Deliver Us From Evil

Stupor Bowl Saturday, and the bike messenger's perilous ride on the mean streets

 

Race over, the messengers head to Grumpy's in Northeast Minneapolis. On one of the TV sets, Super Bowlese blares, but nobody pays much notice. Beer is ordered, poured, spilled, in copious amounts. Since the bar's dining facilities weren't designed to accommodate this many ravenous athletes at once, a few pass the helmet and poll preferences for a Pizza Hut order. Organizers hand out bumper stickers and baseball caps from the race's sponsors--Sex World and Kenwood Cyclery among them. B-Rad tosses a T-shirt into the air, and the crowd cheers as it snags on a ceiling fan and is instantly flung into a corner.

It is here, this evening, that the persistent myth of the bike messenger's fealty seems real--to their métier, to their place among the dwindling ranks of self-styled urban renegades. Their roots, and their allegiance to the livelihood, run deep--back to the Chinese Qing Dynasty, when riders on crude bikes delivered instructions to field armies; to French postal workers, who used wheeled "stiffwalkers" as early as 1830; to "boneshaker" messengers in Britain three decades later; to the earliest U.S. commercial messenger company in New York City, founded soon after President Benjamin Harrison began delivering papers to Congress on wheels in 1889. Tonight it seems reasonable to guess that these sweaty, well-pedigreed messengers wouldn't think twice about defending each other in battle.

Messengers in a bottleneck: Oliver Klosauf battles the bike jam at the tree-fort checkpoint on Nicollet Island to claim his proof-of-passage sticker and candle
Ariana Lindquist
Messengers in a bottleneck: Oliver Klosauf battles the bike jam at the tree-fort checkpoint on Nicollet Island to claim his proof-of-passage sticker and candle

Perhaps they already do, simply by punching in. If one thing defines the courier community, it isn't its disproportionate number of piercings, wraparound sunglasses, and dyed hair; nor is it the loyalty they share to an activity that might, most uncharitably, be called an extreme sport. No, couriers are defined by their common oppression, stemming from a love of urban bicycling in a society where bicycles are supposed to stick to marked and isolated trails. Stories of police brutality, selective law enforcement, and catch-and-release jail stints--often for infractions as seemingly minor as riding without a helmet--are regular fodder among messengers. It may be legal to ride on city streets, but to hear the racers tell it, the police make a habit of cracking down for reasons no more complicated than simple prejudice. Recalling a spell of severe scrutiny in his hometown of Chicago, Bobcat says, "I think just about everyone here that I came with has been in jail."

At that, B-Rad steps up to the Stupor Bowl II trophy, a skull adorned with dreadlocks made from clipped inner tubes, and ticks off the list of winners: Best showings overall, best women's time, best fixed-gear ride (fixed-gear bicycles have no brakes and no freewheel: Riders slow down simply by exerting backward force on their pedals). But what about Marco Sundlin, 1998's champ?

As it turns out, nobody expected him to triumph this year. Five weeks ago he was doored. That is, he was taken down when a parked vehicle (in this case, a truck) opened its door suddenly as he was riding by. "The corner of the door stuck in my leg," he recalls, "and I had to have my muscles sewn back together." After a month in the hospital, Sundlin rode the second Bowl just to finish it. As he steps up to claim his DFL (Dead Fuckin' Last) prize, the bar swells with a loud cheer.

Moments later Jack Blackfelt, a bearded Irishman from New York City, rises to request a moment of silence for a friend killed on the job in Manhattan a few weeks back. At once a hush trumps the crowd's coarse heckles, in reverence for a man few in the room ever met. One of their numbers has fallen in the field.

No doubt they understand what killed him. Not every courier has been injured by a motor vehicle, but every last one has come too close to careless, even malicious motorists who are unwilling to share the road. Even with the specter of injury and death casting a disheartening shadow over their daily breadwinning, Blackfelt does his best not to dwell on the possibility: "The more you think about the dangers, the more likely you're going to be uptight and wipe out and/or get hit. You don't think about it, and that's what makes it so much more poignant when something happens and someone you know dies."

By 11 in the evening, the party has decamped to a messenger's house in Uptown. While the festivities wind down into sated exhaustion inside, three messengers pour the tail end of their adrenaline rush into a skid competition in the street, and a few stragglers throw Frisbees around in the dark. It is not long before a police car rounds the corner and pulls slowly to the curb, training its harsh, white lamp on the couriers. They blink against the glare, and freeze. The officer rolls down his window, glances around, and says, to no one's surprise, "Let's stay out of the street, okay?"

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