Host city of the first CMWC (1993)
Moving Target, Spring 1995, vol. 4, #3
by Buffalo Bill
Berlin has the biggest cc scene in Germany. There are probably around200 ccs in Berlin working for around 15 20 companies. The business theregot a big kick-start when the wall came down in ’89. At that time, becausethere were less than 20 phone-lines connecting West Berlin with East, nointegration of postal services across the city, no direct transport linksand almost no direct road links, virtually the only way of getting anythingof importance across the city was by messenger. This meant that the companiescould almost charge what they liked ‘cos their services were in such demand.Like Christmas all year round....
At this point in time, in spite of vast civic works undertaken by theauthorities to improve the long neglected infrastructure of the East, thereremains a huge gap in communications systems that to be filled by messengers.Berlin is full of huge gaps. Half of Mitte, the old Eastern district whichis now close to the centre of reunited Berlin after having spent 4 decadesin the shadow of the wall, in a building site. Virtually every major streetis being excavated and many of the buildings are being 'redeveloped’ orhave been simply demolished and are being rebuilt.
BUILD, BUILD, BUILD
Riding around this area, I was reminded of Docklands or the Broadgateconstruction areas in the late '80s. Everywhere the sound of jackhammersand pneumatic drills, streets jammed with hulking spoil lorries and rubbleall aver the street. I hope for Berlin's sake that the people in chargeare reading a different manual to the one that the LDDC used. At the moment,considering the 'transformation' in the East: new buildings, new bars andeven new street names, the parallel between Docklands is an apt one, Ithink.
It is possible that this huge upheaval will turn out as successfullyas the Broadgate Complex but when I heard that Mercedes is planning a Mercedescity right in the to build a super-highway tunnel under the centre of thecity and other mad shit like that I recalled the overreaching absurditiesof Canary Wharf and the Limehouse Link (the most expensive road ever built)and what a complete fiasco the build build build mania of Eighties Londonturned out to be. We ended up with 3 times as much office space as we neededfor the whole of London, the biggest building in the city virtually emptyand the builders' bankrupt. Meanwhile, the Berlin ccs struggle with a welterof new diversions and street-name changes that are not even sign-postedon the streets.
First of all, the distances covered are far greater. Motorbikes arein a minority. Jobs of 10km (6 miles) and over are common for pedal bikes.20km (12 miles) and over is considered a bit of slap and would be a motorbikejob at some of the companies. Volume is lower, 25 dockets being a goodday, and rates of pay are higher. Quite a few of the decent, but not thefastest, ccs of Berlin have done record days in excess of 250DM or roughlya hundred pounds (And be fore any of the pendants rush to put pen to paperto correct me, that is riders' share not turnover and at the time of writingthe DM was 2.33 to GBP you can but hope, eh?). I didn't really have thenerve to ask any of the real gravy dogs what their records were. Berlinmessenger companies also operate a super-rush docket-system similar tothe North American system. Unlike, London where everything is urgent (unlessyou work for the Wobbly Cheque where everything is same day), when theclient specifies a tighter deadline (say 30 mins for W1 E1) the chargeincreases. The amount varies from company to company but is around 30 50% extra. This has to be a good thing.
The companies take their share of the riders' money in various differentways. At messenger the company takes a straight 34% share of the riders’turnover. At Express, messenger’s big competitor, the riders pay DM400monthly circuit fee and keep all of the money over and above this circuitfee. The down-side is the system of pay. Berlin messengers are paid monthlyand a month in hand so when you start, you work for 2 months before receivingyour first cheque. Yes, that’s right 2 months! Further, it is virtuallyimpossible to work 'on the black’. All ccs have to register at the townhall as self-employed. This makes tax evasion virtually impossible. Thisalso rules out access to the wonderful German welfare system. Yep, messengershave to pay for health-care through self insurance schemes (be serious)or through the nose.
There were a few other things that I found slightly curious principallythe radio system at the two biggest companies. They use the open-call system...the debate about this will rage & rage. I personally feel that theonly way to run open-call is to run it pure. No plot, no empty calls strictlyby the book. 1st call without destination empty bikes in the street only,2nd call empty bikes in the post code and so on. To mix up the system withplot, as is often the case, makes it crooked. Express seemed to be runningit 'pure', but messenger certainly weren't. Anyway, any system is onlyas good as the riders & controllers who run it so whatever turns youon is good, I suppose.
Berlin ccs are riding in a city and a country where the contributionof bikes and cyclists to the health of the city is appreciated and encouraged.In Germany, riding a bike is something that all responsible citizens shouldconsider doing. This is in contrast to the U.K. where the cyclist is madeto feel at best, like a poor relation, and at worst, an antisocial subversivewho should be committed to a secure mental hospital without delay.
There is an extensive network of cycle lanes all over Berlin. Theseare way better than anything that London because they are properly laidout and don't end when you need them most. London’s cycles lanes are asad joke, an excuse for a provision and the sick bastard that 'designed’the cycle lane to Heathrow Airport should go to Berlin and see what a propercycle lane is.
However, I still think that cycle lanes suck and my experiences in Berlinconfirmed a lot of my prejudices about them. First of all, most of thelanes in Berlin are on the pavement. This means that they are virtuallyuseless for the cyclist who wishes to travel fast ie above 10 mph.
