Deliver Us From Evil

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

Down on Nicollet Mall between 10th and 11th streets, anything that can double as a hitching post is attached to a bicycle: scores of them, locked to light poles, skinny trees, each other. It's early afternoon on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, but this is Minneapolis, so who cares? In a cluttered second-floor office overlooking the street, a more reliable pack of athletes--bike couriers--are busy prepping for the city's biggest messenger race of the year, the second annual Stupor Bowl.

The Minneapolis Bicycle Messenger Association's space is crammed with cyclists clad in high-performance synthetics and olive-drab army gear. Most are locals, though some have driven in from the far-flung streets of Chicago, New York, and Vancouver to compete. In the middle of the room, a frazzled messenger named B-Rad is perched behind a cluttered desk, passing out maps and T-shirts. Off in a corner, surrounded by wheels, someone's getting a mohawk from a friend, his red locks falling away to the sound of the clipper's buzzing.

It's 40 degrees and cloudy, more temperate than Stupor Bowl II organizers had counted on. Co-director Fred Eisenbrey, a solidly built, 14-year messenger vet, says the MBMA had hoped for "the most miserable weather possible." When it launched the Stupor Bowl last year--more than a decade after the first of such competitions, known as alleycat races, originated in Toronto--the group scheduled the event for the traditionally frigid Super Bowl weekend. Unfortunately for the Minneapolis contingent, the warm weather has again robbed them of their home-field advantage, and ruined what could have been a deliciously masochistic ride for all. "We want to punish people," Eisenbrey admits, "but we're 0 for 2 so far. Next year, maybe it'll be brutal."

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

Still, the course promises to be a grueling one. As in the hundreds of annual alleycats from Berlin to Washington, D.C., Stupor Bowl contestants are supplied with a list of stops to visit in any order they choose. (One checkpoint at a recent Boston contest featured a dominatrix who whipped cyclists as they passed by.) This year, racers are required to perform a small feat at each of the seven official stations--retrieving a candle stashed high in a tree fort, say--and secure a proof-of-passage sticker for their manifest sheets. Whoever collects them all and wheels past the finish line first, wins.

By 3 p.m. the 54 racers have clustered at the starting point, a parking lot in the shadow of the Metrodome. They lock their bikes, resting them against the sanded, crusty banks of snow and ice that ring the pavement, and stroll to the opposite end. On B-Rad's mark, they sprint across to their mounts, unlock and hoist the frames onto the sidewalk, clip their shoes into strapless pedals, and stream off into the streets.

The trick to winning, all agree, involves hitting as many green lights as luck will grant, possessing the spatial know-how to weave the quickest path through traffic, and demonstrating the ability to sprint for a solid 45 minutes ("You pretty much put yourself at oxygen debt the whole time," says Marco Sundlin, last year's champion). Alleycats present a demanding workout even for professionals. Couriers cover shorter distances in their day jobs, doing deliveries that run between two points limited to the urban downtown. And they spend a lot more time catching their breath on the job than during a race--in elevators, in law office lobbies, at dispatch.

Most crucial, strategically speaking, is the choice of route, and theories on the most efficient itinerary float in the air before and after the race: "'Cause I was thinking southeast. North. Sixth. Then down..." "We took a gamble on the Walker, going the other way..." Once the race starts, most head east to the Witch's Tower in Prospect Park, and continue in a counterclockwise ring that includes Dinkytown, a tree fort on Nicollet Island, bars in Northeast, the Warehouse District, and beyond--a route that totals about 15 miles, give or take an alley here and a one-way street there.

Chicago native Bobcat's tactic is to shadow local wheels through unfamiliar terrain for most of the race, then outsprint them at the finish. Locals, too, prefer to ride in packs of two or three, with other hometowners who'll push their stamina and speed. The same camaraderie that keeps couriers a breed apart on business days knits them tight on the course.

But the demands are different today. During the work week, messengers are paid a commission for each delivery--giving them an incentive to hustle, at times dangerously so, or, after a profitable morning, the luxury to slack a little as the day winds down. And by comparison, weekend streets are wide open; sure, there are still police cars and delivery trucks to maneuver around, but this is a Saturday, and in spite of the best efforts of the Downtown Council to pack it with shoppers, the urban core doesn't demand the same intense vigilance as during the week.

So when Jason Stukel, a lanky Minneapolitan and seasoned courier, approaches the finishing point at MBMA headquarters after nearly an hour of mad pedaling on the road, Nicollet Mall is hardly bustling. As passersby look on quizzically, Stukel and the two Chicagoans in his pack abandon their bikes, and frantically thrust their papers into B-Rad's hands. "It was just who could juggle the manifest sheet faster, and I just had my hand on it before the rest of the guys," exults Stukel, the declared victor.

 

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.

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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