Alleycat Couriers

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.

"Everyone gets hit," Adam Ford told me recently, washing down spring rolls with a beer after work one evening at The DeLux Cafe, in Boston's South End. Ford was easy to recognize when he came in: red hair in a ponytail, as he had said on the phone, all-black full-body Pearl Izumi Lycra racing outfit, sleek metallic-gray helmet with black visor, and messenger bag with a pager and a two-way radio strapped to it. The DeLux Cafe is one of two main bicycle-messenger hangouts in Boston; its owner sponsored Ford and other Bostonians at the San Francisco world championships. As we talked, several other messengers joined us, unburdening themselves of their copious paraphernalia. Ford looked like a racer, as befits the tenth-place finisher (and top American) in the 1995 world championships in Toronto. His colleagues exemplified the other courier look: studiously unkempt, in careful antagonism to the fashions of the careers they had forgone.

Although couriers spend their days delivering the packages that keep corporate America running, they share a distrust of authority and a disdain for the pallid indoor worker. Ford, who is twenty-six, graduated from Wesleyan University with a dual degree in studio arts and premed. Like a number of messengers I have talked to, he was thoughtful and articulate, despite the Dudes and "like"s peppering his speech. His goatee twitched and his tongue studs flashed as he spoke in a machine-gun rhythm. "I was thinking about medical school, but this is just so much more entertaining. Why would I want to forfeit my youth to go to medical school?"

For messengers the job becomes a sport in itself -- a race to deliver as many packages as possible in the shortest time. Ford, who races mountain bikes on weekends, is known as one of the fastest messengers in Boston. A fellow courier at The DeLux Cafe was astonished when he saw Ford's delivery log: fifty packages on a bad day, more than seventy on a good one. Most messengers would consider fifty to be a banner day.

Alleycat races are the truest gauge of a messenger's skill, and they also demonstrate the spontaneity, recklessness, and extremism so valued in the messenger community. The world championships ought to be as capricious, disconcerting to motorists, and, above all, dangerous. But organization has its price: the world championships are sanctioned and safe. Achim Beier, the proprietor of the company Messenger Berlin, was criticized for organizing the Berlin world championships too well. "There is always a contradiction between professional organization and the character of messengers," he told me recently. "Some messengers think money is suspicious, and they don't want to be dependent on sponsors. But to have these big races you need money." The difference in attitude between Europe and North America was evident at the 1995 and 1996 world championships. The Toronto and San Francisco events, in contrast to the one in Berlin, were as much festivals celebrating an alternative lifestyle as athletic competitions. "The Americans," Beier said, sighing, "love it more the freaky style."

Adam Ford told me, "Kids don't do a lot of training. To go out of your way and make sacrifices goes against the spirit of a courier race." Still, in San Francisco, despite the party atmosphere (and predictable appearances by naked riders), the course was a tortuous run through Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and the Financial District. Racers received higher scores for carrying packages longer distances or across greater changes in elevation; bulky and heavy packages were also worth extra points. As much as the San Francisco committee tried to simulate common challenges to couriers, though, one crucial factor was inevitably absent: traffic. The scale of the world championships requires closed streets, thus obviating a messenger's most prized skill -- the ability to negotiate traffic at top speed. As one San Francisco competitor told a reporter, "If they really wanted to make the race authentic, they'd have us run through traffic while people opened car doors."

I REMEMBERED his words as I rode my rickety rented ten-speed through Manhattan last Halloween, trying to catch racers at a few of the checkpoints. As I approached the Williamsburg Bridge, one rider shot down the ramp past me and turned into oncoming traffic at full speed, finding an opening between two cars where there was none.

As the racers would have to, I climbed the stairs to the bridge and rode out to the checkpoint, a quarter of the way across. One by one racers appeared, slaloming between workers walking home to Brooklyn, negotiating hazardous crevices, bumps, and narrow passages, spinning and stopping on a dime as they pulled out their manifest sheets to be signed.

I rode to the finish line, in a vacant lot at 20th Street and the East River, where riders, organizers, and friends drank and relaxed. Even in this crowd, where presumably no outfit would be out of place, I managed to be a misfit pedaling up on my Sunday-rider's bike in blue jeans, windbreaker, and rented bulbous pink helmet. The further the messengers drifted into party mode, the less approachable they became to an outsider. Few would divulge their last names, fewer still their employers -- some companies, I was told, are unlicensed and uninsured.

Chris Schmidt, who came in second (after placing fifteenth in San Francisco), was an affable exception. He held up a bleeding hand and explained, "One car stopped for pedestrians in the middle of the street, right in front of me. I cut my knuckle but I didn't fall off my bike." John Yacobellis, the winner, found a way to avoid pedestrians altogether. After covering the uptown checkpoints he "caught a ride" partway down the West Side Highway, grabbing a car's window frame, bumper, or wheel well and riding like a remora on a shark.

This wasn't cheating: in alleycat races anything goes. The same applies on the job, of course; a client cares little how the package travels, as long as it reaches its destination fast. In most cities "towing" is not very helpful, since bikes are usually faster than cars in downtown traffic. But in New York, where long straight stretches are common, towing is a valued skill. James, Squid's brother, was the odds-on favorite before the New York race in part because of his fabled towing expertise and daring. "He just lays his hand on a side window," one rider said admiringly, "and lets the friction pull him along." James added to his legend one year in San Francisco when he took part in the annual Russian River Ride, an eighty-mile messenger pilgrimage from the city out to rural Sonoma County. James rode for miles on a tow at about 35 mph on a fixed-gear bike with no brakes, his legs "going like a blender" the entire time, according to one witness, as they kept pace with the pedals.

Derring-do wasn't enough for James last Halloween: he skipped one of the checkpoints and was disqualified. He didn't seem to mind, though, as he lingered with his colleagues on the rocks by the water, watching the late-afternoon sunlight recede across Brooklyn. Squid, surveying the scene, explained, "It's competitive, but it's also a bonding thing. You're racing people, but you're also racing against the city."

That race is no contest. From my vantage point on the Williamsburg Bridge, I'd had a view of planes and helicopters over the river, the J train crossing the bridge, and thousands of cars stuck on the FDR expressway. None offered a more efficient way than the cyclists' of traversing Manhattan. The early finishers in the race covered about 300 blocks, or fifteen miles, in rush-hour traffic, stopping for six checkpoints, in less than an hour.