ON THE BICYCLE TOWARDS FREEDOM:
Bicycle Messengers’ answer for identity crisis
in Social Anthropology
at Lund University
supervisor Steven Sampson
1. PREFACE ...............................................................................................................................2
2. THEORTICAL FRAMEWORK ...........................................................................................4
3. STUDY METHODS...............................................................................................................7
4. WORK MOTIVATION and SOME OF THE COURIERS IDEOLOGY..............................9
5. WORK REALITY ................................................................................................................11
5.1. Copenhagen Messenger Companies ..................................................................................11
5.2. Working Day......................................................................................................................12
5.3. Warsaw Couriering Companies .........................................................................................13
5.4. Background and a Local Context.......................................................................................15
6. LIFE AFTER WORK: STILL BEING A BIKE MESSENGER ..........................................17
6.2. Local Races........................................................................................................................24
6.3. Spare and leisure time........................................................................................................29
7. STYLE ..................................................................................................................................33
7.1. Clothes and Accessories ....................................................................................................33
7.2. Bicycle ...............................................................................................................................37
8. SELF IMAGE AND SELF PRESENTATION ....................................................................42
8.1. Symbols, Slogans, Pictures ................................................................................................42
8.2. Stories ................................................................................................................................43
12. BIBLIOGRAPHY ..............................................................................................................64
You know the bike messenger if you’ve lived in the urban core or worked in
any big city office: the wrap-around sun-glasses, the proud outlaw swagger,
chain around the hips, two-way Motorola Iden strapped crackling to big
messenger bag, the guy who thinks he’s the toughest, looniest cat around
because he gets paid the fat bills to ride a bike fast through hell’s nine circles
delivering the important packages for the important clients.
You know these images, of the rebel and madman, the glamorous
transgressor, the free man who laughs at slow humanity huddled under
umbrellas at bus-stops. The bike messenger as urban legend, Hermes’ minion,
the winged one.
(C. Ketcham 2000)
Do You know a bike messenger? Well even if not, the aim of this paper is to
introduce you this group of young people working on the streets around the world, so
don’t worry. If you do know any of them, or maybe even you are one of them, then I
hope this essay will provide you with some more information and help you to place
the couriers’ issues in the wider social context.
My first encounters with bike messengers were on the streets of Warsaw a few
years ago. When I was cycling around town every day to school, there were not many
other bikers passing me by. Warsaw is simply not a place where you use a bike as a
means of transport. Among those few bikers that I came across while riding, the most
recognizable were couriers. Fast, in different clothes, very sure of themselves. They
were very novel on Warsaw streets, not only because Warsaw doesn’t have many
street bikers, but also because there had been no bike messengers on Warsaw streets
before. This occupation was new and fresh, and therefore a mystery, who were those
A few years later, thanks to sharing the same passion for biking I actually met
a few of those guys who had been couriers in the past. We became close friends,
although for them work as messenger was only a part of their past life as they were
involved in new careers now, I still heard many of their messenger days stories.
A little time after that period, my brother met couriers who were currently
involved in a messengering. He started to participate in their races and soon persuaded
me to check my biking skills in competition with those professionals. It became a
good entertainment and sport for me. But although I love riding my bike in the city,
and probably in few characteristics I am very like those guys, I never decided to take
up that job (but who knows the future?). But my brother did. After 5 years of studying
at Warsaw University, working in the NGO sector, and becoming valued expert in his
working field, his passion for cycling prevailed. To our mother’s disappointment and
surprise he became a bike messenger, and start his own couriering company.
At that moment our dearest mother wasn’t the most enthusiastic person about
her son’s life project. First of all that is because, like most of the members of our
society, she didn’t consider being a bike courier as a real job. Being a bike messenger
is not a job, a career, that a mother would dream of for her son or a daughter
(especially not for a daughter). Like many other physical jobs it is considered to be
only for those that couldn’t get a better job, are not educated and therefore consider to
be life losers. This is not a job that would give you prestige, a high social status and
position. This job is not the kind of job that one would like to call a career. A career
should be carried out in a suit and in an office. Never on the street. Being a bike
messenger can only be accepted when treated as an extra job, for students (a serious,
grown up person should never get that kind of job if he wants to retain any pride)
who, while studying, are trying to get extra money. But choosing this job instead of
good position in some nice office, or after graduating when one should became an
adult, and get a real, grown up job…that is unthinkable. That is a step backwards, and
our modern society allows and values only action forwards; always try to be better, to
achieve something more. Becoming a bike messenger is definitely not a move of this
But there was also another thing bothering my mother, and probably many
other couriers’ mothers. That was the risk awaiting at courier’s life on the streets. The
risk of being hit by a car, or of having any other incident. A risk of getting poisoned
with fumes. A risk of losing your health, when riding in winter. All those ideas of city
streets as being extremely dangerous successfully prevent Warsaw’s and many other
cities’ inhabitants from getting on bikes and traveling alongside cars. So why he has
decided to change his safe office for dangerous streets? Why does he need to do it?
My mother asks.
I hope that this essay will help her find some answers. I hope it will also
provide any other readers, maybe not even so personally, or at all involved or related
to messengers, with answers to a question as to what is so tempting and special about
bike messengers that it attracts people. How come it was possible that from a just
another job, bike messengering evolved to part a life style?
In this place I would like also express my gratitude for all of those that have
contributed to my work and study. Especially to my Mother and Brother and to my
Boyfriend Piotrek. Thank You for all your patience and support. Also great thanks
deserves Maciek and Paul. And last but not least: thanks to all Bicycle Messengers,
especially Warsaw and Copenhagen crews, thanks for your help in the research but
first of all for a lot of fun!
2. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
Some of the bicycle couriers date back the origins of their job to the
beginnings of the XX century, when the bicycle was invented and first deliveries
within a postal service was done on bicycles. That might be somehow correct, both
past and present cases share the same goal and way of achieving it. However, I
believe that today’s bicycle messengers, their job, and above all, everything that is
built upon it, is a life style and some of the couriers characteristic have appeared not
that long ago, but rather in a period of late modernity. I believe, that style that couriers
poses is directly rooted in a late modernity era. What more, it is a form of reaction to
the modernity. Reaction that is defensive and oppositional to the modernity, but as it
will be shown in a paper, it also derive from it.
What is it then so striking about modernity that it provokes such a reactions?
In my essay I refer to the modernity understood as a condition, a framework of a
contemporary, western society existence. Modernity, of which one of the main
characteristics is an obsession with modernization and development. To go forward,
never look back; always improve one and one’s environment seems to be modern
commandments. A second important feature is the need for emancipation. It is mostly
understood as a liberation from society and its rules which are perceived as a main
obstacles for development, but also as a limitation for personal freedom.
Both needs, for emancipation and modernization, are related to the idea of
discontinuity, which might be understood as a break with the past. Modern social
institutions are unique, distinct in form from all types of traditional order. Change is
dramatic and rapid. Therefore modernity constitutes not only new social institutions
but also relations. It is a one of the main characteristics of modernity to neglect, and
reject all that was before. Not just to develop and create on the old basis, but to create
New. As Giddens has put it: modernity has no respect for its own past. Modes of life
in modernity are swept away from all traditional types of social order (Giddens
What is more, persons in this new, late modernity, are also characterized by
strong individualization. It consists of transforming human identity from “given” into
a “task.” (…) Modernity replaces heteronomic determination of social standing with
compulsive and obligatory self-determination (Bauman 2000:32-3). Since people are
“lifted out” of the social relations and local contexts, they are now left alone with
achieving their modern tasks. Also because society and its order, traditions and
authority has been rejected, there are no roots on which one could found on, refer to in
a process of self-definition, but still, process has to be done. In our postmodern times
(…) the boundaries which tend to be simultaneously most strongly desired and most
acutely missed are those of a rightful and secure position in society, of a space
unquestionably one’s own. (…)It is the widespread characteristic of contemporary
men and women in our type of society that they live perpetually with the’ identity
problem’ unsolved. They suffer (…) from a chronic absence of resources with which
they could build a truly solid and lasting identity, anchor it and stop it from drifting
This modern condition is facing now a crisis (as Friedman has called it), or, as
others (e.g. Bauman) have defined it, has entered new phase named as a late, liquid or
post modern. The crisis is based on a feeling of disappointment and loss of faith in
modern progress. After years of changes and progress it has appeared as if the
dreamed of better world could not be obtained. We face gradual collapse and swift
decline of early modern illusion: the belief that there is an end to the road along
which we proceed, an attainable telos of historical change, a state of perfection
According to Friedman (1994), the decline of modernist identity might result
in emergent of few different life strategies which are up-and-coming in different
niches of the global system. Among those author has named: postmodern-modern-
consumptions, traditionalist-religious-ethnic, Third World and Fourth World
strategies. Since the case of bicycle messengers is a phenomena to be found in a
Western World the relevant for our argument are the first two strategies. Both of them
are in opposition to the modernist position, a classical definition of the civilized
identity. However their way of dealing with modern stifling, exhausting and not
satisfying condition differs. Putting it in a nutshell, cultural traditionalists strategy is
a search for roots in the past or the models from periphery, whether the
postmodernist type represents more libidious-aggresive soul of man awaiting its
freedom from the chains of civilization (1994:81). The policy of the group of the first
kind is re-establishment of local community, traditional values, ethnic autonomy. In
this model, civilization is understood as the negation of culture. In the second type,
civilization is opposed to a nature. Now in the center of interests stands need for full
expression and freedom. Individuals representing this form of identity are distinguish
by a cynical distancing from all identifications, but an acute awareness of the lack of
identity and a consumptions character, narcissistic dependency of the presentation self
through commodities (Friedman 1994:191).
What more the crisis of identity consists of shift from an inherent and ascribed
identities (e.g. Traditional ethnicity) to those of the weaker sense: achieved and
practiced (e.g. Lifestyles). In addition there has been a closure of identities of the
‘citizenship’ type (that is based on the abstract form of state), which has been replaced
by identities based on a culturally concrete forms (Friedman 1994:86). This situation
results in a tendency to cultural fragmentation. I believe that emergent of couriers life-
style is an example of such a process. Bike messengers are one kind of reactions for
the modern crisis which takes form of the style development.
With a help of ethnographic data on bicycle messengers we can demonstrate
how one type of cultural identity, in a situation of crisis and a world system
fragmentation, emerged and is maintained. What I found especially interesting about
bicycle couriers is that they are a group found only in a cities. Cities, which are, as
Jonathan Friedman has noticed, a realm in which modernity reaches its culmination.
However it is important to notice that it is not intrinsic to the urban situation as such,
city might be recognized as a locus of modern complexity, of the dissolution of
tradition, where individual is free and even forced to move about in a sea in
anonymity, where the majority of interactions are singular, insignificant in
themselves, yet important for the establishment oh the subject’s own identity as an
urbanity. (Friedman 1994:212)
City favour modern rule that identity is to be chosen. City awaits the imprint
of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a
shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a
fixes form round you. (Raban 1974:1-2; after Hannerz 1980:249). The reason for such
situation might be several, one of them is a fact that city in contrast to villages and
small towns, allows more freedom for the individual and are less prescriptive and
more tolerant. Moreover, city has also great potential for personal change. The fact
that within a city, this relatively large, but also limited space coexist socially
heterogeneous individuals, whose relations are more of a network than a community
character, gives possibility and sources for a role change.
But the fact of heterogeneity, which most fully describes industrial urbanism,
is indissoluble with a problem of social inequality and division of labor. In complex,
modern cities it very often takes the form of separation, partial autonomy, lack of
communication or prejudice among its parts (Fox 1977:142). It is clear that
individuals with different status and wealth create City. However since most of the
cities are constituted by the prestige and ceremonial functions found in a state society,
the most powerful, superior, and the winners of the city are those that are most likely
to fulfill this function. What is more, most of the other functions of the city (e.g.
administrative, mercantile) also support only this type of privileged class in the city.
Cities give their primary rewards of power and status to persons who have developed
through education or demonstrated in action their capacity to perform particular
social functions (Fox 1997:207).
In that context, as on the following pages it will be shown, bicycle messengers
are not the one to be on the top of the hierarchy and prestige ladder. And it is not only
a character of the city that determinate couriers law position. Also other attributes like
age, play influence and are responsible for a situation of discrimination. The bad
social position, the lack of satisfaction with a reality might be source of a frustration
but also it might be a first step for a creation of nascent state. The nascent state is an
exploration of the limits of the possible within a given type of social system, in order
to maximize that portion of experience and solidarity which is realizable for oneself
and for other at specific historical moment. The group of people within a nascent
state has arisen invariably tries to introduce a way of life completely different from
everyday customs and institutions (Alberoni 1984:20).
Identity crisis in a era of modernity, bringing so many disappointments seems
to be a great soil for the growth of the nascent state groups. In this paper I am going to
introduce one of them, Bicycle Messengers. They forming might be on one side a
reaction for modernity crisis but also parallel on the other hand a reaction for a society
norms which push them on the marginal position.
3. STUDY METHODS
Why does everybody want to interview bicycle messengers?
If you want to interview a messenger jump on a bicycle and take a package
across any given city through traffic and ask for a bicycle messenger to
explain a way of living, the feel of the bicycle, the feel of a car or truck that’s
moving 50 or so coming up behind you with just inches to spare.
I could go on but I don't need to explain the feelings, just ride... Instead help
to find companies to donate money to a emergency fund to help those who
have risked their life each day…
(Jean Andre Vallery, from The IFBMA messengers email list)
Luckily the above mail wasn’t a reply to a request of mine for help in writing
an essay about messengering. Although it was one quite typical opinion that I came
across when talking to messengers and investigating their matters. Many couriers
fined it problematic that some non-couriers want to examine their job and life. Most
often they were worried about being misrepresented in such articles and papers. This
text also represents many of the popular among couriers views about their job: its
extraordinariness, risk and danger etc. Before I discuss those, I would like to write a
bit how I have respond on opinion presented above criticizing possibility for theorize
messengers matters, and getting a good real grasp, perspective of messengers issues.
What method have I chosen for collecting credible and reiable data for my essay?
Well, first of all I did jump on bicycle and for 3 days I was riding full time with 3
different messengers from Copenhagen. Since riding in that city is one of the safest
due to enormous number of bike lanes it was easy and entertaining for us to talk while
riding. During those 8 hours of cycling I had a lot of time to ask questions.
Unfortunately it was rather impossible to record them or make any notes…so at the
end of the day I had to rely on my memory and try to write things down that I
discovered during those trips. I also spent some time with some of Copenhagen’s
messengers in pubs, on their usual Friday hang out or on other occasions. For a week I
was living at one of the ex-messengers houses. Since me and some of the Copenhagen
couriers know the same people, have the same friends among Warsaw couriers it was
much easier for me to start a friendly relationship with messengers from the capital of
Denmark. All meetings with couriers where very nice, people were very open and
soon with some of them I became friends. I subsequently found it uncomfortable to
record my talks about their jobs. I realized that it changes the character of a
conversation and makes it more formal. Therefore I chose just to take notes.
When considering Warsaw, the situation is more complicated. The decision of
writing about messengers was born in Warsaw where I live. It was a result of a more
than 2 years relationship with people who are doing that job. Yet because before
coming to Lund I wasn’t sure whether I would choose this as a subject for my thesis,
the only proper, recorded interviews I made were a few done before leaving the
country. However, as I said for more than 2 years I had a connection with Warsaw
messengers. For that period I was quite regularly participating in races organized by
those people in Warsaw, where I had an opportunity to meet and talk to them and
people related to that group. Also for one day I took the place of one of the couriers,
and on that occasion I was doing most of the normal courier’s routines.
What's more, lately my brother decided to quit his job in the NGO sector in
order to become a bike messenger. We spent quite a long time discussing his decision.
Although none of this talks where recorded or noted I believe that this participant
observation (probably more participant…) gave me a wide perspective and allowed
me to grasp some of the issues I would like to discuss in my paper. All my
uncertainties about issues connected to messengering in Warsaw I could clarify, by
writing or talking on telephone with my friends in Warsaw.
Finally my statements about messengers are based on their own websites and
information available in the Internet, flyers and magazines.
There has been a lot written on this relatively new occupation of bike
messengers by couriers and mostly for couriers. The most famous book among
couriers is Nerves of Steel by Rebeca “Lambchop” Reilly, describing couriers’ life in
United States. The second one, which caused some controversy among American
couriers (concerning realism and honesty of the book) is Travis Culley’s The
immortal Class. Unfortunately, because of difficulties with getting those writings I
wasn’t able to acquaint myself with them. However, I believe that a great number of
sources and data to be found on the Internet and in newspapers will cover that gap.
One of the best Internet sources is www.messengers.org page. There one can find data
concerning information for messengers and those who only want to know something
about couriers. The web site also provides us with many useful links to the pages
designed by individuals and by courier companies, or related to messengers’ lifestyle
and interests. All of those sources contain descriptive rather than interpretative
We lack sources and interpretations of this work group which have been
created by those not involved in messengering. The only few that I was able to find
focus mostly on traffic and environmental aspects of that job, or problems related to
legal and work rights. The only exception was an unpublished essay by Elisha Lim
(Fleeting: The Evasive Nature of the Toronto Bicycle Courier Community)
My essay has the ambition to provide you with more anthropological
perspective of that group. First of all I am going to present an ethnographic portray of
bicycle messengers as a profession and a lifestyle. Bicycle couriers have a great
awareness of being a part of “worldwide messengers community,” they recognize it
both on a local, and a cross-continental level. My objective is to show similarities and
differences between Warsaw and Copenhagen, and also present a general idea of what
bike messengering is about.
I want to look into bicycle couriers’ matters from the perspective of identity
placed in a context that influence and shape it, the condition of modernity and city’s
realm. I believe that what is going on within bicycle messengers is their creation of
‘community’ and a life style on the basis of occupation and is a symptomatic reaction
for the modern identity crisis. It is a reaction of an oppressed group for their position
in the society; a way of dealing with modern reality and an attempt to find a respected
place in wider social relations. This essay has the ambition to prove that messengering
might proclaim not only a role but also an identity; an identity that is an answer for
late modernity crisis.
4. WORK MOTIVATION AND SOME OF THE COURIERS IDEOLOGY
Cycling during rush hour. For many people an extremely dangerous pursuit
and one of the greatest nuisances there is. Rush hour, the time when
commuters and office-clones crawl out of their caves and take their
aggression out on anything and anyone moving about too slowly. The city has
tuned into a battle zone for raging rally riders and other gladiators of the
But not for us bike messengers. Cycling is fun. Bike Messengers enjoy a
privileged position. For us, things like meetings, sick-building syndrome,
migraine air-conditioning and machine coffee don’t exist. We’re outside,
we’re free, we get exercise and even get paid for it.
There might be several motivations for taking a messenger job. Firstly, just
like all jobs it is done for money. But if one needs money there might be several other
reasons for choosing this and not another job. The question is why people are
choosing this particular job?
I have divided the motivations that drive this decision into two groups. The
first consists of people who are in need of money and have found this option just as
one mostly readily available and accessible for them. Those might be, for example,
people who are looking for a first, rather temporary job after graduating from high
school. Or people without much work experience or educational background who
could not find another job that would satisfy them. Those are people that have taken
that job as one of many other options; it wasn’t their goal to become a bike
messenger. They got to know about it from a newspaper advert, through some friends
or simply noticed messengers on the streets and thought that could be a job for them.
This group is widely represented in Copenhagen, or any another city in which courier
business is a large one. In such cases it is possible for many people to take this job
only as a temporary, one season job. In Canada such people are called butterflies by
a experienced couriers. Usually, those people are not willing to get involved in side
activities such as alleycats, championships or after job parties. For those, the job is
only a way of earning money, with additionally some style around it, which make a
job maybe nicer and more fun, but nothing more.
