A bike messenger is someone, usually in a large city, who delivers packages, parcels and letters using a bicycle as transport. They do this because bicycles can zip on sidewalks, through traffic and through groups people with a minimum of fuss. As such, a competent 'messer' can deliver a package across a crowded city ad mid day some times as much as 5-time quicker than a delivery company could do with a truck.

It's position I always romanced about, and probably still do if I think hard enough about it. it just seems like the cool life. Whizzing around crowded city streets, zipping though traffic, running over old ladies' feet and bunny-hopping curbs and watching crowds of 7-year olds go "Oooo".

Plus that there is a added benefit that William Gibson wrote a ripping work of fiction featuring bike couriers, Virtual Light. I want a carbon-wrapped paper bike with a beatbox too!

I worked as a messenger for a while, so I can relate some first-hand experience about this often-romanticized profession. I'm writing from my experience and knowledge of how it works in some American cities; I'm sure things are different elsewhere.

Working as a messenger is a rough way to make a living. You're generally paid a percentage of the fee for each delivery made; the exact percentage varies, where the smaller "indie" companies pay better. You generally won't be paid less than minimum wage, which is critical on a slow day when you might not have many opportunities to make tags. I found that I could make a bit over the minimum on busy days if I rode like hell all day got a few lucky rush jobs.

You're expected to provide most of your own equipment, particularly the bike. This is an exceptionally poor deal for a job that pays so little. I destroyed clothing, chains, and tires at a ridiculous rate. I was theoretically covered by workers' compensation, but of course health insurance was some sort of far-off dream.

There's a kind of hierarchy among the messenger companies. Most cities have a few large companies; they're generally the only ones who will hire people who don't already have experience. The smaller independent companies may only have a few riders. They're often started by messengers themselves, and are generally considered to be a much better place to work once you've paid your dues with the big guys.

The gig does have it's advantages. Obviously, it's fantastic exercise; within weeks you'll have great legs (or you'll quit). I'd never gotten so many free drinks, kind words, or flirtatious looks from the staff of the coffee shops and burrito stands as when I walked in with a radio strapped to my chest. Compared to, say, a retail position, you have a certain amount of autonomy; if you need some peace and quiet, you can just turn off your radio.

So if you really love cycling, and don't have any better job prospects, maybe messengering isn't a bad idea. Give it a try.

I did. It's also the only job I've ever quit with five minutes' notice.

AKA cycle courier, despatch rider

In London the delivery companies, which had previously relied entirely on motorcycles backed up by vans for larger packages, started taking on cyclists for work in the city centre in the mid 1980s, finding that the effective speeds of pedal cycles and motorbikes were more or less the same for deliveries within the area bounded by the West End and the City of London. In the UK Despatch riders are generally taken on as self-employed contractors (as are the vast majority of motorcyclists and van drivers), rather than employees, and are thus responsible for providing their own equipment (with items such as radios rented to them by the company itself) and sorting out their own tax and National Insurance arrangements; the Inland Revenue generally consider that providing your own equipment makes this bona fide self-employment even where you work for a single employer, so you are probably (IANAL and my experience predates a lot of changes in employment law) exempt from minimum wage legislation, as well as the stuff like sick leave, paid holidays, and unfair dismissal tribunals. Payment is exclusively on a piece-work basis; late 1980s pay rates were of the order of 40p per mile with a £2 minimum charge per delivery (which covered the vast majority of jobs for cyclists, although the company for whom I worked covered an atypically wider area with cyclists in order not to alienate the motorcyclists, who considered that we were creaming off the easy work at their expense). The most lucrative work is generally where you can carry several packages at once over a short distance. The majority of riders use stock mountain bikes although there is a hard core of riders using road bikes and more esoteric equipment. Although you can offset your bike shop bills against tax (i.e. pay them out of pre-tax earnings), you still need to take them into account (along with those 7000 calorie breakfasts) when figuring out how much you actually are earning ... it may just be worth getting yourself an accountant.

How to actually make a living as a despatch rider

Rule 1: learn your way around. You may have a pursuit time under 4:30, you may break very rule in the highway code, but you will still do the job slower than someone who doesn't waste time stopping to consult his A-Z at every turning. The key here is to learn the fastest through routes. They are not necessarily the shortest or straightest ones, and although riding the wrong way up one-way streets may save you having to use your brain, it's almost always quicker moving with the traffic. Watch where taxi drivers go (in London at least, where they have extensive training in The Knowledge). Learn the locations of every bike shop within your operating area, for when you need to replace something fast. Learn the traffic light sequences at the more complex junctions, and save your kilo rider's starts for the ones where you aren't going to be grinding to a halt 50 yards further on.

