Nikolas Barkelay

Montreal, d. 22.September.2002, hit in traffic

I wrote this on this night, Thursday September 26 2002, in honour of Nikolas Barkelay, following an over-hundred-strong bicycle courier critical mass here in Montreal, in memory of our fallen courier comrade...

I am still moved tonight by the events that have transpired in the last week following Nikolas Barkelay's accident and almost unknown bike messenger who died so sadly and so violently on his bike after barely 3 months in this noble trade...a young 22 year old who had a dream, which ended so suddenly, like shattered glass. A brave warrior for whom over 100 of us rode for, in his memory, on this evening tainted by sadness and recognition of the dangers we all face every day as bicycle messengers in this urban jungle we call home...over a hundred of us all upon our steel horses through the streets of
downtown Montreal, escorted by Nikolas's grieving parents, no driver daring to honk at us as we are so used to during the day...a strangely respectful procession through town, on our bicycles, in memory of a fallen messenger who no one ever really got to know...

The tragedy was covered on several TV news reports and multiple newspaper articles over the last week, and we have taken the opportunity to start a helmet campaign among Montreal bike raise awareness and help prevent needless deaths such as the one that just struck Nikolas, his family, and our community...

I have many reasons to feel happy these days, but this past week a shadow hangs on Montreal's usually rough 'n tough courier circle...hardened hearts opening up in a moment of gentle solace for a fallen comrade.

Take care all, and watch out for each other

-Michael Verstichelen

Bike messengers fight for respect in the wake of a colleague's death

Montreal Mirror, September 26,2002

If you see a bike courier wearing a black armband this week, it's for Nikolas Barkelay, a 22-year-old messenger who died last Saturday afternoon. Barkelay was hit by a minivan on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 17, at St-Jacques and Guy, a high-speed, high-traffic intersection.

Police say he was cutting through a red light as the van smacked into him. He lingered in a coma for five days before he died. The driver of the van was unhurt.

Barkelay's death has affected the courier community deeply. "This week, everybody's demoralized," says Tom Ostreiko, the 24-year-old coordinator for the Montreal Messenger, a bi-weekly courier newsletter. "We've all been talking about it. Quite a few people have been putting on helmets, and, in a way, it's brought the community closer together. It's a lesson we all learned, unfortunately at the expense of someone's life."

The accident highlights some grim facts. Namely, that bike couriers are far more vulnerable to serious accident and injury than most simply because of the amount of time they spend on the road. That's common sense. And, as others will attest, in order to make a living wage working on commission, many couriers wind up bending road rules, cutting corners, running red lights and cycling fast (that being said, many couriers also complain of furious drivers running them off the road, getting into fights with cabbies and colliding with jaywalkers).

Nevertheless, a 1992 report by the Société d'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), as linked on a bike messenger Web site, points out that that couriers are "overrepresented in accident statistics for bicycle riders at large (six times more likely than other riders), but which can easily be explained by the distance the couriers cover and the amount of time they spend on the road. Couriers probably have no more propensity for accidents per kilometre travelled than other bicycle riders."

More precise statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that courier deaths in Montreal are rare-less than one a year. Maybe five, in a bad year, are injured so badly that they need more than a couple of weeks' time off work. That, many believe, is too many. And that also highlights some of the pressures couriers face daily.

"Working conditions are deplorable," Ostreiko says. Couriers work, in Montreal and elsewhere, as independent contractors. That means that they are not salaried employees, their insurance is not paid by their companies and they don't have any benefits. Despite being pressured to perform at a rapid pace, those injured on the job get no financial sympathy from their companies.

"We exist in this kind of legal hole," 28-year-old, three-year courier veteran Nicolas Dalicieux says. "People say we think we're above the law, but actually, we're below the law. Most of the company owners refuse to treat us as employees. We're independent contractors, so that means we have to pay all the insurance ourselves."

Their precarious legal situation has led Dalicieux, along with a few fellow couriers, to begin working towards the formation of a Montreal bike messengers association, a kind of junior union. The focus, he says, would be on safety and an industry standard for bike couriers.

"Over the past couple of years, bike couriers have changed," he says. "We want to become a professional body. We don't want anybody just to show up and work for a day."

Dalicieux hopes that a higher professional standard for couriers will invite only serious bikers-people like Nikolas Barkelay. "I sort of knew him," Dalicieux says. "Not well or anything, but he wasn't a rookie. But I do know that he didn't smoke, didn't drink much. He was serious."

Dalicieux, with his partners, will also be pushing safety awareness, and the most obvious and visible way to do that is to don bike helmets. The awareness campaign, which Dalicieux says has gathered momentum and urgency since last week's accident, has been dubbed Opération Nikolas Barkelay. "I never wore a helmet before," he says, "but I'm wearing one now. A helmet wouldn't have saved Nikolas' life with the kind of accident he had, but it might help save others."

"The number-one danger is people on cell phones," says Joe Hendry, the Toronto-based media spokesman for the International Federation of Bike Messengers' Associations, a five-year-old international advocacy organization that also puts on world championship races for couriers. "That and door prizes. I've heard about people getting into altercations, and I know one guy who had a cabbie throw a tire iron at him. But [careless car drivers] are the biggest causes of accidents for
bike messengers." But not of fatalities. Hendry says that, "90 per cent of deaths are caused by a truck, a bus, a van or an SUV. I know there are more accidents in Montreal, where the drivers are worse and the pedestrians are more um adventurous."

"Every turn of the wheel is a risk," says Ostreiko. "You just have to stay calm in traffic and keep focused on everything around you."

That's why he has been working with Dalicieux to get the Montreal association off the ground. He admits it's been tough. "We've been trying for two years," he says, "but everyone's tired all the time, and it's hard to get a meeting going."

Dalicieux, however, thinks that Barkelay's death has added a spark to the association's growth. Not many of the city's estimated 150-250 couriers have heard about the association, but those who have, he says, "are very enthusiastic" about it.

One organization they may choose to model themselves after is the Washington D.C. bike messengers association, which has drawn up a list of proposed industry minimum standards. It reads like a legal contract. It covers definitions, responsibilities for couriers, companies and clients, liabilities, dispatching, pay and working conditions. Other cities, like Toronto, New York, Boston and San Francisco, also have strong bike courier organizations.

Still, the IFMBA's Hendry is wary of over-bureaucratizing couriers. "A lot of cities have licensing laws," he says. "It may be dangerous for couriers if the police move away from traffic law enforcement to bureaucratic enforcement. A professional organization, though, wouldn't be bad-they could train other messengers, and industry standards are better than the city giving driver's tests. But you'd have to go to the messengers, and not the messenger companies, because they're usually
run by ex-car couriers."

In addition to day to day close calls, the courier community has been forced to deal with tragedy. Last year, courier Chris Kennedy was paralyzed from the chest down following a collision with a taxi. He is still part of the courier community, and, like several other couriers, visited Barkelay and his family in hospital last week. He is also behind promoting bike safety, and Ostreiko says there will be a fund in his name for injured couriers.

As for Dalicieux, he says that a bike messenger organization "won't give Nikolas his life back, but it certainly will work to prevent accidents like that. If we concentrate on prevention, it will reduce the risks."