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INTERVIEW: New York Bike Messenger Subculture Through the Eyes of a Veteran

By Jonathan Bouchard (Polska à vélo)

Few jobs in this world can claim to have their very own subculture the way bike messengers do. With their unsanctioned alleycat races across towns, these gals and guys have not only some serious watts in their legs, but an interesting story to tell as well. Joshua Weitzner, the co-founder of Samurai Messenger Service, is one of them. He leads a successful company which serves the greater New York city area, the mecca of bike messengers. He is therefore the ideal person to offer the world an inside knowledge of this cultural phenomenon.

Where did the idea of the name Samurai Messenger Service come from?  And how did it all start?

I think most people know that the Samurai were the feudal lords in ancient Japan, but maybe a little lesser known is that the word “Samurai” roughly translates to “Those Who Serve”.  The messenger industry is a service industry, and when we were starting out it just clicked. In a world of “Lightnings”, “Fasts”, “Quicks” and “Expresses”, being “Samurai” was an easy way to differentiate ourselves from the crowd.

Samurai was founded by Bret Jergensen, Daniel Gordon, Seth Johnson and myself in 2009. Collectively, we had worked as messengers in 6 different cities, with more than 35 years combined experience on the road.

We had seen how the industry worked to pit messengers against each other, and how a perpetual race to the bottom led to stagnant wages, exploitation of labor, and generally dismal working conditions.

We didn’t really have a plan beyond “Do better”.

Bike messengers play polo on their bicycles during an unofficial tournament. The most important rule is that the player’s feet cannot touch the ground. If a player’s foot touches down, he must ride to the sideline and touch an orange traffic cone with his mallet before returning. © Profimedia, TEMP Rex Features

To that end, we did away with a lot of the conventions of the industry – making our messengers employees, offering profit sharing, and guaranteeing a living wage. And, it worked. We’ve consistently grown since opening our doors, and have moved from 4 guys juggling two cell phones to a full-time staff of close to 20 people working every day.

It’s always a struggle, and there’s always a new challenge, but isn’t that just another way of saying “It’s always exciting”?

Bike messengers are often associated with modern “hipster” culture, where bearded bros, fixie bikes and cool fashion attires rule the urban two-wheeled world. So much so that today’s major bike manufacturers and cycling apparel companies are offering products based on this very scene to the general amateur cyclists. Outside of the myths and misconceptions, could you tell us if in fact there is a bike messenger subculture? If yes, could you define it for us in your own words?

There is absolutely a bike messenger subculture. It’s a job that attracts a certain type of person with high tolerances for pain, extreme temperatures, and vast piles of bullshit. Being a messenger is a job that almost anyone can do, but only the smallest percentile of people can do well.

Most of the time, it’s a lonely job. Getting together after work is often the only time messengers have to interact with each other (outside of long, miserable hours waiting in messenger centers and mail rooms). Those hours in a bar after work begat alleycat racing, and alleycat racing begat Messenger Championships!

Those closed course work simulations take place annually, their location changing every year. This year, the 23rd annual European Cycle Messenger Championship (ECMC) took place in Szczecin, Poland, the 20th North American Cycle Courier Championship (NACCC) took place in Philadelphia, and the 26th Cycle Messenger World Championship (CMWC) took place in Riga, Latvia.

These events are serious competitions, with a variety of contests in multiple cycling disciplines, but they’re also family reunions, blow-out parties, and an excuse to see the world. Host cities open their doors to messengers from around the world, and not only do you get to see what riding around their town is like, but also what’s the local dive bar. It’s not exactly tourism; you get a taste of what life is really like for someone with the same job in a different city.

I don’t think any other job has anything quite like it.

The sudden and massive growth of online transfers of legal documents in the early 2000’s affected your industry big time in a city like NYC. How is the industry doing in 2017?

As long as there’s no Teleporter and no Replicator, cities large and small will always require the ability to move goods from point to point. The world may no longer need us to move paper, but they’ll always need us to move “things”.

Unless the world is suddenly going to become patient and “waiting for a delivery van” is going to be cool, the bike messenger will always be able to provide a service to businesses and individuals. Journalists have been pushing the “death of bike messengers” for more than 30 years now.  The fax machine didn’t kill us. E-mail didn’t kill us. The internet didn’t kill us. Premium Rush didn’t kill us.

I recently read that messengers that don’t deliver food are the last of the dinosaurs, some vestigial organ that cities no longer need in the age of electronic communications. Whoever said that was ignoring the actual challenges of the modern city. Traffic is getting worse. People are ordering more things for delivery. Everyone wants everything to arrive faster. That isn’t going to be happening in a van, truck, or car.

The bicycle, especially the cargo bike, is an absolutely critical tool in humanity’s ability to continue to function and live in dense urban environments.

We often hear of complaints that bike messengers are “crazy urban roadies”. Would you agree with that? Is speed on the street the best way to deliver a package?

I don’t think anything could be further from the truth! How many deliveries can you make from the back of an ambulance? From an emergency room? Or lying in bed with a broken femur? A good bike messenger is always consistent, and sometimes fast. The fast thing isn’t a necessary part of the job.  Constantly riding in traffic 200 – 250 miles (320 – 400 km) per week is full of hazards. Stuff like:

Jaywalking pedestrians staring at their cell phone, cabbies cutting across 5 lanes of traffic at 40 mph (65 kph) to pick up a fare, opening doors from all sides, cops, horses, inexperienced other cyclists, our terrible pavement literally opening up and swallowing you whole… Etc.

