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Blood, Sweat, and One Gear

Bike Messengers Are Nuts. Messengers Racing Each Other Is Something Else Entirely

Baltimore Photographs by Christopher Myers
ROUGH RIDERS: Before the Baltimore Bike Messenger GangBang race, Aaron Platt chats up fellow competitors
Samantha Wales and Chrissa Carlson do gold sprints on stationary bikes
Gangbang organizer Isaac Shay kicks back
Participants prepare for the grueling race.
A cyclist in action at the World Championships
WORK HARD, PLAY HARDER: Baltimore's Aaron Platt hands a beer off to Isaac Shay during the Cycle Messenger World Championships

By Ron Cassie | Posted 7/27/2005

“Yo, dude, right here,” he says,
pointing out some scaffolding. “Here’s a spot.”

Nah, this guy’s gonna steal my bike, I tell myself, as I simultaneously hop off the seat and swivel my head looking for a vacant parking meter or light pole. Or something. This scrawny white kid thinks he’s going to hustle me and jack my bike on some side street in Jersey City.

But shit, there is nowhere else, and I gotta fly. I’m falling way behind already. So I hook my Kryptonite U-lock around my rear wheel and frame and the scaffolding and snap it closed. I give the asshole a hard look. If my front wheel or seat is gone when I get back, I’m gonna be pissed.

I quickly make my delivery, get my manifest stamped, and grab another pickup—a big, triangular FedEx box—and race right back. In and out in less than a minute.

Motherfucker!

Goddamn motherfucker stole my bike.

Some moron who saw it happen nods toward end of the block and says, “He went up the corner.” Fuckin’ helpful. I want to punch him just for standing there, but there is no time. I take off running as fast I can with my huge messenger bag and the FedEx box.

There he is. Thirty yards away. My lungs have been heaving and my mouth has been dry for the last half-hour before I got my bike ripped. I can’t even yell at the asshole.

Goddammit. My bike has been thrown across an empty loading dock, and now he’s jumping up to try to get away. I dive headfirst onto the platform and trip his left leg with one outstretched arm. “Ow, Christ, shit,” I hear in my head—or out loud, I don’t know. I pull myself up, punch the would-be thief hard in the chest with both fists. He drops my bike. I look at him in the eye . . . and smile, grab it, and leap off the cement platform. Back to the street, with my ride, I growl to no one in particular.

Cyclists are whizzing by, three, six, 10, and they’re screaming at me to get out of the way.

Blood is everywhere. There’s blood on my T-shirt and shorts. I instinctively lift my left hand. The top of my middle finger is flapping open like a screen door. It’s stinging like hell. I must have driven it directly into a nail or piece of metal when I swung my arm across the deck to make that tackle on the loading dock. Fuck Ray Lewis.

Now what? There isn’t anything at the end of your finger. Get to the next stop. Everybody is passing the shit out of you! something in the back of my mind says. Pick up the pace. Jesus Christ. GET MOVING!

This is what it’s like when bike messengers get together and race for kicks. Usually, there are some things planned that other people would consider fun, too.

 

The 13th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships were held earlier this summer in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, as well as Jersey City, N.J., which sits just on the other side of the Holland Tunnel from Manhattan. The five-day rally began Thursday, June 30, and lasted through Monday, July 4, with the main races getting underway the same day as the Tour de France and the whole thing winding down with an Independence Day barbecue. Organizer and New York courier Kevin “Squid” Bolger describes the event as “20 percent race, 20 percent family reunion, 60 percent party.”

On Saturday morning, the day before the finals, Baltimore messenger Isaac Shay prepared for his qualifying race in the sprint event, one of about a dozen different competitions that make up the World Championships. “It’s 11 a.m.,” he says with no small amount of frustration. “There has to be a liquor store open.”

Five-foot-eight and built like a lightweight boxer, 26-year-old Shay needed a pack of Camel Lights. He definitely didn’t need anything to drink. Hungover from the night before, he’d already guzzled so many Red Bulls that he expected to “ be shaking like a crackhead” at the start of his race. After bumming a smoke, he took a few “recovery rides” near the 250-meter straightaway alongside some Jersey City train tracks. Naturally, Shay, who works for Baltimore company VMW, claimed one of the biggest upsets in the qualifying sprints.