The second group represents people that decided to take this job because of its
character and ideas that they believe it represents. Those might be people that just
love to ride a bicycle and had done it as a hobby: now they could be paid for what
they enjoy doing.
But it also might be people who have chosen that job because of its more
ideological image. Like those that weren’t satisfied with their office job and decided
to quit it and, as many of them are saying, change not only a job, but a life style as
well. This change hardly ever is motivated by money matter, since, like in a Polish
case, a messenger job is not one with the highest salary. So changing a job might even
mean an income loss. For those, often well educated people it wasn’t a random, but
rather a well thought out, planned decision. The motivations are more on the ideology
level and have source both in some features of office jobs as well as in bike
messengers’ image. This subject was one of the main issues discussed by Elisha Lim
in her paper on Toronto Courier Community. What she found interesting and striking
thought about couriers was that many of them reject ideologies of capitalism and
articulate an original meaning of success (Lim 2001). In my research and relations
with couriers, I came across such philosophies several times.
Many of those moving out from the white-collar sector complains on its
corruption and morally debasing, the money orientated life-style, the rats’ race, the
lack of ethics, snobbism or simply boredom. The notions and features that attract
those people to the bike messenger job are mostly ideas about a freedom or not being
a part of a Babylon System. Many find that job as more exciting, some underline its
active feature, fact that you are constantly in motion, and outdoor hence it is good for
body and healthy. The fact that every day looks different, that you enter new
surroundings, meet new people was also quoted as an advantage.
The great part in inspiring people to become a bike courier is its image. First
of all as I said before there is a notion of freedom. Firstly being free of bosses, and
managers telling you what to do, how to behave, what to wear (this affects mostly
independently working messengers, but generally this is shared idea among
messengers). It is also linked to the idea of individuality. As Lehmann told me: there
is place for everybody in that job. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else.
Couriers have lots of tolerance; they allow all differences and diversity that in other
jobs, by other groups would be unacceptable.
Secondly being free on your bike. Couriers often underline the fact that riding
a bike in a city gives a great sense of freedom: you might go whenever, and wherever
you want to without worrying about public transport or traffic. You don’t need to wait
at the bus stop, or worry that you miss a last bus, spend hours in traffic jams etc. For
couriers cycling gives also a feeling of pleasure, and joy. Many underline that it is fun
but also a great body workout. It allows one to become more fit, which also is named
as a one of the advantages of that job.
The other important feature is not being a part of the main stream: a bike
messenger as an alternative life style. Alternative to the rat race, to the capitalist
oppression, to the high-class dominance. The bike messenger job is not a gold mine.
The salaries are not high; there are almost no chances for advancement. Because of
the job nature the rats race type competition is almost impossible within this
occupation. Starting independent companies, with almost no boss – employee
structure, and equal sharing of profits for many couriers is an ideological, not
The notion of community that joins all couriers is definitely attractive one for
those coming from faceless corporations. As Franka told me what she was missing in
her previous job in a film industry, but she have found and likes the best in a
messenger job is this feeling of being a part of community, where people are friendly
Finally we should point out a few character features and skills that are
believed that couriers have and represent, and that might seems to attract and fascinate
people willing to take that job or just to become a part of the courier community.
Those are power, strength, fitness, love of adrenaline and courage. I will expand on
that later on in a chapter on couriers self image.
All those elements might become an inspiration for taking a job, but also
might be a reason for falling in love with it and deciding to choose it as a longer
period work project, sometimes even as a career. They might be a reason for
willingness to become involved in a community and treating a messenger job not only
as a way of earning money but also a life style. And specifically it is about those
people, those couriers that decided to dedicate their life to couriering and treat it as a
vocation, that this paper is about.
5. WORK REALITY
5.1 Copenhagen messengers companies
My field work in Copenhagen lasted for one week. During that time I was
living at an ex-messengers house. I didn’t know the girl before, but I contacted her
through an email, I received her address from my brother. He knew her briefly from a
messengers event in which they both participated. Hiske helped me to organize my
participant observation. She put me in contact with some messengers so that I could
ride with them. Each day I was riding with a person from a different company.
There are three messenger companies in Copenhagen. De Grøne Bude,
Deadline and Budstikken. The biggest one is De Grøne Bude where there are about
120 couriers employed of which usually 70 are on the streets. The next one is
Budstikken, which is owned by Danish Post. There have 20 messengers, some of
them working part time. The third company hires 12 messengers, most of them
working full time.
All messengers in Copenhagen are contracted and paid depending on the hours
they work, plus, if they have more tags within a day to more distant destinations, or so
called VIP delivery, they receive extra money. All of them have insurance and a right
to a holiday.
In all companies when applying for a job, first you have to have an interview,
and then spend a one day riding with another messenger in order to learn about the
job. People that are interested in working for De Grøne Bude may come to
interviews which are held once a week. Every week, without exception, this company
both hires and fires people. An employee has to wear a uniform and a helmet, both are
supplied by the company. There is no problem with being hired for a part time job.
Company colors, green, originally represented the idea of ecology, and the company
advertised itself as environmentally friendly. Bicycles were to be an alternative for car
traffic. While the company was growing this policy was to be partly abandoned. Now,
for long distances or large packages cars are used. Since the company grown so big
franchising has been introduced. Within the franchise three experienced messengers
are managing about twenty others. They are responsible for paying salaries, clothing,
schedule and social integration of messengers in their group. However there are only
about 60 messengers working in that system, the rest are hired directly by De Grøne
The Budstikken is a company which has the reputation among Copenhagen
messengers of the best pay. The bike couriering is just a small part of the bigger
delivery services, on which the company makes it main profit. Therefore, as Lehmann
said: they don’t have to put such a pressure on us messengers, they make their money
somewhere else. We are just an addition. The firm pay well (about 60% of a delivery
value), and supply couriers with a spandex, (that is a biker outfit, similar to the one
that racers use) in yellow and black colors, radio and a backpack. Helmets are not
The Deadline company is the youngest. It was established in 2003 after
bankruptcy of another Copenhagen courier company, DBX. Most of the people
working there had been previously hired by DBX. The company was started by
DBX’s dispatcher. It has no other activity apart from bike deliveries. The company
policy is to hire only experienced messengers. As ex-messenger, now dispatcher Flip
explained it to me: It is not important whether the person applying has been working
in a Copenhagen, Berlin, or New York, it is about being a bike messenger. If you have
it in your blood, it is your life. Also, the company is not interested in hiring people for
short periods, for example those that want to earn some extra money before starting
university. People that want to work for Deadline should love that job and consider it
as a life style it should be their passion.
In Deadline there is no policy about the bikers’ outfit, however spandex is not
preferred. The company does not supply messengers with clothing, though just
recently they have received black jerseys with the company name on it. It is
recognized that company color is black.
5.2 Working day
In all companies in Copenhagen the working schedule is basically the same.
The working day usually lasts 8 hours, starting at 8-9 am (for those working full
time), with a lunch break, which in De Grøne Bude is not paid.
The main task is to deliver as many tags as possible. A good day means about
20-25 tags (which result in 80-100 km.), a bad day is less then 10 deliveries. Tags
might be very different, from a small letter, video tape, books, through a tooth, urine
sample, medicine, aquarium fish, to a big size things like prizes or even a table legs.
The client calls the centre with an order and the dispatcher passes it to a
messenger. Depending on the company policy it might be send a person who is the
closest to a pick up place or to a messenger that is free at the moment. Since wages
depend on the number of tags, messengers do their best to get as many tags as
possible in one area in order to avoid empty returns with no package to deliver. The
best policy is to stay in the city, where the number of tags is the highest and at the
same time they are relatively close together so the job is quick and constant
employment is ensured. As Beaver described it: it is like playing a pin ball. If we take
an upper part of a board as a city, and lower as a town, you just have to make sure
that a ball, which is your delivery, stays up. Otherwise if you get out you might risk a
losing a ball and going back with your bag empty. If you get out of the city and have
no pick up on the way back you might decide to stay and wait for it in one of the
waiting spots in town (Blagards plads, Gummar Nu Hansen Pl., Fredriksberg Alle) or
you might choose somewhere in between (Gammel Torv and Kongres Nytor the end
of a harbor). The places might vary depending on a company. While waiting you
receive a queuing number and get a pick-up in a waiting order.
Empty kilometres and waiting minutes are not welcomed with enthusiasm.
Since tags’ allotment depends on the dispatcher, he or she has an powerful role. The
more tags close together that a dispatcher passes to a messenger the better money he
will make. All messengers agree that having a good relationship with a dispatcher and
making sure that in he respects you as a quick and reliable person, is extremely
important. This personal relation and a kind of hierarchy among messengers might
lead to a situation where some messengers earn much more money than others. (By
hierarchy I mean a kind of distinction between old messengers, that is one that do that
job for a long period of time and one that just have started: rookies) It is possible
through a practice when dispatcher might offer a delivery by using a name of a pick
up place not recognizable to everybody (e.g. by using the company name instead of
using its address) or by something called “snatching”.
Baloo describe it like this: If a guy like me hears a rookie getting a pick-up
nearby, I’ll try and “snatch” it by calling a dispatcher, of course a close personal
friend, and then he’ll politely inform the rookie that there’s a much more experienced
messenger trying to snatch his pick-up, and then ask if it’s ok with him. Most new
guys don’t have the guts, but if he says no, I won’t touch his pick-up…I’ll be pissed,
but I won’t touch it…(Usually the ones saying “no” make a coolest messengers after
a while!!!) Hierarchy is a big in some companies, allowing some messengers to earn
ridiculously huge amounts of money, while others never get a chance. It is important
to notice that such practice is mostly to be found in a big companies such as De Grøne
Bude, and rather imposible in small companies like Deadline where all messengers
are experienced and mostly close friends. Also due to its small size and not that many
clients the dispatcher (who is also an owner of the company) has to make sure that
every one has enough work (since he is paying them by the hour).
Because of the large number of messengers, especially in De Grøne Bude,
Copenhagen messengers have nicknames. This makes the dispatcher’s work easier,
since he doesn’t get confused with 5 or more people having the same name. The
nickname is chosen by a messenger him/herself, or is given by a person who was
tailed by the rookie on a first day. Sometimes the choice has a particular explanation
in a story or a special characteristic, however usually it is a question of the personal
preferences. As messengers say, it just has to sounds good on the radio. Nicknames
seem to be something not so common in Denmark therefore they seem to be
appreciated by messengers very much. They add colour, are perceived as something
exclusive to messengers. This is different, as we will see later, from the Polish
situation, where having a nickname is a common thing in a Polish society.
To make a delivery it is necessary that the client has a book with receipts (a
“manifest”) in it. Each time a delivery is make such a manifest must be filled in. It
contains information about the place of pick-up, and a delivery, the time of delivery,
what kind of delivery it was (e.g. a VIP) a waiting time (if any), and a reason for the
delay etc. If a client is permanent, then on his receipt book there is a special individual
serial number. The messenger at the end of a day will write his own personal number
on every receipt when making out the day’s bundle. The next day (or some time at the
end of a week) he or she has to deliver them to the centre, where they are typed into a
system. This system results in sending a bill to the clients. Therefore pick-ups that are
directly paid to a messengers are very seldom. Also messengers get paid on a basis of
receipts with hers/his number on it.
In the central offices dispatchers and store-rooms are placed. Only Deadline
has no special office: it is simply placed in a the company owner’s flat. In an office
there is a special area with a kitchen for messengers and in the case of Budstikken,
with their lockers. Those rooms that are intended for messengers are decorated with
posters, flyers, magazine articles, about bikes, messengers and events related to them.
On the walls there are also diplomas and prizes for winning a races (In De Grøne
Bude these are placed just by the entrance to the office, so that everybody can see
them). De Grøne Bude has also a special place where messengers could organize a
party or just relax after or between working hours.
5.3 Warsaw Couriering Companies
Currently in Warsaw there are about 40 messengers working on the streets.
The following companies use bike messengers as a one of a few ways of couriering:
Express Couriers, Masterlink, Riders, Stolica, Agap, DHL/Servisco. Those are the big
companies in which bike messengering is only a secondary source of profit. All of
them have different rules about employing couriers, though most of them sub-contract
(outsource) work to small couriering companies or self employed individuals. Large
companies sub contract transport service to large courier companies. Such a system
of hiring people allows an organization to avoid concerns such as health insurance,
taxes, social insurance, or other obligatory payments for employed messengers.
Messengers are paid according to the number of tags that they deliver. It is usually 30-
50% of the price that the client pays for the service. The courier company will take
care of marketing: they search for clients, advertise and administration. Some
companies supply messengers with clothing, back pack and a radio, however
messengers have to pay a deposit for these items, which will be given back only if a
messenger works more than three months in a company. If one was working for a
very long time in a firm the messenger might be allowed to keep his clothing. The
cost of working in such company is about 650 zł of social insurance, which one has to
pay if self employed, 5 % income tax, plus the costs of maintaining his bike. A
courier who is hired by one of those companies will also have to sign a statement that
in a future he will not work for any other delivery company.
The other companies that are working in Warsaw are small firms started by
messengers themselves, those are: Kaspio Couriers, Speed Bike, Messenger, Herold,
Among messengers they are often called independent companies. In all of
these companies, couriers, when joining the company, have to find some clients. It
does not mean that only this messenger will deliver this companies’ tags, however this
practice takes place in order to ensure that there is enough work for all bikers. In
exchange bikers earn 100% of what is paid by ‘their’ client.
There are no offices; clients contact a messenger directly by mobile phone.
Then the messenger decides whether he will take this order himself or pass it to
another courier. It is very common that in such a situation such a pickup will go to a
messenger from another company. Very often couriers simultaneously serve clients of
other messenger companies.
Recently messengers from the independent companies bought radios and are
all contacting each other through it (however there is no dispatcher, as Drążek
explained it: we don’t need a middleman to talk to each other, there is no need to
spend more money on some one else’s salary). Within the company they work for,
they all use the same frequency, therefore it is easy to contact each other when a
takeover or other help is needed, or just in order to talk to each other. This is possible
since messengers from those firms have something that we could called a pact of non
aggression, that means that they are not competing with each other. Stealing clients is
not accepted within a community. However there have been cases where clients were
taken from big companies when a messenger changed company, taking his client list
Independent companies also share a ‘kanciapa’ a place where messengers
might change their clothes, leave their stuff, repair bikes, eat something or simply
warm up in winter. It is very small; the big table fills half of the room. On walls there
are plenty of messengers and bikes related posters. Bike parts are everywhere. The
place officially is rented by Kaspio, but all other messengers are welcomed to use it
for a contribution towards the rent (≈50 zl; ≈10 USD per month).
Unlike in Copenhagen, nicknames do not play such a strong role. Although
most messengers have a nickname, it is rather due to the fact that nicknames are very
common among young Polish people. Having a nickname is nothing extraordinary,
and most youngsters have one and use it even instead of their given name.
Nicknames, unlike in Copenhagen, are not an exclusive feature of bike messengers.
However some couriers have it chosen for them relating to their messengers’
The working routines are very similar to the ones described in Copenhagen. It
is all about getting the largest number of tags per day. Tags considered as being the
best are of course one that are delivered within a small area. There are messengers
that, thanks to their considerable work experience or position in a firm, are able to
organize all their work to be in the central district of the city – Śródmieście, and do
not make any delivers outside that district. Those are known as Królowie Śródmieścia
(Kings of the City). This situation does not cause much tension among other couriers
as long it is the result of work seniority. But it is not accepted when it is result of
personal relations between dispatcher and a courier. As in a case of a courier from
Express Couriers, who is a life partner of the company dispatcher. The dispatcher
takes care of her partner so well that she keeps only the best tags for him. Those are
the ones that have to be collected from a train at the Central Station. As a result the
courier received a nickname Peron (platform), and other messengers showed him
their disapproval by limiting social relations with him. Furthermore, some of them
once locked his bike up thus preventing him from working.
Therefore we can see that hierarchical issues are also present in Warsaw. The
other side of a Królowie Śródmieścia matter are where new couriers are often sent to
the farthest destination. Their problem is compounded in that they also have the
smallest number of deliveries so they have to take whatever others are offering in
order to make their living.
Usually in all independent companies most decisions are made by consensus
of all messengers working for a particular firm. Messengers working for those
companies seem to be very proud of their working system: The system we have
created in Warsaw is an utopian dream come true! This is Utopia that works!
(Drążek). They add that they are glad to work in such condition with people who are
their friends. The costs of working in those companies might vary but since one has to
pay a phone bill, radio monthly charge, kanciapa rent, bike maintenance, taxes and
insurance, it is never less then: 500 zl (≈120 USD). Messengers’ salaries vary from
1000 zl (≈230 USD) to 3000 zl (≈650 USD). The average salary in Poland is
approximately 2500 zl (≈550 USD).
5.4 Background and a Local Context
To understand some of the bikers’ attitudes towards their job it is important to
place them in a local context: the environment in which they work, the city and its
adaptation to bike travel as well as inhabitants’ attitudes towards bikes and
messengers in particular.
Copenhagen is famous of being “the city of bikes”. Most of the 1.7 million
inhabitants living in the Greater Copenhagen Area have their own bikes which they
use to travel in the town. Most major streets have a parallel cycling path wide enough
for two bicycles. Travelling by bike is nothing extraordinary, since almost everybody,
irrespective of age or sex, does it. Most bikes are ordinary city bikes and are not hi-
In spite of Copenhagen being amongst the most bike friendly cities of Europe,
inhabitants of the city are still willing to improve it. While I was doing my research in
the city, the local media were just starting a debate about a bicycle traffic. You could
hear complaints about bike thieves and also about bikers, especially bike messengers
who do not respect any rules and who ride like crazy. One of messengers I talked to
about these issues told me an interesting story: once when he entered an office a
woman told him how terribly the messengers were riding and how they were to blame
for what was happening on the cycling paths, but, she also admitted with a laugh, that
because she had seen messengers cross red lights so many times, she had started to do
Therefore we can see that, although people find messengers are not very law
abiding road users, they are not treated as something unusual on the streets. When I
asked messengers how they felt they were perceived by society, they said that mostly
people were friendly and had no complaints, except perhaps a few older individuals
who had shown their discontent when they where riding in a pedestrian zone.
Warsaw, on the other hand, although similar in size to Copenhagen, has
almost no bicycle traffic. There are very few bike paths, none of them in the city
(apart from one which is 500 meters long and starts and ends up in the middle of a
side walk), most of them are in the suburbs. Those that exist are badly planned in a
way that does not encourage cycling. However it would be untrue to state that biking
is not popular among Warsaw citizens. Most citizens have a bike, however, they use it
only for Sunday trips to the parks or forests, or as a way to exercise. Most bikes that
are used are mountain bikes or trekking bikes, often quite expensive. Very few people
use their bike in order to get to work, school, university, etc. According the research
carried out in major Polish cities 2,4% (http://www.rowery.org.pl/rowery.htm) of the
population use a bike to get to their place of work. In winter, bike traffic almost
disappears apart from bike messengers.
When asked about the reasons of not riding a bike in the city or to work,
inhabitants blame the bad weather, a lack of cycling paths and their age (too old
usually) or social acceptability. In Poland, especially in Warsaw, one’s form of
transports has social significance. A car is a symbol of wealth and status, (of course it
depends on the car, having a Fiat 126p is nothing to be proud of), whilst a bicycle is
perceived as something that is used only in the country (read: poor, undeveloped part
of Poland, where people cannot afford to have nice cars). As one of Poland’s
prominent politicians said, and his opinion is shared by many other Warsaw citizens:
Warsaw is not a village to ride a bike in it!
Very often people are simply afraid of sharing the same surface that cars use.
When I was in high school and was trying to convince my friends to ride to school by
bike with me, even when they agreed their parents would forbid them to do so, since
they were afraid that an accident could happen.
