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Street-cycling man

Sportsactive: Independent on Sunday,

May 12, 2002

by Mark MacKenzie

The main thing you have to remember when racing messengers is that they' re all f****** idiots." Having found the exact words to convey his point, Buffalo Bill grins and takes another swig of wine.

"And never get involved in somebody else's accident, some of them are horrible."

It's a warm Monday evening, and I'm sitting in a cafe in London's Soho, at the heart of the capital's cycle- messenger community. While the Buffalo Bill across the table from me may not be the legendary Pony Express man he is, nevertheless, a messenger. A cycle messenger with a message. "Bill", aged 35, is adamant his real name is not important. Not because he'd have to kill me if he told me but because, as a veteran with London's Creative Couriers, his "call sign" is his name.

"Often you only get to know other messengers by their number, hearing it on the radio from the controller," he explains. "It's when you travel overseas that nicknames really stick, because that's how you get introduced."

Those "travels overseas" invariably involve his bike - but Bill is not talking about a sedate pedal through the Dordogne. For unbeknown to the legions of office workers relying on their energy and expertise, modern cycle messengers are up to a good deal more than simply toying with the traffic as they whisk your parcel across town.

This summer, from cities across the globe, well over a thousand will descend on Copenhagen for two days of drinking, partying and some of the most intense cyclo-sport on the planet. Welcome to the world of competitive messenger racing.

Bill is a highly articulate spokesman for a sporting subculture which, over the past 10 years, has grown into something of a political movement. He is a founder member of the International Federation of Bicycle Messenger Associations (IFBMA), an organisation who bring together messenger "communities" from around the world. This year, under the IFBMA's guidance, the 10th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships will take place in the Danish capital. As well as overseeing competitions and events, the IFBMA play a key role in promoting messenger welfare and employment rights.

"Part of the reason we have the championships is to promote the use of pedal power worldwide," Bill says - but, he adds, incase it all sounds too worthy: "The main aim is for messengers to have a good time." Messenger racing between couriers from rival firms actually goes back as far as 1930s America, but the current world championship format began in Berlin in 1992.

"When we got together," says Bill "it was like being in a room with 400 long-lost friends."

Since Berlin, the event has circled the planet, though it has not been all plain sailing. While Bill insists the IFBMA are "not exactly the International Olympic Committee", a bitter feud between potential organisers in both San Francisco and New York in1996 meant that an event which is as far removed from the sporting establishment as it is possible to be has been forced to issue strict bidding criteria for potential host cities.

The competitions themselves are based around what Bill loosely describes as a "main event", usually a 45-minute cycle race replicating a messenger' s working environment. Using their own bikes and representing their company, competitors are handed a map and a set of instructions, and score points for executing "pick-ups" and "drops" around a closed street course.

"The best thing is to work out the most efficient route, but after a few minutes in the sun with loads of people screaming at you, drinking beer and smoking pot, the whole thing gets a bit intense."

Courses and races vary from year to year, yet the demands on racers are always high. "The guys who invariably win are serious track-cyclists outside of messengering," Bill says, "and you need to be of elite amateur standard."

But even the toughest competitors don't get it all their own way. "The person that sets out the course has to make it as hard as they possibly can; with 600 messengers competing, the first task is to weed out the weak, the drunk and the insane. This takes place in the heats, but at the same time can make it so complicated that you can' t work out who won."

 Competitions are inevitably loss-making and prizes are therefore modest: a new messenger bag or handmade bike frame. "But if you do win," Bill adds enthusiastically, "you're the messenger- racing world champion." He talks me through the "tons" of secondary events put on at the discretion of the host city.

"A lot of events have been driven by the Americans. They got upset because they basically invented `messengering' but never won anything."

It's thanks to Americans that the World Championships now boast the "track skid", an event in which riders on fixed-gear bikes build up a head of steam before locking the brakes with their legs: "Longest skid wins, it's pretty cool."

Other favourites include the "burn-up from the lights", a 100-metre hell- for-leather sprint from a set of traffic lights, and the "track stand", a time trial to stay as still as possible for as long as possible. Last year, the women's track-stand competition was won by Britain's Crissima Pearce, a messenger and track cyclist with the Brixton Cycles club in London:

"I don't actually compete that seriously, but just go for the atmosphere," she says. "It's amazing and there's nothing else like it."

While the majority of riders fuel their quest for glory with regular pit-stops for the local brew, for some the stakes are just too high. At the championships in Zurich in 1999, Denmark's Blue Courier Company were so desperate to top national rivals the Green Couriers they called on outside help.

"Basically this guy was a ringer and was taken around the course the night before so he wouldn't fuck up," Bill says. "We only found out later he'd never been a messenger, but proving it is impossible."

Interestingly, the case of the "Zurich ringer" goes some way to illustrating how the IFBMA have developed as a political movement. The majority of the world's cycle messengers are self-employed and, unsurprisingly, when accidents happen on the road, many employers are keen to point out the limitations of their liability insurance.

 Over the past decade, the IFBMA have used major championships as a platform to increase awareness of workers' rights. "Psychologically, London and other cities are incredibly hostile for cyclists," Bill says. "We want to raise the political consciousness of messengers by bringing core organisers of messengers together."

Indeed, the 1996 championships in San Francisco led to the formation of the world's first cycle-messenger union. Other notable achievements include the growing role of messenger associations in charity work. At that same 1996 event, San Francisco's messengers arranged the attendance of a group of Afghan amputees and messengers, then helped build bikes that could be pedalled with one leg.

The internet has also proved a major force for heightening communication, both at a global and at a local level. Witness the growth of some of the more low-key events such as "alley cats", ad hoc meetings in which 20 or so competitors race around a series of city checkpoints. It must be a bit of a busman's holiday, though, I say to Bill, battling through crosstown traffic all day long only to spend your leisure time in the same pursuit. He vehemently disagrees.

"Part of the messenger experience is that you're very much alone in the work you do, just you and the traffic," he says. "A big part of messenger socialising is basically counselling, sharing your trauma."

Forthcoming competitions include Glasgopoloco, Glasgow, 23-27 May, and the European Cycle Messenger Championships in Dublin, 31 May- 3 June. The 10th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships take place in Copenhagen from 29 August - 2 September.

Information on all these events as well worldwide messenger contacts and a history of messenger racing can be found at www.messengers.org


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