His four-man heat of riders got off clean, flying in tandem to the last 100 meters, with Shay on the leader’s rear wheel. At 30-plus mph, with hair either sweat-plastered to his face or flying off to the side, Shay cocked his head. Knees and feet blurring, he caught the front-runner in the last 10 meters and edged him out at the finish line.

“That was the highlight of everything for me,” he says. “That guy I beat [in the qualifying race] took second at the North American Championships. I’ve been to three Worlds and that was the best I’ve ever done. But a race is a race, too. The ante is higher, that’s all. Really, the best part of the Worlds is hanging out with couriers from all over the place, from Japan to England and all over Europe.”

Shay was, in fact, just one among more than 700 men and women from some 30 countries in competition for the title of world’s fastest bike messenger, including half a dozen couriers from Baltimore and a former messenger turned reporter turned, for the weekend, messenger again. Along with Shay, fellow Baltimoreans Chris Bishop, Aaron “Hot Sauce” Platt, and siblings Jed and Megan Digney made the trip up to New York to race and swap gear and stories with messengers from Tokyo, New Orleans, Zurich, and Warsaw. There was parking-lot bike polo, skid contests, velodrome sprints, bunny-hop competitions, 3 a.m. cruises through the Lower East Side, group rides over the George Washington Bridge, arm wrestling, art, live music, gambling, outdoor films in Riverside Park, breakneck races, frightening crashes, stitches, broken bones, and ambulances, all part of the adventure. There was also enough beer and pot in the mix to poleax a herd of elephants.

Bishop, who works for Ramm Rapid Courier, coined the Baltimore pack’s “20-grit” nickname after the 1999 North American Championships. “We had done real well up in Toronto,” Jed Digney remembers. “We were driving back, talking shit, like we were the drunkest, the best up there, had won this and that. And Chris says, ‘Yeah, we’re real smooth. Like 20-grit [sandpaper].’”

Digney, 29, is soft-spoken and slight of stature, belying a strong competitive streak. “When we go to races now we want be all rough-ass and represent Baltimore and other Baltimore couriers who don’t go,” he continues. “Everybody knows about Philadelphia and D.C. messengers, and we want to put Baltimore on the map.”

Even though each of the 700 messengers came to New York to compete, bike-messenger contests are quite different than the orchestrated pomp and crisp efficiency of, say, the Olympics. A 6-foot-1 Canadian male courier from Ireland showed up for the sprints in a pink polka-dot dress with a lime-green boa. During the team race on Saturday morning, the radio frequencies used by dispatchers were alive with directions and pleas broadcast in German, English, New Yawk-ese, and Norwegian (or maybe Danish), as riders filed in and out in of a simulated “home office” checkpoint in side-by-side chaos:

Bitte, bitte!”

“Where the fuck are you?”

Ja, ja.

Lauf!

“OK, go!”

The races themselves are not only physically demanding, they are designed to mimic the nonathletic challenges messengers face on an average day on the job. Bikes could—and did—get “stolen” and hidden by officials. (Remember that guy on the loading dock?) In the 45- to 60-minute qualifying heats for the 2.5-hour-plus main race, competitors had to intentionally flatten a tire, pull out their valve stem, put the tire and tube back on the wheel, reinflate, and only then race on. Adding to the tension, surrogate mail-room clerks and security guards, the bane of courier existence, stood by the checkpoints spitting insults
for amusement.

“What the fuck is this, dirtball?”

“Get this filthy piece-of-shit paper off my

desk.”

“You cannot park your bike there.”

“That’s not our package, idiot.”

“You got some ID?”

“You ain’t getting nothin’ till I see some

ID.”

The racers each received different manifests, log sheets of faux pickups and deliveries staggered in the same five-block area, each of which required a signature or stamp. Many of the streets on the course were one-way only, forcing racers to juggle logistics as well as oversized packages. One wrong decision on the fly could cost valuable minutes and eliminate a rider.