Since the laws that sets rules about bicycle traffic is not clear, mostly not very
efficient, and not respected, there is a lot of tension between road users. There is a lot
of confusion about where a biker has the right to ride and where not. Since there are
few cycling tracks, those who choose the bicycle as a means of transport have to
choose between the sidewalk or the street. This situation usually creates an
antagonism between cyclists and pedestrians or car drivers, who mostly resent having
bicycles in their way. This antagonism might be appreciated when by looking at a
discussion forum at the Gazeta Wyborcza website (http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum). All
three sides of a conflict are pointing their fingers at each other’s faults and mistakes.
The statements are quite often very aggressive and rude. Some of them even call for
violence: We would only need three cars run all the lycra clad pedallers down or Next
time I won’t bother to slow down, maybe I’ll get one of the bastards Those opinions
are reflected in a reality. It happens that bikers are intentionally pushed off the street
by cars drivers or that there are arguments between pedestrians and bikers. However
evidence of this is only anecdotal and there are no statistics or data that could enlarge
on such a statement. However, it is an important part of a Warsaw messenger’s
experiences which I will investigate in more detail later.
6. LIFE AFTER WORK: STILL BEAING A BIKE MESSENGER
You might be a bike messenger if1:
- You would sooner be dead than off your bike
- You go out of town for a vacation and the first thing you pack is your bike
- You’re driving your car & pause at a red light, look both ways & gun it.
- in Tour de France season you return from a day spent riding to sit in your
living room full of bikes, and watch cycling on TV
- you meet someone, start dating, and realize it will never work out because they
always take the bus
- your pockets are full of old waybills, bike tools, spare change and oh yeah, a
For many couriers, especially those which consider it as a life style, being a
bike messenger does not end at 16:00 with a moment when one is going home after
work. Many couriers also spend their spare time with work colleagues on activities
related to messengering and biking.
In this chapter I would like to introduce some such activities which fill a
courier’s life. These might be locally or internationally organized races, but also
parties and trips, creation of courier theme articles and web pages.
Races are one of the most essential activities in the messenger community (of
course right after the job). There are several types of them. A few international
championships, such as European Cycling Messengers Championships (ECMC),
Cycling Messengers World Championships (CMWC), or North America Cycle
Courier Championships (NACC) are held every year. ECMC date back to 1996;
CMWC this year were held for the 11th time. Their history at the messengers.org
website is described in such a way:
In 1992 Achim Beier, boss of messenger Berlin, and Stefan Klessman, Achim's
assistant, decided to organise a World Championships of Cycle Messengers. Achim
had been inspired by conversations with an ex-DC messenger who worked for him
called Michael 'Ozone' Odom, and a trip to New York during which he had hung out
in Washington Square Park with James 'the General' Moore and other New York
messengers. Their vision was of a gathering of the messenger tribes from all over
Europe and North America.
Stefan collected as many addresses and contacts for messengers as he could and sent
out invitations to all of them. Achim persuaded the municipal authorities to close
down a section of 17 Juni Strasse, Berlin's main East-West artery for the weekend,
and even to shut the Brandenburg Gate for an hour so that the final could travel
under it. And 500 messengers showed up, raced, drank beer, smoked and hung out.
The Cycle Messenger World Championships had been born.
At the end of the event, a lot of people were asking where the next CMWC
would be (actually at this point, the event was called Cycle Messenger
Championships). No one seemed to know. (…) [Finally, Achim, Stefan and the
London messengers decided to organize the event themselves, tobe held in London
This and following mottos are quotation from a long list of bikers features that might be find in many
Internet sources, and is pass on among bicycle couriers as a joke.
with the advice and support of Berlin]. Despite the lack of time, CMWC 94 took place.
500 messengers came to the Docks, raced, drank beer (not enough, but that's another
story), smoked and hung out. (http://www.messengers.org/ifbma/history.html)
From then on, it was certain that Championships were going to be held every
year, hopefully each time in a different place. The messengers themselves would
organize them, without the involvement of any sport company (apart from
sponsorship), organization or sport managing professionals. Messengers that work at
the events are volunteers.
Currently the International Federation of Bike Messengers Association
coordinates the organization of Championships, but only in a pre-organizing stadium.
It coordinates making a decision which city will host next Championships. All other
work is completely up to particular organizers. Once again to quote messengers:
The IFBMA came into existence officially at the open forum following CMWC
'98 in Washington, DC, after the idea initially was proposed and accepted at the first
open forum at CMWC '96 in SF. A longtime dream of several past organizers and
other messengers, it exists to help foster solidarity in the worldwide messenger
community, and to provide a non-bureaucratic decision-making body by which
CMWC host cities can be effectively and fairly selected. Its mission is to:
1. To ensure the successful realization of an annual Cycle Messenger World
2. To foster a spirit of cooperation and community amongst bicycle
3. To promote the use of pedal power for commercial purposes.
According to a IFBMA by-laws its function is not as a committee or
representative body of any kind, but a collection of those individuals and
organizations willing to take an active part in promoting the development of the
worldwide messenger community. Also No member of the IFBMA shall hold any
power other than that of a facilitator of information redistribution.
The process of choosing a hosting city of a CMWC starts 2 years ahead.
Submissions of draft proposals are to be send to IFBMA open forum two years in
advance of the CMWC being bid for. Together with a official announcement of a
proposal, potential host city should submit to the IFBMA a proposal fee of $100 at the
time of the announcement. The fee in case of not wining a right to organize the
championship will be refunded.
In the following year bidding cities are meant to prepare a more detailed
project for their event. As it is put on a IFBMA web pages: Basically, this is a year
for the potential host city to "put their money where their mouth is."
Then, at the CMWC open forum 1 year in advance of the CMWC being bid
for, cities present their final, full-blown proposals, budgets for the event, sponsorship
details, and all other steps they have taken towards holding the event are presented to
the assembled masses, and the final decision is based on their efforts and
accomplishments over the past year.(…)
Presentation of final CMWC proposals at the open forum should not turn into
debate at any time, and should be of the following nature: An agenda for the open
forum shall be finalized no less than 2 months prior to the event, so that it may be
mailed out in advance to IFBMA members, and made available to the worldwide
community to the best of the IFBMA's ability.
This is in order to provide members with the chance to think about the issues
therein prior to the open forum, and also to discuss them with other couriers, so that
opinions can be represented to their fullest. This will also allow for the submission of
requests for absentee "ballots" by IFBMA members unable to attend the CMWC in a
particular year. (http://www.messengers.org/ifbma/org.guide/bid.html).
Apart from deadline issues much freedom is left to potential organizers. The
choice of place, types of races and other events is up to them. There are no strict rules
about when and how to organize events. However this year a few calls for more strict
rules came out when some of the messengers found it difficult to organize their
championship travel schedule. The problem was raised from the messengers’ mailing
list, where some couriers voted for changing event dates, due to the proximity of the
dates of the ECMC and WCMC. Although the dates do not overlap, some have found
them still to close to make it possible to travel from Warsaw (where the European
championships are going to take place) to Edmonton (a host city of a world event).
The discussion mostly focusing who should change date and why, brought up also
some other interesting issues. Like, which event is the most important, and who
participate in them, and for what reasons. Many couriers have stated as Joe Hendry
did, that CMWC is the premier event. Organizers of the continentals have historically
WANTED TO CO-OPERATE with the World's not kill them. Therefore the World
Championships are the main and the most important event in a year.
However as other bikers put it, it does not necessarily reflect in messengers’
choice of which events to attend. For many the prime motives (or constraint) are
money and a distance. Is one is able to afford an oversea trip? Take frequent unpaid
leave from work? for more than just a weekend etc? In this case choices where to go
are often driven by the wallet size not a wish list. Like the case of Warsaw
messengers, who would like to go to more events abroad but simply can’t afford it.
Although Joe and few other messengers believe that the World
Championships have the biggest prestige and esteem over a continental events it is not
necessarily so in other messengers’ eyes. When I talked to Warsaw and Copenhagen
messengers about championships, they hardly ever valued annual events by the
measure of which one was more important - mostly they pointed to measures of how
much fun it was, the atmosphere, the amount of beer etc.
Both Championships attract many messengers; both have many activities and
attractions to offer. In both messengers participate from different places and
continents. Winning the race has comparable value in both games.
Talking about participants: their number varies. Usually about 600 people
register at the World Championships and about 500 at the European ones. It is the
unwritten rule that a race participant in a Championship must be a courier or en ex-
courier. Yet it happens that sometimes bikers that are not linked to messengers via
working links, but more social ones do race, any way. They simply register
themselves with their working messengers friends as a workers from their company.
A license or proof of employment in the messenger business is not required.
To come to such an event as a non-messenger is first of all fun and a social
experience, but also for those that decide not only to hang out with messengers but
also to race, there is competitive motivation. Since messengers are regarded as very
good bikers, it is about checking your own skills in comparison to the professionals. I
would say that for those not involved in a messengering, the biggest motivation to
participate in a race is that of a sporting nature; to compete, to challenge oneself.
However it is important to say that there are very few such non-couriers participating
in messengers’ events.
Of course, for couriers themselves this kind of motivation also plays a great
role. Additionally, or maybe rather parallel or, in many cases, first of all, the most
important is the social aspect to events. To meet people, hang out, drink beer, smoke
together - this is what features strongly in many messengers stories about
Messengers participate in races individually and as teams. A team might
consist of both women and men, with no restriction to a number of members, yet
usually there are no ore then 6 people in it. They do not have to represent one
company, usually they are just bunch of friends, coming from one city. Some teams
are fixed and represented by the same people every year, some of them are created
just for one event.
To name just few: Team Bega, Flash, Beamer, The Tour Devils, Berlin
Massive, Vélocité, Krick Cyclomessagerie, Queer Couriers International Team, and
many more. On a http://www.ecmc2003.org/ we can find such a short self description
of some of those teams:
Team Bega Washington DC - USA
Team Bega returns to the ecmc with defending champion Therese Bjorn who has
spent the past year organizing this years race in London.
Heather Tyner has given up the chance to defend her mayhem victory to be in London
after circumnavigating the globe for the past six months.
Larry Parks is the official nac3 artist hopes to again place as top North American or
barring that the top American slot.
Team Berlin Massive
Berlin Massive are represented by Uli, Gary, Bregan and Mo.
"We went to all cmwc's, i guess at least the first ten worlds..."
"This is for fun, community, partyin', and of course racin' too."
AIN GANG ZüRI – Zurich
"FIGGED OI ALL!!!!!!!!!"
De Gronne Bude – Copenhagen
We came first and finished last...
See you guys In Seattle!
Copenhagen has a tradition of sending company teams to the races. In the past,
it was often companies that were sponsoring or partly sponsoring a trip and the
registration fees for its employees. But messengers of that city also created their own
teams, like for example one formed by a woman messengers riding fixi bikes, namely
Fx5 (fffff), where letter f stands for feawed, funky, fixed, foxy fussies.
The Warsaw messengers, if participating in an international event, are
represented by Warsaw Car Killers team. However, their participation is by financial
constraints. Very few couriers can afford to go to international events. In 2004, when
the ECMC is coming to Warsaw, it is very likely that Warsaw couriers will create
some more and different teams.
The key event at the championships is a Main Race. Mainrace – Man and
machine versus a city grid you need to work on. (http://www.cmwc2002.dk/).
Generally speaking it is an individual race that tests messengers skills such as fast
cycling, collection speed, consolidation and delivery, ability to find the shortest way,
and navigate in a new surrounding. Since couriers are coming from all around the
world, and their knowledge of the host city’s topography vary, in order to even the
chances, the race will take place, not in a city with a traffic, but in a closed area, with
kind of imaginary city created in it. The goal is to credit all the checkpoints in the
shortest time. The details of a race’s rules differ each year, and are defined by the
event hosts. There are usually two qualifying heats and a big final. There are separate
categories for male, female and team. The champions will be the messengers who
have best used their heads in tandem with their legs! (http://www.ecmc2003.org/)
The other types of racing events are: Dispatch Race with teams using radios,
having a dispatcher and a certain time to deliver a certain number of tags; a Cargo
race for testing capability to haul; Rickshaw race; Sprint with not many obstacles but
testing speeding skills; Bunny hop where bike jumping is performed (high jump and
long jump), sometimes even a lake jumping (diving into a water with a bike, making
the most spectacular figure). There is also a Trial, which is one of the most
spectacular events. Finally, we get what we have always dreamed of. The best street
balancing artists from around the world will show off their skills on the roof of cars,
benches, u name it (http://www.cmwc2002.dk/).
Special categories are races for a fixed gear bikes. Year after year the fixed
competitions have become a bigger part of the CMWC. (…)[It is] a special venue,
where the fanatic fixies can excel in their impressive skills. They will be competing in
the art of skid, trackstand and backwards cycle that will lead to the crowning of the
Fixie King and Queen. Get ready for a punk rock evening!
The other event is newly introduced Messenger Polo. This is not ‘bourgie horsey’
polo. Nor is it the ‘US Bike Polo Assoc.’ version. Messenger polo is a pick-up game.
We play after work, after a few beers, on our work-bikes and on the pavement. (…)
Messenger polo has evolved over the years in Seattle as a competitive, grass roots
and growing sport. If you’re the type to get back on your bike even after a long week
on one, then you’ll understand. Teams range from 2-5 players. The ball might be
passed and dribble with any part of a bike or mallet, but no kicking! One is not
allowed to touch a foot to pavement, a penalty for that is disengaging play on the ball
and making a full 360 circle out before playing the ball again
In all races rules are cut to a minimum. Unlike other professional sports there
are no rule books referring to machines used, allowed tactics and actions. The main
rule is to keep the race as similar to real life city riding as possible. The referees are
chosen among messengers themselves.
All races and event winners are awarded prizes, usually within male and
female categories, but not always. Also some additional categories of prizes are
introduced: Best Dressed Messenger, Most Spirited Messenger, Dead Fucking Last,
Special Barman’s Award, Special Volunteer’s Award.
When I talked to people about the importance of winning an international race,
they admitted that it is a great dream of each messenger. Gives a lot of satisfaction
and a kind of nobility in a community. Those that were good enough to be awarded,
keep their prizes in a visible place in their homes. But even the winners always
underline, that, coming to the championships is not only to win and challenge oneself
but also just to participate in a community event, meet people and simply have fun.
On the other hand, victory often becomes the crucial thing. The most famous
case of such an attitude was shown by Copenhagen participants, who were
representing particular companies. The strong business competition among
Copenhagen companies was translated to the championship arena. Companies found
it extremely important to have in their team winners so that they could advertise
themselves as the quickest or the best messengers in Europe or the world. In those
companies offices the trophies are displayed in the most visible places.
To make sure that messengers representing their company would win, one of
the companies hired a coach to train some of the best messengers. Moreover they
even hired some professional cyclist racers to come to the event and perform as
messengers representing this company. This caused some tension between
Copenhagen messengers and couriers from other parts of the world. This company
representatives were coming in a great number (thanks to the good salaries, and
company part sponsorships they easily could afford participation in the most of the
events), and were very noticeable because of the company rules which states that they
have to perform in the company colors. Soon it became obvious to other messengers
that the reason for this team winning was not completely fair. Therefore they were
not the most popular people at the events, and were treated as winning machines,
focused on winning and not on having fun.
Copenhagen messengers themselves didn’t accept this situation. Although
they were keen on winning they didn’t want to gain it at any price and in such an
unfair way. Therefore they decided to make some changes and get rid of their poor
reputation. When the championships were brought to their own city, they made sure
that Copenhagen companies did not use dirty tricks any more and that only real
messengers participated in races.
Apart from the actual sporting events, the important part of the championships
is social life, and hanging out. The Copenhagen organizing committee was advertising
side events: Throughout the weekend we are going to X-pose you to a program of
boozing, bonding and biking. In the boozing department you better be prepared for
the traditional World Welcome Party, where beer will flow and sexy women will
admire your firm messenger body!!! (…) There will be speeches, DJs, bands and
maybe a cake with naked receptionists coming out of it? (…) During week 35 there
will be a wide variety of courier craziness going on. This includes Alleycats, Bike
Touring, Spoke’n’Word, and a great big Barbeque with Lake Jumping and Bike
Although side events vary from championships to championships there are
usually parties with DJs, concerts, often some exhibitions with a bike theme,
screenings of movies made by and/or about messengers etc. As it was said in a
previous chapter an important part of the annual event is exchange and selling of a
messengers items, like bags, t-shirts etc.
During the competition, messengers live at the hosting messengers’ houses or
at specially hired camp sites. The camping fee is usually included in a racing fee as
are meals, which are served at the camp site. Additional payments are cut to a
Most of the events take place in a one location; usually it is not actually a city
district. However, at such events, where so many messengers are gathered together,
the bikers find it a good opportunity to show the city their existence: to make their
The Critical Mass is one of the typical examples of such actions. Originally it
was a form of city bikers’ protest. It is done all over a world (see: http://www.critical-
mass.org/). The goal is to obtain more a bike-friendly policy and treatment in cities
and towns. The tool is a big demonstration and takes place usually on the last Friday
of a month. Bikers from all around a town ride together at the same time and place. It
usually leads to big traffic jams, since cyclists take over all the whole width of the
street and do not let vehicles pass.
This kind of a demonstration is also a compulsory element of messengers’
annual events. Often it is combined with a commemorative ride where sites at which
messengers have died are visited. The culmination of a critical mass demonstration
last summer at the London ECMC was a short break on Tower Bridge. All the
messengers stopped in the middle of the bridge taking over its complete width and
raised their bikes above their heads.
As one of the Copenhagen messengers told me: It was our moment! We
showed our power and a spirit, we make our voice clear: streets belong to us! It was a
magnificent view. But this moment of joy became somehow interrupted with a car
coming from behind. Its driver became so irritated with the fact that traffic had been
stopped by the messengers, that he decided to go through the crowd. But bikers were
not willing to let him pass. He ran over a few bikes on his way through. Some of a
bikers reacted by jumping on his car, smashing its windows and scratching the
paintwork. By the time the car left the bridge it had been virtually demolished.
But it was his stupidity to ride through a crowd. Couldn’t he wait as other
cars did? When he has a red light he doesn’t go just because he is in a hurry, so why
couldn’t he now wait those two minutes? He on purpose started to run over people
and bikes, it is understandable that people reacted in that way! Even police that were
standing at the end of the bridge didn’t come to help him, well they couldn’t anyway,
but later on, they didn’t admits their reason. It was his own fault. You just don’t mess
up with messengers! - Austin’s explanation to me later on.
The situation on the bridge, the fact that messengers have a will to make their
voice heard, shows that Championships are not just a sporting event or splendid
occasion to socialize. It is also a pretext to strengthen messengers’ social position and
improve their working conditions. To become visible in a wider public arena.
Consequently some of the events are especially designed and planned for a
wider audience. Of course spectators are not limited at events to the messenger
community and friends. Everybody is welcome. However, like in the case of London
On a Wheel and a Prayer exhibition, some events are prepared especially to provide
people not related to messengers matters with information and features about it.
All Championships have press releases. It is not only provided to satisfy
sponsors, who wants to attract the greatest publicity through having their logo
published under an article describing an event in a local paper. But also to inform
people about messengers activities and their life style. As one sponsor, a London
courier company, Citysprint, declared: 2003 ECMC, is such a special event, and the
best possible shop-window for the London on-demand courier industry. The riders
are the company, and if this event can improve the public's perception of bicycle
messengers then it will improve public perception of our business & also our brand
The organizers of the championships, like LBMA (London Bike Messengers
Association) are dedicated to improving the working terms and conditions of
London's Messengers and is using the Championships to both foster a stronger sense
of community amongst messengers, and improve the public image of messengers. Bill
Chidley, Chair of the LBMA, said
"Messengers are sometimes perceived as a cycling nuisance. We are keen to
promote greater respect for more vulnerable road users amongst our members and of
encouraging all messengers to abide by the Highway Code. Cycling is a vital part of
this city's transport solution and the messenger community, as its most visible
exponent, is determined to be a part of that!" (http://www.ecmc2003.org/).
