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Courier Couture

Toronto Star, August 17, 1995

By David Graham

For bike couriers around the world the working motto is simple - deliver or die.

They were here in force last weekend for the third annual Cycle Messenger World Championships - a competition that simulates their actual working conditions and in the end crowns the best. Previous championships were held in Berlin and London. Next year they will be held in San Francisco.

They came from all over - 125 teams from Germany, England, Japan, Sweden, Spain and the United States. Some were sponsored by their employers or local bicycle- equipment companies. But most of them simply scared up enough money for air fare and entry fees.

Certainly the do-or-die motto applies when couriers are on the job. But in Toronto over three days of races, rallies and high-flying ramps the pressure to perform was off. For most of the 450 couriers who competed, winning was secondary.

Couriers, especially the North American variety, have gained a well-earned reputation for partying as hard as they work. Many log about 60 kilometres a day and their look is an important element of their work, and play, ethic.

Each city has its identifiable dress. Riders from Cologne, London and Copenhagen are slick and athletic. Toronto and Berlin hold hard and fast to the functional-first, Bladerunner style. And the couriers from the mean streets of New York and Chicago are Freddy-Krueger tough in hockey masks, cobweb tattoos and high-tech protective gear.

Still, with each subsequent international championship, there is some cross-dressing - epitomized by the all-girl courier team, The Call Girls. Organized by Toronto's Anita Hurley, the four-member team consists of two couriers from T.O., one from Berlin and one from London. Their uniform was a purple Lycra racing jersey with Archie comic-strip character Veronica Lodge emblazoned on the front. Only the lime-green hair of Berlin's Conny Falk set her apart from her teammates. "I love Veronica because she a go- getter. Nothing gets in her way," says Hurley.

While bruised knees, battered elbows and shins covered in bicycle chain marks are common trademarks to all couriers, there are variations.

Andy Capp travelled from London to participate in the championships. "I think couriers from London identify more with the Tour de France cyclists than they do with the skater look," says Capp, who works on the London- based courier 'zine Moving Target.

"I prefer the smart, racer uniform," he adds. "I feel stronger in Lycra. And I feel sexier." Capp says the bike courier business has been going strong in London since the city's lengthy postal strike in 1978. "I think the business community might be a little more uptight in London. We are rarely allowed in the front door of a company. We're usually sent to a mail room in the back of the building. So it's in our best interest to take on a cleaner, more professional look."

Rauthgundis Hoschen, Thilo Jacob and H.P. Jagusch from Cologne, Germany share Capp's convictions. "Being a courier in Cologne is not so much a culture as it is in Toronto," says Jacob. "We do our work. Perhaps we will have a drink at the end of the day with our mates. But then we go home to our other lives. Here I think the couriers are very close."

He's right. While estimates suggest there are only about 200 working couriers in Toronto, the scene is much bigger.

Kelly Given is not a courier. She is the girlfriend of a courier. And from the top of her gnarly blonde dreadlocks to her Airwalk skateboarding shoes, she embodies all elements of the Toronto courier/boarding/road-warrior style.

Her tongue is pierced - twice. Her tummy is tattooed. She sports a Veronica Lodge jersey in support of the Call Girls. Her high-tech sunglasses are Black Flys and even her underwear that rises slightly above her low-slung, sawed-off denim shorts is by Dr. Martens.

Joe Dias, who finished fourth making him the top Canadian last weekend, refers to his own look as "raggedy." A friend comments that Dias' cropped, thick dreadlocks make him look like a Chia Pet. "I wore spandex for a while but I didn't feel good in it. It was too tight and too hot. A pair of baggy shorts suits me better."

In Manhattan there are about 4,000 working bicycle messengers. And many of them have taken to wearing full body armor for protection as they weave in and out of heavy traffic. Felipe Robayo pulls a heavy metal helmet and mask over his face and pads his elbows and knees. "Because I know I'm protected I go a little faster and I take more chances. It's a very competitive business in New York," says Robayo of the daring Team Breakaway.

On the final day of the championships, a team of Toronto fashion critics scoured the competitors for signs of style. For some outsiders they may appear an unsavory bunch, but according to the fashion judges - they had great taste.

The job of judging fell into the hands of Toronto hairstylists John Steinberg and Russ Mackay and streetwear designer Viki Larouche who manufactures under the Balzac label.

Criteria included "craniality" (helmet, hair and glasses); "functionality" (comfort and protection) and of course, "originality."

The Most Intimidating Award was given to Chicago courier Jack Blackfelt, whose face was tattooed with a spider's web. His head was shaved except for a black braid that ran down the middle of his skull.

The Sprocket Techno Award was presented to the Danish team. Each member was uniformly slick in bright yellow racing Lycra.

And the Wonder Woman Award went to Corinne Rhodes from Boston who was turned out impractically in a white '60s bobbed wig, a sequined stars and stripes halter top, silver hot pants and white gogo boots.

Frances Kells of Creative Couriers in London took the best hair award for her chic buzz cut. New York's untouchable Robayo cycled away with the top safety award.

And finally Boston messenger Michael Pach took home no awards despite sporting the most memorable look. Pach competed totally naked.


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