Wheels of fortune

They may only be one rung above squeegee kids in the social prestige ladder, but to Cheryl Douglass, Calgary's bicycle messengers "epitomized freedom." From her office in the Harry Hays Building, the former western regional finance manager for Parks Canada used to look up from managing her $100 million budget, and dream of "just scooting around all day."

Eighteen months ago, the 40-something single mom decided to live the dream and traded in her suit skirts for bike shorts. Now the Hays Building (the "Fed Shed" in courier-speak) is just one more stop in a 10-hour cycling day.

This executive-turned-bike-messenger is a joyful spokeswoman for downward mobility. Fit, fearless and bubbling with laughter, Douglass couldn't be happier with her radical career change. Also an aspiring model, she revels in being in "the best shape i've ever been in." Sure, her income's slimmed down to maybe half what it once was, including a second job as coordinator for Youth Singers of Calgary. (She may be the only Canadian whose retirement pension will bring an income in take-home pay.) And sure, she's twice been knocked flying by carelessly-opened car doors.

But Douglass loves her new street-level connection with Calgary's downtown, where she shares lunches with street people she once looked right past. "As a suit you only see other suits," she observes. Indeed, the apparently reckless, but in fact "carefully choreographed," world of the urban cycle courier feels like home now. Her guts often win her "gushy" praise, especially from the husbands of female friends. "It's kind of a hero thing to them," she says. Her own heroes are the kids she sees struggling to survive on minimum wage.

Meanwhile, at stoplights Douglass often catches a familiar look in the eyes of "suits" hurrying to their next meeting: "I had that same feeling so I can spot it. You can tell by the way they're looking at you that they're thinking 'Wow, I wanna do that.'"

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