ON the afternoon of last Halloween in Manhattan the rising tide of rush hour swept a curious group into Herald Square. The group's monster masks and black witch outfits appeared tame next to its everyday accessories: chains, leather, shaved heads, dreadlocks, and lip, tongue, and nose rings. And everyone had a bicycle: the square was cluttered with road bikes, mountain bikes, dilapidated ten-speeds, mint-fresh twenty-one-speeds, and customized fixed-gear bikes. At New York's second annual Halloween bicycle-messenger race it was hard to tell who was in costume and who wasn't.
Kevin, better known as Squid (messengers go by either first names or nicknames), circulated through the crowd, mild jitters evident beneath his ghoulish makeup. He had been one of the organizers of the event, in which riders would have to go through six checkpoints around the city, in any order, before finishing. They would face the ever-present danger of accidents and, of course, trouble from the police: it's not exactly legal to conduct a race through Manhattan rush-hour traffic.
As three o'clock approached, some twenty riders coalesced near the appointed landmark, a statue of Minerva. Riders of fixed-gear bicycles stood on their pedals like cowboys in their stirrups, making slow semicircles. (Cyclists can't coast on fixed-gear bikes; the pedals always move forward and backward with the wheels. The bikes often have no brakes, meaning that riders must use sheer leg strength to force deceleration.) Squid's brother James, a powerful-looking rider on a fixed-gear mountain bike and the favorite to win, took off his monster mask. The riders crowded to the starting line, waited for the signal, and broke into traffic in a pack.
Within a minute they had diffused, separating by skill, speed, and choice of route through the checkpoints. They looked the same as when on the job, each bombing through the city with a bag slung over one shoulder.
MESSENGER races have sprung up all over the world, ranging from informal after-work events to highly organized world championships. Last September, San Francisco hosted the fourth annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, following ones in Berlin, London, and Toronto; next month the fifth world championships will be held in Barcelona. In San Francisco some 600 bicycle messengers from North America, Europe, and Asia competed on fixed-gear bikes (revered among messengers), on bikes with large, heavy boxes in baskets, and on cargo bikes. They also raced in straight sprints -- comparable to the 100-meter dash in track -- and in something called the Trials, in which riders must hop over large rocks, cement walls, and other "extreme" obstacles. In the main event riders followed a grueling course up and down the city's hills, picking up and delivering packages in a race designed to simulate a messenger's rounds.
The highly stylized world championships evolved from street races like the New York contest. These grassroots competitions, called alleycat races, more accurately reflect the profession that inspired them. Almost every city with a messenger community has some form of alleycat race. No one seems to know who had the first, but the first group to meet regularly was probably the Toronto Alley Cats, founded almost ten years ago and still led by John Englar -- known to all as Johnny Jet Fuel, after his Jet Fuel Coffee Shop. In the mid-1980s Englar and his friends -- messengers or ex-messengers like him -- would take to their bikes for late-night rambles through Toronto. "The whole idea," Englar explained to me recently, "was to ride through the downtown urban environment and architecture, experience the city for what it was, catch air, and mash our bikes up." In 1987 Englar turned the rides into an organized event. "We make [entrants] ride through parking garages, cross through buildings, up and down stairs," Englar said. "It's at least an hour full tilt in traffic. The whole idea is, Yes, you could get taken out."
BICYCLE messengers have existed for a hundred years in San Francisco and New York. They became cults of cool in the 1980s, when the number of messengers in New York reached a peak of around 5,000. E-mail and fax machines have attenuated their ranks (there are currently 1,000 to 2,000 New York messengers), but this has only added to the mystique. In an age when information travels around the world in a millisecond, these urban warriors still zip through the city on their own legpower to deliver legal documents, plane tickets, and other nondigital valuables.
Why bicycle messengers gather with such pride has little to do with the quantifiable rewards of their job. In the United States they work on a commission basis, which makes for long, hard days of riding; stopping to rest means loss of income. The best ones might earn $500 a week; messengers have no paid vacation, and most courier companies don't offer health or accident insurance. Riders must buy their own courier licenses in those cities (Boston, for example) where they are required, and must pay their own traffic fines.
What many messengers share, besides poor working conditions, is scorn for the constraints of professional careers and a joyous enthusiasm for bicycles as urban transportation. Anyone who has sped on a bicycle past a five-block-long backup of rush-hour traffic understands this zeal. But trying to beat the clock while racing through traffic can be suicidal. A number of couriers die on the job -- last year at least five in Manhattan alone. After the awards ceremony at the San Francisco world championships racers took a slow memorial ride in honor of their fallen comrades, throwing an old bike into the harbor near Pier 54 to commemorate their dead.