Remember stories of the Pony Express from history class? You know, those brave young lads who delivered mail on horseback in 1860 when there was a need for a fast, reliable parcel service.
They stormed through fields, barreled along
narrow mountain trails and navigated endless deserts at breakneck speed in an attempt to meet their deadlines.
To qualify, riders had to weigh less
than 125 pounds and have experience with
horses. Basically, they were scrawny, toughas-nails dudes risking their lives in the name of efficiency.
Sound familiar? Today, our major cities
see a strikingly similar breed of messengers: the bicycle courier. These urban warriors also embark on perilous missions in all weather conditions, weaving in and out of traffic, dodging car doors and avoiding pedestrians in their quest to deliver the package.
Swap the horse for a customized bike, substitute narrow trails with narrow city
streets and throw a single-strap sling pack on their backs and it’s essentially the same line of work.
“This job is a lot different than what
most people think,” said Eric Nordberg, owner of TimeCycle Couriers, Philadelphia’s largest bicycle messenger service. “It’s constant riding, running and taking elevators – many ‘newbies’ quit within the first week.”
Depending on the time of year, there are roughly 100 professional bicycle couriers in Philadelphia. On a good day, they can handle close to 35 orders and those on commission can earn up to $150.
Chet Grundle, a courier for C&E Legal
Courier Service Inc., which caters mainly to law firms, has delivered parcels on his bike in Philadelphia for more than five years. The 36-year-old veteran messenger has also worked for more than seven different courier outfits in his career. He shows no signs of slowing down.
“Being a bike courier in the city is a
great gig,” Grundle said. “I was a carpenter before I started messaging and I love this job because I get to ride around, meet a ton of new people and see new things every day.”
In an era of fax machines, e-mail and parcel services like Fed Ex, DHL and UPS, bicycle messaging may seem to be something
of a novelty enterprise. This is not the case, according to Nordberg.
“Clients choose bike couriers because we are hands down the fastest, most reliable means to get something from point A to point B in the city,” Nordberg said. “The
post office is extra slow in cities so people even give us packages for the following day because they don’t trust them.”
Nordberg started working as a bike
messenger in 1989 and founded TimeCycle
in 1991 with one other rider and a pair of
pagers. Today, TimeCycle employs 21 regular couriers as well as 15 drivers for larger orders and extensive distances and handles anywhere from 500 to 650 parcels a day.
In addition to TimeCycle and C&E Legal,
there are an abundance of other courier services for businesses to choose from in the city like Heaven Sent, 1-Hr. Rapid, Kangaroo, Legal Beagle, American Expediting and MCS.
“Many companies don’t have a favorite, preferred courier,” Grundle said. “They’ll just call around and choose the firm that can guarantee the fastest delivery time.”
The way a courier service conducts its day-to-day operations is in this fashion: An office in City Hall will call to place a delivery order, a service’s dispatcher will then get their location, request and destination, relay that information to one of its couriers on the road and the closest rider to the site will get the nod.
TimeCycle, for instance, offers various rates depending on urgency and location. Their standard 1-hour “Rush” service is $5.50 within the Center City zone, a 30-minute “SuperRush” delivery is $10 and TimeCycle Couriers even offer a 15-minute “TimeWarp” which runs for $15.
Nordberg explained that roughly 98 percent of his company’s business is conducted
downtown. But, messengers must be prepared to serve areas as far as Camden and Philadelphia International Airport. Rafiq Young, a TimeCycle courier, has been in the business for three years and said he has made some lengthy trips.
“I’ve picked up packages all the way out in Chestnut Hill and had to deliver them to the Navy Yard off Delaware Avenue,” Young said.
Messengers at TimeCycle earn a 60 percent commission on every package delivered,
while C&E pays their cyclists a yearly salary. Some other courier services pay by the hour.
“If I was on commission, I would have to work twice as hard to make the same pay,” Grundle said.
Another TimeCycle courier, Matthew Kendig, who worked for C&E for four years as well as other messenger companies, said that working for commission beats working for an hourly wage.
“We’ve delivered some wild stuff for our clients,” said TimeeCycle dispatcher and former courier Colin Trainer. “Our messengers have brought turtles for a kid’s show-and-tell, homework to a girl’s school and even sealed body parts for surgery.”