Organizing a messenger tournament has also at least one more dimension. It
helps the messenger community to strengthen from within, to integrate more. Like in
the case of the Copenhagen championships which were an occasion for establishing a
Copenhagen Bike Messengers Association. Its main goals have become among
To maintain and strengthen the present social "frames" for bike messengers
and support new initiatives with the goal of closing social gaps between companies.
To enforce Copenhagen bike messengers conscience about international
community of bike messengers and there by create an interest in participation in
national and international CMC'
To take on the responsibility to tribute to the international messenger
community by exchanging experience across country borders.
To create public awareness about the bike messenger culture as an integrated
part of the urban infrastructure. (after Mo, quoted from a messengers mailing list).
When I talked to Copenhagen couriers about the Championships they have
organized, they all have underlined how well it influenced their community. That
working together, creating something so big, integrated them, and joined Copenhagen
messengers, with no differentiation for which company one worked for.
Also they benefitted as world messenger community members. It is repeated
in all couriers descriptions of championships: International tournaments allow the
exchange of ideas, comparison of local flavors of messengering. It is a celebration of
a unique community, of a couriers culture.
6.2 Local Races
But big annual International Championships are not the only competing events
in a year. There are also some races held at the same time but in many different
places. One of those is Global Gutz.
The idea of global gutz is to have an alley-cat race in lots of cities all over the
world, starting simultaneously, e.g. at noon in San Francisco, 3 p.m. in New York, 8
p.m. in London etc. and held over a given distance and a given amount of checkpoints
in an effort to try to make race conditions as equal as possible for everyone. This way
we can have a world wide competition without spending a lot of money for traveling
somewhere. Everyone will just be racing in their hometown knowing that in various
cities around the world there are messengers racing with or against them, and the
first male and female competitors of the two hemispheres to call global gutz
headquarters from the finish line will be the lucky winners.
Why is this idea so fresh? First of all, it doesn't take much of an effort to organize.
then, everybody gets to stay home and still race in an international competition, and
finally we all have the chance to be part of something greater than our daily strive
and maybe win a trip to the next cycle messenger world championships. (...)
One fact proved difficult in the first global gutz: we couldn't find a format to
allow for everybody to race at a decent time (i.e. either the Australians or the u.s.
west coast would have had to start early in the morning). this made us think that we
should have two "time zones" (hemispheres): east of the Mississippi (Chicago,
Toronto, NYC, London, Berlin, Copenhagen, Budapest, Helsinki....) and west of the
Mississippi (Denver, Dallas, SF, Vancouver, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Kagoshima
city, Tokyo...). (http://www.globalgutz.org/)
The other example of a one-time-many-places event might be a Halloween
alleycat. In a race like this there is no big prizes like in the case of the Global Gutz,
also there are no international rankings created. Nevertheless, it is a race that takes
place in many towns. Also since in many places this day is a national holiday, often it
becomes another occasion for a bigger party, or even visiting messengers in other
countries. It differs from the ordinary alleycat in that messengers should wear fancy
dress when participating.
Each local community organizes its own events as well. Those might be local
championships or smaller races called alleycats. The idea of an alleycat is to race in a
city with a full traffic. The aim is to go through checkpoints, deliver all tags, and do
all tasks as quickly as possible. Obeying traffic rules, like red lights and one-way
streets are ignored. The route is completely up to the racer; it is one of the tasks to
find the shortest and the quickest way to the next checkpoint, as well as to choose the
right order of delivering tags, and visiting checkpoints. The races are organized
illegally, without any city government permits.
The obligatory element of each alleycat, no matter where it takes place is a
spoke card. It is a card with the symbol of a particular race. Each alleycat has a
specially designed logo. On each card there is usually a racer’s starting number
(which has nothing to do with a starting order, or a number of participants; every
person is allowed to choose her own starting number as long it is not taken by
someone else). The spoke card is placed visibly in a wheel in between spokes.
With uncertainty Hiske explained to me: the idea of a spoke card originate
from the States where people collect sport cards. Finding one on a street is believed
to bring luck. So when couriers found one they placed it between spokes. Hence
Courier spokes cards are such “lucky cards” and are bit similar to the original ones:
they have a similar size and represent a special event. Many bikers never take them
out after the race and after a while their wheels became full of them.
In each place alleyacats are organized on different occasions and differ a bit in
In Warsaw the biggest alleycat race is organized at Warsaw Car Killers
Championships. It is known as the Polish annual championships race. On that
occasion there are not only messengers from Poland entering but also from other
places, like Germany, Denmark, USA. Like at international championships there is a
main race, however this time on an alleycats rules. Also there are some other
competitive events prepared (e.g. trackstand, skid, backward circle, uphill trial). In
addition, on the second day of a tournament a trip to Żyrardow (a town close to
Warsaw) is taken, where a track time trial takes place on a velodrome.
The tournament would be incomplete without side events. Hanging out like at
the international events is very important. Therefore on a day before, and when a main
race is held there are usually outdoor parties.
Another important side event has been a Critical Mass. However it is not
limited to messengers only, and is not organized only in the occasion of couriers’
events, but almost every month. It attracts hundreds of Warsaw cyclists. A large
number of participants at a demonstration are cyclists related to green and
One such demonstration, organized in a weekend of WCKC in 2002 ended up
with a police fight. According to the police it was illegal, therefore should be stopped.
Police came in force and with guns. For a long time the police were trying to stop the
demonstration by blocking its line with police cars. However such a blockade wasn’t
a big obstacle for bikers, who could easily could bypass cars and officers and continue
their ride. Finally the police decided to arrest a few people and to bring in
reinforcement. That caused a lot of tension. To make the story short the incident
ended up in bikers running away on the city streets, and police in their cars chasing
them. Several bikers where pushed off their bikes by policeman while riding and
some people were arrested.
Another Critical Mass was organized the day before the alleycat race in 2003.
While the Critical Mass was crossing a bridge over the river Wisla, the bridge was
blocked by police from both ends, and none of the participants was allowed to leave
the bridge before leaving their name with the police officers.
Both incidents were reported in the city papers, but mainly it was discussed
among bikers. The result was that since that time all Critical Masses are to be
organized after consultation with the police. Now each of them has official organizers
who are people linked to the ecological organizations (before there was no one
person, or organization admitting to organizing such an event). Police attend all
demonstrations. There are restrictions about which parts of streets might be taken over
by cyclists. The route, more and more often chosen is out of the City, and is selected
after consultation with the police.
But the other consequence of those events has been tension between police
and bike messengers. Since couriers, thanks to their special clothing, are the easiest to
spot in a crowd of bikers, and were present in large numbers at both demonstrations,
some people assumed them to be the core of that Critical Mass, and therefore as
representative of bikers undisciplined and anarchic behavior.
It is likely that both those factors are the reason for bike messengers
withdrawing from critical mass events. Some messengers have found the new way of
organizing Critical Mass as a too big a compromise with the police that has no
benefits for bikers. The logic of their argument stems from the response from city
hall, the local government: couriers complain that no local government officials came
to any of their demonstrations to listen to their arguments and requests. Cyclists are
always treated as lighthearted kids, with nothing important to say. Just a bunch of
anarchic kids wanting to have fun in a city . This attitude is contrasted with the
treatment of other demonstrators, like miners and nurses demanding better social and
The arguments about the street hierarchy should be examined: bikers always
have the lowest priority on the streets. In the public’s eyes they have no right to be on
the streets, no right to be on a side walk. Many of the Warsaw parks have restriction
about bike usage so the use of a bike it is only accepted when used for leisure
activities such as in a forest. Therefore the new way of organizing critical masses in
many bikers eyes simply justifies such treatment and the lowest position in the street
hierarchy. The fact that demonstrations are assisted by and controlled by the police,
and their participants are filmed by police officers, makes some people feel as if they
In some messengers’ eyes it is viewed as a contradiction of the original idea of
the critical mass demonstrations. The original freedom, and spontaneous character
have been taken over by planning and seriousness. But one of the biggest problems is
cooperation with police, who are viewed by many as violent oppressors after their
recent behaviour described above. As a result fewer and fewer messengers take part
in Critical Mass protests.
But let’s go back to the races. The other Warsaw alleyacts are organized on
many different occasions. It might be done on the anniversary of someone in the bike
messenger business or the anniversary of establishing an independent couriering
company, a birthday or any other excuse that an organizer wishes. Alleycats always
end up with a party at the pub or in a private messenger’s house.
There are usually no sponsors (apart from a WCKC, but even then only few).
All costs like copying and printings of flyers and prizes are covered by a registration
fee, which is usually the equivalent of $2-3. The prizes are usually somehow
connected to biking; it might be a bike part, some clothing item, or a poster, however
it might also be just a beer; whatever the organizer can afford and wishes to give.
However the prizes rarely carry a high value (apart from when they are a collectable
item), and hence cannot be treated as any incentive for winning. It often happens that
there is no prize giving ceremony.
However it does not mean that winning is not an important thing. I would
claim that many of the Warsaw couriers are extremely competitive although they
would never admit that in conversation. The pre race talk is usually of the type: I am
not competing this time, I am not going to win, I just want to have a ride for fun, I am
not going to speed up, etc. But when the race start is getting closer you can see those
people becoming more and more anxious, drinking energy drinks. When the race
starts fun is usually replaced by a serious attitude and concentration on winning. Most
of the couriers really try hard and do their best to finish among the leaders. Cheating
is not accepted among Warsaw couriers.
After the race, for the rest of the evening, bikers analyze and compare each
other’s routes and tactics; the problems they found on their way, and shortcuts which
earned them a good place.
Even though the race might lack a prize giving ceremony, the results must be
made known, and couriers demand to have them officially listed at www.wck.u3.pl
website. The idea of creating a year’s ranking table in order to find a year’s champion
was introduced. When asked about the fastest courier, Warsaw messengers can easily
name a few.
There is almost always only one winning category, namely the first person in a
race. Hardly ever is there a distinction between male and female categories, even if
there are a few women participating in a race. Some messengers see that as a failing.
Others are saying: It just has to be like that: the winner is a first courier; it is not
about a girl or a bloke. The whole idea of a race is to select the fastest, the best
messenger so it is not a gender thing: it is a professional matter. In a real work
nobody has a favor for girls just because they are girls. The tag must be delivered in
the same extra quick time no matter what is your gender. Client doesn’t care about
that. Therefore in a race, which is organized, to reflect in the best way the work
reality, the champion might be only one, with no distinction between men and women.
Even when the female category was introduced, the male winner was treated
as The Winner with the female category just presented as subset; an inferior one.
Copenhagen alleycats usually are not done on any special occasion. Just
whenever someone feels like having one… If someone is missing a couriers’ event,
and wants to have a party with messengers then he organizes one.
However the types of alleycats are various. There is, for example,
Monopolycat which is based on the popular board game Monopoly. The idea of that
particular race is to earn play money in an artificially created world within a city. So
the checkpoints are created where offices might be,where you can get paid for
delivering tags; or they might be chance places where you pick a destiny card with
some task or an incident on it (you might get a fine, be sent to jail, win money etc);
there is also a jail where as a penalty you have to drink tequila and many others.
Differing then from other alleycats, the directions where to go are random, and
as in a board game depend on dice. Therefore each person might, within a race, visit
different places from other competitors. The race takes place in a relatively small
area, and within a fixed time. The winner is a person who at the end of a game has the
most money, or as some messengers have put it: a person who has spent the most time
in jail drinking, this must be the most happy and satisfied one!
All other alleycats usually differ with a theme: for example a girls only event
Pussycat. At Graffiticat all checkpoints were at places with interesting graffiti. Other
themes might be anything the organizer wishes to have: like showing favorite places
in town, convenient shortcuts etc.
As far as I know, Copenhagen has no local championships. Only once so far
Copenhagen Alleycop was organised. It was set of a few alleycats held once a month.
The goal of that the Alleycop was to discover a Copenhagen champion.
As in other places, Copenhagen alleycats are illegal, nevertheless it is not an
obstacle in finding sponsors and prizes. However, messenger companies not wishing
to be associated with unlawful races, forbade messengers to race in company clothing.
In these races there have been several winners’ categories. Apart from first female and
male, there have been prizes for the slowest, funniest and a first rookie. There always
is a party afterwards.
All racing events, irrespective of where they are held, have some common
features. They play socializing role, they integrate the group, they allow for exchange
of ideas. But they also tell us something about couriers. They present couriers as
people that love fun and beer. But they also attract competitive and ambitious persons,
who love challenges. The championships, which they call a play is a very serious
play. Winning definitely is important. It results in gaining status in a community,
becoming respected and known. That is because among couriers characteristics that
are valued are strength, body power, being clever, and not being afraid of risk and
But races might also tell us something about local differences. For me one of
most visible is the treatment of women and position in a group. At international and
Copenhagen events we have both women and men categories. When we look at the
web pages, rankings often start with women categories. In Copenhagen some of the
most active organizers of alleycats, and parties are women. They are also close friends
with each other and hang out together. In each company you can find some girl
couriers. They are believed not only to be reliable and honest workers, but also
excellent bikers. In talks I had with them none of them complained about bad
treatment, or having hard times before being accepted by men in a company.
On the contrary in Warsaw women are invisible members of community.
There are always only few (sometimes just one) working on the streets. When I talked
to guys about messengering, women never feature in their stories. (Polish grammar
shows clearly whether subject of conversation is masculine or feminine.) In Warsaw it
is obvious, that when guys are talking about messengers, they talk about men, as if
there where no girls in that job. Some of them seem really not to realize that there are
girls doing the same job next to them. When I ask men about women couriers (unlike
in Copenhagen, in Warsaw men never raised the subject), often firstly they claim that
there are no women couriers in Warsaw. Later on they recollect: O yes there is
one…or maybe 2, or 3, well I am not sure? Although the Warsaw courier community
is relatively small, and most of the guys know each other, they have problems with
remembering girls doing this job. When in the course of writing this paper I came on
a short visit to Warsaw one guy told me that there were new girls couriering. So I
decided to investigate more. I asked some other guys but never received a confident
answer; the answer differed: some saying that yes, there were few, other that none,
other that one. Moreover, some were trying to questioning the right to call those
newly working girls as a real messengers explaining that girls were not working full
time, and were just doing some deliveries for their boyfriends.
When asked directly whether it was a good job for girls, the answer usually
was: Yes, but… in Warsaw I never received a confident agreement to this question
(unlike in Copenhagen). There was always a ‘but’ and some obstacle identified which
made this job harder or not that suitable for girls. The female character was mainly
blamed. The arguments that I heard among others were: that women are weak, they
are not as fast (as men are), that they are not as dedicated to bikes and do not know
how to repair them (so guys have to do it for them), that they have no guts or spirit to
ride on the streets (in the way guys do it, which is of course the best way), and finally
that they really prefer other, non physical, jobs. When we placed that in the context of
job image as hard, physical and demanding, then all qualities of women became even
more relevant in those men eyes.
However it is important to record that I have never received any negative
judgments or comments on my riding a bike or participating in races. I didn’t have to
fight for the right to race, or when I asked one guy if I could work for him, I did not
hear any comments referring to my gender.
At this point I have to admit with great regret that I have not talked to any girl
couriers, and therefore cannot properly present their point of view. I wish I had done
it, and I apologize to those women for not hearing their story and recording their voice
in this paper. Unfortunately, as I explained at the beginning of this essay, my
description of the Warsaw situation is not based on fully and properly planned
research. It is the result of some 2 years relationship with messengers, and observation
that I have made on that time. The relationship didn’t have any research origins, it
was a personal matter. Only later when I had left Warsaw the idea of writing an essay
on this subject came to my mind. By that time it was too late, and there was no further
chance to meet girls and talk to them. However the fact is, that during those 2 years I
did not come across any Warsawian courier girls.
But it doesn’t mean that girls are not present at couriers’ events. However they
hardly ever race (at the list of Main Race result from WCKC IV we can find only 4
women among 61 racers finishing the race, out of 71 registered). Girls usually work at
the checkpoints, or at the WCKC they register racers. These women are usually bike
messengers’ partners or friends. However they definitely do not play a role as
groupies, or simply fans. Although they cheer their friends and wish them luck, their
presence there has not much to do with involvement in a courier’s community.
Standing at the checkpoint is just a favor and help for friends. Women are mostly
audience, the main stars are the guys.
From my personal perspective, which I base on personal experiences and
feelings, I might say that joining Warsaw couriers on an equal condition with men in
that group is not an easy thing for a girl. Especially for a girl who has no back up in a
courier partner or a friend. Such a girl will not be treated badly, in the sense that she
will not hear any offending statements; she will just be not treated, or treated as
invisible. From my perspective, girls in the Warsaw messenger community are not
just invisible in a sense that they are not active, they do not exist in men couriers’
6.3 Spare and Leisure Time
Alleycats and races are not the only social entertainment that messengers
organize for themselves. In many places couriers have their favorite pubs and bars
where they hang out after a job. In Copenhagen on almost every Friday, after
finishing a job some messengers meet in a local pub for a beer or two. It is not a
special, ‘only for bikers pub’, but over a period of time Copenhagen messengers stick
to the one place and visit it together regularly. In other towns messengers, occupy one
pub for so long that it becomes typically theirs and famous for being a courier place,
to the extent of it having some decorations related to that job and lifestyle.
Apart from pubs another place where bike messengers choose to hang out, or
just meet would be…a bike shop. It can’t be any shop. Usually, it would belong to an
ex-bike messenger or someone who worked there was previously employed as a
courier. An example of such a place might be Copeland, small shop in Copenhagen
where you can get courier bags, biking items and clothing and music stuff. In Warsaw
Bikershop used to play such a role, but the moment it was bought by a new owner it
became just another regular shop. Now, there is no such a typical courier place in
Warsaw. Some time ago a few couriers were planning on opening their own pub, but
the project was never realized. Going together to the pub is not a frequent social
activity among couriers, usually such socializing is done only after alleycats. But it
doesn’t mean that Warsaw messengers do not socialize, and hang out together. The
reason for not visiting pubs might be that generally in Polish society it is still not
common entertainment. Many prefer to have private parties or just meetings at home.
In warmer seasons it is popular just to sit outside in a park or small squares, and drink
their beer there and relax.
Other spare time activity might be playing some outdoor games made up by
the couriers themselves with the bike playing an integral part. An example might be
Messenger Polo, described in detail in the previous section or Kamień (Stone) game,
invented by Warsaw couriers. The rules are similar to football with the arena having
two goals, and two teams trying to push a stone into a goal, the main difference is that
you are not allowed to touch the stone with anything but your bike. The biker is also
not allowed to touch the ground.
A holiday might also be a good reason for having more activities related to
couriering, or simply it might be spent with other messengers. Some admit that the
only holiday they have is the one when they go to the championships. For many it is
just one of few plans for spending a vacation.
For many couriers all vacations are spent on a bike or/and with other
colleagues from work. It might be for example a short trip to another city. Like in a
case of bunch of Warsaw couriers who spent one of the longer weekends in Berlin,
where apart from social goals (…) we managed to realize more basic purposes:
Tomek bought a new bag for work, Kuba special gear parts, Bedi custom soles for his
cycling shoes, Drążek favorite chewing gums. In addition we have seen the most
important tourists’ spots: a cycling racing track made of tropical wood, cinema
‘Babylon’, and an office of the courier company ’Messenger’.
(http://www.timebomb.blog.pl/) The other way of spending free time might be a
biking trip around the country, or a mountain riding.
