In the human made valley of glass and metal, on the backside of #1 BushSt. in downtown San Francisco, there is a place known to San Franciscobike courier's as the Wall. It is their place to eat, smoke and hang outbetween the calls that took them from the depths of the city's core, toits grueling heights. During the days preceding the Labour Day week-end,it was the first stop for those who had come to attend the 4th annual CycleMessenger World Championships.
They had come to race. Like two wheel shriners, a three ring circus,they were traveling entertainers, here to party with others who willinglydropped themselves into a sea of metal sharks that flatulated carbon monoxide.They were here to meet the same crazies who rode in any weather for nomoney. They were here to engage in group therapy with Doctor's orders topush the envelope of human endurance, punctuated with intense mental abuse,sensory overload and lack of sleep. They had come for the Gathering.
The first messengers began to filter into the city a week and a halfbefore the main event. Names surfaced in conversation, some like old timegunfighters coming to town to defend their rep. Andy Schnieder, the winnerof the first race in Berlin in '93 and London in 94 would not be participating,he was busy moving.
Though the festivities did not officially begin until Friday, messengersfrom fifteen countries from as close as Canada to as far away as New Zealanddrank long into the night at the CW and the Zietgiest, both courier barsthat let the riders take their bikes into the building as opposed to lockingthem outside. Now that was civilization. Groups of newly found friendstraversed the city, being tourists and taking in the hills.
On Friday, 600 foreign messengers joined approximately 3500 civiliancyclists at Justin Herman Square, for the largest Critical Mass the cityhad ever seen. The route took them through the city and eventually to theMaritime Hall for the World Welcoming Party.
When those messengers, who became confused and finished the ride toOcean Beach, found their way back to the party, they were greeted by asight from an autophile's worse nightmare. Bicycles covering a city blockof chain linked fence.
"It would certainly be a good night for someone to be selling spareparts," the comedian running the parking lot commented.
"No it wouldn't," A passing Torontonian Courier rebutted."Because when we caught him, we'd hang his skinned body as a warningto the rest of his ilk." The Parking Lot attendant frowned and saidnothing more.
The Maritime Hall was an explosion of sound and courier sites, halfpipes and trick bikes, flying trapeze and bands. With half a mind on wherethe next beer was coming from and half a mind on the big race the nextmorning. The nine hundred party goers thrashed long into the night, takingin faces and hurdling language barriers.
The first official race of CMWC 96 began at eight thirty on a cool Saturday,August 31. Heats consisted of fifty riders and the object was to navigatefive checkpoints while accumulating as many points as possible. Three ofthe checkpoints were on relatively flat ground, while the other two wereaccessible by the agonizingly steep Vallejo St. and the lung buster knownas Montegomery. Heats were not won by speed, they were won by strategyand navigation.
Elimination heats were run from 8:30 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon.A sizable crowd showed up to cheer the racers who went up the hills andespecially those who freefell down them. Couriers sprawled in the parkinglot on Front St., drinking beer, exchanging race stories and memorabilia,while their comrades pounded around the course, wheezing up and screamingdown hills.
The first naked rider was spotted at Checkpoint #5 near the end of theSaturday's racing. The lone cyclist who was in a state of nature was notfrom Boston, but was the lone courier from Edmonton. Stripping down toa Japanese fan, the crazy canuck threw modesty to the wind and finishedthe race wearing nothing but shoes and a smile.
The event ran like a swiss watch. Heroic volunteers manned the informationbooths, barricades and checkpoints. Police turned out in droves, to makesure everything was under control and the day passed with minimal injuriesand maximum sunburns.
The second day of racing saw more elimination rounds, including themuch anticipated women's heat as well as the cargo, basket and old gitraces. Highlights of the second day included the wipe out by the womanfrom Denver. Luckily she only received a small facial wound, but it causedquite a scare in the crowd. Later, the spectators were entertained by theclowning of Eric Zoe, undisputed king of the cargo bike. And of coursethere were more naked riders.
It wouldn't be a Cycle Messenger World Championship if there weren'ta lot of people racing around nude. Most riders became loose with theirclothing later in the day when it became a little warmer, go figure. Cosmosfrom San Fran, a couple of Chicks and Chains from Vancouver and otherswho couldn't be recognized later with their clothes on competed for thesurprise of the crowd.
That night revelers gathered at the SOMAR, a city owned hall situatedat Brannon and Ninth. Courier Art covered the wall. The first part of theevening was like a bizarre twilight zone episode with bike messengers perusingart like art snobs at an auction. As the night progressed and the musicturned up, the couriers reverted to form and they drank into the night.Racers waited expectantly for the results, not knowing if they should gohome and rest for the final, or drink until the sun came up.
Early Monday Morning a large group of groggy messengers assembled forthe finals at Justin Herman Square. Posted as a two hour race, the coursewas extended a few more city blocks and included a few more of San Francisco'snotorious hills. Each racer received an embroidered race bag courtesy ofTimbuk2, that were filled with packages to drop.
The racers lined up in a bunch, back almost one hundred feet from theirbikes piled high. The countdown was given and they were off. Racers boundedover each other, grabbing their bikes, trying to beat the pack out of thesquare. One unfortunate competitor had his bike damaged during the rush,but found a substitute and quickly rejoined the throng.
The final was more of a lap race, then a navigational race. As the riderscompleted each lap, a certain percentage was eliminated from the pack.Competitors who thought they were in for a two hour race, quickly foundthemselves in a one hour final. Racers who were pacing themselves for atwo hour race were out of luck.
Justin Herman Square was the host for the closing events that were filledwith laughter, camaraderie and sadness. Bands entertained the throng asdid the always crowd pleasing Trials event. The awards ceremony followedwith the top male rider awarded to Sven Baumann of Switzerland. The topfemale rider and who finished third overall was Ivonne Kraft, Cycle MessengerFemale World Champion, four years in a row.
The final order of business was messengers taking to the stage to speakof their fallen. One after another, teary eyed messengers told of theirfriends who had died. Unfortunately most of them had fallen, not underthe wheels of an automobile, but under the influence of drugs and depression.As one women, who had just buried her brother a few days earlier, said."If you see someone who needs help, help them, because if we don'ttake care of each other, who will?"
Couriers then mounted their bikes and took a slow ride along the harbourto a the area of the city known as Mission Point. A burying ground formessenger's bikes and a place to mourn SF's deceased messengers. One Hundredand Fifty couriers stood in silence, remembering their dead. Complete strangershugged whoever was closest and wished them well, knowing someday it couldbe them.
An old bike had been found on the ride out to the Point. As a tributeto a fallen friend and all those who had gone before, the velo was throwninto the bay. Small groups of cyclists began to drift away and head towardthe finishing party at the SOMAR.
The closing party was more subdued then the previous night, or as jammedpacked crazy as the Friday night world welcoming party at Maritime Hall.It might have been the ceremony at Mission Point, or the knowledge thata week-end they had planned for over a year was quickly coming to an end.New found friends gathered and spoke reverently about the fantastic week-endjust passed. They had come to San Francisco to race, but racing had becomesecondary to the people met, the memories shared and the knowledge theyweren't crazy for doing such a fucked up job. As the night drifted intotwilight, messengers staggered off, with the parting call of, "I'llsee you next year in Barcelona."
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