Couriers' championship sends a message: Bikers' jobs take skill

By Eli Sanders
Boston Globe September 13, 2003

SEATTLE -- Bike messenger Adam Ford has ridden thousands of miles and sustained numerous injuries in the streets of Boston, but for his first vacation in 10 years he couldn't think of anything he'd rather do than fly thousands of miles and then ride some more.

The 33-year-old Ford brought his titanium road bike to Seattle to compete in the 11th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, an Olympics-style test of urban biking skills that ends tomorrow.

Ford and other couriers, many from as far away as Copenhagen and Tokyo, are part of a class of gutsy urban workers whose daring has earned them a mixed reputation -- revered by some as rebel athletes, reviled by others as dangerous scofflaws. The messengers say the competition, which is expected to draw between 700 and 1,000 riders, is a chance to celebrate their outsider culture.

"To see such an organized gathering of so many couriers just makes you really psyched about being a courier, and just makes you feel good about all the crap you take year-round," said Ford, who earns about $750 a week riding for Boston's RS Express and spent more than $1,000 to come to the competition. "It's sort of a huge party."

A huge party that this city has officially embraced, granting permits for the Courier Association of Seattle to close off a section of town for use as a race course, and providing a police escort for a mass messenger ride through the city last night.

Weekend competitions in skidding, cargo carrying, track standing (balancing motionless, as if at a stoplight), and urban navigation skills will lead to the crowning of world champions in several categories tomorrow. There also will be messenger art shows and bands and plenty of beer -- the event is sponsored by Pabst.

The first Cycle Messenger World Championships was held in 1993 in Berlin, and the event has since hopped to messenger capitals such as San Francisco, London, Budapest, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The global reach of the competition reflects a modern reality: Almost anywhere there is a dense urban core, there are now bike messengers.

"Why do bike messengers exist?" asks Jack Dennerlein, a professor of ergonomics and safety at the Harvard School of Public Health, who, along with colleague John Meeker, published a study of Boston messengers in 2002. "It's because of the downtown car environment." He suggests that without the messengers, traffic and pollution would increase and the pace of day-to-day business would slow.

Dennerlein found that of 113 messengers surveyed 90 percent reported on-the-job injuries and 50 percent reported injuries serious enough to warrant medical attention. The study also found, unsurprisingly, that the average Boston messenger is 27 years old and the vast majority are male.

Dennerlein sees the aggressive riding tactics of many messengers not just as a product of testosterone and rebelliousness, but also as a sort of Darwinian response. There isn't really room for them on the road, but they aren't welcome on the sidewalks, either.

"A lot of messengers feel that the laws don't pertain to them because they're not designed for bicycles," Dennerlein said.

Still, aggressive riding and the prickly attitudes of some messengers have led to tension between couriers and others in the cities in which they work. This has been particularly acute in Boston, which is known throughout the messenger world as a tough place to ride.

"It is the hardest city, without a doubt," Ford said. First there are the weather extremes, which have given him frostbite and heatstroke, "and then on top of that we have hands-down the most licentious pedestrians in the world. We've got the worst road surfaces as well. And then we've got the worst drivers. And then to top it off, the city government has been very hostile toward us in the past."

In 1999, the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations declared Boston the world's worst city for messengers. That same year, regulations went into effect requiring Boston messengers to be insured, wear identification numbers, obtain licenses, and display license plates on their bikes. The move was spurred largely by outcry over a 1997 accident in which a messenger ran down Federal Reserve vice president William J. Spring as he was crossing Commonwealth Avenue [running against a red light]. Spring was in a [doctor's ordered medically induced] coma for five weeks and required years of therapy to recover.

[from the Cambridge Civic Journal 2/19/99-"the celebrated collision in Boston that did serious injury to Boston School Committee member William Spring was largely the fault of the pedestrian in that case"]

Despite the danger of the job -- or perhaps, in part, because of it -- being a messenger has a powerful allure for people such as Ford, who graduated from college and had planned to go to medical school. "Being a courier is really just the best job I ever had," he said. "Even when it's really bad weather out, it's still better than sitting in an office. . . . You're only young once, and this is one great way to spend your youth -- or extend it."

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