The other part of couriers’ activities related to their work and passion might be
found in the Internet. There are a great number of web pages related to the couriering
and biking. The biggest source for information both for couriers themselves and other
people wanting to know something more about that occupation and group is the
messengers.org page. There you can find links to hundreds of other pages registered
in many parts of the world. Courier Web pages mostly promulgate information on
upcoming couriers events, they present and introduce individual messengers and their
companies; there is always a photo gallery. But they might also be dedicated only to
one theme like for example fixed gear bikes. There are a few email discussion groups
and forums. One of the most popular is ‘messengers' mailing list’ owned by the
International Federation of Bike Messenger Association. Subjects raised at this forum
vary from issues on championships and the organization of alleycat events, through
company and work organization, bike buying, repairing and constructing matters to
personal requests for favors.
All those events and activities, that I have described above, starting from
championships through local alleycats, hanging out together after work and spending
spare time on bikes with your work colleagues, give to all participants a feeling of
belonging, being a part of community. Bike messengers refer to themselves as a
‘community’ and I have also described them many times in that way. The
‘community’ that couriers have created primarily has a basis in friendship.
Friendships and personal relationships which are forged at events and strengthened
with the help of the Internet. The most frequently cited practical aspect is that, being a
courier, opens the doors of many other couriers houses all around the world:
Wherever I will go, as long there are bike messengers there, I will have a place to
stay, I will have some friends Hiske told me. And I had the same experience myself. It
was possible for me to stay at her place, just because I referred to my Warsaw
relationships with couriers.
Finally, considering all the organized events, and the fact that so many
couriers participate and are involved in them, allows us to identify that being a bike
messenger is not just a job, a way of earning money, but something more. For those
involved in all side events bike messengering is mostly and first of all about the life
style. It is a call, a way of life in which earning money seems to be pushed into second
It is a way of life in which very strong position have play. According to classic
Huizinga definition of play it is a free activity standing quite consciously outside
“ordinary” life as being “not serious” but at the same time absorbing the player
intensely and utterly (Huizinga 1949:13,28). The messengers’ play that is all their side
activities like races, games etc. very well fulfill this definition. Even their work
routine, if not a fact that it results in earning money could be define as a play (and
actually by many non-messengers and messengers themselves it is perceived in that
way). That is so, because as many couriers declare, it is accompanied by feelings of
tension and joy but also a consciousness that this job is “different” from “ordinary”
life, and “ordinary” work activities. According to Huizinga, this feeling of
extraordinariness is one of the constitutes of play. What more, Christopher Lash in his
description of narcissistic culture points out that among the activities through which
men seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of
escape. (...)They re-create the freedom, the remembered perfection of childhood
(1978:100). He also take notice that in today’s form of competition, game have lost its
original spirit and character: it has lost element of ritual, became profane. It happened
because games have been lifted out from their original context, and lost connection
with everyday reality: they became escape from it, not a part of it. In that sense, play
in form of games, sport became only entertainment, a spectacle.
This condition not fully refers to the couriers situation. As we could see,
although in their championships (but not in alleycats) obstacles are artificially created,
they are prepared in a form that would in the best way reflected and imitated
everyday obstacles, and problems of the courier’s work. Couriers’ tournaments are
directly related to the everyday life reality. Differently then other professional athletic
performances, they don’t breakdown with the conventions surrounding the game, with
the couriers work context. The championships are treated as culmination of whole
year work, alleycats are perceive as immanent part of couriers life. They are kind of
fest, a celebration.
But what makes couriers events similar to the modern games and play as a
whole is an issue of competition. Although winning is important matter, and brings
the winner benefits and respect among other couriers, loosing usually those not bring
any shame, any consequences. What more, couriers declare that participation – not
wining is important, prices for worse performers are prepared. Also bikers often
resign from racing in a middle of the race, or even don’t decide to race at all, some of
them admit that they do so because they are afraid to loose. According to Lash, such
fear of competition and trivialization of game (claiming that it is only for fun, nothing
serious) is symptomatic for narcissistic identity, which is afraid of defeat .
Finally when consider a role of play in couriers work and life, we have to take
notice, that play promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround
themselves with secrecy and to stress their defense from the common world (Huizinga
1949:13). As I have pointed out above, bicycle couriers share a feeling of creating
community. Although it might be difficult for them to define the basis for that
community it is meaningful that such a shared notion exists, that those people belong
to some wider group. The community is characterized by its not freely open nature as
we can see in subsequent chapters and as has already been indicated in the question of
the place of women in the community.
7.1 Clothes and Accessories
You might be a bike messenger if:
- You have more cycling jerseys than work shirts.
- Your cycling jersey IS your work shirt.
- The nicest pair of shoes you own have cleats in the soles.
- Weather forecasts can be broken down into 2 categories: good biking weather,
bad biking weather.
- You spend 2X the money on cycling wear that you do work clothes.
- You have no pants that go past your calves
- When you think of an old torn jersey from some defunct messenger company
as" an important piece of history"
In this chapter I would like to present some of the elements, which constitute
bike messengers’ style. Their dress, their use of accessories and objects that I believe
is specific to bike messengers. Although they are not very willing to admit that, their
dress and the way they look is very important to them. First of all that is because their
comfort depends on their clothing and, as outdoors workers they have to make sure
that the clothes they have chosen are suitable and will protect them against any
weather. But secondly they seem to play with fashion patterns; the number of articles,
the amount of time spent looking at clothing patterns on web sites, and a fact that
some of ex-messengers start they own bike clothing and accessory companies might
be proof thereof. Clothing then is not a just protection. For couriers it is something
more. What precisely? I will investigate that in this chapter.
Although the style I am referring to mostly concerns clothing patterns, it
would be incomplete to describe a bike messenger without referring to his bicycle.
Since the courier and his bike are inseparable companions I have included bike
description in this section as one of the most important features characterizing bike
When I was starting my first day of riding with messengers in Copenhagen
and I needed to get equipment, my biggest worries were about a bike. I knew that the
one I was using in Lund simple wouldn’t be good for 8 hours riding at full speed.
Luckily Copenhagen messengers offered to help. Soon I was promised a bike from
Austin. We went to his and Pia’s (an ex-messenger) flat, which was full of bike
equipment. We chose a bike for me (since Austin and Pia had a few hanging on the
walls) and then Austin added: ok, but now we also have to make you look like a
messenger. It meant that I needed to get special clothing.
Their closet was full of bike clothes. The choice was so wide that no biking
shop would have been ashamed to have such a collection. We easily managed to find
something in the right size and style - I received a black jacket, made especially for a
Copenhagen CMWC, gloves, big messenger bag, and a small belt bag for a u-lock.
Since I had black cutoff pants and knee-high black socks, I looked like one of the
Deadline team. Although they do not have an official dress-code it is accepted that
Deadline’s color is black.
When we where choosing clothes Austin underlined that I have to feel
comfortable in them. You not only have to look good, you are going to spend whole
day in it riding! Your clothes mustn’t bother you.
Anyone who is riding a bike more than 20 minutes per day knows how
important it is to wear proper clothes. It is about comfort, but also about your health
(it is about finding a balance between being too hot or too cold). If you are riding the
whole day, it becomes even more important to learn how to forecast weather. One has
to be prepared for 4 seasons in one day. The problem might seem to be trivial.
However, if you imagine being caught by a rain in a middle of a day, getting wet and
needing to spent rest of the day in the same clothes, without the possibility of getting
them dry then it becomes more serious. Therefore messengers spend a lot of money
on special clothes made of good quality fabrics which ensure their comfort. Of course
if you can’t afford buying waterproof socks for winter, which cost about 25 USD, you
might always use 2 pairs of ordinary socks and a plastic bag…
But the health issue is not only about avoiding getting the flu, (you can’t avoid
a cold, since it is a constant bikers’ “companion” while riding). It is also about taking
care of your knees. Pain in the knees is one of the many reasons for quitting a job
after about 3 years. They get “used” simply because of pedalling, but cold and wet
weather do not help. In countries with a colder climate rheumatism becomes an
But let’s go back to clothing.
Messengers in Copenhagen represent 3 different companies, and therefore
there are 3 different colors: yellow, green, and black. Yellow and green are colors of
companies that provide messengers their uniform clothing and no individual
variations are permitted. They all have to wear spandex in company colors, and a two
shoulder backpack. No exceptions! In contrast there is no official uniform in
Deadline. As Flip told me: I don’t care what you are wearing, it is not my business, as
long you don’t look like a jerk it is fine with me. However you will not find a person
wearing spandex in that firm. Most of the bikers are wearing dark, black and navy-
blue clothing. All of them have messenger bags.
Even before I asked messengers about clothing issues, they themselves started
to discuss the subject. Dress seemed to be the first differential feature in a description
of messenger companies. It was always a contest: spandex vs. baggies, (Deadline vs.
Budstikken & De Grøne Bude), bag v backpack. However it is not simply about
comfort, texture or cut, but clothing, as many messengers emphasised, represents a
freedom of choice, being yourself, having your own style. Many also adding that lycra
is kinky, and simply looks stupid. When talking about it many made references to sexy
lycra outfits. Baggie style has a simply practical dimension as one messenger put it:
Your clothes look normal, you might go anywhere in them. You might go out to a pub
right after a job. You don’t need to worry about going home and changing your
clothes or carrying them whole day in your bag. Of course if you don’t mind the
This point of view was common among the Deadline team. Other employees,
although they complained about a lack of freedom and the impossibility of having
their own personal style, they also spoke well of the fact that they did not have to pay
for their clothes (which was a great saving) and that honestly speaking those clothes
were very comfortable when riding.
On the contrary in Warsaw, only the big companies supply messengers with
clothing. Within independent firms, only bikers from Timebomb decided to design
and order special jackets with company logo on it and a personal symbol of the
messenger. Generally speaking, messengers wearing company clothes are in the
minority. But even they are given a lot of freedom about the look and the type of
outfit and there are no restrictions as to using a helmet or other items of dress.
Most messengers wear their own clothes. There is no uniform within the
independent companies. None of them has a special policy, and on the streets it is
difficult to recognize who works for which company. Also there is not such a strong
disagreement between spandex and baggies. The main rule is to wear what you like,
in what you feel comfortable and what you can afford.
However it does not mean that style plays no role. It is noticeable that those
most involved in the messenger community adopt a baggie style. Also black is
preferred, but not a rule. What is interesting is the fact that they designed special
jerseys and t-shirts which most couriers wear, irrespective of the company they work
for. It is black with green-red-yellow flames on the sleeves. The main feature is a
Warsaw Car Killers’ symbol. It represents a biker riding on a Warsaw street, who is
scratching a passing car with a sprocket. The shirt can be customized by adding the
messenger’s name or picture to it. ”Ostro”, a company that is owned by a Polish ex-
messenger from Toronto, makes those and other biking clothes in Poland. The
company name means sharp, but it also stands for fixed gear bikes.
Originally jackets with this logo were meant to be only for messengers,
however recently they have become available for every one. This caused some
discussion among Warsaw messengers. Some of them where unsatisfied that the
symbol that was supposed to be exclusively for messengers, was now is available for
every ordinary biker.
The other parts of messengers clothing style are accessories such as a bag or a
backpack, a helmet or hats, locks and some more small gadgets.
In Copenhagen the question of choice between bag and backpack or wearing a
helmet is dependent on which company you work for. As with clothing, backpacks
are obligatory in Budstikken and De Grøne Bude and are considered by the Deadline
team as uncool, and impractical: every time you need to take a package out you need
to take it off, open, find it, there are not many pockets in it, not every things fits in... it
is annoying to take it off and put it down every time you need something from it. With
a bag you don’t have this problem, and bags looks great, they are a real messengers
In Warsaw money is a major factor in making the choice since the cost of a
bag represents a major outlay. The messengers working in big companies are offered
company back packs after paying a deposit. Many of those who previously worked in
such firms and now work independently, kept and still use backpacks from the old
companies. Those that started in independent firms and had to pay for a bag anyway,
chose an option that that they find most suitable for themselves. They usually choose
a bag. Also many bikers, when they have saved some money, often decide to “invest”
in a bag. Their arguments are usually similar to those offered by the Deadline
messengers. A few decide to ride with a backpack, admitting that it is more
comfortable, especially in summer when you don’t sweat less with a backpack and
also that it is better for your back. It is interesting that a few girls who are riding as
part time messengers since this fall, are riding with ordinary backpacks, not caring
that much about getting a messenger style bag.
The other major accessory is a helmet. It is hardly ever the subject of a
discussion on safety issues. Most of the messengers, irrespective of the city or their
employer, see it as very uncool to use a helmet. So the only consideration is whether
the law or the company policy makes it obligatory or not. And if it is obligatory, then
the question is how to bypass this rule. This was raised as a topic for discussion was
on the messenger mailing list, just before the CMWC in Seattle. Bikers were
discussing the local law, which stated that helmets were obligatory. Most of the
opinions were for ignoring that rule, even under the risk of paying a fine. However,
some were showing an opposite attitude, for example Phil from U.S. declared: My
personal experience with helmets has been that I don't have to check my 'hairdo' for
coolness every five minutes (it's not that cool anyway), the rain stays mostly out of my
face due to my visor, and when I head-on into something I can get up and keep riding.
Plus, my clients respect my concern for safety and with my current helmet total (5) I
can change color schemes to match my bike of the day. Nevertheless such statements
Also in my talks with messengers only Beaver who works for De Grøne Bude
company said that even if he could choose he wouldn’t stop wearing helmet: it is
stupidity to work on a street and not to wear a helmet. The risk simply is too high!
Those that refuse to ride in a helmet when asked why? mostly reply with questions:
what for? why should I? They admit that it is a kind of gambling, but most often argue
that they believe in their biking skills, and experience. Their logic seems to be as
follows: I am a very good biker, I know how to avoid accidents, hence simply no
serious damage can happen to me. Only a few bikers will admit that their reason for
not wearing a helmet is really because of style and image. Few state that helmets are
uncomfortable or too hot in summer.
The other thing without which a messenger would be incomplete is a bike
lock. The main purpose for it is of course to prevent a bike being stolen. It has to be
strong, durable and safe. Messengers usually choose between two types: a very strong
chain with a special lock or a u-lock. The first is transported by a biker like a belt, the
latter is placed on the side of a bag, or on the couriers belt. They are always easy to
reach, often just to quickly lock a bike but to be used when there is an argument with
car drivers which might end up with a fight or damage e.g. a car mirror.
Other gadgets might be less practical but always they have something to do
with biking or a particular messengers company. For example some bikers wear
bracelets or trinkets made from a bike chain or other small bike parts. For those not
wearing a helmet, small cycling hats are very popular. All of these accessories are
available in special bike shops or are self-made. However the most valued things are
those obtained at the bike messengers events, especially on those with international
On such occasions many messengers exchange or sell t-shirts, balloons, bags,
hats etc. with company logos, or event images on them. Messengers seem to vie with
each other as to who has a better collection of clothes and accessories. The more
exotic and rare an item is the better. The most valued items are those not produced
any longer, are difficult to get or have a historic meaning. An example might be a
yellow t-shirt with an Express Bikers logo on it. This was produced when this
company was the first Warsaw Courier Company employing bike messengers. Only
those few who worked in that company at the very beginning had one, but at that time
the messenger community, messenger lifestyle, events etc were not that important. It
was just another occupation, hence no one paid much attention to clothing and style
and would not expect that this first Warsaw messengers t-shirt would become such a
collection item, so now there are only a few left. I remember when on one occasion I
went to a race in it I was several times jealously asked where I had it from and
whether I would like to sell it.
The other valued items are of foreign origin. The same jacket with, for
example, a Berlin company name on it, might be not worth much for a biker from
Berlin since one doesn’t want to advertise a rival company while riding. But for
example for a person from Warsaw it would have a greater value. In such a case it
becomes something not replicable in Warsaw and loses its identity as an advert.
Many people also make their own jackets, t-shirts, bags etc. Such ones are
very popular when messengers come to the biggest events like ECMC, or WMWC
they create their own team jackets or t-shirts. Or for example like in case of a Polish
independent company Timebomb, which messengers created as a co-operative, and
put on a jacket their own company logo and its phone number, and also added to it
their own symbols (a Luckylook, or a dog from a comics saying: fucking Babylon).
In both Warsaw and Copenhagen, and also in the other courier cities, one can
generally say that a courier style is a baggy style, which will oust spandex clothing
whenever it is possible. Hiske sees the origins of that style in Copenhagen in such
terms: when in Copenhagen all companies were wearing spandex nobody was about
to think about it and contest it. We all where wearing spandex and that was ok. But
once we had gone to the CMWC, and saw all those people from different places
looking so differently from us, we thought that it is cool, and start to think about our
own outfit. Before that no one would question spandex because didn’t know that there
is another option, that it is possible to keep your individual style and wearing more
normal, but still comfortable clothes while doing this job. So we took this style after
other messengers, it was like inspiration for us.
I think that this statement applies equally to the Poland, where, in the
beginning spandex was the ruling style. Time and the expansion of the community has
changed the fashion. The reason for the change of style was on the one hand
influences from other cities and countries, but also the fact that many messengers has
started to work independently and simply couldn’t afford getting expensive spandex
clothing, so started to combine ordinary clothes with spandex items they had and
wanted to wear.
You might be a bike messenger if:
- Your spouse says "If you buy another bike I'm going to leave you" and you
think "I guess I'm going to miss him/her."
- Your bike is worth more than your car and the 2 tires on your bike cost you
more than the 4 tires on your car.
- When walking past a bike stack, you can tell who's inside without looking in
- You dream of winning the lottery and the first thing you think of is how
many/which bikes can I buy?
- You crash...and insist on getting to the bike shop to have your bike checked out
BEFORE going to the hospital.
But having said all of that we have not yet covered the most important element
of a messenger’s style, an element that defines the profession, the style, namely, the
One could claim, that a bike is just a working tool. That is of course the truth,
however such a definition for many bike messengers simply is not enough. The place
that bikes occupy in messengers lives is definitely not minor. Most messengers have
more then just one bike, or at least more then one frame.
When you enter some of the messengers’ apartments you might easily get a
feeling that you are not in private flat but in a bike shop. Bike parts from the smallest
sprockets to wheels and frames take up a lot of space.
When one wants to have a fruitful conversation with messenger, to make sure
that one has a common subject with them, it is advisable to learn as much about bike
construction as possible. Not knowing what SPD, support, cassette, derailleur,
crankset etc. are means you might not find in common language with messengers.
When you enter a new group, or you are waiting for the next pick up or you are at a
party most of the couriers’ conversations, are about bikes. In particular what
improvements and changes they have made to their bike, where some parts might be
found, in which bike shop, what kind of a frame (spokes, hubs, supports, forks, brands
etc.) is the best and why. On the subject of bikes, couriers never run out of material.
That is also because they constantly change something in their machines, and
therefore always seek advice. Bike repairs and improvements seems like a never
ending story. If they finally get the wheels that they had dreamed about, then
suddenly the handlebars with all the controls seem to be not good enough and require
replacing. The variation and number of changes seems to be unlimited, starting with
the size, the angle, weight, material, finishing with the color; everything might be
changed. Only money limits the courier from more improvements. But this is also not
an insurmountable obstacle: most of the bike shops have discounts for couriers and
some messengers are constantly in debt at some bike shops.
I doubt that there is something like the perfect bicycle, where eventually
possessing it the courier wouldn’t like to change one single thing in it. A bike always
can be improved. What features then are the most important in a bike according to
couriers? Well, first of all it has to be fast, reliable, light, easy to maintain and
difficult and unattractive to steal. Many messengers make their very expensive bikes
look old and unattractive to ignorant thieves. It may sound like a contradiction to the
last statement but, last but not least it has to be beautiful, unique and an object of
jealousy of other bikers. It has to be special, unconventional.
