My brilliant courier: Scarred knees, bloody palms

by Michael Wood

The Independent, August 16, 1994

Radio call signs - Zero, Daisy, Rooster, Red Nic - boomed out over thespeakers and the talk was of down shifts, compounds, slicks and gear-set.In dazzling sunshine, a never-ending sea of lycra and trick machinery peddledby at high speed. Part race,part fashion show, this was the event thatLondon's bicycle couriers had long been waiting for - the chance to provethat they are the toughest, smartest and fastest messengers in the world.

The urban wasteground of the East End's Royal Victoria Dock was thelocation for the second Cycle Messenger World Championships, an event whichproved that the spirit of anarchic organisation is alive and kicking inthe courier community.

Have you ever wondered about the sanity of London's cycle-mounted dispatchers?They shoot away from traffic lights on amber, jump kerbs and go for thesmallest of gaps between moving vehicles, in the vainglorious pursuit ofa perfect drop-off. Any fearsabout their mental health were confirmed thisweekend as they played host to 400 couriers, in 50 teams from 12 countriesincluding Germany, Spain, Russia, the United States and even Afghanistan.

T Buffalo Bill, general secretary of the International Federation ofCycle Messengers and Companies, who doubled as commentator, explained theethos of the competition. 'Of course, everybody wants to win the big race,but we are also working to buildlinks within the world community of couriersand provide a voice for those who make their living the tough way, by ridingthe city streets.

'This weekend gets a real spirit going and, of course, helps to promotethe use of pedal power for commercial purposes. which improves the urbanenvironment.'

There were all kinds of competitions taking place around the docks,from the sandwich classic, a race for trade cycles, to the best-dressedmessenger award. Thankfully, this year Viktor from San Francisco did notresort to riding naked to attract theattention of the judges. Smokin' Tyressprints were held over a 150-metre course, with 10 riders taking part ineach heat. This was a real dash for cash as each rider put a fiver in thekitty to enter, with the winner taking the lot.

Sprinters reached a terminal velocity of 35 mph over the short course.So intense was the competition that the organisers jokingIy refused tostart one race, saying there was too much testosterone on the track andappealing for oestrogen donors from thecrowd. The home teams put up a strongshowing in this event, with the London-based Velo City crew taking twoheat wins.

The crowds, resembling a collision between the Tour de France fieldand the cast of Mad Max, busy meeting fellow competitors and sampling foodand beer from their respective countries. Mr Awkward's Stay Awake Cafeproved particularly popular, offering amenu consisting of tea, coffee andtequila. Perhaps that's what Buffalo Bill meant by the spirit of the championship.

The darker side of the biker lifestyle was represented by a sculpturecommissioned specially for the event, designed as a tribute to those whohave died in road traffic accidents. The messenger monument, built by Londoncourier and artist, Genghis,honoured the memory of four cyclists killedin London in recent years. A truck wheel formed its centrepiece, with shardsof frames and wheels radiating out representing city cyclists everywhere.Tributes to dead colleagues were laid on the monumentbefore a minute'ssilence was held in their memory.

The Afghan Amputee Bicycles for Recreation and Rehabilitation team provideda more uplifting spectacle, competing despite the fact that two of theirteam ( Hyatt Khan and Rahamatullah) were both lower limb amputees. Thischarity gives amputees, most ofwhom were injured during the civil war,the chance to regain their mobility, by providing them with bikes and training.AABRAR were knocked out of their respective heat in the main competition,but Rahamatullah got a standing ovation for his foot onsaddle stunt ride.

Over the two days competitors raced in heats across a course laid outon the dockside. The aim of the race was to test how quickly riders couldlearn routes, how fast they could go and how well they handled their machinesover a variety of road surfacesfrom tarmac to gravel and cobblestones.

Competitors set off Le Mans-style, running 10 yards to their lockedbikes, before heading out on to the course which was dotted with Portacabinsrepresenting the postcodes of London. Life imitated art as W1 and WC1 provedthe most popular hang outs forthe crowd. Riders had to pick up a parcelat the first checkpoint, deliver their package and get a proof of delivery(POD) on their daysheet before collecting another package and planningtheir route to the next checkpoint. Potentially fast routes werecomplicatedby a one-way system.

Having delivered eight parcels, over a combined distance of 10kms, itwas a straight sprint to the line.

The top eight from each heat went through to the grand final where 80of the world's top messengers locked wheels for a Sunday afternoon of blood,sweat and gears. The blood was not long in coming at the gravel jumps wherecompetitors approached a kerbat speed, bunny jumped it, then had to negotiatea steep downhill gradient. Ghoulish onlookers camped out to watch a steadystream of fallers. None of the competitors seemed peturbed by their injuries;in this profession the daily hazards of gravel rashand scabby knees arebadges of honour.

As the final progressed, the field thinned out as the 10 riders finishinglast after each eight-parcel circuit were eliminated. Some couldn' t takethe pace, others, such as Erik Zones, missed the cut after a leisurelybeer and fag break at thecommentary position.

Most, however, were deadly serious and after an hour on the track thepain was evident. Punctures, crashes and hangovers all took their toll,but the fight for the right to wear the rainbow shoulder bag given to thewinner. made competition fierce.

From Britain, Pony Express of Glasgow and Cyclone and A-Z of Londonall had well-placed men at the mid point, as did Exodus from New York andBike Express from Toronto. But it was the German and Scandinavian teamsthat proved particularly strong, withriders from Per Bad of Cologne andDe Gronne Bude of Copenhagen showing superb stamina and speed. Per RadKurier from Karlsruhe eventually emerged as winners of the team race overthe two days.

After two-and-a-half hours the race was down to two men, the reigningCycle Messenger World Champion Andreas Schneider (Per Velo, Cologne) andThomas Saverwein (Velo of Freiburg, Germany) Schneider had been at thefront almost from the start, butdespite three punctures, a highly motivatedSaverwein slowly reeled him in.

As the crowd at the EC3 checkpoint waited for a head-to-head sprintin the penultimate lap, disaster struck. On the edge and flat out. Saverweinhit a patch of gravel and went down. The chain was off and the bike wastotalled, but Saverwein pushed itback to the start/finish line, determinedto complete the race.

So Andreas Schneider retained the Cycle Messenger World Champion titlehe first won last year in Berlin. After more than three hours' racing.with 50 parcels delivered and over 60 miles completed, he still lookedfresh and fit.

'Tom was beginning to worry me, but he had to struggle to keep up hesaid, smiling. 'He had trouble with punctures and crashes and I could maintaina strong, steady pace. This race was much harder than Berlin, the conditionswere just like the everydaystreets, so l am very pleased to have retainedmy title. With that, Andreas headed off towards the bar to join the otherspectators and competitors, determined to party long and hard.

The Cycle Messenger World Championships have already been pencilledin to take place next year in Canada. Toronto, you have been warned.

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