Archive for May, 2010


May 31, 2010

It’s a Bank Holiday Monday, no one has to go to work, and right now, this minute, as we speak, several London couriers, all of whom currently have “bored!!!!!!!” as their Facebook status, are debating going out to ride up and down hills (and then drink beer).

On any normal weekend, should I happen to go out on my bike, I run into at least two other couriers, also out on their bikes.

This morning I discovered this little beauty, right behind my house (I moved back to south London last week), and rode up it twice. I’m now seriously thinking about putting the Condor back together, just so I can go and try it out on fixed.

What’s wrong with us?


Wearing clothes

May 27, 2010

I’ve posted too much doom and gloom lately, so here’s some pictures I took just now of holes in some of my cycling clothes.

Actually, holey clothing could easily be construed as doomy and gloomy, but I was in a good mood when I took the pictures, and I think some of them are really quite beautiful.

Here’s a nearly-worn-out pair of Swrve jeans.

And here – the first signs of wear and tear in my beloved Sugoi hoodie.

And a snag in the back.

And the jeans again, because I just love the texture.

Normal whinging will be resumed shortly.

May is the cruelest month

May 26, 2010

You know what this is?

Neither do I exactly, but it has something to do with the reproductive cycle of the London plane tree, and at this time of year it’s everywhere – in all the parks, blowing around the streets, piled up in all the gutters. And of course clogging up my eyes, nose and throat and temper. What looks like fluff is actually made up of tiny little spikes, which scratch your eyeballs when they get into your eyes – and when you dig your fingertips into your eyes to try and get them out, and even when you blink frantically to try and water them out with tears. (And try blinking frantically when riding through rush-hour traffic.) And if one ends up in your throat, you’ll be struck by a paroxysm of coughing so severe that you’ll have to stop the bike and hack and retch and gulp down water until it goes away. And if one gets down your top, it has exactly the same effect as itching powder.

If it’s not one bloody thing it’s another. Bring back the snow.

The End of the World

May 23, 2010

First there was the credit crunch, then the recession, then the …volcano?

No one ever thought a distant geological hiccup would make a difference to the courier workload. Turns out it did. No one thought it was possible for the workload to get any smaller. Turns out it was. Back in the good old days, I used to make £350 a week, and listen to the old-timers talking about the really good old days, when you made less than £500 and it was a bad week. And they in turn had to put up with even-older-timers going on about how they sometimes made as much as a grand. Now £250 is good going for most people – unheard-of for many.

This week I spoke to D., who made £85 for four days’ work last week, and £125 for five days’ work the week before.

I also spoke to F., who’s budgetting £100 per week for food and rent, hoping to afford a couple of beers on Friday night, and praying nothing goes wrong with his bike.

And N., who’s selling all his bikes, and just about everything else he owns, just to make ends meet.

And S., who’s two months behind on her rent, has run out of things to sell, and had to borrow a tenner from me to buy cat food.

And many others in the same boat.

And still some ignorant hipsters who “really want to get into couriering man”.

We’re all praying it won’t get any worse. But it’s already got this bad, so what’s stopping it? And, if it does, where do we go from here?


May 23, 2010

Last Thursday I had a near miss with a car. I have near misses all the time, of course, but this was a very near miss – the kind that leaves you terrified, hyperventilating, and shaking uncontrollably. I was bombing along Southwark Street, heading east, when the car shot across from Bear Lane to Hopton Street, having patently failed to see me (or probably even to look), and then pulled the classic pedestrian manoeuvre of spotting me at the last minute and slamming on the brakes, stopping right slap bang across the middle of the road.

(In my imagination) I braked, realized I was never going to stop in time, threw myself into a mad leftward swerve, trying to make it round the front of the car, missed, rammed against the side of the bonnet, felt myself separate from the bike as it smashed against the headlight and clattered onto the road, (wondered briefly whether the forks or the frame or the front wheel would be buckled, and how much it’d cost to repair), tumbled right across the car bonnet, thudded onto the horrible, hard, unyielding tarmac on the other side, and lay there, all the breath knocked out of me, not dazed but horribly horribly aware, feeling that terrible raw tender ache of brand new scrapes and bruises, wondering if I’d broken any bones, and knowing that the real pain was just round the corner.

