London Lives: Ain't nothing like the wheel thing

by Jonathan Sale

The Independent, June 14,1994

'You'll recognise me, promises Buffalo Bill, editor of Moving Target, London'sonly magazine for cycle couriers, over the phone, simplifying our arrangementsto meet. And indeed I do recognise him: peaked cycling cap over long-ishblack hair, purpleGore-Tex cycling jacket and (at nine on a drizzling morning)reflective sunglasses. Mean, moody, macho.

Commuting cyclists dress down: old trousers and a yellow reflectivestripe over the shoulder.

Couriers, by contrast, dress up, as if they were going surfing. As indeedthey are, surfing the waves of traffic, diving past vans, taxis and othersharks inthe swirling metropolitan waters. They pour their limbs into Lycra,so tightly around the nether regions that it's a wonder that the speciesmanages to reproduce.

For more than six years Buffalo Bill was a pushbike despatch rider,a pioneer who roamed the Wild West End, tall (or possibly crouched) inthe saddle. At 26, he became an 'Old Git. That is, he hung up the shoulder-bagand two-way radio.

'My back won't take any more, sighs Bill. 'The human body is not designedto carry weights and the radio is really heavy. That's before the lumbarvertebrae are lumbered with the actual parcel. 'You are constantly stoppingand starting. Every time youstart up there is a lot of pressure on theknee. But better an Old Git than life as a 'donkey - a surly cyclist burntout in body and mind.

Both are occupational hazards of a ruthless trade. There is no sickpay, just a whip-round for an injured mate from fellow couriers. Bill remembersseveral months in hospital (a smashed ankle) and not even getting a getwell card from his then bosses -and they were one of the better firms,Bill says.

The money is not good. For a short job, the rider's share of the feecan be a mere pounds 1.75. So why do the capital's estimated 1,500 couriersspend their days inhaling traffic fumes and risking their lives dartingin front of double-decker buses?

Sometimes they give their lives in the line of duty too. Moving Target(note the military tag) recently printed a moving account of a memorialprocession which stopped Oxford Steet traffic to pay tribute to a courierkilled in mid-delivery.

And the forthcoming cycle messenger world champion-ships will featurea funeral cycle-past in honour of two-wheeled fatalities.

Maybe it has to do with masculinity, with being a knight of the road,one of the boys. Take Buffalo Bill. The nickname began as a call sign.Now he answers to nothing else.

One colleague was called 'Groover. Others were 'Violet, 'Daisy and 'Gladys.All are blokes: these are such macho, not to say sexist, circles that theycan handle insulting female monikers. Bill laughs when he says that hisformer employer, On YourBike, was known in the trade as 'On Your Dyke.

'Part of the attraction is that you have enough time to think, Bill explains.'I had all day to think about the magazine. If you enjoy cycling, you feelfairly euphoric anyway. It makes you feel good about yourself.

They have time out of the saddle as well. Unlike the bike frame, the humanframe can take only three or four days per week in the job. This givesscope for long lie-ins with the sound system on full. Or it allows themtime to play in a band, make a filmor take photographs.

'I've never known such a well-educated bunch, enthuses 'Paris (his formercall-sign) of Security Despatch. 'There's the highest number of degreesper capita of any industry. They are middle-class drop- outs.

Bill is the nicest guy you could find crouched over a set of handlebars:a fine advertisement for his precarious profession. But there's a downsideto the macho sub-culture - aggressive couriers who clearly resent sharingroad space with slowerpushbikers. Fortunately they tend to nip about inthe fast lane while we commuters potter along 6in from the curb.

But not always. On the way to meet Bill, I braked at a red light. 'Forfuck's sake, muttered a courier behind me. He slid past, shot through thelights and turned left into a no-entry street - on the pavement.

What a. . .donkey.


Hovis National Bike Week began last Saturday and ends with the London-Brighton ride on Saturday 19 June. Details from London Cycling Campaign(071-928 7220).

The Cycle Messenger World Championships are at the Royal Victoria Docksfrom 12 to 14 August. Competitors will race between checkpoints representingLondon postal districts, with obstacles such as one-way streets and trafficpolicemen. There will befashion contests for the 'coolest riders and bikes,and an art exhibition of bikers' work. Details of sponsorship, etc, from:Moving Target Productions, 137c Isledon Road, London N7.

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