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