5 April 2012

Confessions of a Cycle Messenger

On his last day of work as a bicycle messenger, my brother organized a race. Messenger races, known as alleycats, usually consist of straightforward if anarchic runs across the city. A raggle-taggle peloton will gather at some anonymous starting point, then commence on a mad dash from checkpoint to checkpoint, a wave of rubber and steel crashing through the streets. But my brother’s race was different: an urban steeplechase with a fox-hunt theme. He strapped a huge bottle to his back containing a few gallons of paint, with a pipe running down the bike frame that terminated in a small tap. He attached a fox’s tail to one of his belt loops. At the start of the race he opened the tap; the paint started to flow as he pedaled off into the traffic, a line of white glistening on the tarmac in his wake. After a few minutes I released the racers, a pack of bicycle-hounds. With a blast of horns, the race was on. 

We followed the splattered line of paint on the tarmac, competing with the other street markings as it traced a ghostly outline of my brother’s journey. It recorded the positions of cars and busses as they had been a few minutes earlier, swerving erratically around now non-existent obstructions. The line had also registered his speed. There were larger spaces between the splatters when he’d gone faster, smaller ones as he’d slowed down. At one junction it led onto the pavement, across some blue duckboards and dropped back onto the road. Some racers followed the route blindly. Other, cannier riders spotted the line continuing up the road and carried straight on, avoiding the now pointless detour. One fell off his bike and was left behind. Like a manic pied piper, my brother led the pack of cyclists around the East End of London, through parks and across wasteland, over the shifting pavé of old cobbled streets and down the dark tunnels that run under the railway lines around Brick Lane. After a while the splashes became irregular. The paint was running out, or the pipe was blocking up. As the pack crossed Bethnal Green Road for the second time we spotted a big splatter of paint in the gutter. My brother had slipped on a drain cover and buckled both his wheels. He was fine, able to limp back to the start, where the paint completed its Pollock-like circuit of dribble and splash. But his bike, which he pushed along beside him, was a broken, creaking mess. Though he is no longer a messenger, my brother still occasionally rides in alleycats. They’re hard things to give up. The white line can still be made out here and there on the roads around Brick Lane, a faint memorial to the route.


“Warsaw has had it pretty rough over the last century,” I read in a guide issued by The Warsaw Car-Killers, part of the welcome pack for the 2011 Cycle Messenger World Championships. “First the Germans had a dream to turn her into a lake, then the Russians rebuilt her using cheap-ass Russian concrete slabs, making her grey and dull.” Most of the city, I learn, was destroyed during the Second World War, after which much of the old town was laboriously reconstructed brick-by-brick (relying partly on paintings by Bernardo Bellotto, court painter to the king of Poland in the eighteenth century, who recorded several famous vedute of the city). The old town now squats on a hill overlooking the river Vistula, giving off strong whiffs of age while coyly declaring its youth on unobtrusive plaques. Warsaw’s memory lives in its streets rather than in its buildings. Only the shape of the map, the cobbles, and the inclines and turnings of the alleyways remain faithful to their past lives. 

The CMWCs are usually quite a lo-fi affair. In 2010 the race took place in Panajachel, a tiny town in the Guatemalan highlands, and resembled something from Mad Max. Guatemalans are allowed to carry guns as long as they’re kept on display, and a few messengers in Panajachel sported pistols alongside the radios and mobile phones they carried bandoleer style across their chests. Some of the events were nearly canceled when “La Ocho,” the figure-eight shaped track slated to host some of the races, was swept away in floods, along with several homes. It was rebuilt overnight. When the track races finals eventually took place they were illuminated by car headlights.  