A good example of such a bicycle is a fixed gear bike. It is described by a
courier: Track bikes are light, fast, and extremely responsive. They have no brakes,
and don't coast. They have only one gear, a direct-drive fixed-gear. They were
designed for the enclosed space of the velodrome, where they create an exciting,
beautiful, and fairly safe sport. (…) Many bike messengers go for the no-hassle low
maintenance of bikes with no brakes, no cables, no shifters, and only one gear. (…)
They came to love the elegance, simplicity, the connected feel of riding a track bike on
the street. And once they rode track, they never went back. (…) Enough of these
various elements are coming together that there's a small subculture forming. It's got
its own fund of knowledge about bikes, street survival moves, bike-handling
techniques, riders, frames, components, vendors and shops
Fixi as they are called in English or ostre koło (sharp wheel) in Polish, or just
ostre, became the most fashionable bikes within the messenger community in the last
few years. As one Warsaw courier told me they became elite within an elite. The big
debate is on whether they are safe to ride in a city or do they only add status to the
bikers that use them. Using a bike with no brakes means that one has to be an
excellent biker, but also a bit crazy any courageous. Riding a fixi is the great symbolic
proof that a biker is the best and a real hardcore biker. As we can see later it is
compatible and is homological with a messenger lifestyle and image presented as
hardcore and adrenaline loving.
Biking items are not restricted to the bike and job area. A bikers flat might be
easily recognized, not only by the number of bike parts gathered there, but also by
decorations referring to biking and messengering. Often on walls you can find posters
advertising championships and alleycats, portraying famous cyclists. Decorations
made of bike parts are not unusual. In picture frames you can spot pictures of an
inhabitant and his friend riding their bikes (hardly ever there is a picture of person
without a bike).
We can see that for couriers a bicycle is not just a means of transportation, or a
toy. It becomes an overrated object a fetish object. The bicycle is treated like an
extension of the couriers body. For example, one of my courier friends rode into a car
and I heard that the incident was quite serious. A few days later I asked him how he
was feeling, did his head hurt? No, It is ok, he replied. –What about rest of your body?
–My frame got bent in 4 places! We ended this discussion complimenting him on his
new bike. Finally he got an excuse to spend money on a new bike!
The bicycle represents the couriers’ personality and character: show me your
bicycle and I will tell you who you are, seems to rule bikers attitude to themselves and
others. A biker is always represented by his bike. At the Destroyed.de web page the
bike comes before the picture of the owner.
But how can we characterize messenger style? What is it like? Is it
meaningful? Well, one could argue that what bicycle messengers are presenting is just
work clothing. That of course might be correct: clothes are picked in such way to
assure a comfortable ride (work) through the whole day. However it might be not be a
correct assumption when we notice that many messengers are using this style not just
at work but also in their spare time. As Beaver said: the way they dress is very
characteristic, even after work, when you meet those people on a streets or in pubs
you can tell that they are bike messengers. It’s about a bike, clothes, bags, everything:
It is about a special style that they have! The way bike messengers dress is so
distinguishing and differs that much from other bikers and non-bikers outfits that I
would claim that it has become a recognizable style linked to the particular group –
bicycle messengers. A style that is recognizable both among messengers themselves
and people that are not involved in messengers’ work and activities.
Also what couriers present in their clothing is not just a sporting biking outfit.
Many messengers want us to acknowledge that messengers’ style is a baggy style,
then we can easily notice that it is different from all other biking outfits. Certainly
different from a city bike style, that is just people riding in an ordinary clothes in
towns and cities, using the bike as a means of transport from one place to another. It
also differs from a professional cycling style. Even those messengers riding in
spandex can’t be mistaken with a professional cyclist because they usually wear one
piece of clothing in one color, as against multi colored clothing filled with sponsor
logos. The greatest similarities with other biking groups are with downhill riders.
Some of them, like messengers, prefer more loose fit clothes and pants cut in the
middle of the calf. However, messengers do not use protectors, therefore their clothes
do not have to be adjusted to them. Downhill riders place more emphasis on brand
labels and hardly ever ride in clothes which weren’t designed specifically for bikers.
although bike messengers find those things also important, also they often choose just
ordinary clothes to ride in.
I would claim that messengers’ style is kind of a compilation of a sport style
and a non-main stream fashion style. As non-main stream I mean a style that is very
close to the Punk style. Because of comfort and health issues they choose to wear
clothes especially designed for bikers. However, distinct from racing professional
cyclists, they usually prefer clothing with no visible brand name on it and mostly in
dark colors. Each messenger and dependent on his own preferences, compile those
with ordinary clothes. So as a final product we have a style, which allows a
comfortable ride on a bike without constraining co-existence with people in ordinary
clothes. However, a person using this style even without a bike will be recognizable
as a messenger, and will differ both from sporting cyclists and from everyday clothing
styles and fashions.
The messengers’ style is neither a sportsman style, nor an ordinary way of
dressing. It is constructed on bricolage rules. The bricolage concept later known as a
‘science of the concrete’ was been introduced in The Savage Mind by Levi-Strauss.
He used the French concept of bricoleur, to demonstrate way in which societies
combine different symbols and cultural elements in order to come up with recurring
structures. Now it becomes a widely used term for description of various processes of
Dick Hebdige claims that bricolage is a main organizing rule of a subculture
style. Quoting John Clark he points out that in subculture style significant objects are
relocated within or taken out of their original discourse and placed in a new position
or a new ensemble. Used forms are adapted, subverted and extended by the
subcultural bricoleur, and a new discourse, with a new message is conveyed.
I believe that this way of organizing style also refers to the bicycle messengers
style. As examples of such practice we can point out, not only the combination of two
different fashion styles, but also e.g. conversion of bicycle parts into decoration or
jewelry use. Also on a more ideological level we can recall understanding of the
bicycle’s significance. Originally a means of transport, a sport tool, it is turned by
couriers into a symbol of freedom, group solidarity and integrity. Or especially where
the bike is a marginalized means of city transport or is viewed as the attribute of the
poor, it becomes transferred into a symbol of resistance against social order.
The other characteristic of messengers’ style is that it is highly consumptious.
Even if some types of consumption are denied in messenger ideology and they even
try to run away from the so called consumerist life style, it is impossible to deny that
it is with the use of commodities (bike, clothes) that bicycle messengers distinguish
themselves from more orthodox cultural formations. Couriers express themselves
Finally we can look at this style as a dress code equipped with meanings. For
example the baggy style in my opinion might be understood as a freedom statement,
especially when we place it in the context in which it emerged. In Copenhagen for
example the baggy style is not just another option for dressing for bikers. It is an
alternative option, a style that stands in opposition to spandex, where spandex is
understood to be a representation of a big company which makes people wear it even
if they do not like it. A company, which in the opinion of many messengers, is just a
money factory with trapped bikers working for it: with bikers that are believed to be
deprived of their individuality and freedom. Therefore Baggy style might be
understood (especially in Copenhagen messengers’ case, but not only) as a
demonstration of individualism and freedom of choice. The baggy style becomes then
a form of refusal and challenge to the accepted and promoted order of dressing codes:
if you are a professional cyclist then you have to dress as professional sportsmen
(women), you also need to obey the company dress code. The baggie style is a
challenge to that presumption.
This understanding of clothing as a carrying symbolic meaning which, in a
highly competition environment between messenger companies, leads to a high
division of the messenger community in Copenhagen. The fact that all companies
have their own distinct clothing style, with company colors and symbols making it
obvious who is working for whom. Therefore messengers seem to be divided by their
place of work. Although messengers claim that they are all a community, regardless
the company for which they are working, sometimes it seems not so certain. For
example, when messengers are waiting at the Gammel Torv for a next pickups they
hardly ever sit all together, rather they are grouped by which company they work for:
yellow, green, black – all separately. Of course this is not a rule, it is not strict but it is
noticeable that such a division happens. Also when they talk about messengering they
always like to underline differences in companies, the color is always a differential
feature (Green do it like this… In yellows it is like that…etc). The other proof of this
company division (tension) in the Copenhagen messengers community might be a
situation that happened to me while I was doing my research.
One day when I was tailing Beaver, a biker from a Green company, we
stopped at one square to wait for a next pickup. When we arrived there, some other
messengers also from a Green company were already waiting there. When they saw
us they started to laugh at us. I had no idea what was it about, what was so funny
about Beaver and me riding together? It couldn’t be the fact that one messenger was
tailing another because it happens when a new person is starting a job. What was it
then? So I asked those guys what was so funny about us, but they didn’t want to tell
me. When we left the square Beaver helped me to solve my problem: they were
laughing because you are dressed as if you were working for Deadline. You are
wearing all black clothes! So it is rather unusual to see Black and Green guys riding
together, not mentioning the fact that it is you wearing black, tailing a Green person!
It is just unreal, and therefore funny. Even more funny when we realize that many
bikers from Deadline, being so proud of their company, often talk with some
contempt for De Grøne Bude messengers. Some of The Deadline bikers regard
themselves as better and more real messengers then those from De Grøne Bude.
Hence, they would never allow themselves such a dishonor as tailing Green
The situation in Poland is a bit different. As I said the clothing policy in a big
companies isn’t very strict. Bikers do receive some clothing in company colors but are
allowed to compile it with their own clothes. The independent messengers have full
freedom of choice what to wear, with only one company (which consists of two
messengers) having jackets with the company logo on it. Consequently, all couriers
are more or less representing a “free messengers clothing style”. Many of them
independently have Warsaw Car Killers jackets.
Therefore in Warsaw I would claim that clothing style is something that joins
people together, rather than divides them. Of course my claim is not that because of
the same clothing style people are becoming closer and create a community, but that
this feature allows them to feel as a group and distinguishes them from other bike
users in Warsaw. I believe that the community feeling could be possible also because
of a fact that, apart from the big companies, competition between firms is not intense.
Independent companies avoid competing; they prefer cooperating with each other
with individual messengers helping one another.
8. SELF IMAGE and SELF PRESENTATION
Danger pay and recuperation are absent in a world fraught with hazard and
dominated by a search for freedom. Eventually, the accumulation of road rage
and winter days push each character to a point which breaks them and makes
8.1 Symbols, slogans, pictures
When we have a closer look at the bike messengers life-styles we might easily
recognize that it also consists of strong ideological and philosophical elements. We
can learn that through a few sources. Those might be texts, and slogans but also
pictures, symbols, flyers or spoke cards produced by couriers.
From the investigation of those we might capture two general images of bike
messengers: first representing them as strong men, street warriors; second they
introduce and portray themselves as a relaxed and careless people, People above it all.
The first image type might be represented by such pictures like a courier in
motion, on his daily routines on the streets. But what is important in such a picture is
that it usually shows only one messenger, riding alone on the street with no other
bikers around, but instead surrounded by cars, buses and lorries. The message seems
to be obvious: it is a contrast of human power against machines, a lone rider against
crowd of dangerous machines. Only men in very good physical condition can stand
such working conditions. As couriers underline it: one has to be fit and in perfect
condition to do that job. A body is a source of your power and strength. On your body
depends the efficacy of carrying out your job. Only a strong man with guts, and tough
nerves would have the courage to enter such a situation to pick up such challenge.
But don’t worry our bike warrior will get out of this risky and dangerous
situation not only as a survivor, but also as a winner. That is because as we can learn
from other pictures, in which he is portrayed mostly through representation of his
scars and tattoos, he is a strong and brave man. Bike messengers, as Bedi once told
me, are the most hardcore people out there on the streets. Portrayed in face masks
(originally protecting them from fumes) and dark glasses as people trying to hide their
faces, their personalities (like criminals?), are definitely not a kind of people that
would easily give up and let others push them around. From some images we can get
the impression that couriers are kind of street bandits. The good example of such
symbol might be Ain Gang sign (see Apendix).
Together with such names of couriers teams, and titles of messengers’ web
pages like: Asphalt Heroes, Brakes Are For Pussies, Cycle Messengers for World
Domination, Warsaw Car Killers, the Critical Mass film and many others, they show
couriers as strong, hard men. Men that want to dominate, and mark out new patterns,
men that identify themselves as street elites, and superiors. Rules don’t apply to them,
they are above them but also against them.
But at the same time we might find pictures and texts that represent a
completely different image of a messenger. A messenger lying in the sun, smoking
marijuana, relaxing. Courier careless and happy. Courier who is free of any
restrictions, who does what he wants. In such pictures the courier is more often
presented, not as lonely person, but in company of other couriers.
What those two images have in common is that they will always present a
courier with a bike. Those two are inseparable. One is more likely to find a picture of
a bike alone, without an owner, than to have a portrait of a courier without a bike.
Also both images will show the courier in his natural environment: a city (or even a
velodrome). The courier is most often presented as a lone, autonomous person. If
couriers are presented in a group, there are no other people in those pictures other than
bike messengers. Just as if the rest of society, those non-bikers, non-couriers did not
Both images are present in all couriers’ communities. The creation of both
types depends on the personal attitudes and character of the courier. Those might be
very different of course. However, while doing my fieldwork, I found out that some
characteristics are stronger in different environments and contexts. Although it is not
a rule, in Copenhagen, for example the second image type is more likely to be meet.
While in Warsaw the first style is prevalent.
Such a difference also is noticeable in stories told by couriers (see next
section): stories on the risk and danger that messengers face on the streets are not so
likely to be heard in Copenhagen. The fact that this city has a very good cycling
infrastructure minimizes difficult and dangerous situations. Since cyclists for most of
the time are separated from cars and cyclist rights are, generally speaking, respected,
there is no subject matter for a ‘story’. The situation of discrimination and violence is
limited to occasional incidents and does not play such a strong part in couriers’
The local context influences bikers’ stories and style, as Copenhagen couriers
have put it: every city is mirrored by the style of its messengers. From the hardcore
New Yorker to the high-tech Tokyo neon biker. From very relaxed Amsterdam to nice
and polished Copenhagen. It is easy to spot the city that offers its messengers better
conditions. (http://www.cmwc2002.dk/pdf/esponsor.pdf). Inter-local-community
exchange is of course visible and couriers all around the world share some notions
and ideas, but we can’t deny that local context and reality also plays a strong part and
adds to each community different perspectives and value.
An excellent source for defining couriers ideology and life philosophies are
stories told by messengers. Road lore is one of the things that makes this job mean
something; when you were a rookie and heard how Andy stormed onto the bus that
cut him off and put the driver in the hospital, you couldn't help but ride a little taller.
Messengers have a rich verbal history and oral tradition.
(http://www.angelfire.com/ct/cmwd/horror.html) Every day brings a new story, they
are spread at the waiting points, at the bases, at the parties and other events. They are
written down and published in zines (magazines) and on the internet. These are stories
about street life, about encounters that bikers have, about things that happened to
them while working and after work when they are on their bikes. They tell about
struggles and obstacles of the courier life but also about the pleasure and satisfaction
In this chapter I want to investigate those stories, from the perspective of
creating self through the practice of storytelling. As Michael Jackson and many others
has pointed out storytelling is a social event. Through stories people place their
existence in a wider context. Storytelling is a strategy for transforming private into
public meanings (...) strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of
disempowering circumstances. (Jackson 2002:15).
For the purpose of this essay I have divided themes that are mostly to be found
in couriers stories into two subjects. The first consists of stories describing
messengers’ basic duties, which are delivering tags, working for others, being a part
of bigger economy and market system. The second consists of stories describing
obstacles that couriers have come across in their daily routines: their antagonists,
accidents they have. Of course the best and most stories consists of both elements, and
in story telling they are usually mixed together.
The example for the first group might be story that my brother told me.
Some time ago, one bloke burned the tag (he didn’t deliver it on time). The
drama was, that the package was to be delivered at the Central Station on a
particular train, and it couldn’t go on the next one. It had to go on that train and that
was it. And this guy, he didn’t make it. He came too late, when the train had already
left. So I took the package from him and I raced to the Western Station, so that there I
could catch up with the train. And you know what? I made it!
The story represents two important features: one about the importance and
character of the messenger job, the other about emotions that are hidden behind it. As
many couriers describe their work it is mostly a struggle with time. What they hear
from the receptionists when picking up a tag usually is: please hurry! It is very
important, it has to be delivered within 10 minutes, etc. So couriers are trying hard to
make their service the best, they are constantly in a hurry, trying to deliver packages
on time. In their stories time, or rather the lack of it, is a constant and repeating
element. The biker is the one who has to surmount this obstacle, even if it means
racing a train! Many stories concentrate on speed: what one has achieved, the
excellent time in which one made a particular distance (A typical question when one
is trying to get a courier job is: how long it will take you to get from one place to
another). The faster the better.
But excellent time might not only be result of great speed, which is an
outcome of excellent body condition, strength, power and fitness. It is also a result of
good navigating skills and ability to find shortcuts. Many couriers underline that the
courier not only has to have it in the legs but also in the head.
It is also a result of passion for adrenaline and risk taking. I remember when I
was in Warsaw, discussing women’s place in that job and my personal skills, I was
asked Can you, riding at full speed, fit in between two buses driving parallel and get
in front of them? This kind of manoeuvre is one of the most respected and adored by
bikers. Tailing buses, avoiding traffic jams, fitting in the narrowest spaces between
cars, never slowing down, always being ahead and never stopping, even if there is a
This feeling of adrenaline and risk is one of the essential constituents of
couriers’ experiences. This is what makes their ride different from other bike users.
This is what gives couriers the best feeling of satisfaction and brings joy to their job.
Service for the client and being a part of the greater market system is also an
important feature in bikers self image on couriering.
Fulfilling a duty, delivering a tag, no matter what, is the first rule of couriers’
ethic. Like in a the story quoted above. Any adventure, which is told in order to prove
bikers great skills has to end up with a successful delivery. The more obstacles one
successfully avoids or overcomes in the course of a delivery the better the story and
the better biker’s image. Such obstacles might be, for example bad, windy and rainy
weather, the fact that it was end of the day and a courier could be tired after many
kilometers done during a day. But all those circumstances must be presented just as
background, as a factor that underlines a courier’s commitment towards a job, his
passion for it and his perseverance, but never as a great obstacle that can’t be
overcome and which would stop him from completing his task.
Some couriers believe that: Whether it's San Fran, DC, London, New
York...Without us there would be no function in any city... Without us there wouldn't
be this El Dorado style shirt riding around like a maniac, hanging on to cabs crossing
all borders, jumping over tracks and delivering packages on time. We make lawyers
make money. Everyone makes money off of us. And if we were to stop in one city there
would be no more business. (DC Steve@CMWC 95
It is hard for me to say how much of it might really be true. Other research to
check that hypothesis would need to be done. However for me, the pure fact that some
couriers believe themselves to be such an important part of a wider system is
significant. They find their job as an important service, a mission. Therefore in their
eyes, rather than in the eyes of many from the white-collar sector, it is a real and
To sum up. In stories of the daily couriers’ responsibilities we can find a self
image of bike messengers presented as a strong, fast and persevering man, not scared
to take a risk, in favor of adrenaline; reliable and committed, prepared for
inconvenience and ready for self-sacrifice. An important, yet undervalued worker,
who is has a vital job in keeping a whole market system working.
But as I said this kind of story apart from demonstrating features of self-
image, also shows something else. Namely we can see what kind of emotions drives
couriers while working. For some of you this story might not be exciting at all, you
might not find anything special about this. Let me give you a hint how to get a
couriers point. Try to read the story as if you where reading a sport report from your
favorite event. Try to imagine that delivering a tag is like finals in a hurdles race.
Delivering a tag on time means getting a gold medal.
I believe that the emotions that many couriers have, on many occasions (but of
course not all) are similar to those shared by sportsmen and sportswomen competing
for a gold medal. It is a competition against time, but also against other people -
couriers- when one is breaking a record delivery time from one place to another, and
when later on one can boast about it to friends. It is about testing and checking
oneself; one’s skills and abilities. It is about constant work on a body, its training and
The second group of couriers’ stories refers to the obstacles encountered in the
course of work. They mostly focus on bad situations that happen while working.
