Part 01: In August, over 600 cycle messengers from around the world gathered in Paris for the 34th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC). A gathering of the most skilled urban riders, following their fascination for alleycat races, and proving themselves against the best in their own style of gritty racing. These are the invisible, super-fast, city cyclists who slip through a city, point to point, dressed in their baggy shorts, t-shirt and a lock dangling from their belt.
There was an era when they were more visible. There were hundreds of messengers, working for dozens of companies in many major cities. Now, worldwide, the numbers are decimated, down to a handful of companies and a few dozen riders. The remaining are the hardcore absolute.
It may seem hard to understand, but bicycle messengers can be seen immediately on the road. There are telltale signs that reach far beyond the constant fixie presence, or the cargo short attire. Messengers can be seen from a distance. The way their carrier bag rides high on their back creates a silhouette of an inverted triangle. It is a slim presence that narrows to a bare presence of slim tires as they ride the pavement, the habitual riding style of hands close to the handlebar stem, narrowing their appearance even more. You can see them from 100 metres away. Unmistakeable.
And then, there is the speed. The confidence. They ride faster than mere mortal cyclists. They understand the flows, can see the traffic, where the jams are forming, the fastest line to open air – whether that be riding a sliver of asphalt between the traffic jam and the curb, or riding contra flow, splicing the line between them and oncoming traffic.
They had, they have, the reputation of being near-outlaws on the road. Anarchists and free-spirits, anti-authoritarian and free-willed. At least in reputation. Meanwhile, they are these massively hardworking cyclists, taking invaluable packages from location location at speed. They are, actually, far from their devil-may-care reputation. They know the urgency inherent to their clients demands, the need for speed and accuracy in delivery. They know their clients are most important, and every single messenger has as story about how they delivered a package hours ahead of when their client thought it was humanly possible. And yet the reputation as selfish, uncaring cyclists remains.
They also have stories about how they are seen, or not, on the road. They tell tales of being deliberately pressed into injury-threatening situations. Drivers who resent their presence, close down openings, cut across them at intersections, intimidate messengers – or laughably try to – with their massive metal clunkers.
Apart from the occasional injury – and this will happen – the intimidation is often fruitless. Messengers will often give back as bad as they get. There are a stream of videos of messengers confronting drivers, pressing back, making sure they will not be intimidated – and the driver will not head off thinking their methods will work in the future. At least, not without consequences.
Be sure, messengers will shake off mistakes, forgive drivers who offer apology, smile at some horrendous faux-pas events. After all, a messenger will often appear out of nowhere, zip across your front bumper before your heart beats twice, and are gone into the distance while you wait for the shock to pass. Messengers know accidents happen. .. accidents.
It might seem counter to the prevailing opinion of their being a rolling menace, but messengers are both the most skilled riders not the road, and also some of the best advocates for the presence of cyclists on the road. They will defend your right to ride, to be on the road, to be safe from invasion from the motorised counterparts. Just do not expect them to stick around – they are on the clock. Or have better places to be.
And then, their advocacy can be extreme. In Paris, the bikes were often littered with stickers that well represented their thinking. From the subtle, “No car, No problem” to “Fuck You and Your SUV”, it is clear that cars are the less-wanted part of their lives. They live in a world where, while they may have a license and access to a vehicle, so many do not own, rarely use, and would never consider paying for a gas-guzzling monstrosity that costs an arm and both legs to keep in a garage collecting dust. And why use a car when you only need to go five, 10, 15 kilometres? Fact is, the bike will get their first, anyway. Even the slowest cyclists are faster than cars during that wonderful rush hour period of to and from work.
And a car strips their prisoners of a real connection to the city. The camaraderie messengers have with each other and with any other cyclist on then road. The sense of awareness that comes with every ride, the mental activity of riding, seeing the routes, reacting to the chosen trajectory, versus the zombie-fueled mental dullness of sitting in a cash consuming can, insipidly watching the bumper head creep forward just a few meters per minute. With it comes the near scavenger mentality of drivers as they press their cars ahead, trying to get one car length further at any cost, as if it actually makes a difference to their journeys. But they are desperate to find movement – and stop any advantage for another car, motorcyclist or (especially) a cyclist. One measly car length before being forced to stop again. And it is that desperate mentality that often brings the aggression towards other drivers and the resentment to the two-wheeled escapees who appear in the rear-view mirror for a few seconds before disappearing into the distance, the driver only able to see bitterness and envy.
This is the stewing pot for drivers who fester their resentment and then act later on, cutting off bike lanes, speeding past a cyclist only to stop short or make a sudden turn across the face of the cyclist, just to prove they are still viable and important on the road. Even if they are willing to threaten the body and life of a cyclist to prove it.
I remember being blocked by a car, the driver had seen me and deliberately placed his car across the bike lane to make it impossible for me to continue. When I protested, he rolled his window down to shout, “I am a car and more important than you”. I gave him the one-fingered salute and then slipped around him and disappeared down the road, leaving him in his traffic jam where he could continue to be more important.
Every cyclist has this. Just about every day they ride. The car that has done something so stupid, it boggles the senses. Messengers have the same lives – they just have it at speed. And, because they messenger rides 40 to 100 kilometres in the city every day, they have a lot more stories. Or they have become so numb to the events that only the most egregious remain in their memory. The standard cut-off, the routine idiocy, as unimportant as the car they left behind a kilometre ago, who will sit in that traffic jam for the next while and will not see that messenger again. At least, not on this delivery. Maybe they will still be there when the messenger comes back half an hour later. But, not to worry, another car, another festering bitterness.
Tough to find bitterness and envy with a cyclist. You might find admiration. Longing. When cyclists see these effortless messengers racing up hill, full packs on their shoulders, turning out a dozen kilometres as if it were nothing (which it is).
So, back to Paris. The annual gathering of the hard-core faithful, the determined, the resolute and the hard working. While they may be cursed by the motorised, they are celebrated, admired and appreciated by their own. And, since the general public has little sense of them, fame and respect is easier given amongst themselves.
This year, respect will be found in Paris.
Part 02 coming tomorrow…