This year the race was to take place on a peninsula jutting out into the Vistula from the western bank of the city, near to where, at the end of the war, the Polish Home Army had waited for Soviet support that never came. A grand brutalist sculpture of a minesweeper commemorates the failed uprising. At racer registration I was given a race number and a map of the peninsula. The course was roughly the size of a small city block, criss-crossed by tracks and punctuated by twenty six checkpoints. Streets were named things like “Skid Row,” and “Main Stage Alley.” The race was to be a sort of a real-life game of Grand Theft Auto, somewhat akin to Enki Bilal’s sport of Chessboxing, testing both mind and muscle. We were given a checklist of instructions:

You:

- Need to learn this city by heart.

- Need to figure out a lot by yourself.

- Can’t plan this race, it will change all the time.

- Need to find the shortest routes and make the best decisions as everyone is given the same calls in the same order.  

Modern Warsaw is not particularly bicycle-friendly. Vast, multi-lane roads cut the city into fragments, while a complicated system of overpasses and bridges take you on mad and terrifying detours. We were told to beware of the police, who come down hard on drunk cycling. Until recently they could revoke your driving licence if you were caught cycling under the influence. In the welcome pack, under the heading “General Rules of Engagement in Warszawa (surviving the streets)” we were instructed to “stick to the middle of the right lane,” and that drivers “can react insanely to middle fingers.” “Poland has a ZERO TOLERANCE for soft drugs,” the advice concluded, “with reefer madness at full swing the cops are like cats chasing mice. SAY NO TO DRUGS!” 

As I cycled back to my hostel on a rented bike, I noticed little covens of messengers dotted around the city, cruising the streets in packs or huddled together to look at maps. Messengers spend a lot of time waiting around, on park benches or on the steps of buildings, and so they’re good at discovering those spaces where cities offer amenities: near public toilets or under the ducts that spew out warm, recycled air from the bowels buildings. Messengers live like parasites on the city—skimming a living off the top of commercial exchange—and they’re parasitic on its architecture, too, and on the flow of its traffic. On a cycle path next to the Royal Lazienki park I got talking to a man from Vienna whose bicycle had been stolen from outside a club the night before, and who was trying to find a replacement. “I still need to work when I get back” he murmured sadly, as he clattered off down the street, walking awkwardly in his stiff-soled cycling shoes.

 A pair of cyclists pulled up next to me, their bikes running the tiny gears that are the tell-tale sign of the bicycle polo player. They asked if I knew where the polo courts were. I didn’t. They told me that a messenger from Dublin had been hit by a car the previous night while crossing the Solec, an enormous multi-lane motorway that runs by the river alongside the race course. He’d been hit hard. His bike had been destroyed, and he was in a coma in the hospital. 

Later that evening, under a concrete overpass, the messenger tribes of the world gathered. I bumped into friends from London who’d driven to Warsaw in one mad dash, relying on amphetamines and coffee to stay awake. Within hours of arriving their driver had been arrested for cycling with a can of beer in his bidon holder, and the others were trying to get him bailed. They were worried that he’d been caught with pockets full of drugs, enough to land him a lengthy prison sentence in Poland. As we were just about to cycle to the police station to see if they’d let him go, he rolled up sheepishly on his bike. “They never checked my pockets,” he said, “just put me in the back of the van. So I ate all the speed.” He already had glassy eyes and a wild stare. He would stay awake for the rest of the week, growing increasingly confused and belligerent. Mosquitoes swarmed in the dampness of the forest. The rain fell. No one wanted to talk about the messenger from Dublin.


The next few days of the CMWCs were largely indistinguishable from each other. On the second day we assembled under the Łazienkowski Bridge on the peninsula to watch the qualifications. A steady stream of competitors walked through race HQ, collected their manifests, and set off to navigate their way round the course. Race officials tramped around making sure they obeyed the rules of the road, admonishing those who ignored the one-way systems and confiscating the bikes of riders who neglected to lock them up. Some messengers competed on foot, and did well. Others cheated: discovering unmarked tracks and secret routes through the forest. A pair of messengers raced on a tandem. I sat at a checkpoint in the forest for a while, smoking soggy little spliffs with a bored Polish man who spoke no English. Occasionally messengers would emerge from the trees, ask if they were in the right place, and cycle off again. The organizer of the race, a messenger from Amsterdam called Fish, explained to me how he had designed the race using a complicated logistical algorithm that could be applied to any course. He said that his system would revolutionize the world of competitive messenger racing, standardizing its rules and allowing objective trans-competition comparisons to be made. I cycled to another check-point and watched the stream of competitors slip down a muddy hill. The course was strangely quiet, far removed from the usual sounds of a working day: the urban white noise of horn-honks and idling engines, or the whale-like groans of a bus’s air brakes. After a few hours it was all over. 

