Today in Tedium: Discrimination is, unfortunately, about as old as human civilization. Of the grotesque flavors of discrimination developed by humans over the millenia, employment discrimination is especially strange. Certain jobs that are clearly necessary for society to function, or at least jobs that people value, are worked by those society values least. Hard labor jobs, like ditch digging or working in commercial laundries, have often been performed by those viewed as having no other value, even if what they do is vital. Of course, little has changed in the 21st century. Society still venerates doctors and corporate executives while continuing to undervalue construction workers and cleaners. But there is a job that appeals to a certain type of person that craves freedom and unique experiences, though it is an endangered profession. Today’s Tedium is offering a sequel of sorts to our September piece on e-bike delivery drivers by looking at their artisanal colleagues that use leg power to deliver goods. Oh, and we get to check out one of the wildest competitions out there. Buckle up, you know, metaphorically anyways. — Andrew @ Tedium
Today’s GIF comes from the 1986 Kevin Bacon movie Quicksilver, a film about bike messengers in San Francisco. Here’s the trailer.
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Number of registered participants in the 2022 CMWC, Cycle Messenger World Championships, held in NYC, according to Victor Ouma, the event’s principal organizer. Though participants came from everywhere, this number actually represents about as many bike messengers that remain in NYC.
When competitions collide, NYC gets flooded with bike messengers from near and far
The Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) are a competition that pits bike messengers against one another in what is basically a scavenger hunt that mimics the conditions of their job. The North American Cycle Courier Championships (NACCC) is basically the same competition but limited to messengers from the US, Canada and Mexico. And over Halloween weekend 2022, both events came to New York City.
The central activity surrounding the competitions are known to messengers as alleycats. Competitors are given itineraries, with a list of checkpoints and various deliveries (some marked standard, others as rush). Past iterations have included unique obstacles like designated bike thieves that would “steal” competitors’ bikes who didn’t lock them sufficiently, usually as a time saving tactic.
The 2022 edition took competitors to Red Hook to run a type of hybrid course. Depending on the city and level of cooperation with local officials, the race can feature a closed course that is unquestionably safer for riders but fails to mimic real world competition. The NYC-based organizers for CMWC 2022 opted for the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, where the limited traffic on a weekend provided a mix between an open and closed course with limited cooperation from city officials. In other words, the degree to which the event was officially sanctioned is up for debate.
Such a free-wheeling attitude toward authority is pretty common in the bike messenger community. The New York Times noted in their 2016 article, “Messengers are known for a brash, adrenalized approach to their work, threading through traffic at dizzying speeds and often treating red lights as mere suggestions.” A messenger I spoke to put it a bit more succinctly, “At the end of the day, our jobs will never be automated because we’re paid to break the law.”
An approximate number of fixed-geared or geared bike messengers in New York City, according to working bike messengers. This number is an estimate, at best, more likely just anecdotal but one that was recalled independently by sources. Verifying this number is difficult but a few calls to dedicated bike messenger services adds weight to the estimate. If true, this means the number of bike messengers has collapsed since a 2016 NY Times article on the profession when they placed the number closer to 5,000. Messengers said the pandemic forced a lot of their colleagues into different careers.
Real quick, just what is the difference between a bike messenger and a person working delivery apps?
Well, in NYC, there’s not much of a difference … but you can differentiate based on three key factors:
- No electricity. This obviously refers to the fact a “true” bike messenger would never be caught dead on an e-bike but they are also expected to have an intimate understanding of the streets where they work. Delivery drivers for delivery apps tend to get optimized routes to their pickup and dropoff points.
- Food isn’t their focus. Sure, a bike messenger will deliver food but when they do it tends to be high-end pastries or other luxury items that can afford their markups. One messenger said a big, regular client of theirs was a specialty publisher whose individual volumes can sell for as much as $15,000 a piece.
- Probably the biggest distinction is deliberate choice of transportation. A bike messenger will always use a bike to do the job, often fixed gear. Across most of America, drivers for app services deliver by car since it makes more sense. In NYC, and a few other densely populated American cities, cars are impractical due to traffic leading to some overlap. Most e-bike delivery drivers would prefer not to have to brave the elements for $20 an hour. Most bike messengers wouldn’t have it any other way.
Just who, exactly, chooses this life?
Attending CMWC/NACCC had less to do with reporting on the results of the actual races than getting an opportunity to interview a broad swath of bike messengers from across the globe. And when they gathered at the East River Bar in Brooklyn the night before qualifiers, nearly half of them I approached told me to “Go f**k yourself” or some variation. Most of the ones that did agree to speak on the record did not want their real names used.
Many of them have good reasons. One veteran messenger, who’s been on the job for 12 years, has an uncertain immigration status and found the industry was one of the few where he could find employment. Though other options have come along, he’s grown to love the work, especially the freedom and flexibility. In fact, the day we met for our interview, he said he thought he was going to get fired that day. When I asked what he intended to do, he simply shrugged and said, “Go to another [messenger] service.” (He was not fired.)
