The urban bike magazine

A Day in the Life of a Bike Messenger

"Why is this monkey suddenly making such strange noises, and being so loud, obnoxious and annoying? We had just been talking completely normally". Such thoughts go through my sleepy head, when reality slowly penetrates the dream world and tries to wake me up for a new day.

Image © Bike Citizens

Get Up, Stand Up

Yesterday’s party after work still has me a bit out of sorts: I can feel it all over. Fortunately, there’s the beloved snooze button, which can still delay the inevitable for a few minutes, the unsteady getting out of bed and then the somewhat forced but vital breakfast.

If I’ve learned anything from my years as a bicycle messenger, it’s this: “After the first hour, I’ll be back to normal again”. Cycling cleanses the body and mind, and that’s a good thing. Otherwise, with the associated lifestyle, the everyday stress, and the sheer amount of effort and concentration, the job would probably be impossible.

After the morning showering and scrubbing procedure and the obligatory tire check, I throw myself into my shell – cycling pants, jersey, bike shoes and helmet are the basic uniform; the rest has to be chosen and integrated based on the weather.

Bike Messenger

Image © Bike Citizens

Into the Flow

And then everything’s in motion, at least officially. Sometimes, the order allows for a few more minutes of waiting at home, to go back into my own little world for a little while – only to be brutally ripped out of dozing off by the dispatchers. But then, at the latest, you dive back in: into the maze, the chaos, the wilderness of the (big) city traffic.

Your bag on your shoulder, your lock stowed in place, your helmet strapped on, and the post is off – no, I don’t like to be called a postman. The first pick-up brings me right into the city centre. I should take it easy, something else could come my way, and as long as the order hasn’t been placed as ‘urgent’ (called express, VIP, rush or something like that in the professional jargon), there’s no reason to burn out already right at the start of the day.

So I swim quietly along in the morning traffic toward the centre, enjoy the first sunbeams and notice how my head switches from tiredness and hangover mode to concentration, focus and attention.

Anywhere and at anytime, obstacles are lurking: the tired police officers who cross the street blindly, the stressed-out student who sprints frantically for the tram station, or the aggravated commuters, who are too late, as always, and want to make use of the gap in the traffic. All these factors can only be recognised and controlled through defensive driving, farsightedness and anticipation, and that extra bit of experience ensures that you can even turn such situations into elegant and almost graceful biking manoeuvres. It’s really fun to read situations, to prepare for them, to know that the driver right up front is going to turn without blinking, and then to react just at the right moment.

And then it comes. The cell phone rings again before the pick-up, and I get two more orders – two more pick-ups in the city centre, one of which actually doesn’t even fit into my route, but, well, the dispatcher knows what he’s doing. So I dig into the pedals, and just before the third pick-up, it rings again:

“Hey, where the heck are ya’?”

“I’m almost done”.

“Great, then please call Jo and figure out the meeting point with him. He’ll take over the Pullerman delivery (a fictitious customer name) from you”.

“OK, got it. I was hoping to get rid of that one”.

“Sure, I know what I’m doing”.

Yea, it’s nice to work as part of an experienced team that’s mostly made up of your good and best friends. You know that you can rely on each other. And if something goes wrong, you’re all there for each other to help each other out. There’s a great sense of togetherness, and it’s defined through a common identification, a shared lifestyles and the love of biking.

After the handover and a little chitchat with Jo, I get going to deliver my two orders, wriggling my way fluidly out of town through the halting downtown traffic.

The cell phone rings again.

After a 20-second monologue by the dispatcher, I’m one order and another challenge richer – a regular customer wants to get something picked up from the suburbs and delivered within half an hour.

“Ok, in 10 minutes, I’ll be out and have picked it up, then I’ll take care of the other two things on the way back in, and then I’ll have a few minutes to deliver the express” it rolls out in my head, while I try at full speed to catch the slipstream of the van two cars in front of me.

