization of a professional athlete - right down to a thorough promotional campaign. Months ago, Dias prepared a press kit, encased in a slick plastic sleeve and filled with clippings, race results and color photos.

This, as well as his past successes, landed him a sponsorship with a bicycle wholesaler who gave Dias a brand new Schwinn aluminum mountain bike plus a brand-new pair of cycling shoes.

His bike has the look of a racing car that has been just rolled out from its transporter, ready for serious competition. Dias has approached the entire affair with the seriousness Andretti would bring to the Indy 500.

Dias brings to the rag-tag, low-rent courier game a total, professional dedication, even though there is, at least for now, no money in it.

Quesnel is another matter. Even among couriers, Quesnel is considered a fairly extreme case: He has long dreadlocks that toss around his head like a collection of woolly snakes, his eyes have the tuned-to-another-channel glaze of the hard- core surfer, and his clothes run to the extra-funky variety.

On the day he is interviewed by The Star he is wearing a torn souvenir T-shirt from the 1994 world courier championship and a pair of baggy black jeans that stop below his knees, as if he were one of the Little Rascals, dressed for a game of sandlot baseball. His arm has a long scab after a recent crash on a bike with no brakes, and on his feet are a ragged pair of cycling shoes.

Quesnel grew up in Mississauga, and played hockey as a kid. He was good enough to play Triple-A, but somewhere along the line his dreams of the NHL slipped by the wayside.

"I don't know what happened," he says dreamily. "Guess I just started riding bikes . . ."

When he was 11, Quesnel spent two years travelling with his father, a moving truck driver. At 15, he moved out on his own, collecting welfare and working as a waiter to support himself. His career as a cycle courier was launched by a searing, formative experience: On the day of Quesnel's 19th birthday, his father committed suicide.

That day, Quesnel moved downtown and got a job couriering, escaping his past like a man who has signed up for the French Foreign Legion. And like a legionnaire, Quesnel prefers not to discuss his father's death or other aspects of his past, concentrating instead on bicycle stunts and the manifold pleasures of courier life.

"It's great," he says of couriering. "You have the friends, and you can look the way you want. You know, rebel without a clue . . ."

Quesnel is evenly coated in bicycle grease and grit, the effect of living in a van with no shower and constant tinkering with bikes. Like a coal-dusted locomotive stoker, he is truly at one with his machine.

For now, bikes are the epicentre of Quesnel's life. He has no real plans or formed ambitions, although he does long to work with machine tools - "lathes and stuff. Love it."

Of Quesnel's skills there is no question. Even arch-rival Dias will admit that Quesnel is the best when it comes to the astounding feats of bike- handling that couriers are known for. No one can ride a staircase or bounce over a car like Quesnel. When it comes to this sort of thing he is the reigning genius of the street.

Dias is no slouch at these things either. But Quesnel is magical. Dias's strength is speed around a course. He is more like a classical bicycle racer in that sense. He has even quit smoking (a courier tradition) to help his endurance and fitness. Quesnel, on the other hand, still carries a pack of DuMaurier Lights.

Quesnel is prone to erraticism. The months leading up to the championships were classic Quesnel, ruled by the forces of carelessness and inspiration, the quirky genius that often marks gifted figures. Until two weeks ago, Quesnel didn't even have a bike. About two months ago, Quesnel quit his job, sold his bike, used the money to buy a seedy Volkswagen van, then drove up to Bracebridge and parked beside a river, where he lived for several weeks, sleeping in the Volkswagen and swimming.

The championship was far from his mind. Like Mohammad Ali, who terrified supporters with his apparent nonchalance before his famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" fight with George Foreman (which Ali won with his Rope-a-Dope strategy), Quesnel seemed far removed from the task at hand.

But with the championships looming, Quesnel was finally shocked into action. Less than two weeks ago, he returned to Toronto and has somehow pulled it together. He got a titanium frame through a sponsorship with MiG, a company that brings them in from Russia. He claims they are welded together by workers who once made MiG fighter jets. He picked up the rest of the parts - a Girvin suspension fork, a set of Cook brothers aluminum cranks and Shimano shiftgear - through an ex-courier who owns a bike shop.