Bottom line, there’s no end to the challenges of riding around NYC and there are very few places you can really open up and let your legs work. Being safe is often an exercise in riding very aggressively. If you’re trying to hide in the corner of a lane, you’re going to get doored, or clipped by a car trying to pass when/where they shouldn’t.

Being a good city cyclist may look crazy to an outsider, but the safest place to be is in the middle of the lane, owning it. The city has put in a lot of bike lanes over the past decade. Some of them are actually great additions to the city, and others are extensions of the sidewalk. Knowing where to ride and how to ride will make you faster through traffic than any power meter or HRM.

Joshua, with all your years of serious bike riding in one of the largest/most condensed urban environments on the planet, your top 5 tips for riding safely in an urban area would be?

1. Ride big

Even in a bike lane, pretend that you’re 10x larger than you are. Don’t try to hide in the corner of a lane. Ride in the center of the lane. Whatever space has been given to you by your local government, it’s your space. Don’t share it with a car. That’s how you end up getting doored, hit from behind, sideswiped, clipped, etc. It’s more than riding defensively, it’s riding on the offense. But don’t mistake that for riding aggressively.

2. Don’t ride on the sidewalk, ever

It’s slow. It’s full of people. Cops will give you tickets. It’s called a sidewalk, not a “sideride”.

3. Get a bell

They work, at least sometimes! It’s way more satisfying and less obnoxious than using a horn. Plus, you can pretend to be an ice cream man, or a knife sharpener! 🙂

4. Use lights

It doesn’t even matter if you believe that they do anything for your visibility, but anywhere I’ve ever been in the world, if a cop pulls you over on your bike, it’s going to be their first question. If you have them, it’s one less thing for a cop to talk to you about.

5. Wear a helmet

There may only be two kinds of head impacts that they do anything for, but if you somehow manage to pull off one of those two kinds, wouldn’t you want to be wearing a helmet when it happened? Concussions aren’t all that much fun. Neither is breathing or eating through a straw for the rest of your life for something that could’ve been prevented with a piece of hardened Styrofoam.

What’s with the fixie bikes? Is it something which you favor? Why do many bike messengers opt for such a set-up?

I rode a track bike for close to 10 years on the road, and for most of that time, I really loved it. There’s something about the simplicity of your constant movement with the flow of traffic that just feels right at work. With so few moving pieces, they require less maintenance than a geared bike, and often offer more control in wet conditions.

That being said, the days of “track bike” and “messenger bike” being synonymous are long gone. The “Fixies Culture” is much bigger than the messenger culture ever could be – one is somewhat limited to a group of people bound together by a job, and the other is open to the entire world that has an interest in… looking cool?

The “Fixies Culture” may have sprung up from the messenger culture, and both still have a lot of overlap, but I do think they are different things these days.

When I see groups of kids tearing around my neighborhood doing barspins, they don’t know or care about the history of the track bike on the street, they care about alleycat videos, fixed-gear free style, and wrap-around sunglasses. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joshua keeping it cool

What is in your opinion the perfect bike messenger set-up in the summer?

As for a summer set-up, I can tell you that for the past 10 years, I’ve spent most of my time riding cargo bikes. We own 3 Bullitts and 4 Omniums. For a personal bike, I ride an Omnium mini. I haven’t worn a messenger bag in years. I can’t even really imagine ever wanting to wear a bag again.

You see, in the summer, you’re going to get sweaty no matter what you do. Riding a bike in 38°C and 98% humidity is disgusting. It’s more disgusting if you have a sweat-logged bacteria sponge strapped to your back each and every day. No matter how clean you are, or how often you wash your bag, you’re going to get funky. And it takes very special people to find that type of funk sexy! 🙂

So, the easiest way to maintain the right kind of funk and not the “dead man covered in cat piss funk” is to not wear a bag in the summer. Getting a rack, a truck bike, or a full-sized cargo bike will spare you that funk, and it will also allow you to carry more work at a single time. It’s a win-win.

New York often has unforgiving winters. So during these months where ice and snow are a daily reality, are you changing the types of bikes you are riding? Does a MTB-type with large tires offer a more stable ride in snowy conditions?

You know, 19 winters in and I still don’t know if I can say definitively if I have a preference for one kind of tire / wheel / bike than another for getting through days of slush, sleet, thunder snow, ice, rain, and whatever else freezes and falls from the sky. Our winters are finicky, and often what’s good for a morning is terrible for an afternoon.

When it’s slushy and wet, a narrow tire can sometimes cut through the slush and grip on pavement, and that’s great. But then sometimes the slush gets run over by a truck and it becomes a hard-packed slippery Topé, and your narrow tires can’t do anything.

© Profimedia, Alamy

A lower-pressure knobby is great for traction and terrible for speed on pavement. Lately, I’ve been riding 32s with a little bit of tread, and they seem to work pretty well. There’s really no perfect tire for all winter conditions, to be honest.

No matter what tire, or bike you end up on, full fenders are a necessity. I spent 4 years with a backscratcher (Ass saver) on my seat post and had no idea how much I was making my life worse by rocking a front fender too.

As far as clothes are concerned, layers, layers, layers, merino wool base layers, waterproof boots, more merino, some gore-tex, and in the worst of days just go to the rubber body suit.

Could you share with us your top 3 funniest anecdotes from your 20+ years in the industry? The weirdest deliveries, your most famous clients?

Man, that’s pretty much impossible to answer quickly or concisely!

I’ve seen messengers arm-wrestle skinheads for control over the music at a squat in Berlin. I farted on Ted Kennedy in an elevator in Washington, DC. I’ve carried a shrine through the streets of Tokyo under the protection of the Yakuza.

Being a messenger can open a lot of doors, which is strange in a job where you’re told to enter with the rest of the garbage through the freight.