The freedom and flexibility surrounding the job tends to attract a certain type of person. Clearly wary of outsiders, many in the community are close knit and rely on each for everything ranging from housing and jobs to repairs and healthcare. You can see elements of DIY punk everywhere in the industry. Another messenger who was involved in organizing CMWC/NACCC, but again, does not want his name used, said “I can go to Berlin and ask a messenger for a place to stay and a job and I’ll likely get it.” He did caution that the community isn’t a monolith and for all the cooperation, there can be a lot of infighting. I witnessed this first hand as local organizers (not the one mentioned above) butted heads with representatives of a larger organization over course specifics. The “discussion” quickly took a heated turn and ended with no clear resolution.
Messengers point out that while their profession has a vibrant and tight knit community, plenty of their colleagues avoid socializing outside of work. The community also tends to attract so-called “culture vultures,” i.e. people who have other, usually much more lucrative, jobs that hang around messengers and the bars/hang outs they frequent. Though, if a cyclist who competed at the Tour de France also wanted to take a shot at CMWC, more than a few messengers are open to the idea. Though, again, not all of them.
There is, perhaps unsurprisingly, some overlap between elite cyclists and bike messengers. Nelson Vails won a silver medal for the US at the 1984 Olympics, training after working as a NYC bike messenger. Yet when Vails retired from competitive cycling in the early 1990s, he did not return to bike messaging. He became a flight attendant, telling USA Cycling in a 2019 interview, “Working as a flight attendant is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.” While many bike messengers are elite cyclists, few elite cyclists have been bike messengers. The 2019 USA Cycling says that more cyclists find their way to the sport as a hobby.
And competition isn’t every bike messenger’s idea of a good time. Of the 232 messengers that registered for CMWC/NACC 2022, many said they only did so to support the competition. The real draw were the parties and getting to see old friends. Sonia Serba, a Toronto-based messenger, was attending to reconnect with old friends after leaving the industry. “But it pulled me back in,” she said. Shah Paul, a university employee (and former messenger) in Boston, agreed that many people were attending only for events surrounding the competition, such as Bike Kill, an art bike parade and gathering that is a big party every year.
Clément Leroy, a cyclist who is also a professional public speaker, was one of the far-and-wide attendees who made it to the event. (Andrew Egan)
Leaving the industry is often on the minds of messengers. Some find work as bike mechanics or other positions in bike shops. Other service industries are also popular choices when they hang up their bikes. A few of the bartenders at popular NYC bike messenger bars were former messengers. One left because they genuinely hated the work. Another quit only after getting hit by a car. The injuries and risks facing messengers, both on the job and off, are incredibly dangerous. The unnamed event organizer said, “I can’t even tell you how many people have died. Crushed by trucks or… yeah.” Another messenger added, “We used to die by getting hit by cars. Now, it’s ODs. Addiction runs rampant in the community.” The event organizer agreed, adding the issue causes more problems than just those they face on the road, “There’s a lot of messengers that are homeless.”
When I asked the 12-year industry veteran whether or not he had an endgame for leaving, he sighed and said, “Not to be edgy but death. I’m going to work this job until I die.”
At this point, it should be crystal clear how difficult it was to find real world bike messengers to talk about their work. The common consensus was that there was really nothing to gain by talking to the media. Too often they had been burned, even in “even handed” journalism like the 2016 NY Times article mentioned earlier. Or they focus on the vacuous elements of the job, like fashion. Or they do profile pieces on messengers who’ve only worked the job for a short while. Examples of both offenses can be found in this 2006 SF Gate article. The people associated with the community that choose to speak with members of the media are self-selecting. They’re choosing to speak on behalf of a community that refuses to speak.
So why talk to me? Admittedly, many of the unnamed messengers quoted in this story started off in the “Go f**k yourself” category. But there’s an axiom of journalism that a group of people, any group, will eventually talk. Sometimes journalists take the easy route of whoever will talk before their deadline. The nice thing about Tedium is that I get time. So, I decided to needle the messengers a little. Sometimes, all it takes to get a source talking is a good question.
I asked a clarification question. Just a question to make sure I wasn’t off base with my research and understanding of the community. I asked the 12-year veteran, “Is this job the extent to which you are willing to engage with the system, with capitalism?” His face lit up. The question was not bullseye accurate but close enough. Talking to messengers, especially anonymously, got a little easier after that. Apparently, it’s a shared sentiment, maybe one of the few within the community.
This job isn’t what they can do in society. This is what they’re willing to do. And if you look down on them for that, well, you know the answer: “Go f**k yourself.”
Thanks again to Andrew for another great piece on the world of cycling and delivery. Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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