(In real life) I braked, realized I was never going to stop in time, threw myself into a mad leftward swerve, trying to make it round the front of the car, almost got there, managed to bring myself to a halt and put a foot down in front of the bonnet I hadn’t tumbled over, and stood staring incredulously through the windscreen. It was an expensive-looking car (don’t ask me what sort; I know nothing about cars), driven by a well groomed woman, perhaps about my age, with pearl earrings and big black sunglasses. Once she saw I’d managed to stop, she – get this – laughed and waved at me. She laughed and waved. The encounter clearly looked very different from her end to how it looked from mine. I was still struggling to fill my lungs after the shock, and managed to gasp through her window

“For god’s sake – look where you’re going!”

She responded with another friendly laugh and another wave, as if to say “tee hee, silly old us, nearly bumping into each other”. And then she drove off, still smiling at me. And I stayed standing there, still astride my bike, still gasping for breath, and utterly incredulous at how she could react so flippantly, when she could have been only a few inches from killing me.

And then I carried on – I had a job to pick up, and I’ve found that the aftermath of a crash or near miss (the shivering, the breathlessness, the terrible fear) is usually just as well treated by getting back on the bike and riding off as it is by a sit-down with a cup of hot sweet tea. Though that’s what I really wanted. Tea and sympathy. To tell someone what had just happened, and for them to take some of it away by listening, and then giving me a hug. I thought briefly about calling in on the radio, and saying I’d be held up by a few minutes because of a crash – even though I wouldn’t – just so that someone would express a bit of concern, and ask if I was alright. But I didn’t. Perhaps because I’d rather be the kind of courier who just gets on with it, instead of complaining every time she has a bit of a scare. Perhaps because I thought they probably wouldn’t care. Perhaps just because I didn’t want to clutter up the airwaves.

I carried on down Southwark Street – much more slowly now – trying to get my breathing under control, and thought about dropping into Fullcity next time I got the chance, and letting off steam there, among people who know what it’s like to be scared out of your skin, and who’d be suitably outraged by the stupidity of the driver. But I already knew I wouldn’t. Because by then I’d have calmed down, and it would just turn into another one of those repetitive and fairly pointless ‘stupid driver’ stories (“I was coming along ____ Street, right, heading south, and this car just turned straight across me into ____ Lane, and I…”), where everyone listens respectfully, and tries to picture the junction and the road positioning and everything, and then weighs in with sympathetic outrage, and general condemnation of drivers, but is really just looking for a opportunity to launch into one of their own narrow squeaks. And once it’s over and done with, there’s nothing to differentiate one near miss from another, and if you survived …well then, you survived, so what’s the big deal? Forget it.

It was pointless chasing after the driver (she was long gone, and even if I found her, what would I say?), and no one really wanted to hear that I nearly got hit by a car (“what – like every other day?”), so I told no one. And it crossed my mind that, if anyone knew that this had happened, and I’d just swallowed it and told no one, they’d think I was incredibly tough.

And perhaps I am. I certainly didn’t feel it though – I rarely feel so tender and vulnerable and pathetic as when I’ve just had a crash, or a narrow escape. But then, I thought, perhaps this is what toughness is all about. After all, look at the skin on my heels – that’s bloody tough, but it only got that way because of all the blisters, that then burst, so that I was riding around with stiff shoes scraping against raw flesh, sometimes until they were soaked in blood, wincing with every turn of the pedals, wearing down my resolve and my resilience as much as my skin, so that by the end of the day the smallest setback could bring me to the verge of tears.