Rule 2: You only get wet once a day. There is more work around in bad weather, and fewer people doing it. You'll get wet, whatever you wear, but the main thing to do is to keep the water next to your skin reasonably warm. Thermal underwear should not be dissed.

Rule 3: Don't buy cheap gear. As cdc states, you get through a lot of bits, and will fairly rapidly come to appreciate that, as downtime costs money, the more expensive stuff may well come out cheaper in the end.

Rule 4: You don't make any money while you are helping the police with their enquiries or in hospital. While you certainly want to go as fast as you can, running every red light, riding against the traffic flow and riding on the pavement is likely to cost you. Bear in mind that you are starting out with a bad reputation almost by definition. Riding in traffic is something of an art - practice holding a position in a line of traffic rather than being overtaken by it (which means riding fast when you need to); learn to anticipate (but don't ride into the back of the car in front while you are watching what the one three places further forward is doing). Don't ride in the gutter - that's where the broken glass and the majority of stray pedestrians are. If you've never been inside one, try and take a ride or two in the cab of an HGV to get an idea what their drivers can see, can do, and will be trying to do while you're trying to sneak through(hitch-hiking is good for this) (the same goes for other types of vehicle, but you really don't want to fuck with heavy lorries). Basically the ideal is to behave like a motor vehicle in moving traffic - including lane discipline and signalling - and switch seamlessly to threading your way between the lines when it jams up; it is almost always safer and quicker to pass a line of stationary traffic on the outside than on the inside. Learn to trackstand (and when not to bother), and how to hit things without falling off.

Rule 5: Be nice to the clients. Try not to drip sweat or rainwater on their desks, or look too smug about the besuited tedium of their humdrum lives. But be nicer still to your controller, unless you want to spend all day doing Holloway to Hammersmith jobs. Which you don't, unless training miles are your main incentive.

There's not much in the way of a career path (unless you want to go on to become a controller and spend all day in an airless, windowless room lying to clients on the phone and getting stick from riders on the radio), but as a fill-in job - or even vacation employment - it has its plus points: fifty miles of interval training a day tends to mean that you do get pretty fit (if you can bear to look at a bike at weekends) and a few high-flying racing careers have started that way, and you get to wear sweaty lycra in inappropriate places. If you are the networking or career-hunting type you will also be in a good position to make contacts and get a few ideas about the ways in which different businesses operate. And it's a bit of a laugh, at least when it isn't sleeting.

Five two, five two, GOB W1 going SE1, anything else for me, roger?


Albert Herring's courier bike recipe:

  • One tatty but sound old road frame with long dropouts (in my case, a 1950s Hobbs of Barbican, Reynolds 531) that fits you
  • One pair wheels, track hubs with 22mm 700C rims, hand-built. Choice of 28 mm tyres, kevlar lined, make varies with season.
  • A fairly square pattern of road handlebars (Cinelli 63) mounted inverted with the drops cut off just above the position of the brake levers. The best brakes that will fit the frame. Old-style Tressostar cloth handlebar tape with a good layer of padding underneath it.
  • Transmission: single fixed wheel using any available chainset with single ring and fixed sprocket with lockring. Gear of choice: 48 x 19.
  • I'd probably use SPDs or better still Eggbeaters now, but there was a mid-80s model of Shimano pedal designed for normal shoes with toeclips that provided a lot of support for the sole in shoes you could still run up stairs in; went well with Sidi touring shoes.
  • A saddle that you find comfortable to sit on all day; old-style Campagnolo two-bolt seat pillar (or Shimano keirin-approved model if you can find one).
  • Mudguards. Worth about 2°C of body temperature on a wet winter's day and avoid the black stripe up the arse effect.
  • Heavy duty rechargeable lighting mounted clear of the bars. Dazzle the bastards.

Get frame sprayed something nondescript-looking by your local agricultural machinery specialist. Assemble components in traditional order, making particularly sure that the chain tension is right. Keep it reasonably tatty looking, but not so dirty that you can't see cracks forming in components before they fail. Use a big bastard lock; a chain and padlock slung round the neck may be more use than a D-lock as long as you're not using it for long at a time, since it can also help discourage aggression on the part of those you encounter along the way.

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