Previous Cycle Messenger World Championships have been held in Budapest, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Washington, and Philadelphia (the 2006 event is scheduled for Sydney). And over its 13-year existence, the event has become something of a big deal. Reporters from ESPN, The Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press, the Taipei Times, The Boston Globe, and German and Japanese TV networks were among the dozens of journalists gathered and pointing cameras at the finals July 3. And yet, to compete at the World Championships, a courier only needed to get to town with his or her bike, tools, messenger bag, and $50 registration fee. Any other details could be worked out on arrival.

“It’s like going to a punk show out of town,” Shay says while waiting with Bishop on a corner in Bolton Hill for his ride to New York after work on Friday afternoon, unconcerned that he had no definitive lodging for the weekend. “When it is time to sleep, you crash with whoever you’re partying with. It will work out. Trust me, it always does.”

Aaron Platt traveled to the event in traditional bike-messenger luxury. He grabbed the China Town bus—$20 each way, $35 round trip. Taking a break for the summer from classes at Towson University, he brought his messenger bag and his two-wheeler, not knowing if he was actually allowed to bring a bicycle. “I threw it underneath in the luggage compartment and nobody said anything,” he says. “The only thing anybody takes on that bus is backpacks. It’s kind of sketchy.”

Platt, 28, is the kind of person it is hard to imagine someone not liking. He’s earnest and helpful. Later in Baltimore, over a couple of beers, he admits that while he likes the courier lifestyle, he has some friends that have gotten too caught up in the booze and drugs that accompany the subculture.

Bishop, 30, has a decade in as a messenger and still has the rep as the fastest in Baltimore. He and his fiancée, Caroline Define, drove to New York fresh from a hike through Canada and avoided any worry about couch-surfing or reservations at a cheap motel by bedding down in the back of their van.

Mike O’Hara, a quality-control manager at an engineering firm and a Mount Vernon resident, is friendly with the Baltimore courier scene. “It’s not like there are that many people riding bikes downtown Baltimore, so you get know each other,” he says. He’sÅtrim, free of any obvious body art (unlike most of his messenger friends), and an amateur photographer with a web site (www.phattire.net) devoted to bicycling. He took Amtrak out of Penn Station.

“I knew I wasn’t allowed to bring my bike on-board the train,” O’Hara says. “But I figured if I bought my ticket at the last minute online and showed up with it, what could they do?” Turns out, they could give him a hard time about it. “So I took my entire bike apart, both wheels and the stem, too, took my shoelaces off, and tied it all up in a little package and carried it on,” he says. “What could they say? It was smaller than some stuff other people had.”

Rather than rent a room, O’Hara spent Saturday and Sunday night on the roof of a Howard Johnson in midtown Manhattan. “I walked in past the front desk and got on the elevator like I was a guest. I took it all the way up and then found the door to the top was open,” O’Hara recounts. “Then I went back down, got a pillow and a sheet, and slept until 8 o’clock. I saw the sun, stood up and stretched, and felt great.”

O’Hara’s story sounds a little too colorful, even in the world of messengers, until he turns on his digital camera to show a photograph of a white sheet and pillow resting in the middle of a pebbled roof in the morning light against Manhattan’s familiar skyscape.

Sunday brought out clear blue skies for the championship race. Saturday’s qualifying heats eliminated 550 riders, but Shay, Bishop, and both Digneys did well enough to make the cut list posted outside Brooklyn’s Rockstar Bar at 1:15 a.m. Sunday, during the conclusion of the arm-wrestling tourney. Now 50 yards back from 150 bikes, each costing as much as $2,000, lying in the middle of closed-off Grand Street
in Jersey City, the finalists stand around in the mounting heat, twitching and talking smack.

“Yeah, this is who I thought was going to be here,” one courier bellows, adding cockily, “Good!”

“Anybody finish in the top 10 last year?” another competitor asks defiantly. “Anybody?”

Nobody seems to pay attention.

A hand goes up: “This is mine.”

At least a thousand spectators have lined the starting area to watch. They are sitting on the curb, sitting in trees, standing on fences, and perched on lamp posts. The Hudson River, the New York skyline, and the 42-story Goldman-Sachs building, the tallest in New Jersey, serve as dramatic backdrop.