Those will be themes that I would title as courier versus world. Sometimes, from
some couriers’ stories one can get a feeling that whole world is against them. And that
their job is the most miserable one.
As they say, all their efforts and services are for the city and business, in
thanks, messengers are vilified, demonized and spat on by city government and
citizens alike (…). They have to deal with liars and cheats on a daily basis is taxing,
to say the least. Dealing with an entire urban race - secretaries, mailroom
attendants, dispatchers, doormen, pedestrians, cops, cabbies, motorists - whot seem
to hate your existence can be soul-destroying. For the messenger, it’s a matter of a
hundred subtle slights every day. He’s harassed by building security because they
think he’s a thief. A stink of old garbage runs through an office, and the secretary
chimes in, “Even the messenger smells it, can you believe it?” (C. Ketcham 2000)
Lets go more into details. The first obstacle that is identified in stories are
stupid street rules, which are perceived as written in a way that favors cars, and
makes biking difficult and dangerous. This is of course mostly in the case of such
cities like Warsaw, but even in Copenhagen some messengers complain about some
cycling routes, construction work and some inconvenient rules. They might be a
reason for some couriers’ failure or accident. One of the options to fight this lack of
good laws is by... ignoring those rules, and not obeying the laws. That might end up in
a police confrontation. In Warsaw especially after the aforementioned Critical Masses
incidents, bike messengers and police have not been on the best terms. Usually when
a policeman stops a courier, in the courier’s version of the incident, the police officer
is presented as a person that interferes, makes a big deal of a minor offence and who
is preventing the courier from fulfilling his duties. But the police are also accused of
apathy and bias (usually in favour of car drivers) in solving conflicts between bikers
and car drivers.
The other group of people that often cross with messengers are security guards
(those ego maniacs). The reasons for confrontations might vary. From suspicion of
being thieves, to arguments about bikes locked in front of or in the buildin, or riding a
bike where, according to guards, it is not allowed. Such arguments might appear
trivial yet in Warsaw we can identify at least one constant conflict of that nature with
guards from the Marriott hotel. Messengers have their waiting spot near the hotel and
in winter they often sit inside and warm themselves. Although they don’t sit in the
most visible place and usually at the back rather than in front of the building, they are
often sent out of the building or sometimes even pushed off their bikes when passing
an entrance. In this kind of story, what is stressed the most is the stupidity and
aggression of the guards, as well as the lack of understanding of the messengers’
problems (like the risk of having their bikes stolen or the need for a warm place to
wait for their next task).
The last, but definitely not least, group which occupies a large space in
messengers’ stories are car drivers. Cab drivers are named as a one of the courier’s
worst nightmares. The conflict with them is constant, and, depending on the place,
might be more or less violent. As I have pointed out earlier, drivers’ attitude towards
cyclist on the streets, isn’t the one that we could call friendly, sometimes not even
tolerant. This has resulted in many aggressive and violent situations, which later
becomes an important subject for stories.
In the eyes of messengers aggression comes from drivers, who on purpose, or
because of lack of competence block the road or even push bikers off the road. One of
the common incidents is bumping into suddenly opened car doors, which is called:
“being doored”. Often when a biker is avoiding a traffic jam, angry drivers will block
their route or when they meet at traffic lights, they will start arguing and lecturing
couriers about traffic rules. Some situations don’t comprise simply of words;
sometimes they come to blows. Some couriers are not prepared to leave such a
situation without a reply and usually the situation ends up with an argument, calling
of names and sometimes violence is used. Any aggression from a courier is usually
directed against a car not a driver. With the help of a u-lock, a window or a mirror
might be broken. All of that might become a good subject for a story. I have heard
many stories about couriers who needed to defend themselves against aggressive
drivers who being safe in their few tons of vehicle drive through an 80 kg biker with
no chances for survival in case of accident. The stories usually describe such drivers
as mad, stupid, aggressive, and dangerous sometimes they are called bourgeois, or
spoiled rich people, who don’t care about others.
In these stories we are shown how much danger awaits the biker on the street.
Streets are described as risky places, where one never knows what might happen.
Bikers are introduced as people discriminated against and in danger. A good courier
of course can’t be scared by such working conditions, and has to take up the
challenge. Taking a risk of riding on such dangerous streets might end up in an
accident. Most of the couriers have on their accounts at least few collisions. This also
might become another good subject for a story. Talking about them might be very
well illustrated by showing their results, that is scars and bruises. No matter what was
the reason for the accident, I have never heard a criticism of a biker involved in such
an accident. Some of them, like an ex-messenger who bumped into a tram and was
pushed several meters by the tram, will be viewed as heroes. They will never be
treated as losers; it will never be evidence of their incompetence. Rather he will be
treated as being brave, his case will be evaluated as proof that riding a bike in a city is
a risky thing, hence couriers are courageous and heroic people, sacrificing their life
But let’s look more into the matter of violence. What is it about bicycle
messengers that they become victims of other street users aggression? In essay on
Violence, Postmodern Zygmunt Bauman makes a point that Modernity can live
without coercion about as well as fish can live without water (…). Modernity
legitimizes itself as a ‘civilizing process’ (…), which is, about the redistribution of
violence. The order making is a form of coercing things into regularity, ‘violence’
stands for ‘irregular coercion. (Bauman 1995:141-142) Therefore the coercion and
violence will be aimed at a barbarian. Persons who are not obeying, who are
disturbing and threatening order. Modern elites, modern states set their own rules to
decide who is a barbarian. A barbarian might come from outside but also might be an
Bike messengers are part of society; however the things they do like not
obeying traffic rules might be threatening society’s order. But couriers have a more
serious crime on their record: the job they do does not have a typical work character.
Unlike all real jobs, and decent occupations this job is a mixture of work and play.
Although it is play treated by the practitioner with great seriousness, it is still viewed
as play. In our western work ethics, those two: work and play are not allowed to meet
together. It is either one or none. A real, respected job, can’t have a play character.
But the main tool, and essence of couriering is a bike, and a bike is a toy. Even
if it becomes something more then a toy, such as a means of transport, in cities like
Warsaw it still has minus value. Because of its reputation as a Poor attribute, not
civilized, not modern and wealthy transport, it is not welcomed in the cities.
Couriers, entering city spaces primarily reserved for cars, once again disturb
order. They become threat for the notion of city as a high modern and wealthy space.
Thus, the order must be restored, non-humble bikers must be given a lesson,
aggression (arguments, calling names), violence (pushing off the streets) coercion
(creating inconvenient laws for cyclists) might be used as an excellent learning tool.
What about the couriers’ violence, which is undoubtedly present in their
relation with other street users (but not often occurring within the couriers group)?
All bikers’ stories on the problems and oppression that they face everyday on
the streets shows their attitude towards socially accepted norms and orders. For
example, the norm in Warsaw is that you don’t ride a bike in the city. Or in a wider
context, being a bike messengers is not a real job, it is not a desirable career. Bikers
challenge that premise in their actions, which later acquire a symbolic meaning via
stories. They show: we are against such order; we refuse to comply to participate in a
rat race. The use of violence, breaking of traffic rules, is just a way of demonstrating
resistance to social order.
Moreover crime becomes transferred into an art. Like in a case of subcultures
described by Hebdige: Even though an offence, the deviation may be of a minor type,
like crossing red lights, going against the traffic on a one way street, it ends in the
construction of a style, in a gesture of defiance or a contempt, in a smile or a sneer. It
signals a Refusal. (Hebdige 1979:3)
Such strategy, to refuse and protest through shocking, is not surprising when
we once again will refer to the postmodern condition. According to Z. Bauman in the
postmodern context we face information and stimulation overflow. With public
attention dulled and made ‘blasé’ by diversions ever more plentiful and lurid, only
shocks stronger then yesterday’s shocks stand a chance of capturing it. There is
therefore an upward trend in the shocking power of shocks, with the ingenuity and
malice and gratuity and senselessness of violent acts rightly seen as the best strategy
What is important to point out here is that whilst stories about danger and
accidents are popular among messengers themselves, they are treated very differently
when someone else discusses those isssues. These matters might be freely discussed
or even laughed about or trivialized by messengers. However, when a person from
outside tries to make a joke about it, couriers will not laugh. They will oppose such an
attitude, showing how serious a matter it is and how strongly it might affect their
lives. For example when a producer working for FOX television on a series about
random acts of an unusual, blooper-style nature was asking for help in finding some
videos showing some dangerous incidents involving bike messengers, in reply he
received such a message:
You know, I've lost about a dozen friends in the bike courier profession. These
people died some pretty horrible deaths, not unlike the scene you describe. I know the
rest of the world finds it hysterical when messengers "get it", I know this because I've
had people laugh at me when I've gone down and sitting there in pain and blood I've
looked up them wondering what kind of sick individuals could laugh at such a scene.
Messengers not only combat ignorance as a part of their daily jobs on the street, they
also have to fight it in the media. I'm dismayed that I'm even being asked to find such
horrible coverage. It's one thing when cars hit each other, the passengers aren't as
likely to feel the impact. But when you're hit by a car with no metal around you as
protection the pain is something you obviously would not understand. I've alerted the
messenger community to turn down your offers, I still have a lot of pull in the
community. Unfortunately, I'm certain some moron will help you.
Good luck getting a clue.
Rebecca "Lambchop" Reilly (from mailing list: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The message is, I believe, a very good example of much of what has been
written above, on risk, danger, as well as the low perception of the job in society. It
also might be treated as an example of cultural intimacy. Michael Herzfeld introduced
this concept to present relation between person and the nation state. However I claim
that this notion of cultural intimacy that can be understood as the sharing of known
and recognizable traits that not only define insiderhood but are also felt to be
disapproved by powerful outsiders (Herzfeld 1997:94) might be also used in the case
of this particular group, of a much smaller size, however also being a source for
The stories about couriers, describing the inconvenience and the risk of their
job when told by messengers themselves originally means: we are brave, we are
clever, we are not afraid of risk, we have great skills in biking and so on. But when
the same theme is described by someone from outside the group it might mean: bikers
are irresponsible to ride on the streets, they expose themselves and other bike users to
danger, they are immature and disrupting grown up and serious people from using the
Bikers without doubt are an oppressed group on many city streets and also are
low in prestige in the employment hierarchy. The cultural intimacy they share, the
whole culture of the bike and the job they have chosen, its nature might be a source of
external embarrassment but nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of
common sociality, the familiarity with the bases of power (Herzfeld 1997:3)
The fear of being laughed at, or trivialized might be a reason for not only
rejecting offers to share videos, but also to participate in research programs or to be
interviewed. It also might be one of the reasons for not openly welcoming
newcomers to the group (both rookies and non-couriers).
I started this chapter from notes on the idea of storytelling. Let me come back
to this, and sum it up a little. We have read stories of two types: first presenting bikers
in kind of symbiosis with a wider social and economical system, relaxed people that
enjoy their job and the tasks they receive; the second type is representing couriers’
everyday struggles at their work: fighting against inclement weather, inimical people,
Both types of stories, when joined together (and in fact they are told together),
become what Hilde Lindemann Nelson has called a counterstory - a story that resists
an oppressive identity and attempts to replace it with one that commands respect. (...)
Many counterstories are told in two steps. The first is to identify the fragments of
master narratives that have gone into the construction of an oppressive identity
(Nelson 2001:7 ). In couriers’ case that would be a story representing work struggles,
and complaints about the bad treatment because of the low status of that job. The bad
treatment, discrimination on the streets, low social position, and often being exploited
are elements of reality which bikers would love to change. With which they don’t
agree, and they want to fight against.
The second step in telling a counterstory is to retell the story about the person
or the group to which the person belongs in such a way as to make visible the morally
relevant details that the master narratives suppressed (Nelson 2001:7). This role of
messengers’ stories makes statements about the importance of their job (with out us
that whole system wouldn’t work). Master narratives, and by implication the public,
usually deprecate messengers and state that their job has no great importance and is
meaningless. But the other accusation that prevents the job gaining a higher social
status and being respected is that it doesn’t require any great skills; anybody can do it.
Couriers fight with that, trying to convince us through their stories, that messengers
do have special, valuable talents: they are responsible and trustworthy (they take care
of your packages, and will never lose or destroy it), they are clever (they will always
find the best and the shortest way, they never get lost in a city), they are dedicated to
their job, are courageous, and have Nerves of Steel. According to messengers’ stories,
the fact that they go through red lights is not proof of stupidity or irresponsibility but
rather a proof of their dedication to the job: no matter what the circumstances, we will
deliver a tag).
Counterstories, allow bicycle messengers as an oppressed group to refuse
identities imposed on them by their oppressors and reidentify themselves in more
respectworthy terms (Nelson 2002:22). Like other narratives those stories make the
teller’s life bearable. But what is more important is that they are stories of self-
definition and self-construction. They reflect self-image of couriers, and reflect how
messengers place themselves in wider system, and how they experience a world.
On the basis of all that has been said above we can finally make some
conclusions on the type of identity that bike couriers represent. However it is
important to notice that being a bike messengers might have different meanings for
different people. For some it might be just a job, a way of earning money. For those it
is not the first source of identity, they don’t present themselves as bike messengers, it
is not a source of their self-creation; for those being a bike messenger is a function
they have, it is a role. But for the other group of people
(on whom this paper has concentrated) who work as bicycle messenges, this job
becomes something more then just a job, it is a calling, something which brings
meaning to their lives.
Therefore it becomes something more then a role. It is a source of meaning,
which influences their behaviour and is transmitted to their lives. It involves process if
self – construction. It is an identity (Castells 1997).
The question is: what kind of identity is it? As I have pointed out before, in the
late modernity condition, in which bike messengers have been born and exist, we face
a reality where identity is a matter of choice. One of the options is to become a bike
messenger. Being a bike messenger is definitely not a basic source of identity. It is
achieved and practiced. Therefore we can identify this type of cultural identity as a
lifestyle. It is the weakest form of cultural identity (the strongest example might be
ethnicity), and is epitomized by the notion of the self-developing individual, rootless
yet constantly evolving to new highs (Friedman 1994:39).
But modernity brings us something more, which even more determines an
aspect of couriers’ identity. That is a crisis of modern, civilized identity. Jonathan
Friedman described it thus: there has occurred a general loss of faith in progress, in
continued development of our own civilization. Corresponding to that process, as a
reaction to it and a way of dealing with it, two kinds of identity structures have
emerged: traditionalist and postmodernist. I believe that couriers represent the latter
type. Like in the Friedman definition of the postmodernist, bicycle messengers are
accentuating the opposition of nature, natural force, libido, unchained human
creativity, to the fetter of modernity, seen as a structure of power and control, the ego
writ large. It defines the primitive as all that freedom from civilized control is meant
to be (…) a social existence based on communion rather then social distance. The
concept of the modern here is that of culture as a set of imprisoning constraints,
culture as opposed to nature, and repressive of nature. (…) The primordial for the
postmodernist is the primitive, the non-civilized, non-repressed, non-adult. (Friedman
I believe that bicycle couriers in their actions are trying to bring all those ideas
into reality. It might be done on different levels and by different methods: from
putting human power on bike in opposition to motorized vehicles, through a notion of
being a street elite, awareness of creating an alternative culture, refusal to participate
in a nation state regime and capitalist system, and a belief in creating a worldwide
community of bike messengers. Finally it is gained through their refusal to become
adults, and leaving their bikes (read toys) behind in order to get a real, adult job.
But the postmodern identity project has another dimension and that is
consumption. It is narcissistic dependency on the presentation of self via
commodities. It is self-identifying through possessions (Friedman 1994:191) Bike
messengers would be impossible to identify without all their clothing style, but
especially without a bike. It is the bike that represents that group’s solidarity and
bonds; it is the bike that symbolizes their character: hardcore fixed gear with no
brakes, for hardcore people.
The other aspect characterizing couriers’ lifestyle is narcissism. It is visible in
few aspects of couriers lifestyle. Firstly in their conviction that they are the street’s
elite. Their use of names and nicknames, and slogans, their attitude shown in stories;
all that should convince us that these men and women, really are the best bikers, have
guts, are modern city warriors and are heroes. We are the strongest, the fastest, the
toughest, the most courageous and so on. And it is not just a slogan, this is what
couriers think of themselves. But this self-love and calculating seductive attitude are
just a one side of the narcissistic coin. According to Nash, narcissism essentially is a
defense against aggressive impulses rather then self-love (Lash 1978:32). And as we
could learn from messengers’ stories that couriers perceive their position in a wider
system as of being oppressed. They are often objects of other people aggression (on
the streets, while riding especially) and disrespect (when they come across opinions
that their job is worthless and they are nothing but uneducated losers who are
incapable of getting a better job).
As Lash has pointed out narcissism might be also a form of defense against
dependence. His worlds on antisocial attitude of narcissistic men and woman are good
description of bicycle couriers feelings: The perception of the world as a dangerous
and forbidding place, thought it originates in a realistic awareness of the insecurity of
contemporary social life, receives reinforcement from the narcissistic projection of
aggressive impulses outward. The belief that society has no future (...) also
incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of
a historical stream. Narcissism is then a way of coping with the tensions and anxieties
of modern life and a social condition (Lash 1978:50-51).
What more, like we could see in a chapter on tournaments, narcissistic
tendencies also find confirmation also in couriers’ games. But presence of sport in
couriers’ lives has another dimension. According to Huizinga’s theory of play, it
promotes structuring of the social grouping. It has a socializing and integrating
function. When created on such a foundation, a group will have tendencies to protect
and barricade itself from the world and the rest of society. Becoming a real
messenger, to be part of their group is not the easiest task: rookies have to go through
a period of probation, being checked. The same applies to bikers who are not involved
in messengering and especially if they are female. The problem of acceptance of girls
in that job, and more specifically into the life style, might also be rooted in those
aspects of couriers’ image which refer to the masculine ideal. The image of the
messenger as fit, strong, tough, hardcore and an adrenaline lover are not the one that
would be linked to the feminine ideal. In our society those qualities are associated
with the masculine ideal. The presence of women in that job, (women who in a
stereotypical idealised view are weak, delicate, pleasant, and know nothing about
fixing things and have poor spatial awareness) undermine the theory that being a bike
messenger really requires all those skills. Therefore in bicycle messengers’ groups,
especially those with a strong feeling of being an oppressed group, if girls are to be
accepted, they have firstly to prove that they have some of the perceived masculine
features which would allow them to belong to the group. It is easier to change the
image of an individual woman, and explain her good performance in that job (she is
not like other girls, she is different from other women – as men like to explain girls
well doing in a cycling), than to get rid of the feminine and masculine stereotypes or
to change the idea about messengers’ life style as something extremely tough.
Being a bike messenger for many might be just one of numerous roles, based
on occupation and function, that one can play in society. That perception is probably
true for most customers of courier services and also for many of those doing this job,
and treating it only as a job. But it can also be a basis for something more, for the
foundations of a life style. It might be a source of identity. From their choice of
wardrobe, through spare time activities, the manner in which they fulfill work duties,
the stories they tell and the ideology they declare - finishing all of that is a part of the
homological whole, of identity.
This is a typically modern, weak identity; an identity which is chosen. No one
can be born into it. The bike messenger life style answers a modern need for the
freedom and autonomy of the individual. It is gained through the work structure
where cooperational, independent companies are preferred, with no bosses, no
hierarchy. But it is also gained through an ideology given to the bicycle rider in a city,
where the bicycle represent a sovereignty, and where no rules are taken into
consideration. Many messengers, especially those from Western Europe underline
being outdoors and becoming fit as an advantage of bicycle couriering. Also those
features according to Bauman (2000:78) might represent some of the typically
modern features: ‘Fitness’ means being ready to take in the unusual, the non-routine,
the extraordinary – and above all the novel and surprising. One may almost say that
if health is about ‘sticking to the norm’, fitness is about the capacity to break all
norms and leave every already achieved standard behind.