The seat Quesnel wound up with looks tattered, and he's not sure where the seat post came from, but that's all part of the Quesnel style; he puts his energy into performance, not looks. Like an Indy car with no paint job but a great engine, his bike is all go, no show.

"It's rockin'," he says, giving his new bike a loving glance.

Both Dias and Quesnel have been couriering for about four years, beginning in the time before there was such a thing as official courier contests. This years' world championship will be the third. (The first was in London, England, and the second Berlin.)

The championships include a variety of tasks, including sprint races and simulated delivery courses set up in streets through the old warehouse district in the King and Dufferin area. There will also be events in nearby Lamport stadium, including performances by such courier bands as Stark Naked and the Fleshtones, Lovecraft, Random Killing and Boozass.

Organizer Nic Thomson, a former courier, expects 600 to 700 competitors from 14 countries. Among the more exotic entries will be a monoped Afghan courier who lost a leg to a mine and hooks his empty pedal to a bungee cord that pulls it back up after the downstroke.

Also on hand will be German courier Andy Schneider, who swept both previous world championships. Schneider is known to put in long training sessions on a racing bike. Couriers, who generally favor a Keith Richards-style approach to training and health, suspect such behavior, and tend to regard it as a form of self-torturing cheating.

Also known for this distinctly uncourierlike conduct are the Danes - "They don't even smoke!" says Thomson.

Surprisingly, there are few entries from New York, the world's courier capital, with an estimated 4,000 riders. (Toronto is believed to have about 200.)

Thomson explains the anomaly: "New York is like a drain. A spinning vortex. Once you're in it, that's all you can think about. It's hard to get people out of New York."

Unlike sports such as baseball, boxing or football, which are marked by endless analysis and armchair-quarterbacking, competitive couriering is a straightforward affair: The race comes, the couriers ride, someone wins. There is little speculation. As yet, there is no legions of fans, and the top prizes at the world championships consist of T-shirts and glory.

There are no color commentators, columnists, statistical digests, trading cards or theories of courier competition. And so, as you might expect, Thomson has little to say on the subject of Dias and Quesnel's talent.

"What makes them so good? They just are, that's all. It's one of those things you can't know."

Experience obviously plays a part.

Dias, who came to Toronto as a boy, got his first bike when he was 7 years old, living in a tiny village in Angola, where his father owned a coffee plantation. That first day, he displayed the natural skill and cool nerve that mark him to this day: rounding a corner, he encountered a car, head on. Dias moved out of the way and kept going.

"I didn't think anything of it," he says. But a neighbor who witnessed the incident told Dias' mother. She got her sewing shears and slashed both his tires: "You're not going to kill yourself!" she told little Joe after disabling his bike.

That didn't stop him. The family had three huge dogs. Joe tied one of them to the handlebars of his bike and let the dog pull him around on the bare metal rims. Later he hooked up two dogs, then three.

"It was great," he recalls.

Quesnel also started young on a bike he remembers only as "a brown thing."

Quesnel prefers not to overanalyze this, or any other part of his life: "It was cool," he says. "I liked it."

Quesnel rode and rode, gradually developing the skills that have now made him the courier's courier. For a short period during his teens, he even rode racing bikes. He now tends to avoid them. Quesnel's cycling is centred around hot- rodded mountain bikes, outlaw racing, stair- jumping, and a Marlboro-man health regimen that features plenty of cigarettes and intoxicants.

"I don't like racing guys who wear Spandex," says Quesnel. "They're El Cardio, man. What I like is jumping around."

Dias, on the other hand, likes to ride for speed and endurance. As Dias sees it, he and Quesnel are perfect training partners:

"When we're doing tricks, Tom is pushing all the time. He'll say - you can do it! You can get over that car. You can make this jump. But on the weekend, when we were out riding hills, he wanted to stop and go swimming. But I said no way - we're going to keep going. But that's good. We complement each other."