BANG!

The messengers scramble to find their bikes and take off. It’s elbows and knees and jockeying for position. It’s a miracle nobody goes down.

At least four messengers were taken to the hospital during the races in New York, all from separate accidents, most from smashing into other couriers during the qualifying heats. More should have gone. The night the World Championships concluded, Los Angeles messenger Ozzy Lopez was struck by a car and suffered several broken bones. Tragically, Spencer Morris, a New York courier and a housing coordinator for the race, was hit by a car in a non-work-related accident the day after the World Championships ended and was rehabilitating at a Portland, Ore., hospital as of press time.

“You are going to get hit,” Jed Digney says, expressing a truism of messengers, whether they race or not. “The odds catch you. I’ve been in five or six bad accidents and hospitalized three times. The worst time my femur was snapped in half. Always on St. Paul Street.”

The dangers of riding a bike as fast as possible in city traffic are serious, and that may be the strongest thread tying this diverse group together. Couriers know the risks, and drivers’ failure to share the road gets under their skin. But so do the low pay, the absence of health benefits, their clients’ and the public’s lack of appreciation for their dedication and professionalism. And they get little respect from commuters who bully the road, foul the air with gas guzzlers, and leave the city at 5 p.m., often to pay taxes elsewhere.

Embracing a low-paying and dangerous line of work is just one of the paradoxes bike messengers embody. They’re tattooed like Hells Angels, but they don’t have the beer guts. They own expensive bikes, but the machines are usually covered in spray paint and anarchist stickers. They are fit, but they are not diet and stopwatch-obsessed triathletes.

Riding down Fifth Street in Manhattan’s East Village, heading to the Ace Bar on Saturday after a full day of racing, a pack of Baltimore cyclists pedal by an 8-by-5-foot brick-wall graffiti portrait of the recently deceased Clash frontman Joe Strummer. Give Strummer a track bike and he could’ve joined the party. The iconoclastic “don’t fuck with me” mind-set shines through punk musicians and bike messengers alike.

“Track bikes,” with a single gear, are the Baltimore messengers’ choice. The bikes were designed for high-speed indoor velodrome racing, without brakes to prevent sudden stops and subsequent pileups. They require tremendous strength and skill to ride on city streets. To stop, a rider must lock his or her legs to slow down and prevent the pedals from continuing forward progress; lock your legs hard enough, you skid. The unofficial world’s record for a skid, 509 feet, was set on a track bike this year in New York.

These bikes have become the messenger vehicle of choice for several reasons, some practical, some poetic. “First, they look great, because they’re so spare. They have less parts that can break or get grimed up,” Jed Digney says. “Thieves don’t want them because they can’t ride them or sell them to pawn shops. I’ve seen two get jacked and then returned.

“But how do I say it?” he continues, searching for the perfect metaphor to illuminate the finer points of the difference between a track bike and a regular multigeared street machine. “It’s like t’ai chi vs. karate. One is fluid and one is constantly having to start and stop. A track bike maneuvers better in traffic, too. You have to slow down much earlier, before you come to a light, but you want to be moving all the time.”

“You do become like one with the road on a [track] bike,” says Bishop, who builds his own. “You hear more and sense more. You feel the road more, your feet are always moving with the pedals, so you react better. You react before you even know you are reacting.”

One quirky competition at messenger events was born from the courier practice of balancing on a virtually stationary track bike when caught at a busy intersection. A “track stand” contest determines who can stay on his or her motionless bike the longest without putting a foot on the ground.

At the World Championships participants had to remove one hand from the handle bars after five minutes of balancing upright to increase the degree of difficulty. Five minutes after that, with 20 or so competitors left, the other hand had to go.

After 10 more minutes with no hands, only their feet on the pedals, just over 10 messengers remained. So organizers asked them to lift one foot, leaving cyclists teetering with just the ball of a single foot slightly juggling one pedal. Remarkably, both Digneys were alive at this point. With a two-day beard, short curly hair, and an unbuttoned short-sleeve shirt, Jed Digney looked like a French high-wire artist, seemingly in a some sort of trance as he balanced. “The key,” he says, “is to focus on a spot just in front of the bike.”

