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Mumbai Mess: The Ultimate Bike Courier Race through Indian Megalopolis

What happens when three of the world’s best bike messengers face-off in complete traffic chaos? Six kilometres through rush hour madness is not a feat for the faint of heart in any city, but in Mumbai? Well that is a whole different story.

Nevertheless, lunch is ready and hungry workers are expecting it to be served hot, so this crew has their work cut out for them. Taking on the century old tradition of the dabbawala, our contestants were faced with infiltrating the revered Indian food delivery system. Most are familiar with the infamous alley-cat races, that for decades have served as the benchmark for who is who within the world of bicycle messengers, but this challenge takes things to a whole new level.

The Mumbai traffic is so unpredictable and dense that even after finishing the race, safely nestled in Škoda YETI, our three contenders were all under a new threat – death by boredom because the traffic jam of a city seemed to produce virtually no movement.

Our dream team consisted of three fearless cyclists who have made a name for themselves on the international messenger radar. Austin Horse is a New York based courier, an ambassador for Red Bull, and regarded by many to be the undisputed king of the messengers who has two victories in Cycle Messenger World Championships under his belt. Allan Shaw, a Scottish rider, has worked all over the word and is a frequent participant and winner on the alley-cat circuit. The final contestant hails from Paris and took the title of the first female winner of the Messenger World Championship in 2016. Cécile Bloch is respected for her professional and friendly manner, but she’s also been called ‘an animal on a bicycle’, meaning it is anyone’s race.

Mumbai is a great example of how lacking infrastructure turns the urban environment into a battleground of cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. One of the main reasons behind this project was to show the stark contrast between such cluttered and busy city structure and the two cities, Seville and Copenhagen, we visited during our previous Bike Friendly Cities series.

More than just an organized street race though, this challenge also tapped into the honor of the dabbawala. A straightforward translation leaves us with lunch box (‘dabba’) carrier (‘wala’), and these folks get the job done. The dabbawala are an organization of over 5000 in Mumbai. They have developed a system that revolves around strong teamwork and strict time-management, with an efficiency rate that continues to fascinate experts of supply chain management.

Dabbawalla is a Hindi term for someone whose job it is to deliver a hot lunch from a worker’s house to their place of work. For more than 125 years, this network of approximately 5,000 largely illiterate rural workers have been delivering 200, 000 fresh meals every day. Prepared with love and care by wives and mothers across the city, the coordination of the meal delivery happens using nothing more that 3-4 crudely painted symbols.

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When companies like Coca-Cola and Amazon are inviting members of your organization to present the model to managers, you know you must be on to something. Yet that is exactly what has happened with the dabbawala. Originally set up in 1890 to carry lunches from home to office for British administrators who would not carry their own lunches in public, today it serves a similar function for the commuters of Mumbai- home to 20 million people.

Travelling primarily by bicycle, dabbawalas collect freshly cooked meals from their customers’ homes, they then sort and deliver each of them to offices and workplaces throughout the city by lunchtime. This is not in any way a small operation.

The dabbawala deliver an astonishing 200,000 meals across the city, every day, with almost perfect accuracy in order fulfilment.

Clearly not a system easy to navigate for an outsider, so we challenged some of the world’s finest messengers to see if they were up to the task.

These three daredevils agreed to assume the title of dabbawala for one day, take to the streets of Mumbai, weave their way through traffic, and prove they have what it takes to make the delivery in the world’s most extreme city conditions. With their pride on the line, and in a city where traffic regulations seem to be taken as a highly adaptable set of ‘guidelines,’ all rules were thrown out the window. This group ran reds, overtook buses, dogged bewildered pedestrians and even weathered a crash or two.

If you’ve ever seen a professional bike messenger zipping between cars at 20mph with a truckload of goods strapped to his back, you understand just how varied a skillset the profession requires. In a testament to the fact that bicycle couriering is about so much more than just making money, these riders prove they have a serious skill set that goes above and beyond getting from point A to point B. Eager to prove they can keep pace with Mumbai’s notorious dabbawala, find out whose lunch arrived hottest.