As far as I know, no one’s ever gone home over such a trifling matter as blistered heels. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, of course, just that no one’s admitted to it. And if you do give up and go home – well, that’s less money in the bank then. And if you complain, you’ll appear weak and whingy – and eventually you’ll bore even yourself. There’s always something to complain about, and constant complaining is just tedious. Far better just to get on with it. So you do. I also realized, a few days ago, during a brief, self-indulgent whinge about the state of my knees, which my drinking companion then reciprocated with an identical sob story, that my pain and suffering is nothing special. Most couriers are nursing some kind of injury or trauma or long-term chronic pain. Lots of them would probably be told to take a few weeks off the bike if they saw a doctor. Some of them are certainly far worse off than me. So, again, you shut yourself up and you get on with it. No one wants to hear about your problems. You can go home and lick your wounds, or you can stay out and make some more money.

And perhaps that’s toughness. Picking yourself up, carrying on, and not even bothering to tell anyone what happened, because they probably won’t care, and you won’t care yourself once you’re a couple of miles down the road, and there are more important things to get on with. Having had this happen enough times to know this will be the case, no matter how scared and shivery and tearful and in-need-of-a-hug you feel right this moment. Living in the hope that one day your mind and heart and lungs and nerve endings will be as hardened and calloused and ugly as my heels are now. Learning to take a few deep breaths and then let go of whatever it is that happened, because you’ll need all your resources for whatever might be around the next corner. And knowing that there really is no such thing as actual toughness – it’s more just that there’s no excuse for softness.

Nothing interesting happens on Wednesdays

May 19, 2010

A few pointless and inconsequential things happened today.

I got a new water bottle, because the last one got nicked. This happens from time to time, and I actually welcome it, because it’s the only reason I ever change my water bottle, and I really don’t want to think about how many organisms there are in the average four-month-old courier’s water bottle. I don’t ever wash it. Because it’s being perpetually washed by the water it contains – right? (See earlier post on dubious courier hygiene practices.)

But why would anyone want to steal my grotty old water bottle? This continues to mystify me.

Most pointless delivery of the day (probably): an empty file. (Delivered from the other side of town to an office right upstairs from a pretty good stationery shop.)

Liam from Fullcity had a baby (with a little help from his wife). But that’s not pointless and inconsequential – that’s Big News.

Everyone else at Fullcity had free food. Jim (the gent in the background, truing a wheel) has recently stopped being a courier and started delivering sandwiches for a living – and he gets to help himself to the leftovers at the end of the day. We all like him a lot more than we used to.

I carried my biggest package yet. Admittedly not for work – I picked up some boxes from a friend, to help me move house on Saturday. God, where would we be without bungees and gaffer tape?

On freewheeling

May 16, 2010

I’ve been riding the Salsa for almost two months now, which is by far the longest I’ve done on a freewheel since I started riding fixed (I’ve worked precisely one day on the other bike in that time, and have realized that this pricey pricey new ride will also entail an unexpected spin-off expense – I’m going to have to get a new fixie too. My ancient, creaking, dented, falling-apart old Condor just doesn’t measure up. Anyone got a nice new steel track frame (51-53cm) they want to sell me?), even though I never intended it to become my work bike. For me, as for almost all other couriers, it just didn’t make sense to ride a road bike around town, when you have so much more control over the bike on fixed.

I don’t ride brakeless (except for virtually, every couple of months, in between my brake pads wearing out and my getting round to replacing them), but I do – or did – partly agree with the people who claim it’s the safest form of riding. All the control is taken away from the handlebars and moved to the pedals, meaning that your centre of energy is further back and further down, and you’re therefore more stable. You use your feet, legs and hips to propel yourself forward, stop and start, and even steer. It’s more like walking – the same set of muscles and nerve-endings does everything, rather than abdicating control to another set (i.e. the hands and arms) whenever you want to stop.