Both eventually lost their balance after several more minutes, with Jed Digney taking third place overall; Megan Digney took third in the women’s category. Mike Cobb from Berkeley, Calif., won. “I practice at every red light,” Cobb says. “You definitely have to get ‘centered.’ I do yoga once a week and I think that helps.”

For the Digney siblings, this trip was somewhat bittersweet. They’ve ridden together all over the United States and France and Italy, including the Alps, but Megan, 25, is moving back to Los Angeles, away from her brother and parents here. She’s messengered in L.A. in the past and delivered subpoenas on her bike there as well. She learned to snowboard in California, too. Last year she worked at youth hostel in Chile, she says, spending part of her time guiding snowboarding tourists down a still-active volcano in Pucon.

“Megan’s going to do good [at the World Championships], she’s tough,” Jed predicts via cell phone while climbing North Charles Street in rush-hour traffic the Friday before the World Championships. “This is going to be one of our last trips together for a while. I’m going to miss her.” She eventually took third overall in the women’s fixed-gear Omnium category, which combines the results from the sprints, track stand, backward circles, and main event race.

Bishop was the top Baltimore finisher in the main race, placing just inside the top 40 finishers, several minutes ahead of Shay. Winners were awarded silver rear-sprocket medals on red, white, and blue ribbons. Even seasoned couriers don’t know what to expect exactly when they get to a big race like the Worlds. The events are often unique from year to year and tend to have a flying-by-the seat-of-your-pants vibe. For most messengers the joy isn’t winning or losing—it’s in letting it all hang out.

The Jersey City cops even got caught up in the fun. As three couriers in the finals, two guys and one woman, tore their last two laps around the course sans jersey, shorts, helmets, or underwear, one gregarious local police officer, unable to hide an ear-to-ear grin, bent down to explain what had happened to an incredulous 5-year-old spectator watching with his mom. “They were going so fast,” the officer told the confused youth, “that their clothes just blew off!”

 

Shay was in New York to race, maybe even win, and have a good time, but he also had a side mission: promoting an unofficial “alley cat” race in Baltimore the following weekend. Maybe you caught a glimpse of the 70 or so wheeled demons barreling around Baltimore on Saturday, July 9. Launched from the Sidebar Tavern on East Lexington Street downtown, the late-afternoon, 27-mile, three-person-team race and afterbash proved to be a scaled-down version of New York. Shay, who organized the race with fellow Baltimore messenger Damian Keller, is responsible for the periodic event’s politically incorrect moniker: the GangBang.

“We were just trying to think of something different, something that sounded, like the L.A. gangs, the Bloods and Crips,” he says. “Gangbangers, drive-bys, and all that.”

Shay and Keller shaped the course, copied maps, recruited volunteers to work the checkpoints, and advertised with posters, handouts, and a web site. They got T-shirts made, lined up sponsors, contacted companies to donate giveaways, found a local artist to create bike-inspired sculptures as prizes, got the cooperation of the Sidebar, and hired the DJ. There were burgers on the grill and a hip-hop show.

Former Baltimore messenger Matthew Schwar, who now customizes bikes in Portland, Ore., made the race, as did Portland’s Reverend Phil and his bike video cam. Dreadlocked Mike D. drove down from New York, and Switzerland’s Freddie Thern and Jo Jo Reader, the women’s world champ in New York, stayed in the United States an extra week to compete. Yoshi Tlatakeana, a messenger for Cyclex in Tokyo, arrived with couriers from Philly and won the track stand.

And a former bike messenger-turned-reporter-turned-bike messenger again, finger bandaged, is back in the saddle again for the second weekend running.

As in New York, the main race isn’t just a test of speed and endurance. At an early stop, near Hollins Market in Sowebo, racers rolls up to a checkpoint to do whiskey shots and beer chasers. The only alternative is even less appealing.