The rain was still falling, and the site had become a sea of mud. On the stage a brave DJ played reggae music into a howling hail. He was largely ignored by the messengers, who sat under trees drinking beer and smoking weed. I spoke to a man wearing a helmet festooned with two large video cameras. His name was Lucas Brunelle, and he used to be a professional cyclist. Now he runs a software firm, and spends his free time traveling the world racing in and videoing messenger races. He’d been a messenger once, long ago, and like many couldn’t quite give up the job. 

I listened to a discussion about the industry hosted by the International Federation of Bicycle Messengers, during which representatives pitched their proposals to host next year’s CMWCs. Lausanne and Mexico City were the main contenders. The team from Lausanne distributed free beer tokens to be redeemed in 2013. They won the bid. The whole thing felt a bit like that scene in The Warriors when the gangs of New York assemble in an abandoned baseball pit to strategize about the coming urban order. 

Later, I wandered off to watch the bike polo. A sprint competition ran on the only decent length of tarmac on the peninsula. Elsewhere people cheered on the Goldsprints, where cyclists went head-to head riding stationary bicycles on rollers while digital avatars projected onto the underside of the bridge marked their progress. 

In the afternoon the sun came out, and a large crowd gathered around an old car, which had been wheeled out for the wing-mirror smashing competition. Competitors had to cycle alongside the car and knock off a mirror stuck on with Velcro, with points awarded for distance and style. Some tried to kick with one foot while pedaling with the other, but the most effective strategy was to use a U-lock as a bat. Someone cycled up and pulled an endo, using their back wheel to broadside the mirror, winning hands down on style points. Eventually people got bored of the controlled destruction and the competition degenerated into a near-riot. The car was kicked to pieces and smashed up with locks, before being overturned and almost ending up in the river. Someone tried to set it on fire before one of the organizers climbed on top and asked people to stop, as the car was to be used as the winner’s podium. Across the river, a pair of old men who’d been fishing quietly withdrew. Eventually the police turned up.

That evening I sat by a fire tended by a dreadlocked, moon-faced man from Budapest, who admonished people for upsetting his shopping-cart grill. A friendly drunkard stumbled over and sat down heavily on the embers. The comforting stench of several hundred messengers wafted in the evening air. Bored by the rain, I left the campsite a few hours later and derivéd back into the city, guided by a Polish messenger who I knew from London. Half way home he showed me a street of clubs and bars, on one side of which stood an empty, half-finished office building, dotted with clubbers taking the air. Couples sat with their legs dangling from its empty windows like figures in a doll’s house. We locked our bikes, climbed through a fence and explored the concrete skeleton of the building before sitting down on the roof and watching the city. 

On the third day, my last in Warsaw, I wandered around the racecourse on foot. No working London messengers had qualified for the main race. In the hours before it began, the most serious competitors sat studying maps of the course they’d drawn on their arms in permanent marker. Some tinkered with their bikes, adjusting gears and brakes that had become clogged with mud. My brother had tacoed the back wheel of his hire bike trying to pull 180s on a grassy bank, so we sat with a spoke-spanner and tried to true the buckled wheel so we could reclaim our deposit. Eventually we found some German mechanics who, with much pushing and swearing, coerced it back into something like a circle. Riders who hadn’t qualified for the finals, or couldn’t be bothered to race, relaxed in a homemade jacuzzi which the team from Lausanne had brought with them. Steam rose into air, meeting the rain half way. 