After the pick-up in the suburbs, I look at the clock, gasping for air – another 22 minutes left over, that worked out all right!

So on to the first delivery to Mozartgasse number… crap, forgot the building number. Well, I’ll just ride towards Mozartgasse and take a look at the package somewhere along the way.

A little attention test for the readers: How many packages do I have right now in my bag?

Customer names, street names, house numbers, order price – there’s a lot of information that goes along with just one single job, and it overwhelms you in the beginning. After a while, though, you need the notepad less and less. A person learns it all very quickly. Little by little, the map also becomes a silent companion, and you only need it for private addresses far outside of the downtown area. Especially with regular customers, eventually only the name is needed, because it automatically stores all the other information along in it.

Everything’s delivered, and after 28 minutes, I’ll go to the dispatcher and tell him, panting, that I’m free. Of course, he’ll have nothing better to do than to give me the next order right away. It’s a reward for the killer-express, he says, and in fact – something has to be picked up just around the corner and delivered anytime in the afternoon. I’m supposed to pick up the parcel and then make it nice and easy into the centre and only then drop it off. All said and done. Along the way, I even have time to buy something to drink – for the dispatchers, there’s coffee and toilet paper. “It’s desperately needed”.

After a short break in the centre, I already know what’s next for me. Every day at the same time, there’s a round trip from a regular customer, and it’s usually handled by whoever either happens to be in the area or is just in the centre at the time. When the customer phone rings and the ‘dispatch’ immediately throws me a smiling look, I know what’s up and, slowly but surely, I make myself ready to go. Since there’s nothing else going on for me, I can take it easy – the order has a little time yet, and I still have a few hours of work ahead of me.

Even before the filing, I’m asked to come back to the headquarters. I should switch to the cargo bike, because there’s an extra-large pick-up outside of town that fits right into my route. Driving a delivery bike can be a curse and a blessing. It’s not so windy today, so it could be a lot of fun. We’ll see how it turns out.

After switching bikes, the trip back and the pick-up, I get 2 more orders, one right in the direction of downtown and the other one on the other side of the city. I’ll dump the second one off on a co-worker somewhere near the centre.

Both two full folders have been ordered as regular deliveries. Normally, I’d have to drag 4 folders around with me in my bag, but luckily, I’m on the cargo bike. They’ll be added on somehow – there’ll still be a weight surcharge, of course.

Then, the rest of the day ripples along on its own. There are days when everything fits right in together. The orders come in at just the right time, so that even urgent express trips can easily be combined with other orders and still nothing gets stale. There’s even room for a little lunch either on a park bench (which is great) or even in the seat (with hiccough potential).

Of course, now and then everything just goes wrong – driving in the rain on a pick-up deep in the outskirts, where there’s nobody to be found and, on the ride back in, suddenly hearing a hiss from the rear tire: it’s like doomsday. No, actually, it’s worse than that. Then the FLOW, which is so important for the job, is just gone, and without it, the whole thing is a lot less fun and just gets real, real tiresome. The “What am I doing here?” moments are rare, but they’re there, like they are everywhere. The great thing about being a bike messenger is that these moments can be overcome after the next pick-up. When the secretary who has experience with bike messengers already has a cup of tea and a towel ready and waiting for you to dry yourself off and thanks you a thousand times, you remember right away why you expose yourself to it all.

Out of the Box

You’re needed, you make money with your hobby, you’re on the move, you keep fit and you strengthen your defences. You grow, and you stretch your personal limits in a lot of different directions, sometimes to an incredibly large extent.

You surround yourself with friends, even though you usually work alone, but at the same time for a collective whole, and not only within the company, but across cities, countries, Europe and the whole world.

And that’s celebrated, preferably with an isotonic after-work beer in or in front of the headquarters, in the city park or on the freedom squares of this world. “To us and life, prost, salud, cheers, à la tienne, na zdrowie, skål, egészségedre, salute, živjeli.”

To the monkey ringing again tomorrow.

Image © Bike Citizens

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