At the same time, riding fixed/brakeless doesn’t leave you anywhere to hide – you can’t be lazy, and you learn a much higher level of skill and control on the bike very quickly. You become accustomed to reading the road ahead, and to anticipating all the potential movements of each taxi, bus, cyclist and pedestrian, ten seconds into the future, and to plotting contingency and counter-contingency lines through the traffic, in case one of the above suddenly changes direction, or stops in the middle of the road. Your body starts to develop that complex internal calculus that enables you to twist and turn and bend and lean and curve seamlessly through tightly packed traffic jams without putting a foot down; one moment seeing a two-foot gap; the next moment ducking through it, and making a split second decision whether to go left – round the back of the bus and up its inside – or right – along the side of the bus, and round the front, hoping there’s another gap there. If there isn’t then there’ll be another split-second change of plan, a tiny pressure on the pedals, a momentary halt, reappraisal, recalculation and adjustment, and then a tight swoop in the opposite direction.

If you’re riding brakeless, they say, you learn to predict every possible eventuality several seconds before you normally would, because you’re not going to stop, so if one gap closes, you have to sight another one and plot a course through it, without breaking course. Brakeless cyclists are therefore by far the most skilled.

But is this actually true? I’m beginning to wonder. Because managing a road bike in heavy traffic is also extremely difficult – and demands a whole new set of skills, which I’ve only recently begun to appreciate.

When you go back to gears and freewheels after a long time on fixed, the first impression is of a terrifying lack of control. If you stop pedalling, the bike carries on just as it was – it’s like those nightmares of tumbling down a hill in a car, desperately pumping the foot pedals, and yet nothing happens. Braking with your hands rather than your feet seems scarily counter-intuitive. And you feel almost slightly drunk – the bike is slipping and sliding all over the road, with none of the snug discipline you had riding fixed, where every curve could be modified at any point: change the pressure on the pedals, shift your weight in the saddle, and even mid-swing, the bike will find a new course, and neatly circumnavigate that pothole you noticed a fraction of a second after the last minute.

You can’t do this with a freewheel. I spent my first couple of weeks on the Salsa loving it, but wondering why anyone would voluntarily ride unfixed in London. The line I wove through the traffic was necessarily wavy and unwieldy. I’d frequently fail to squeeze and tilt myself through the smaller gaps, and have to put a foot down, or come to a crashing halt against the bumper of a van (which, naturally, made me lots of friends). I’d start off swinging round the corner of a bus at a certain trajectory, then the vehicle next to it would move closer, or stop when I’d expected it to carry on moving forward, and I’d find myself unable to tighten my curve, and judder to halt, often with both feet on the ground and my bike at a silly angle between my legs, looking like the clueless amateur I thought I no longer was.

But I’ve become a lot more adept in the past month – and started to wonder whether riding with a freewheel doesn’t demand more control and mastery of the bike, the body and the route than riding fixed. Contrary to popular expectation, you actually have to plan further ahead when riding a freewheel, because there’s less possibility of changing or modifying your course half a second down the line, when you realize that wasn’t going to work after all. You learn to read between the lines of the traffic. It’s no use launching yourself round the corner of the bus, hoping for the best, and prepared to change your mind if the worst happens instead, because once you’ve committed to a curve, you can’t duck back out of it and twist back the other way. So you find ways of looking under or through the bus, or monitoring the movement of the traffic you can see around it, to try and ascertain whether there’s anything behind it. Or just keeping it in your sights several seconds before you actually reach it, to see if anything’s about to pass it on the other side.

Cycling through traffic involves awesome feats of internal mathematics that my conscious brain could never hope to accomplish. You plot a curve to your right, round that taxi, taking into account the couple of feet it will have moved in relation to the white van next to it by the time you reach it – and then that curve gives way to a leftward curve, across the front of the taxi, and behind the luton van that a second ago was in a completely different lane. You already have the leftward curve all plotted out, before you even start the rightward one, as well as the exact way in which the one will segue into the other. On fixed you can stop-stop-start, and change your mind at the last minute, or slow down your trajectory if the luton van moves into place slightly slower than you anticipated in your calculations. On a freewheel you don’t have that luxury. So there’s more chance of failure, and having to put a foot down while waiting for the luton van to get in behind the bus pulling away in front of him, that you didn’t see at first, and more of a need to plan your attack five vehicles ahead, rather than just two.