During the finals I helped man a checkpoint in the howling winds and rain while bedraggled cyclists emerged from the mists and presented their soggy manifests to be stamped. Our umbrella was blown away in a gust and drifted dangerously toward the Vistula. Along the Solec, a professional peloton roared by. The Tour of Poland had come to town, conducting a five lap circuit of Warsaw. We cheered them on: allez! allez! One rider had his dick in his hand and let fly a steady stream of piss as he rolled along, pushed on by his teammate. The messenger from Dublin was still in the hospital. I heard no more about him.   


Five years ago I was looking for a new job. Three months as a runner at a TV production company had given me taste enough of office life: days spent tea caddying, photocopying and washing up left me cold. The only part of my job I liked was the daily run to the edit suites, over the river in Soho, which I did by bike. I’d volunteer for any job that would take me outside the office and across the city, the further the better. Going to the warehouse to dig out old tapes and trekking across London for some specific prop became absurdly exhilarating. It was the solitude I valued; the freedom of the outside; the sounds of the street; the thinking time. Soon I gave up my TV job and became a bicycle messenger. 

I found I loved cycling for a living. I loved learning what London taxi drivers call ‘the knowledge’: an intimate litany of street names and business addresses. Though I’d lived in London all my life, I’d never quite realized how it fitted together. My experience of London had left me with the impression of a fragmented city, composed of a series of disconnected villages, each surrounding their own tube station or bus stop. Messengering connected the dots, drew the London map together in my mind. 

This intimate geography, learned from the saddle, was a product of the bicycle itself. Cycling is a collaborative act, a meditative engagement with the world of material things, and riding a bike encourages you to build up a private map of the terrain you travel over. You learn what it’s like to ride down a particular road when wet (noting the placement of slippery drain covers that wait to catch you on sharp turns), or the specific sequence of traffic lights at a much-crossed junction. For drivers the road is merely, in Iain Sinclair’s words, that “dull silvertop that acts as a prophylactic between driver and landscape,” but for cyclists, like pedestrians, every road has a personality. Roads possess an enduring identity borne of their shape, and of what it’s like to ride them, and cycling allows you to feel their grain, to decipher their bumps and inclines as a single continuous experience. “The cyclist’s derriere,” writes Paul Fournel, “is the locus of historic dramas, of furious boils, of sneaky swellings that alter the outcome of races. For me it’s the locus of a particular intelligible sensitivity. With my eyes closed I’m sure I could recognize, just by sitting in the saddle, the texture of a road long ago inscribed in me.”

Through cycling miles and miles a day I also got to know my body. I learned how much food it needed to run smoothly, how it performed in the heat or in the rain. For the first time in my life I felt physically exhausted at the end of a day’s work. I was beguiled by the wonderfully straightforward economies of the job: carry a package from one zipcode to another and you get paid accordingly. If it needs to go further or get there quickly you get paid more. For two years I carried checks from bank to bank, passports to embassies, urine samples or bags of blood (the realization of the metaphor of circulation was pleasing: I became a blood-cell in the arteries of the city) from one hospital to another.  On an average day I’d cover sixty miles or so, deliver twenty jobs and earn about £3 per job. 

My controller, whose job assigning work to riders over the radio was a complicated logistical dance, was an Ahab-like savant called Dave. Dave ran the pedal-cycle circuit as a benign dictatorship, and we let him because he was a good controller. He had an incredible memory for jobs and runs, and was able to keep track of the circuit better than any of his riders. He remembered where you were and how many jobs you had on board with eerie precision, better than you did yourself. He’d sit hunched over his computer like a magus, casting spells over the city and sending crackly instructions out over the ether to our radios. He had a heavy cocaine habit, and every now and then would send one of us to pick up grubby wraps of coke from his dealer and drop them back at the office.

