The discomfort zone

I’ve been interviewed for a documentary about female messengers recently, and I have mixed feelings about this. My main reservation about messenger documentaries is that they tend to depict messengers as dangerous, sexy and very very fast – because of course, this makes great television. What they tend to miss out is the other half of the job – the slow, boring, unsexy side of it. The stupid mistakes we all make, the tedious hours spent waiting for goods lifts and arguing with security guards, the horrible days where you haven’t had enough sleep and crawl along into a headwind, with bits of plane tree blowing into your eyes. The punctures and blisters and hangovers. Yes, some days we feel like superheroes. But there are many other days when we just feel like losers.

So I’ve been trying to emphasize to the documentary makers that there are two sides to the job. There are those wonderful days when it all comes together – but there are also the days when it all falls apart.

Today was such a day.

It’s been horribly, stickily, sweatily hot for the past couple of days, which means work is far more exhausting than usual, and I’m more prone to spots and saddlesore and bad smells. I finished yesterday dizzy and headachy and covered in sweat – and then went and played on the velodrome until 9pm. This made me even more knackered, and meant I didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep, so as I left the house this morning my skin had that sweaty itchy feeling (only exacerbated by the temperature of the air) and my legs felt weak and sluggish as I struggled through the 25-minute ride into Vauxhall.

The bike felt weak and sluggish too, and over the course of the journey I noticed that

  • the chain had somehow come loose (unexpected, as my stupid Goldtec hubs are wedged so tightly into the drop-outs that normally I can’t get the wheel to move even when I want it to)
  • the back wheel was ridiculous out of true and several of the spokes were so loose they rattled (having been tightened by several mechanics over the past few months, all of whom tell me that it needs to be rebuilt, otherwise it’ll just keep on losing its true)
  • my right-hand cleat had come loose
  • my tyres had suddenly gone all squashy

The latter was fairly easily remedied, as was the penultimate, although it did involve a few minutes of swearing over a multitool as I attempted to pick out all the little bits of rock that had wedged themselves into the screw heads. And I can’t work out why the cleat suddenly came loose, after all these months.

The chain and the wonky wheel waited until I was safely (and lengthily) ensconced on Broadwick Street. I’ve only recently learned how to true wheels, and still don’t entirely trust my own ability, particularly because I’ve been informed by those who claim to know that wheelbuilding is more of an art than a science, and involves skill, talent and sensitivity that I almost certainly don’t possess. But I think I made a reasonable job of it. It’s by no means perfectly true, but it no longer actually ripples as you spin it, and it’s a lot nicer to ride on.

To my surprise, and not inconsiderable delight, very little has gone wrong with Evelyn since I built him. Today was clearly the day he got his own back.

Later on that morning, I was legging it down Kingsway and my brake cable snapped. This has never happened to me before, and it was a little disconcerting.

And I couldn’t be bothered to go to a shop and fix it, so I just went brakeless for the rest of the day. It’s amazing the extent to which my cycling habits are dictated by laziness. People often point out that one of the advantages of riding fixed is that there are far fewer components to go wrong. Absolutely. Ideal for laissez-faire bike mechanics such as myself. The trouble is, because there are no superfluous components, when something does go wrong, it tends to be something fairly vital. You can do without a mudguard or a few of the chainrings on your road bike. You can’t do without your front wheel, or your drive side crank. But it appears you can do without a brake.

I’ve considered going brakeless in the past, but never actually done so. Actually, this is also down to laziness. When I use my brake, it’s because I can’t be bothered to exert the muscles in my legs. But I’m also a bit scared that I’m just not capable of controlling the bike without it.

To make matters worse, at this point the storm that had been brewing for the past 24 hours finally broke, and I found myself riding along Lower Thames Street, through heavy traffic, with no brake, in torrential rain. It really was one of those days.

Except the rain was actually rather nice. It cleared the air, cooled me down and washed the stickiness off my skin. And it meant that most of the pedestrians and civilian cyclists buggered off and let me have the road to myself. And to my surprise riding brakeless wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I had half-thought I might have to admit defeat and make an unscheduled stop at a bike shop. Now I began to wonder whether I should actually just forget about brakes altogether in future. It would be another steep learning curve though. I noticed I was far less confident on the bike without brakes, and took fewer risks, and didn’t throw myself around quite so much.