And your reactions get quicker too. You know when cutting between two lanes of traffic just isn’t working, so you swerve right between two cars, to ride down the outside? And that it’s always a good idea to check behind you as you pull out, to make sure someone else isn’t already riding down the outside, about to crash into you? On fixed this is much easier. You swerve right, you pause infinitesimally as you emerge from between the cars, flick your head to the right to check the lane’s clear, and then put the pressure back on the pedals, lower your shoulder, curl to the left, and accelerate off down the centre line. With a freewheel it’s a different matter – you can’t pause. So you get used to a) being aware of what might be coming down the outside of the lane a lot sooner – as soon as you decide to turn, in fact; and b) flicking your head to the right much more quickly as you pull out, and focusing your eyes more quickly too, because there’s no way of pausing, and much less time to react to whatever you might see. In a way, it’s more of a risk too – like storming through a junction at top speed with no brakes, trusting to luck that you’ve managed to take in all the approaching vehicles in the split second you had to check, and hoping against hope that those you haven’t seen will be kind enough not to hit you. And I’m normally a very risk-averse rider.

I’ve been thinking about going brakeless for some time – for all the above reasons, because it’s arguably safer, and better for skill and discipline and control. And because I’m a lazy mechanic, and it would mean one less component to keep up to scratch. And because now, after two months of swimming through London traffic on a freewheel, brakeless actually seems a much easier and less scary prospect.

Fakenger than thou

May 14, 2010

Everyone has their favourite stupid fakenger* story, usually involving aerospokes coordinated with faux-hawks, or comedy crashes when riding brakeless with no foot retention. But the one Liam (Fullcity’s chief mechanic and resident dirty mind) told me the other day trumps them all.

He was riding around last weekend, spotted a chap on a bike with a radio strapped to his bag**, pulled up companionably next to him at the lights, and asked “you a courier then?”, indicating the radio.

“No mate,” responded the chap, “I just like the way it looks”.

…to which Liam didn’t really know how to respond. And neither do I.

I don’t have any fakenger photos handy, so here’s a picture of Liam with his new bike.

* Fakenger = fake messenger, i.e. a hipster with more money than sense, who buys into the traditional bike messenger style (track bike, courier bag, spoke cards, etc.), but isn’t actually a messenger. Universally mocked, and sometimes secretly envied (“wish I could afford a frame like that…”).

**Not that it’s entirely unusual for couriers to be seen with their radios outside of working hours. If you see a courier still wearing a radio on Saturday, chances are they got lucky the previous evening, and haven’t been home yet (or were just too drunk to remember where they lived***).

*** [Edit: 23/05/10] I was joking when I wrote this, but the other night I met a chap who, a couple of weeks earlier, had got so drunk he couldn’t find his house, so went to sleep in a nearby park, and woke up in the morning to find that his bike had disappeared. Which really sucks.

Special Delivery, or How I Didn’t Bring Down The Government

May 12, 2010

Most interesting package of the day:

He’d not even been prime minister 24 hours!

I debated vandalizing the letter in some subtle way – letting a cab run over it, or getting someone to fart on it. But I settled for sticking it in my fetid courier bag, in between my lunch and a very graphic Alan Hollinghurst novel (somehow appropriate, since his books all seem to be about Tory boys buggering each other).

And the coolest thing was – instead of sending me round the block to a boring delivery entrance, or even directing me to a special post office several streets away, as has happened in the past, the policemen at the gates ummed and awwed, and then waved me through into Downing Street itself, where I was scanned and searched, and then directed right up to the door of Number 10.

