They came. They raced. They partied. A report fromthe Cycle Messenger World Championships in San Francisco
Bicycling Magazine, March 1997
by Michael Finkel
I met Crossword Guy in a grungy bar in a grungy section of San Francisco.It was one o'clock in the morning. Crossword was wearing his bike messengershoulder bag, which hung at his hip, but he wasn't wearing anything else.Eleven other people, quite a few of them women, exhibited the same stateof undress. The bar is called Zeitgeist. It's a bike messenger bar, meaningthe beer is cheap, the music is incomprehensible and you can bring yourbicycle inside.
Bikes - many in the latter stages of decomposition were all over theplace, piled against the walls, stacked haphazardly in the bee garden,swaying from various ceiling hooks. The clothed and the unclothed milledabout as if nothing were amiss. If you'd been to a previous Cycle MessengerWorld Championships, which most of the bar patrons had, then nothing actuallywas out of the ordinary. You'd glance at the naked people and think, "Well,the Boston crew is back, and you'd return to your drink.
But I had never before attended a Messenger Championships The main reasonfor this oversight is that I am not a bicycle messenger, and don't everplan to become one. However, I'd long been curious about the profession.What kind of bicycle-obsessed people, I wondered, would forgo health benefits,job security, sick pay, vacation time, equipment compensation, acceptablesalaries and any semblance of safety in order to battle busses and cabsand carbon-monoxide poisoning for the purpose of delivering an envelopeacross town?
Crossword Guy is one of these people. He is 27 years old and has beena bike messenger for three years. He wears a steel bullring in his noseand a dumbbell-shaped object in his tongue that, were it to be removed,would leave a hole wide enough to slide a pencil through. He is bald, witha tattoo on his nape. He sports a goatee. His calves are as sharply tonedas those of a Tour de France racer. When he's home, back in Boston, hecompletes The Boston Globe crossword puzzle every day.
Nudity, Crossword Guy told me, is a big part of the messenger championships.It all started back in Boston when we began hopping the fence and goingskinny-dipping at night at the Metro Division public pool, then bikinghome naked to dry off. Let me tell you-thereís nothing better than ridingnaked. So a few years ago, at the Championships, me and Matty Nippleheadand Captain Jums and a bunch of others rode naked to bars. We started atmidnight and went on a bar crawl. Now itís just not the Cycle Championshipswithout a naked ride.
Soon enough, the Boston crew finished their beers, dug their bikes outof the piles and made for the door. I followed them onto the street. Theyrode off, a dozen full moons in the neon San Francisco night, on theirhaphazard way to the next divey bar.
The following morning, at the bike messenger fair held alongside SanFrancisco Bay, I came across Stepha. She's 25 years old, from Vancouver,and was wearing a neon-pink fake fur bra. I made it myself, she said. Herbike was also covered with fur an orange tiger-skin pattern and in placeof a horn rubber bathtub bullfrog that squeaks when you squeeze it wasmounted on her handlebar. She sported Jackie O. sunglasses, black leatherboots that ascended to her knees and a sticker on the back of her helmetthat read helmet laws suck.
The only people who understand our jobs, said Stepha, is other messengers.Everybody has all these preconceptions about who we are, but we reallydon't have much in common except the job. Thereís road-racer tech-heads;thereís over-educated intellectuals who can't work anywhere else; thereíshard-core drug addicts. But we all put our life on the line with everydelivery. No matter where in the world we're from, we all know what itíslike feel as though everyone out there is trying to kill us. At the sametime we know how free it is to have a job without walls. And of coursewe're all completely in love with riding our bicycles we can't understandwhy everyone in the world doesn't cycle. That's enough to form an intensebond.
So tight is the sense of community that more than 600 messengers from16 countries including Austria, Finland, Japan Germany, Sweden, New Zealandand Afghanistan arrive in San Francisco, a city where bicycle messengershave operated since 1894. This was the fourth annual messenger gatheringand the first in the U.S.; The others have taken place in Berlin Londonand Toronto. The messengers came sporting a range of hair colors and ahardware storeís worth of stuff hanging from body piercings. They cameto swap stories: catapulting over doors, being pinched off by busses, ridingdown flights of stairs, dealing with irate customers, delivering packagesin 10 below and 110 above.
They came to celebrate the amazing diversity and adaptivity of the bicycle.One messenger, who rode a heavy-duty cargo bike equipped with a tow-behindtrailer large enough to accommodate a sofa, described what it was liketo pedal a full keg of beer up a San Francisco hill. Another told me sheoften covered 50 miles a day, rushing full speed though the streets ofSydney, Australia. We're going all out five or six hours at a dip, shesaid. Being a messenger is like doing a stage of the Tour de France everydamn day. A third, from Chicago, demonstrated his ability to swerve throughtraffic while writing out a delivery form in perfect handwriting. To bea good messenger, he said, you need the speed of a road racer, the gutsof a downhill mountain biker, the bag of tricks of a BMXer, the lungs ofa triathlete, and a bunch of other crap you don't need anywhere else.
