The rain rolling against the window like the sound of a tom-tom drum. The phone ringing early, way too early. “Smiley, it’s Eighter,” the voice saying through the fog of the early morning. “I’m sick today. Can you cover for me?”
Then, the hurried breakfast, university classes forgotten for the day, pulling on a long-sleeve thermal, a light rain jacket that would do little to protect against the deluge by the end of the day, and plastic shopping bags for makeshift and temporary booties. A long day ahead, of treacherous yellow lines, the spray of car tyres, brake blocks wearing to their quick. The inevitability of cold feet. Everything wet and sodden. Fumbling with envelopes and parcels and papers and notebooks and receipts, unable to keep it all dry. Praying for the end of the rain and a brief respite of sunshine. The worst job in the world.
In the mid-1980s, a forward looking courier company in Auckland (population approx. 1 million), New Zealand expanded its car, van and motorcycle fleet to include the city’s (and the country’s) first bicycle courier (the antipodean name for the cycle messenger). The city’s business community was expanding, Wall Street-like, and the demand for fast inner city deliveries was increasing. It was thus that Andy, an English import, became a familiar – if unusual – sight on local streets.
Andy’s success saw the addition of new riders to the company. Other companies soon followed suit. The riders were all young, early to mid-20s, part-time students or those drifting and dreaming and wanting to reap the rewards of riding fast and outdoors in the city. By the time the new guys were on the road, Andy was already several years ahead in the game – he knew all the routes, the shortcuts, which floor of which tower a company left or received its packages, and which offices had the prettiest secretaries. But he didn’t need these advantages, for Andy was a very, very good bike rider. In typical English style, he didn’t talk much about himself, although some said that he’d ridden in the Milk Race in Britain. He was garrulous off the bike, and liked to spin a yarn or two, and liked a beer with the rest of the boys on a Friday night. But he was older (how much, no one really knew) and had a family to take care of. Weekends were strictly family time.
In some ways he was like Paul Sherwen in his professional years, in both his appearance on the bike and his conduct off it. And Andy could sure ride. He had the easy cadence of someone who has put the miles in, and then some. He never appeared to be really working hard, no matter how tough the day. A true gentleman, he would offer his wheel on a climb if you were going his way, and there was never any ego. But the elastic was always kept taught and one knew that if he stood up in the saddle, he would drop you without much effort.
Which was no mean feat. The rest of the crew were pretty handy on the bike themselves – ex roadies and track racers and part-time mountain bikers. Young, testosterone fuelled and prepared to bury themselves for the work. The distances each day were not massive – less than 100 kilometres over 8 hours. But there was always intensity, fast deliveries that were like interval training. And sometimes these intervals lasted all day. After a summer of riding, all those short and sharp climbs, one’s fitness was like a simmering pot of hot sauce, ready to be ladled out in copious servings.
The incentive to ride fast was twofold. Firstly, there was the pressure to prove oneself. There was no competition among the riders in the company, no poaching of jobs or deliveries, but there was a need to perform, to do your share and to do it well. It didn’t matter if you were a shy, bookish university type who listened to the wrong music, you would still fit in if you could ride. Secondly, there was the money.
The business was simple. A customer would pay $3 for a delivery by bicycle courier in the designated CBD zone. That delivery would be guaranteed to be there within the hour. A ‘double’, for $6, would be delivered in 30 minutes. A ‘triple’, for $9, would be there in 15 minutes. The courier company took 50% of the rate, the rider the other 50%. Not much per job, but it stacked up. On a good day, before lunch or late in the afternoon, the triples might pile up in one’s bag. Six triples on, radio call from the dispatcher (no pagers or cellphones in those days, just RT radios), time for one more. Ride fast!
It added up. $200+ days were unusual but did happen. Sometimes $1,200+ a fortnight was possible. A gross of $40,000 per year was realistic. Not bad for guys without university degrees. Jobs were given by the dispatcher based on the location of each rider – those best placed to take the job – some measure of seniority, and the ability of the rider to handle the load. Andy also had a set of regular deliveries, at a fixed rate. They say he took home $60,000 or more annually – and more than some pro racers would have been making at the time.
The work was not the hardest physically, but it was tough enough. It didn’t require the most brain power, but one still had to think strategically and cope under pressure. In the summer, under blue skies with the warmth of the sun, riding hard and then relaxing to watch the girls go by, thinking of cold beer at the end of the day, it was the best job in the world. Taking the early morning call to fill in, or on a regular shift, in the middle of winter, with the rain pouring down and the wind blowing frigid off the ocean, it was downright miserable.
Tools of the trade
Unlike the casual North American bike messengers, this crew had a uniform of matching company kit. It was a team vibe and everyone pitched in to help out – directions, tips and tricks, pick ups and hand offs when needed. Tools of the trade were usually mountain bikes, with narrow bars and slick tyres, sometimes roadie cassettes or other modifications. Acceleration and manoeuvrability were preferred to straight line speed.