I almost thought they’d made a mistake – particularly when I saw a crowd of about 50 photographers on one side of the road, with all their lenses and lights trained on the famous front door (with its solitary policeman) on the other. I tried to ignore them as I walked up and asked the policeman if I was in the right place (stupidly), knowing that they were probably all wondering who on earth I was, and what I was doing there. The door itself was much much shinier than I expected, and had a plaque saying First Lord of the Treasury, which confused me momentarily.

It appeared I was in the right place – he ushered me in, introduced me to the gentleman on the inside, and closed it behind me. The lobby was a typical and unsurprising Georgian interior, much like lots of the place I deliver to in Mayfair and Belgravia. And they signed for the letter, and let me out, and it was all over in a minute. (No photos, I’m afraid. I wasn’t sure they’d let me.)

I’m still slightly awed that I actually walked through the door of Number 10 in person – especially on a day when it’s been all over the news. I’m not sure how many people get to do that. Anyone can go to the Houses of Parliament, and I’ve been several times. I’ve a feeling Number 10 is a bit more exclusive. I just wish I were a bit more excited about its latest resident.

(And I now have even more ammunition for my arguments with receptionists about why I shouldn’t have to go all the way round to the loading bay. If I’m allowed in the front entrance at 10 Downing Street, I should be allowed in the front entrance everywhere!)

Suits YOU sir!

May 9, 2010

Friday was International Messenger Suit day, which I’d been looking forward to for months. I have a bit of a thing for pinstripes, and hadn’t had the chance to get properly suited and booted for almost three years (I used to work in a suit – every day felt like dressing up). My suit – and my favourite blue Austin Reed shirt were still folded up in the bag from when I last picked them up from the drycleaners, back in 2007.

I was very interested to see whether tens of thousands of miles on the bike had changed the way they fit. Turns out the trousers were a lot looser, and the jacket a bit tighter, especially round the shoulders. I looked a bit like Olympic rowers do when they wrestle themselves into suits to accept ‘sportsman of the year’ awards. Or so I like to think.

And I was even more interested to see how people’s reactions to me would change, when they saw me in pinstripes instead of lycra. Would I be able to blag my way into all the swanky receptions, where usually I’d be ignominiously sent round the back to the loading bay?

As it turns out, the whole thing was a bit of a disappointment. It was one of those days where I barely saw any other messengers – and those I did cross paths with weren’t wearing suits. And most of the places I delivered to were the ones where they let  you in the front anyway, so the most I got were a couple of slightly puzzled double-takes. The best reaction was from the chaps in the control room, when I went in to get a new battery (they probably thought I had an interview for another job or something). And my feet were still hurting horribly by the end of the day, so I went straight home, rather than admiring the view at the Foundry.

But I think everyone else had fun.

(Photo stolen from Liz (and may be removed if she wants it back).)

But never mind that – something faaaaaaar more exciting happened yesterday. I went to Lidl (exciting in itself), and came across a whole pile of super-cheap cycling kit. They had shoes for under a tenner (which I tried not to look at, and thankfully they didn’t have my size anyway), and this Performance Cycling Top, for only £6.99.

Never mind all that overpriced SIDI nonsense. This is the real thing. You have no idea how many special features this humble £6.99 top offers me. Well, you will shortly, because I’m about to tell you.

Not even Assos offers this much. Not only do I have

  • a Dry Zone for underarm ventilation
  • Heat Spots to release excess warmth from my chest
  • a Humidity Regulator to keep my stomach area properly irrigated

I also have Kidney Protection – apparently the kidney area is “very sensitive to temperature” and it is “extremely important” to keep it insulated. I had no idea! To think I’ve been riding round with uninsulated kidneys all these years. Thank goodness someone told me.

What’s more, the Anti-slip Belt promises to ensure that I am “securely seated”. I have no idea what this is all about, but I suspect it means I’ll be able to stay in the saddle, no matter how drunk I am, or how recklessly I corner.

Lidl be praised! Put that in your Rapha and smoke it!

And it even makes me look as rugged and chiseled as the gentleman on the box. Well, give or take.