Also, typically for modern identity, the couriers’ identity is characterized by
expression of self through possessions, and a highly consumerist style. Expression of
self for clear and obvious identification is especially important in a city realm where
anonymity is the norm. In a city, the easiest way to communicate clearly, without
leaving any doubts as to who one is, is through the medium of fashion and
City is also an ‘environment’ that is propitious for the creation of new
identities. The fact of heterogeneity and settlement of many different individuals in
the same place might serve as inspiration for creating/choosing new identity. But also
it creates a situation where a number of individuals facing similar problems, having a
need to adapt to similar circumstances, have the chance to meet each other and to
interact with each other. According to Hannerz (1980:285), such a situation (which
applies to bicycle messengers) when supported by effective interaction, might be a
condition for the growth of new cultural forms.
The life-style that bicycle couriers represent is characterized by narcissism,
strong individualization and masculinity. I believe, that in the case of bicycle couriers,
this attitude is a form of defense and an answer to the situation of oppression.
Oppression might be found in couriers’ lives being in danger, for instance, when their
rights on the streets are not respected and a collision with a car is likely. But also it
might be reaction to oppression, which might be not so evident. It might be found on
several levels. First due to the character of the couriers’ job. The fact that they belong
to the service sector places them in a subservient position with respect to their clients.
That is so, because the consumer of services is always in charge: s/he demands, sets
the rules, and above all decides when the encounter starts and when it ends
(Bauman1997:28). This unequal relation is strengthened even more by the fact that
clients of courier services are representatives of the much more prestigious and
socially respected classes and labour, than couriers themselves.
Also the philosophy and ethics of work in western society, which value
intellectual jobs requiring high educational qualifications, does not provide for any
status for couriers. Few other characteristics of couriers command respect. For
example age: being a bicycle messenger is viewed as a job for young people. It is
perceived as job not for adults and hence because of their immaturity they are not
accorded full respect. Another characteristic is play. The fact that cycling is perceived
as play and for fun; entertaining, and not ordinary (real) life might also provoke
similar ‘low status’ opinions.
Finally in some cases, the discrimination of bicycle messengers might result in
seeing them as ‘other’, a stranger, a barbarian. That is especially likely in cases such
as in Warsaw where bicycles are not recognised as a serious means of transport,
where their use is a threat for the image of city as a prestigious, well developed,
modern and wealthy place. But messengers might also be viewed as strangers in any
other situations where they are seen as disturbing the vision of order (e.g. when they
are not obeying traffic rules). What makes certain people strangers and therefore
vexing, unnerving, off-putting and otherwise a ‘problem’, is (…) their tendency to
befog and eclipse boundary lines, which ought to be clearly seen (Bauman 1997:25).
One of the boundaries on which couriers cast a shadow is the one that separates work
and play. In their work, couriers try to bring those two together, which according to
our western work ethics shouldn’t take place.
Depending on how many of the oppression factors exist, and how strong they
are, different aspects of narcissism and masculine notions of couriers’ identity will
emerge and this is supported by the study and comparison of the Warsaw and
Copenhagen couriers’ communities. Counterstories, which refer to the above-
mentioned types of discrimination, were much more likely to be met in Warsaw. The
‘masculine’ ideal of the strong, tough courier, struggling for his rights on the street is
much more applicable to Warsaw than Copenhagen. This might be a reason for the
better acceptance of women in that environment though one has to take into
consideration the more equal position (including employment rights) of men and
women in Danish society. Simply, when the masculine ideal is not so strong, the
presence of women does not threaten it.
Another constituent of the identity of bicycle messengers is the denial of the
society order and modernity condition. As we can see, for many couriers the decision
about taking up this job, or later on, for choosing it as a life career, is motivated by a
refusal to accept the constant need for personal development, chasing a ‘career’ or a
money orientated life style. This attitude together with all that was said above leaves
us without any doubts as to recognizing bicycle messengers as a resistance group, as
opposition. Generally speaking we can say that not only are they opposing the place
they occupy in society, but also society as a whole. The disappointment with society
and the frustration born out of the late modernity condition has given foundations for
creating a group that, because of its spontaneous, emotional and collective character
might be acknowledged as a nascent state. That is, as Francesco Alberoni (1984:17)
has put it, a group collective phenomena, in which each of participants calls into
question the social and cultural background in which he found himself prior to the
collective process itself, and establishes a new kind of solidarity with fellow
The bicycle messengers group and the identity they create might, in terms of
Friedman’s classification, be recognized as a postmodernist type of reaction to late
modernity crisis, though according to the local contexts (of particular city, society and
economy) the ideology might differ. The Warsaw couriers for example express their
opposition to the society more, whilst for Copenhagen messengers these problems are
not essential. Copenhagen couriers are more likely to underline the community aspect
of that group.
However, the community to which couriers like to adduce so much is rather
of the postulated, neo-tribalism type, than the classical gemeinschaft. That is so, in a
sense that its authority and basis are found in a number of participants and their
sharing of occupation and similar experiences rather then anything more. This
‘community’ does not bring any restrictions and rules. It leaves plenty of freedom and
does not limit one’s existence. What is more, the fact that a courier works alone, that
couriers are aware of this and it appeals to them, testify that this community is the
couriers’ attempt to deal with two apparently opposing needs of persons representing
the late modern era: a need for freedom and need for a support group. This
community promises understanding and assuredness of desires, unity and harmony of
interests but is based on a freedom postulate, and has no ambitions to interfere with
any of the couriers private or public life. Although this kind of ‘community’ does not
release an individual from the fear and risk of taking decisions, it gives support and
satisfaction of belonging to a group, being a part. Bicycle messengers, with their anti-
career attitude might also for a kind of relief and escape from the tiring and frustrating
precept of modernity: be better, try harder, and develop, achieve more and more!
Especially for those who escape to messengering from offices, it is a way of resisting
modern reality, no more rat race, no more existing and frustrating self- improvement.
Below I offer You some choice of couriers stories, that are available in the internet,
and few pictures made by couriers. I hope they will help you in better understanding
of what I have written above.
The Evil Evil Client
OK, this is a true story and a Toronto Legend because I was that courier. I was
working for a cool courier company named Turtle Express in TO. It was a typical
Toronto summer mid-morning: hot and the air stunk. While heading up Yonge I was
passing the parking lot at the Summerhill LCBO, when a car pulled out and cut me
off. I shot to my right around the car laying out a big honking gobber right onto the
left cheek of the driver. I continued on my merry way and pulled onto Shaftsbury to
drop my package when suddenly my spidey senses started to tingle and I turned to
look back and saw the same P of S Jetta come around the corner full Starsky and
Hutch-like, making a beeline towards me. I bunny hopped, diving to the curb and onto
the lawn, hitting the ground. I thought to myself, "Self, he is trying to kill you."
Being an ex-Ontario and Canadian Wrestling Champ at 100 kg, I jumped to my feet
and posed to attack. He pulled out his cigarette and flicked it at me and hit me square
in the chin. Then sped away down the street, only to find out it was a dead end
....HAHAHAHA!!! he was cornered.
He came back towards me, crossing the centre line driving straight at me. I shot
straight at him, head to head. I dodged right and kicked out as hard as i could with my
Carnacs. I hit his door and sent myself off my bike. The car screeched to a halt. He
threatened to run me down and then he grabbed his cell and threatened to phone the
police, so I swung my bag and grabbed my cell and threatened to phone the police. As
I got up, I noticed his driver-side lock had been pushed inside the rusted-out piece of
shit car frame from me kicking it.
I decided the package was more important then which of us was the bigger asshole, so
I went and dropped at the client and even took my bike inside as he had his car parked
with the road blocked. As I went into the drop, the woman at reception asked if I was
OK. She said that she had seen him try and kill me. I said I was fine and that we were
both being idiots and just left. As I was leaving she said if I wanted she would be a
witness for the police if I pressed charges.
I just decided to forget about it, but as I pulled out and onto the road jackass in the car
was still there and had the road blocked. I just kept riding and he yells at me, "You are
going to pay for this now!!!"
He reaches behind him sitting on the edge of the door with his feet outside the car. I
kick the door shut on his legs and sprint down the street as fast as my GT TI edge can
carry me. I cut right and across Yonge to Alcorn a dead-end street and take off down
it and while he is chasing me I hop onto the sidewalk, turn around and cut past him
down Yonge, onto Birch, and take off down the next dead end to the schoolyard and
cut across it. And I lose him.......
As I am heading down Avenue Rd I phone my dispatcher on my cell to tell him I am
going to go home and change and get my other bike, but as I reach him he tells me
Jim P-------- is on the other line and I attacked his car and him and that he is a client
of ours :O... I had no idea......
Anyways, the dispatcher is an owner and tells the Jim P-------, "Sounds like you are
both assholes and need to figure this out between you both." They totally defended me
and never gave any information to this guy even though we lost him as a client (like it
was not going to happen anyways).
Well, I went to the police after knowing what an asshole this guy was. Now i knew
who he was, I also knew where he lived, and went to the station near where he lived.
One of the bike cops was on duty and took my statement and he knew me and I was
never in trouble, owned a home, was married and had kids.....so I figured I was a
stand up guy and I had witnesses.
I was going to be charged with mischief and he was going to get assault and a few
other charges. My charge got dropped; he had a previous record in Toronto of road
rage with a cyclist and also three other charges similar in Montreal. He ended up in
jail and i felt sooo much better.
Anyway, I am a computer consultant now and web designer. He works for one of my
support clients as some sort of clerk or designer.... and he has no idea who I am, or
just never says anything because I know he was in jail :)
That took place in the summer of '96, in my ninth year on the road. I kept on riding till
the winter of 2001. I really miss it still and think all the time of going back on the
road. - Keith Robinson
Ok, in deference to my buddy Clay's writing style, I'm going to share with y'all a little
thing that happened the other day.
Okay, so there I was at the end of the day way out in the 15th district on Bogancs
utca. Really, I mean far. Across the roads were cornfields. Instead of taking streets
back (hell, I've been riding streets for too many years) I decided to bike back through
the cornfields. No problem, there was a farmer's lane down the middle. It was like
going back 100 years. About halfway through there's two guys with a horse drawn
buggy. They're shovelling manure or somesuch into the back. Well, hell, who am I to
judge. So I keep going, not too quickly, mind you, just a lot of ups and downs through
the ruts and puddles, like I'm ten years old again.
A little further on, there's this other guy with a horse, standing amidst a pile of pots
and pans, giving his horse a scrub. And that was pretty much it, I got back on to the
major roads soon enough. Since I didn't have a package on board, there wasn't much
point in booking it back to downtown, so i set off at a leisurely Sunday-rider pace. At
some point, two yuppie bastards on their expensive after-work machines with their
$200 shoes and $100 sunglasses and flashy spandex go whipping by me, whistling to
warn me of their approach as they passed.
With my inherent courier's pride, I took offense to this with the usual thoughts about
how dare they sit on their asses all day, and get on their bikes after work all fresh and
dandy, thinking what a putz this courier guy is. So I picked up the pace and zoomed
past them. About three blocks later, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, that one of
them was pretty much neck and neck with me. We were coming up to a busy
intersection and it was our red light. I creaked out past him, and cut into the line
between the cars. After giving a cursory glance either way, I blindly sped across the
intersection. I looked back and the other guy had obediently stopped for the light.
Aaah. I relaxed again and set off at my original lazy pace, but kept an eye out to see if
they were up to round two. Sure enough, Mr. My-pedals-cost-more-than-your-entire-
bike, was pumping his way towards me.
Yippee, the race was on. I looked back and waved for him to catch up. I tried to keep
him about a block back, but he had superior fire power, due to the fact that my baby is
happily shacked up in a garage in Germany and I was currently riding what pretty
much amounts to a tank. Well, that and the fact that I smoke about a pack a day and
my lungs were burning at this point.
So he was inching up on me, but fortunately we were coming up to a five-way
intersection and I figured this guy was a pussy like his friend. So I pulled out my
secret weapon - my sheer lack of self-preservation in the pursuit of proving my point.
I looked and couldn't quite figure out where the traffic was coming from, but there
wasn't anything in my immediate view, so I sped across the intersection.
I looked back and there was the guy taking a circuitous route hopping curbs and
ditches, but I'll give him props for busting the red light. I laughed and waved at him,
but my wind was waning. Every muscle in my body was aching, and my gear ratio
certainly wasn't helping me. It was set up for mountain biking, not racing. So there I
was hacking up my lung, wondering if the yuppie was going to have the last laugh,
when I saw heaven. Up on the horizon, about three city blocks away, was the lovely
Hungaria Korut, the mother of all intersections. No way is yuppie-man going to bust
So I redoubled my efforts and luckily, timing was on my side. I was about ten metres
away when my light turned red. I kept going and veered towards the middle, in case
there were any overzealous drivers coming at me from my right. And there was one.
A cabby, but I was far enough away from him, to merit merely a toot on the horn, and
a revved engine.
I looked back, and there we have it. The couriers win again. Don't fuck with our pride.
Go with the flow
Cycling during rush hour. For many people an extremely dangerous pursuit and one
of the greatest nuisances there is. Rush hour, the time when commuters and office-
clones crawl out of their caves and take their aggression out on anything and anyone
moving about too slowly. The city has tuned into a battle zone for raging rally riders
and other gladiators of the road.
But not gor us bike messengers. We tend to be extremely relaxed as we cycle along
the chaos on the road late afternoon. Legs feeling the strain of the distances they have
overcome, muscles nice and warm from the exercise, body too tired to feel any stress;
that is how we best enjoy cycling. For us there are no traffic jams, heavy traffic is just
an illusion. Going with the flow of cars, trucks and busses we become one with the
traffic, in concordance with everything around us. The pieces of the puzzle suddenly
fall in the right place. Hardly anything can happen to you when you trust on your own
experience and agility. As soon as you loose yourself and start to curse that @#%*
traffic, that is when there will be congestions, red lights and everything else may turn
against you. Cycling is fun. Bike Messengers enjoy a privileged position. For us,
things like meetings, sick-building syndrome, migraine air-conditioning and machine
coffee don’t exist. We’re outside, we’re free, we get exercise and even get paid for it.
Riding Fast, Illegally. . .and Safely
by Howard Williams, Mercury Rising October 1995
Since September 1982, I have been a Bay Area Bike Messenger. I've done tags in 22
cities from San Rafael to Campbell, from the SF Zoo to Concord. I've gotten at least
30 traffic tickets — which is probably an all-time messenger record.
But I've never had a major accident. I've never gone to the hospital except to make a
delivery. I've been in the Disabled List only once — for two weeks for a bruised knee
in a minor accident that was the driver's fault. Over 30 tickets — only one minor
accident in 13 years. I must be doing something right.
Let me say right now that I don't endorse running red lights or breaking any other
traffic laws. If your style is to wait at red lights, I'm not putting you down. In fact, I
have some envy for your patience and other virtues that prevent you from getting over
30 tickets. After all, I've had to pay for all those tix. But there are lots of messengers
and other cyclists who do run red lights. There have been as long as there've been
bikes, and there probably always will be as long as there are bikes. Our attitude
towards a red light is "just say go."
So I'd like to tell you how to do it without getting splattered all over the street — at
least after 13 years and counting. Every morning, before I go out on the street, I have
to realize that I might not be alive at the end of the day. That's a sobering and
humbling through which makes me present my appeals to the One in control of all life
and death. Each morning I have the same goal — to finish the day as healthily as I
started it. This humility also reminds me that my riding style is risky. I am taking
chances. From there, my mind can make plans to minimize those risks.
Every cyclist should remember that there are two sets of laws out there: human-made
laws and natural law. I may break the laws made by people, but I cannot break the
ones made by God.
For example, if I come to a red light and there are no cars, pedestrians or anything
else in my way, I'm going to break the human law and blast through that light. But if
there is oncoming heavy traffic doing 35mph, I'm not going through that light even if
I try. Breaking that natural law would just get my bones broken.
Something else that has helped me is my belief that bike messengering is a sport . . .
but not a game. When I come to a red light I consider it a challenge. Whenever the
great baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax took the mound, his immediate goal was to throw
a no-hitter. But his larger goal was to win the game. Whenever I get a tag, my first
goal is to get from the pickup to the delivery without stopping at a light. But, of
course, my larger goal is to survive the day. I am not going to run any lights at 4:30
p.m. if I get hit doing something stupid at 11:30 a.m. Anytime I run a red light and
force a car to hit its brakes, I consider that a mistake. We should never rely on other
people's brains or brakes because they may not have either.
A lot of the above comes down to one word: attitude. Attitude is so important that it
probably deserves a whole column by itself. Basically, remember this: you are on a
bike, having fun and getting paid for it. If you can appreciate that, you can learn your
job. If you cannot appreciate it, get another line of work.
Awareness is another topic that deserves a whole column. Awareness and attitude
often go hand in hand. If you learn what to anticipate out there, you will not be
surprised — or so upset — when things happen. For example, if you look for a driver
to make a sudden or risky move, you'll be more ready to hit the brakes or steer your
way out of trouble, or take some other measure to reach safety. Accordingly, you will
not be so upset by bad driving because you won't be so endangered.
But there is one factor I try not to be aware of: the police. Before I make an illegal
move, I check my surroundings. If conditions are safe, I go ahead. But I never spend
any extra time looking for a cop. Why? Because I often have only a few seconds (or
less) to make a very fateful decision. I can look to see if my move will be safe or
dangerous. But I cannot add any time looking to see if my move will cost me money.
On that score, I just have to see what happens.
Anybody who wants to blast through red lights had better have a well-maintained
bike. Brakes — from the levers down the cables to the pads — are an obvious
priority. So are tires. But so are hubs. If you run a red light, you don't want to have a
hub or bottom bracket break in the middle of the intersection. Same with pedals. You
certainly do not want a chain that's ready to snap. Basically, if you run red lights, you
don't want to have any mechanical problem that can instantly stop you. One time I
was at a red light. I saw an opening and started to pedal. My chain passed along the
freewheel without gripping the cog's teeth. My bike did not move and the force I put
into pedalling a bike that did not move made me fall off. Luckily, there was enough
time for me to get out of the way. But that incident showed me that even the condition
of my freewheel could be a safety issue.
Anybody who rides fast better have a helmet. After all, we don't call them "brain
buckets" for nothing. If you do fall — and sooner or later, every messenger will —
get up and get off the street as soon as possible. If you can safely take your bike with
you, fine, but remember it's really not as important as you are, no matter what your
dispatcher says. Sometimes when you fall, your legs might be tangled in your bike.
Kick your bike away and get up and off the street. Remember that on wet, slippery
pavement, your chances of falling not only increase, but when you fall, you fall fast.
Slippery falls usually do not give you a chance to put your hand on the ground before
your head. So if you still won't wear a brain bucket on a sunny day, at least have it on
when the streets are wet.
When you come to a red light or other risky situation, stand up on your pedals. Riding
tall will give you a greater range of vision and make you easier to see.
Being a bike messenger is a tough job. It demands physical, mental and spiritual
determination and effort. If you never have an accident, it still is tough. But if you
never have an accident, you'll still be tough enough.
ryc.1,2. couriers’ teams symbols ( from: http://www.ecmc2003.org/)
ryc. 3 ryc. 4
ryc.3. by Maciej Karlowski
ryc. 4,5. by Leszek Baj
ryc. 6. trackstand at the European Champioships 2003 (photo by Drazek)
rec 7. skiding (photo by Leszek Baj)
ryc. 8. November 2003 in Warsaw (photo by Leszek Baj)
ryc. 9,10,11. November 2003 in Warsaw (photo by Leszek Baj)
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