Along with the stories, the messengers shared tricks of the trade: howto repair potato-chipped rims without any tools, where to find theft-resistantparking spots, foolproof methods of escaping from hospitals without payingthe bill. They debated the best method of hauling a 50-pound parcel (bikebasket or shoulder bag?) and the most painless way to ride with brokenfingers. They bought T-shirts that said Cars Suck. They traded photocopiedbike-messenger zines by the armload. They drank too much beer. They swarmedthe streets. They got naked.
The host-city messengers opened up their futons and couches to out-of-townbrethren. For the event, the San Franciscans compiled a CD of bike-messengerthrash bands, of which there are many. (messengering is one of the fewjobs that allow people with purple hair to earn a living.) The album, calledPothole, featured songs such as Drag Racer by Bimbo Toolshed and Too Stonedby Three Stoned Men. And everyone was given the Messengerís Guidebookto San Francisco, a publication that came with a Saxon Gold condomtaped inside, a description of 20 must-visit bars, and a dictionary ofbike-messenger lingo including gravy (high-paying deliveries), gristle(low-paying deliveries), copsicle (a policeman on a bicycle), urban foodlog (burrito), and a dozen or so words for marijuana ( huffbo, fluffbo,indo, proj, salad ).
And yes, champions were actually crowned at this championships, thoughwith the exception of a handful of serious (e.g. German) competitors, thecontest was merely a sidelight to the three-day bacchanal. Heats were heldSaturday; the finals were Sunday. The race was designed to mimic a messengerístypically frenetic day entrants had 30 minutes to complete as many lapsas possible on a course laid out on the roller-coaster downtown streets,stopping at various checkpoints and picking up and dropping off as manypackages as they could in the allotted time.
Each race began with competitors sprinting on foot from the startingline and, in a mad melee, unlocking their bicycles and pedalling off. Racersbanked around corners; accelerated through cobblestones; and flew intocheckpoints dismounting at foll speed, running to a stop and slamming downtheir bikes. The packages given out at the checkpoints ranged from smallenvelopes to television-sized cardboard boxes. Each time a racer droppedoff a package the further he or she had cycled it, the more points scoredthe transaction had to be recorded on a sheet of paper called a manifest.Some messengers kept their manifests neatly folded in their shoulder bag;others clenched them in their teeth; still others stuffed them in theirbra or shoved them into their shorts.
The course ran through the historic Telegraph Hill district, in theshadow of the TransAmerica Pyramid (known in San Francisco bike-messengerlingo as the Dunce Cap). It included the famous Vallejo Street hill, ahalf-mile-long incline with the approximate steepness of a ski jump. Bikingup Vallejo is like sprinting up a 30-story staircase. The racers, exhortedby the crowd, charged up it wildly, leaving a trail of sweat and more oftenthan not spitting out expletives with every pedal rotation. Then, aftermaking a delivery at the top of the precipice, they'd barrel back down,screaming at the top of their lungs. Some racers climbed Vallejo a dozentimes. As the finish time neared, the pace became even more frenzied themanifest had to be dropped off at the finish-line checkpoint before timewas called or a racer would be given a score of zero. It was an exhausting,confusing, hilarious competition.
Messengers raced on their everyday bikes, many of which were rusty one-speedsthat predated the Nixon Administration. Bike messengers, I learned, tendto be overtly low-tech. To be a bike courier, said one racer, is to beable to ride city streets through rain, snow and mud itís not about havingthe hottest stuff and strutting it around. According to the Guidebook,gear-heads who insist on the latest equipment are called Glow in the Darks.
The Germans were Glow in the Darks. They had water bottles and cliplesspedals and those little band-aid thingies saddling their noses. Their hairwas neatly cut. They wore Lycra. They had a coach. And they dominated.Thomas Sauerwein won the menís race [note - not true the winner wasSven Bauman from Switzerland] and teammate Ivonne Kraft took the womenísdivision. Both work for the same company, Per Rad, in Karlsruhe, Germany.Said Thomas: I'm in good shape because I don't have a car. Said Ivonne:You really can't go that fast in the U.S. too many traffic lights.
The matter of a champion duly settled, the final party began right inthe finish area. Here, amidst the youthful revelry, I was introduced toa middle-aged man named Junior. Junior owns a one- speed basket bike anda beard that looks like a convention of Brillo pads. Heís been a San Franciscobike messenger for 28 years. Before I joined this crew," he said,signalling with open arms that he meant the whole world of messengerdom,I'd spent time in jail. I was on food stamps. And then I became a messengerand in the craziness of the job I found stability. I found a group of peoplewith a spirit that fit my style. And all of a sudden I found I was partof a family. Itís a strange one, sure. But when you think of it, what familyisn't?
Contributing editor Michael Finkel wrote about ice riding in Vermontin our February issue and is at work on a novel.
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