Like running away to sea, or joining the circus, the job can appeal, as it did for me, as a mild act of rebellion. For others it is the easiest way to make a living. You don’t need great language skills to be a messenger, so the workforce is composed largely of economic migrants (Poles and Brazilians in the UK), attracted by the lax fiscal scrutiny and flexible hours. The companies themselves have little interest in who actually does the delivering, as long as the package gets there. Occasionally when a motorbike rider gets deported, another will silently inherit his bike and identity, only a slightly modulated accent over the radio betraying the change. Most messengers are self-employed subcontractors, meaning they get paid only for the work they do, and receive no employment protection if they’re knocked off their bikes on the job. (In the US, they have no health insurance either.) It’s dangerous work, and like other dangerous work it fosters a strong sense community, an informal support network focused on races, drinking, and listening to each other’s interminable stories about bad controlling, impossibly lucrative jobs, or sublimely satisfying runs. 

Now everyone is on the secret, and bicycle messengering is increasingly seen as a dying trade. The narrative of decline is familiar to all messengers, whether they subscribe to it or not: since the advent of the fax machine messengers have been living at the end of days, and email has further eroded the need for their services. Old hands reminisce about the good times (which were probably never all that good), and predictably the trappings and fashions of the job are being appropriated. These days everyone is a cyclist. The very visible cycling mayor of London, the Wodehousian buffoon Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, recently introduced a city-wide bicycle rental scheme along the lines of the Vélib’ bikes in Paris, sponsored by Barclays. Twice a day, during rush hour, the gutters of London’s roads (many of them painted cyan, Barclays’ corporate colour, as part of the “cycle superhighway” network) are filled with what Iain Sinclair calls “the raging peloton.” “Every inch pedaled,” writes Sinclair, “every tiptoeing carbon-footprint advance, is a political act. YouTube is blistered with competitive bicycle imagery: naked propaganda for anarcho-liberal bikes-for-all schemes funded by the generosity of corporate bankers.”

Of course, regardless of the municipal politics, everyone should be biking—biking more, and driving less. The notion that cycling is or should be the preserve of a dwindling messenger crowd or the critical-massers—naked cyclists and bikepunks who see each revolution of the wheel as one more turn towards a mutual aid paradise, toward the greater revolution—is as alienating as it is wrong-headed. But on the final reckoning bike politics don’t amount to much of anything. The fact is that most working people still prefer the subway; the rising cult of simplicity surrounding bicycle travel has corresponded exactly to the decline of complex public infrastructure that most people use. In most cities the bicycle selfishly profits from this decline, gaining an advantage as traffic snarls up and trains fill up. A bicycle is only faster than a car or motorbike across town because the roads are clotted. Messengers cling on only because they inhabit the economic and architectural edgelands of the modern city. 

In an age of austerity, the metro systems of London and New York are literally grinding towards collapse; meanwhile for a transport official eager for popularity, nothing is easier than taking a can of paint and siphoning off a portion of pavement for a bike lane. The class of people this pleases most is small but increasingly vocal, highly visible in portions of cities where they were once scarce. When a bike shop appears in a depressed neighborhood, you can be sure it’s on the verge of gentrification.  

Where I live in northeast London, the bicycle shop has become a destination in itself. Boutique bike shops serve coffee and cake while the mechanics, stars of the show, fix bicycles in the middle of the room while everyone watches. The nostalgia can be seen in the bikes people choose to ride. In the ’90s, I’m told, most messengers rode fat-tubed mountain bikes bristling with gears. Now there’s been a turn toward the simple honesty of the fixed-gear track bicycle, with its single gear, its perpetually revolving pedals, its decent and uncluttered lack of brakes. Leather Brooks saddles and waxed-cotton saddlebags adorn these simple machines. Lycra is banished to the lower layers. Out on the streets, faux-messengers, fakengers, cruise around on spotless steel track bikes, carrying enormous single-strap bags and wearing their bonsai cycling caps. Their bags are empty. They wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled.

Image: At the CMWCs. Photo by Ben Day.

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