They blaze through red lights, skid around pedestrians and nearly collide with oncoming traffic. Sergio Rodriguez, a criminal defense attorney from Chicago called them “a nuisance.”
Who are they: Urban bike messengers.
“What these people don’t know is that the bicycle is more than a sport and more than a job. . . the bicycle is a philosophy, a way of life,” explains Chicago bike messenger Travis Hugh Culley, author of The Immortal Class. His book reveals the art of bike messaging through his firsthand account, shedding light on a misunderstood group.
Among Chicago’s 200 bike messengers, there is a sense of pride in what they do. Mike Malone, 27, has worked two years as a bike messenger in Chicago, “it’s partially my love of biking;” he said, “but it’s also just the freedom of not having someone look over my shoulder.”
On a typical day, the messenger will get a chirp from his boss on his Nextel with information about where to pickup and drop-off a package; he scribbles down or memorizes that information and takes to the street.
So what exactly are bike messengers carrying? For the most part, they deliver architectural blueprints, court documents, camera parts and subcontracts. Messengers can carry up to six or more packages at one time.
They also buy their own gear and carry it with them all day. A messenger’s equipment in addition to his bike includes a walkie-talkie, tire pump, spare tire, levers to take a tire off, bike lock and a collection of tools.
As soon as the messenger receives orders from dispatch, the focus becomes moving the package from point A, to point B as fast as possible.
“It’s like being in a videogame all day. That’s why people love the job, because you’re getting paid to race,” explains Grant Fator, 27, a messenger who has worked in Chicago for a year and messaged in Austin for six months.
Messengers are sprinters; getting on and off their bikes as fast as they can and locking them up in three seconds or less. Most runs are a mile and a half, and to put that into perspective, the distance from 1200 South Michigan to 1200 North Michigan is about three miles. Timing is everything, so messengers have to plan their routes carefully.
Nico Deportago-Cabrera, 26, a veteran bike messenger explained that “with time you learn how to be more efficient.” A good messenger will make about 30 runs and earn about $100 a day. That is one a good day, Deportago-Cabrera said.
“They’re going to pay you more the faster you get to a place, the more red lights you run. I have literally seen messengers plow pedestrians down; I have seen messengers try to gun the red light and get smashed by a bus,” Fator said.
This is not a job for the fainthearted.
“In order to do the job that’s required of you, you have to be willing to break the law all day long,” said Chris Horner, 27, who has worked as a messenger for 2 years, adding, “you basically have to be fearless.”
Messengers are expected to know how to get around the city and where to take packages.
“When you hear, ‘take it to 233 S. Wacker,’ if you take [that package] in 233 S. Wacker, security guards will literally come up and ask if you’re a bike messenger and tell you to go around the back,” said Fator.
In order to avoid encounters with security, messengers must learn how to be unseen. This is one of many unwritten rules in this line of work.
At lunchtime, messengers congregate at the Thompson Center, mostly because of the cheap food, public bathrooms, protective awnings and because its central location. On nice days, it is a place where messengers do bike tricks outside.
At the end of the day, each messenger turns in a manifest, a record of when and who signed for each package. This is how a messenger is paid. They bike home and, because messengers are often roommates, swap stories over beers and cigarettes before going to bed.
“In general as a bike messenger if you’re going to last long-term it’s because you love the lifestyle,” explains Fator. “When you’re working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days-a-week it pretty much envelopes your life. You are just dead tired all the time, but you are doing great work. You’re living that lifestyle all the time so you have to love it because you’re not making that much money doing it.”
“When you’re riding as much as we do you start to use all five senses to get around the traffic. It’s really impossible to explain,” said Malone, “another messenger, Josh Corby said ‘it’s kind of like watching a river flow over some rocks you can’t pick out the path the river takes it just flows around and through and just gets past the rocks’.”
Deportago-Cabrera said: There’s a rhythm that goes with [messaging]. You feel like you’re a part of this organism that is the city. It’s like you’re delivering oxygen to different parts of this body. You’re an insignificant part of it but you’re essential to it.
The job of bike messaging, when described by messengers, is an art form. It is something not everyone can do and few people master.
Messengers describe weaving through traffic like following a line through the city.
“There’s no stopping, that’s why guys ride without brakes. You just want to keep going around things and through things. You don’t want to stop,” Fator said.
“It’s when the pedestrians do the deer-in-the-headlights thing that we run into trouble,” said Fator. “If no one ever saw bike messengers and they just kept walking, we would be an inch away from you but we would be fine.”
The need for speed extends past the messenger’s workday into the nightlife. “Alleycat” races are high-speed scavenger hunts for bikers. Racers show up to a place at a certain time, pay a few bucks to the organizer, and right before they get the signal to go, each racer is given a manifest with a list of checkpoints.
At each checkpoint there is someone waiting to sign off. The first one to complete their manifest wins.
“Basically you’re doing your job afterhours and trying to be the fast guy,” said Fator.
Deportago-Cabrera was the 2009 Cycle Currier Champion, and he has competed in cities all over the world, taking him as far as Tokyo.
“It really got me amped on my job,” said Deportago-Cabrera of alleycat races.
For messengers, street credit means everything. That credit comes from surviving the winter in Chicago as a messenger and winning alleycat races.
The lifestyle of a messenger is high-risk. Injuries are part of the job. Of 113 Boston bicycle messengers who responded to a self-administered Harvard survey 90% reported injuries on the job; however, only 55% of those injured sought medical attention. In total, there were 25,000 “close calls” reported by the messengers over the course of their job experience.
Fator, like many messengers, does not have health insurance. Messengers can buy liability insurance through their companies, but it does not cover hospital stays.
“If any insurance stuff needs to be taken care of and it gets sent to your dispatch; 8 times out of 10 you lose your job over it,” said Fator.
When messengers get into accidents, they try to escape that situation as fast as they can. Fator expressed more concern about his bike braking than his body. He has had eight collisions with cars, and has been “doored” (hit by a car door) three times.
“Whenever [messengers] heal they’re out there doing the same thing because it’s a passion, it’s an adrenaline thing,” said Fator.
Of course, messengers know there is a risk. For many of them that is part of the job’s appeal.
Travis Hugh Culley said this his book The Immortal Class: Unforeseeable problems can surface, threatening serious injury, extreme fatigue, and frustration. But if a biker can keep a good outlook in the face of wrong addresses, rude recipients, flat tires, dying radio batteries, unruly cops, hotheaded security guards, and injured friends, he can become indispensable to a company.
People become messengers for different reasons, but they all share the passion for riding their bikes through a beautiful, living, breathing city. As Malone said, “I’ve found something that I love to do and can make a living at it. At the end of the day, it makes me happy. At the end of the day I feel satisfied that I’ve done my job. To me, that’s all that matters.”