“What couriers deliver has definitely gotten a lot bigger in size,” Nordberg said. “We used to deal mainly with letters, whereas now the demand is there for packages. Our riders can generally handle up to 50 pounds of parcels.”
As the bike is the courier’s livelihood, it is crucial to have something that is both light weight and durable. Most professional messengers opt for a fixed chain setup allowing the rider to brake simply by stopping pedaling.
This also means that the messenger must pedal constantly and cannot coast.
“A lot of couriers use racing bikes,” Young said. “I ride a light steel track frame from the late 80s, which is used in Velodrome races.”
“My bike is my pride and joy – my baby,” Kendig said. “She’s a Japanese racing frame, but I put close to $1,500 into customized parts, so it only weighs 16 pounds. Some messengers go with something lighter, but if you go too low, you sacrifice strength and in a crash, the bike would fold up like an aluminum can.”
Though lugging heavy packages on a stripped-down bicycle among notoriously reckless city drivers may seem like a death wish, Nordberg explained that cyclists just need to be aware.
“There are really not as many crashes as one would expect,” Nordberg said. “The more experience [couriers] have, the less mishaps occur. Pay attention, watch traffic and you’ll be fine.”
Accidents do occur, nonetheless. “It all depends on what part of the city you’re in,” Grundle said. “Drivers in South Philly drive differently than those up north, but Center City is probably the most dangerous
because it’s such a mix of people from all over.”
“I’ve had two major wrecks in my time as a courier,” Kendig said. “One was my fault as I just ran a red light and got thrown off my bike to the sidewalk. The other time, I was on East Market Street in the bike lane when a guy pulled a U-turn. I couldn’t avoid him, so I just braked as hard as I could and took the brunt of the car’s impact which separated my shoulder.”
Young also said he had to get seven stitches in his shoulder last summer because a car door opened on 8th Street.
“Car doors are the most unpredictable,”
Grundle agreed. “Everything else we can pretty much control. I’ve been fortunate to not have any major accidents in my five years.”
In spite of obvious dangers, most couriers
leave the helmet at home.
“I can never get our staff to wear [helmets],” Nordberg said. “We always encourage it, but only about one-third wear them.”
Behind this rugged facade, beyond the tattooed, pierced stereotype, what really makes the bicycle courier tick?
“We’re basically a very loose-knit community that gets together to drink,” Nordberg said, laughing.Courier hangouts include bars like McGlinchy’s and Good Dog on 15th Street along with Bob & Barbara’s on South Street.
“People in the media love to lump us into these specific categories,” Grundle said.
“The stereotypes don’t apply. Messengers come from all walks of life and range from the twenty-something to middle-aged.”
Bicycle couriers can be found in practically every major city around the world. Each year, the 14th Annual Cycle Messenger World Championships are held in a different global city. This year, the championships will be held from Oct. 20 to Oct. 23 in Sydney, Australia.
“The event is a conference and race, but it’s more about just shooting the breeze and hanging out,” Trainer said. “I’m attending it next month and will compete, but I don’t get too cutthroat.”
When asked about the emergence of the recent bike messenger fad, Nordberg said, cackling, “There’s definitely a fashion trend that spawned from our line of work. You see those wannabes riding around with their satchels and customized bikes, but what are they delivering? When I started as a courier, there was no such thing as messenger-chic!”Kendig agreed. “Fashion is fashion. Anyone who picks up on a trend is most likely not actually involved in the lifestyle,” he said. “I just wish the kids riding the bikes looking like us actually knew how to ride.”
“We call them decoys,” Grundle added, “those kids who rock the cut-off Dickies and have the packs, but aren’t actually couriers. This profession used to be full of people who simply loved to ride and needed the work. Now, people try to come out because it’s the cool thing to do. We have kids showing up applying with their $1,000 racing bikes and a new pack, like they did their research, or something. If you put that much thought into a career, wear a suit. Who the [hell] wants to become a courier? It seems dumb that kids want to be me – I’m a knucklehead.”
Professional bicycle couriers are a diverse, committed group of working stiffs. Though it’s hard to put a finger on the mysterious community, they are known for their love of the job and ability to have fun at what they do.
“If you would’ve told me when I was 10 that I’d be getting paid to ride bike, I would’ve been ecstatic,” Kendig said, laughing.
“I’ll do this until I retire if my body lets me.”
Cody Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.