Andy was the exception. His bike was a Cannondale road model, all thick tubes and super-rigid aluminum. There were few concessions to style. Bar tape was grey, dirty and worn; for a time it even disappeared entirely. There was a rear rack for parcels. He may have had a hand-built steed from his racing days in the shed at home, but that seemed unlikely. The weekends were not for riding – unlike the rest of the crew, unable to fully relax after a week of adrenaline highs – but for relaxing with his family. His legs likely switched off entirely on a Friday night and started fresh on Monday morning. Recovery was probably his secret to longevity.
But you could tell Andy was a professional when on his bike. He had an easy style, a hard man’s souplesse that the rest could only envy, superb handling skills, and the confidence of a patron. Deliveries were always on time, always to the right place; no stack of triples too difficult to pick up and deliver. No stress. Not so much a passion for the bike, but élan – taking pride in doing the job right and doing it well. Andy was a reminder that how one is judged on a bike is not about appearances but about how one conducts oneself. Not being, but doing.
Ossification and the ‘rules’
It is not hard to find ‘rules’ on the internet about being a cyclist. These range from style advice on how to look ‘PRO’ (sock colour, bike colour coordination, how to wear one’s sunglasses and so on) to rules of conduct. The site that takes this to the extreme is Velominati, which – at last count – had 91 rules(!). Most of the ‘how to be PRO’ sites are a little tongue-in-cheek. After all, we all like a bit of style advice, even if we choose to ignore it later. Velominati appears to be much more serious, but has obviously been allowed to morph into a rather enjoyable parody of itself, otherwise it can only be read as farcical (some of the rules are sensible, others so ridiculous that critique is unnecessary).
The desire to have rules to govern cycling as a hobby is like Identity Politics 101. We all like the social aspect of being in a group. We worry, however, that the group will get too large and not contain enough like-minded members. So we construct rules and rituals to make it exclusive, to filter out those that don’t ‘fit’. Safety in numbers, but not too many and no non-conformists that might be a threat. There’s usually nothing sinister about it in the cycling context, but there is a risk that rules become not just fun talking points but enforceable rules that lead to the exclusion of those that don’t follow them. This leads to ossification, a fixing in place of a conception of what cycling should be, impervious to change. (In the case of the Velominati, it’s a kind of retro Euro machismo, mixed with what writer Martin Ryle calls “technophiliac consumption” or a fixation on the machine.)
Such an ossification would be lamentable, particularly as cycling is growing in popularity. We all stand to benefit from more people taking up cycling – the industry is sustained, we can enjoy a cycling camaraderie with more people, events become more financially secure, and there is more support for bike lanes and greater tolerance for cyclists on the roads. Trying to ‘protect’ cycling is a backward-looking attitude that betrays a kind of existential fragility. Enforcing some imagined set of rules on your group ride is bizarre, frankly; there’s really only one rule that has any real relevance – be friendly and ride safely.
Andy’s heyday seems like a lifetime ago. What became of his job after the emergence of email and other electronic communication is not known, at least by your author. One is reminded of him, though, with his unshaven legs, his tired grey helmet, his ancient Carnac shoes, his Oakley glasses on a cord, and his road-worn Cannondale, when one reads another iteration of the ‘rules’ of cycling. Would there be tittering from a group of slavish rule followers as they passed him out on the road? Some advice as to how to look more PRO?
Andy’s response might have been to give them a lesson in humility, riding them off his wheel. But that would be unlikely. He would probably shrug and let them go by. For Andy, his rules of conduct, his professionalism, his being a gentleman were not a means of obtaining external validation. They were values in and of themselves. They were how he defined himself. Not as part of a group but as an individual. Ultimately, riding his bike was just a job – not who he was. He did it well, better than many of us could hope for, but that didn’t matter. We can see him through the prism of his riding, but that is not who he was.
We all like to be part of the group, just as we all have our own cycling rules that we follow individually. We often take our bike riding seriously, which is just fine. But as soon as we become fixated on misguided notions of applying so-called rules to others, we make cycling an exclusionary pursuit – when it should be exactly the opposite. The qualities that we should be interested in are those we have as people, not just as cyclists. To put it crudely, you could be a follower of all the rules and still be a dick that no one wants to ride with (particularly if you are prone to lecturing others on the supposed rules). Or, you could be a flagrant transgressor and still be an admirable rider. It’s all about being individuals, not myopic followers of some invented traditions. Ultimately, a more inclusive and less self-righteous world of cycling – that welcomes more and more riders to its membership – will benefit us all. Most of us accept this as obvious.
If we are interested in style tips, the pro peloton is an imperfect guide. Styles, if we can call them that, are always changing. Sometimes they get it right in style terms, sometimes not so much. But the goal of riders is not to look PRO but to get their sponsors noticed. That’s what professionals are paid to do.