“I can’t tell some straight edge guy who’s winning halfway through that he’s disqualified because he doesn’t drink,” Shay says. “So there’s warm grape soda, which tastes like shit and will cramp you up later.”

From Southwest Baltimore it was on to a brutal uphill climb toward Gwynns Falls Park. Then to the William Wallace statue in Druid Hill Park. “I could taste my stomach acids at that point,” Chris Bishop says. “I thought I was going to throw up.” You think you’re going can catch your breath at some point, but you’re wrong.

“A head butt or 20 push-ups,” three shirtless blokes stationed at the base of the marbled martyr to Scottish freedom sternly inform you. Fuck.

I can’t do five push-ups right now, I say to myself, winded and unable to speak.

“I haven’t done a push-up since I got out of the Army,” Aaron Platt gasps nearby.

But staring at these bastards, each gleeful at the thought of cracking open your noggin, you convince yourself you’ve got 20 “good ones” to give. About seven of the 70 participants take the head-butt option, but they are among the minority of competitors wearing bike helmets.

Then to Wyman Park and an off-road trail. The purple carbonated sugar water—and drool—is now caked around the corners of your mouth as you swerve across 33rd Street to Waverly. Then Harford Road.

The only thing keeping the dirt, gravel, smog, and dust from completely blinding you at this point is the sweat pouring down your forehead. Fingers and forearms seize from your ever-ready grip, repetitive breaking, and dehydration. Pristine gyms don’t rob your lungs like ozone-depletion and bus fumes. Traffic is getting worse and no one is looking where the hell they’re going. Eventually a downhill brings riders past the city jail around dinnertime, and you can hear the inmates chattering and grabbing trays. “I should’ve made everyone eat a bologna sandwich at the checkpoint there,” Shay says later, with a tone of regret.

Each of the three team members was given a map with the checkpoints charted in a different order. At the last checkpoint in Locust Point, each team has to wait until all three members arrive, whereupon they sprint to the finish at the Sidebar in unison.

All this after a week of riding Baltimore’s torturous hills, punching across town to Johns Hopkins Hospital, darting between cabbies who would run over their own mother to get to a fare, squeezing between bakery trucks, dodging tourists, and enduring sweltering humidity.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Bishop admits after he and teammates/co-workers, Dante High and Chris “Sinister” Cummings, capture first place in Baltimore. “But there is no way I ride this hard during the week.”

Platt, who came in third with his teammates, David Chapman and Jamie “Chewy” Chwirut, chooses a different way to express the same idea. “I don’t know whether to puke or pee first,” he says right after finishing the main race. “I think I’d feel better if I puked.”

The team of Brian Bartch, Eddie Prince, and Ron Lurz comes in second. “I know all these guys, I work with them,” Shay says, chiding his fellow VMW messengers before he announces the runners-up. “And you all ought to be ashamed of yourselves for letting them beat you.”

Physically, the GangBang was more intense than anything in New York, because of traffic, terrain, heat, and distance—and the lug to the top of Federal Hill. Megan Digney took a bad spill, suffering a concussion and a head wound requiring several stitches. She was released from the hospital the same day, but her memory of the previous few days was scrambled briefly. “I was looking at the map and trying to figure out where I had to go next and wasn’t paying attention like I should’ve been,” she says, more embarrassed than defensive.

At 10 p.m., only 90 minutes after the strength-sapping 2.5-hour marquee race (three hours for slowpokes) and rehydration courtesy some Natty Bohs, some of the messengers jump into one-on-one sprints on stationary bikes in the back of a pickup truck. For these so-called gold sprints, the rear wheel of each bike is hooked up to a computer that measures the power generated by each rider. What looks like an enormous clock with two giant second hands is projected on a 16-by-12-foot wall behind the cyclists. One hand is green, matching a green bike, and the other red, matching a red bike. Fans, hooting and hollering, track the simulated 500-meter race as it is displayed by the clock’s second hands. The racers follow on monitors in front of them as they pump away. It’s a little like competing in a killer Tour de France stage and then challenging everybody to a footrace in the parking lot afterward.