I was passing Brixton Cycles on my way home, so I stopped and bought a new brake cable and fitted it then and there. Being as I’m such a lazy mechanic, completing a simple task like this gave me a massive surge of achievement and capability. And this joined the surge of achievement and capability I was already experiencing as a result of riding around brakeless all afternoon. I began to feel less like a loser, and more like a superhero. The day had turned around. By now I’d got my second wind (finally), and the strength had started to seep back into my legs. My skin felt clean and fresh and alive after the rain. With my brake reconnected I rode home swiftly and flamboyantly, fully in control of the bike and the road again, screeching in and out of the traffic just as I always have.

And I didn’t touch the brake once. It’s clearly only a placebo.


19 Responses to “The discomfort zone”

  1. Loving the Bike Says:

    I think it’s cool that you’re a messenger, and I also think it’s cool that you were contacted to be in the documentary. Sure there are the issues that come with the job, but I think you should accept the fact that you’re just plain cool for doing what you do. It’s awesome.


  2. marchapple Says:

    Yes, awesome – I agree ! I’d love to go brakeless, but I’m not sure it would work where I live ….. too many hills.

    Hope we get to see the documentry.


  3. Steff Davies Says:

    I look forward to seeing this documentary. Having done a couple of days brakelessness last time my pads wore out, I got roughly the same result. A bit of heightened awareness/mild terror but otherwise fine. I can’t for the life of me see why you’d want to go brakeless on a daily basis though – no bugger’s forcing you to use the brake, but it’s a very nice thing to have in case of something unexpected happening. Maybe if I had a really nice track frame with undrilled forks…

  4. Don Says:

    “I’ve been trying to emphasize to the documentary makers that there are two sides to the job.”

    How much d’you bet they’ll cut the boring side out?!


  5. Rob Says:

    Some would say the act of toiling through adversity and finding the sunlight at the end of a grueling day has it’s own sexy quality. Muscles + sweat + coping skills = Rawr! :oD

  6. David Says:

    Hi there,

    velodrome?!? Where is it, and how do you fet to ride it?!? Are you with a club?

    I’d love to try that…



  7. David Says:

    Of course, wouldn’t be as fun without a few typos::

    velodrome?!? Where is it, and how do you get to ride it?!? Are you with a club?

    I’d love to try that…



    (feel free to edit the typo’ed comment 😉

  8. Kirk Says:

    Here’s my bit of messenger film. it was a web short for “Tougher in Alaska” the theme was winter cycling. My part was largely staged as they chose to film during the deadest parts of winter.

    • thatmessengerchick Says:

      This is excellent. As ever, you put us all to shame. I will never moan about the weather again. That’s a lie.

      • Kirk Says:

        We all complain about the weather, where ever we are. You should hear me bitch when it goes over 80 on the Yankee thermometer. On a side riding here isn’t any tougher then riding anywhere else you just spend a little more on tires and bikes.

  9. Kirk Says:

    Oh yeah sorry about that weird out-burst when you were being stalked. I figured he might be reading your blog and I wanted to give the impression some of your readers are just as crazy and might react badly to their reading being disturbed. I was really hammered at the time.

  10. David Says:

    Thanks for the link. I did eventualy find out about it after a quick search actualy. Hoping to go tomorrow!

    There is also the Preston Park velodrome in Birghton, which is not to far either.

  11. 27tom Says:

    Going Brakeless is fun, but it does not make you faster- I know several great brakeless messengers who have said they are faster with a brake… However I found it can make you more aware and in tune with your bike and I found at times I was actually doing my job better since I had to be on it more? TBH tho I think gears if you can afford to run them and a tougher roadbike or a cross bike is the best thing to use out there, particularly with the added distance every seems to have to do? Ahh the days of bishopgate to bishopgate double rush wait an returns, when going a whole postcode was a slap… long gone I’m sure?

  12. Susie Says:

    Maybe the days when you’re short of sleep and feeling icky are the days when you ARE being a superhero. The other days you just LOOK like it. Think on. xx

  13. io Says:

    beautifully written 🙂

  14. welshcyclist Says:

    I’m a lazy cyclist as well, I had that sense of achievement when I changed my tyre the other weekend. Needless to say there wasn’t a pick of tread on the old one, been meaning to replace it for weeks, after I noticed the beading starting to go. Enjoying your blog keep it going. Cheers.

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