Whilst the German drivers are not as prone to parking in the lanes astheir English counterparts (who seem to regard cycle lanes as overflowparking) the German pedestrians do not consider the possibility of gettinga Michelin (or should I say a Continental) up the arse when they crossfrom, one side of the pavement to the other. To be frank, these lanes aredesigned for gutter bunnies on shopping bikes.
B**** TO THE SKITTLE ALLEY
So having recognised the cycle-lanes as being skittle alleys, the competentcyclist naturally moves into the road where one can go fast. This is wherethe difficulties start. German law states that cyclists must use the lanewhere one is provided ie if it's there you gotta use it. Berlin cops willnick for this but it's not the cops that are the problem. German driversget really angry with cyclists who do not use the lane. They will use theirhorns and yell if you are riding out of the lane. It is not uncommon forthe ‘pirate’ road-user to get run off the road and it has been known fordrivers to rear-end cyclists who were out of the lane. Nice, eh?
And then there are the tracks. Oh Gott, die fuckin' schiene. For thoseof you that ain’t ridden on streets with tracks, well... don't if you canhelp it ‘cos they are a bastard. Wide enough to trap a 700c wheel and snapit, they are a complete nightmare. In some streets they stand proud ofthe tarmac to a height not much under pavement height. On some of the olderstreets they are surrounded by cobbles just to make them doubly deadly.The tracks make switching lanes a bit of a performance even on 26s. Ifthat wasn't bad enough, the tram drivers are notoriously bad tempered andwill accelerate and intimidate cyclists in their path. In the wet... Fortunatelythe west side of Berlin has few tram tracks and obviously, if you are usedto them, you deal with them better and you also know where they are andwhere to cross them. How ever, even veterans make mistakes and I met afew with broken bodies and bikes caused by track accidents. The icing onthe cake am the spot fines that are handed out by the boys in green. Yes,the cops in Germany are in green and they carry guns. Anyway, the spotfines start at DM120 plus DM40 admin and the sky’s the limit. That's aboutGBP40 all told. Minimum. It's not all bad news tho', Conny of Panne reckonsthat the best thing about riding in Berlin is that there are no hills!
Style messenger is widely acknowledged to have some of the hippest ridersin Berlin, possibly the world. We all admired the messenger WOW team atthe championships with their matching Phillies Blunt shirts. The hard-corpsat messenger (principally: King Rad Vossi and Style Prince Ernesto) areinto skating and other rad dude activities and this is reflected in whatthey wear and ride. Cut offs and trick MTBs are much in evidence. The oldgreen donkey stood out like a sore thumb in Pestalozzi Strabe. At the otherend of the spectrum are Express boys who are mainly pulsating lycra and32 spoke road bikes. In between, you have all the hippies at Moskito whoare more kind of pirate style with the trashed bikes, trashed bags andlarge amounts of proj. But they all have one thing in common: those wonderfulplastic rucksacks which are so stylish and so practical. And they haveto buy them from the companies as well. Most companies insist that theirmessengers use them and they cost anything from DM50 to DMl50.
These bags are well stupid. I have tested one of these bags and theyare as bad as they look. Sorry people, major style faux-pas. Also, I wassurprised that almost no-one except that geezer Bob Schiele rides fixed.Berlin is the perfect city for it, as well.
THE BOYS FROM THE RED STUFF
Special mention has to go to Kreuz & Quer who have recently signeda sponsorship deal with Kraft, the best brand of tomato ketchup in Germany.K&Q have a tiny and warmly chaotic office in Kreuzberg 36, the oldsquatter’s ghetto and MT's favourite district. They do all their jobs bypedal bike. Their riders are as straggly a bunch of cycle freaks as youcould ever wish to meet. And they are dressed as Kraft ketchup bottles.The deal is this simple: Kraft supplies 2 pairs each of Gonso shorts, longs,short & long-sleeved jerseys, a bag, a helmet (optional), gloves, GoreTexjacket and an ally framed LX-equipped bike at no cost to the rider, yes,no cost to the rider, and the riders agree to wear and use this kit whilstthey are working. The catch? Well, all the kit is red and says Kraft &The Red Side of Life on it. Sounds like a touch to me! The rider agreesto wear the gear for 15 months or return it. I can't imagine that the kitis going to last that long, tho'.
The coffee is excellent. Lots of very decent cappuccino and a few placeswhere you can get Cafe Latte or Cafe au Lait in a bowl. Have to ad mitthat Berlin is better served for coffee than London. But... two criticisms:bitter chocolate % the price which is roughly twice what you would expectto pay in London. A reasonably comprehensive guide to cappuccino can befound & the first issue of Panne. Best coffee in Berlin? Panne Productions,Kreuzberg.
My impression of the Berlin scene was that it is (sorry if you haveheard me say this before) strikingly similar to London 5 or 6 years ago.Yes, that's right the good old days are still happening over there. Butfor how long I won der? Well, it's hard to say. Berlin is a boom-town andwill keep booming for a while yet. But for sure nothing lasts forever andall good things come to an end.... maybe sooner rather than later so makehay now, people.
COULD I WORK THERE?
If you can speak German. Most of us stupid English people can't so thething to do would be to go over do a 3 week intensive course to get thebasics down and then go on the road. It seems that an awful lot of theBerlin messengers are from the East hence not a lot have good English soa bit of German is essential. However, you don't need to be able to discussthe finer points of Nietzsche to be able to be a good messenger so don'tbe put off. The money is much better than over here and the general sceneis a lot more exciting & vibrant than London in a lot of ways.
If you have comments or suggestions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org