 

Hard-core messengers, those who stick with it for years, are talented athletes by any measure. Former New York messenger Nelson Vails, who appeared with Kevin Bacon in the bike-messenger movie QuickSilver, during bike messengers’ first taste of pop-culture fame in 1986, also won an Olympic silver medal for velo, or track racing, in 1984. Former German bike courier and 1998 Cycle Messenger World Champion Yvonne Kraft took seventh at the 2004 Athens Olympics mountain-biking event. Jeremiah Bishop, originally from Pikesville and briefly a courier with local firm Magic Messenger, won a gold medal in the 2003 Pan American Games in mountain biking, and currently races professionally with Trek/VW. Brooks Rapley of Toronto, who won the sprint competition at the Cycle Messenger World Championships this year, has won a silver medal at the Canadian track-racing championships.

ESPN filmed part of a documentary at the New York races. A film crew tagged along with New York courier Alfred Bobe Jr. Bobe is a member of Puma’s sponsored messenger team, the first of its kind. The sneaker company has been providing bikes, gear, travel and hotel expenses, health insurance, and per diem to its New York-based team for the past year. It’s sending them to courier events around the globe. (Shay says that he’s sent letters out inquiring about sponsorship, but has received little response; Pabst sprung for some GangBang T-shirts and such.)

Bobe was one of the favorites to win the big race in New York, but only finished in the top third. Regardless, he won an important velodrome race in Los Angeles, placing him in the elite group of U.S. cyclists. There is talk of him training for the Olympic team for 2008 in Beijing.

“I never knew I had that kind of talent,” Bobe says. “I’ve tried to do other things, but I always come back to this. It is the pull of the bike. But I’m 31 years old, and I have two kids. We’ll see.”

One thing to watch for at the Cycle Messenger World Championships was the differing styles presented by the top couriers from Europe—Scandinavia, in particular—alongside the U.S. messengers. The teams from Holland, Finland, Denmark, and Belgium looked elegant, sporting matching spandex suits, helmets, road bikes, and cleats. In comparison, the Americans were typically bearded, pierced, and disheveled. Four of the top five male riders were from Scandinavia. Overall winner Karl Stransky was from Switzerland.

In Europe, being a bike messenger “is seen as more of a professional job,” says Achim Vogt, from the German team Per Rad. “We have health benefits, vacation, yes. I think, from what I can tell, it is much different than it is in the United States.”

“In Europe, cycling is much more
respected than it is here,” Bishop says. “Which is strange now, because we have Lance [Armstrong].”

Lots of U.S. couriers have raced on sponsored teams and clubs in lower pro-level and top amateur events, but racing glory is not on the minds of most. Many of the guys and gals spend years developing their love of riding into a lifestyle that
allows them to travel and be a part of
the brotherhood.

“For all times that I curse the decisions I have made in my life,” Bishop continues, “I wouldn’t do it any differently if I had the chance. I started and sold my own business [local messenger firm Marathon Express]. And I’ve traveled all over the world and paid for it myself. People sometimes look down on you like you’re a lowly messenger, but they don’t know the whole story. They don’t know we put on stuff like the World Championships and this race in Baltimore.”

When hurtling through traffic unprotected on top of a few pounds of gracile metal becomes harder and harder to reconcile, many messengers transition off the bike to other aspects of the subculture. They become bike builders, T-shirt silk-screeners, apparel designers, and bike painters. Many become mechanics, some start courier services of their own, some manufacture messenger bags. Others use the courier and underground cycling world as inspiration for their photographic or literary pursuits. One even retired to become a reporter.

But while it lasts, messengering—whether on the clock or racing in alley cats—is its own reward. “I like seeing everybody the best, hearing the different languages and seeing all the faces,” Megan Digney says of her time at this year’s World Championships. “It’s not like I know everybody, but I like the feeling of belonging to a tight-knit community. At times I feel like I don’t who I am, you know? I used to feel like a lone wolf, a lonely person, but at the races I feel like I’m part of something larger, and that’s cool.

“I also like to race, too,” she adds. “When you’re racing, you don’t ride like you do when you’re working. You ride until you’re ready to throw up. You push yourself to the limit. Afterward, though, you feel stronger.”

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