Spin City

Fast Times at the Bike Messenger World Championships

The "Trackskid" event is a crowd favorite—described by the eventual winner as "a big spectacle of suicide." One at a time, the competitors sprint for 100 yards, reaching speeds of 35 miles an hour before locking their legs (and rear wheel—the back hub is fixed) as they cross the starting line. Those who don't immediately crash try to maintain the longest possible skid. Cheering spectators line both sides of the roadway as the riders come sliding past, some leaning nearly horizontal over their handlebars like life-size hood ornaments.

One rider passes 200 feet, another betters 300. The crowd is surging into the road now. John Kenda, who has spent the last six months organizing the event, is screaming into a bullhorn, "Get out of the motherfucking road—what am I speaking, Swahili?" as Michelle Petrulio, a Boston messenger, becomes the first woman to pass 250 feet. She refuses to put a foot down as her bike loses momentum and ekes out the few last inches, then crashes to the ground, hands still on the bars, feet on the pedals, a smile on her face.

The competition and the drinking intensify, and the riders push the envelope farther; a dozen riders suffer what the messengers call "endo," falling over their handle bars to the pavement with their bikes crashing down on top of them. All jump up to great applause. Jason Gandy from Brooklyn wins the men's division with a world record of 479 feet, then leaves for the hospital with a suspected broken wrist.

Don't go endo: the trackskid competition.
photo: Max Grafe
Don't go endo: the trackskid competition.

It's getting dark as the final event, the "Trials," is held. Riders attempt to ride over—and do maximum damage to—a cream-colored station wagon replete with fake wood-grain side panels. The riders attack this token of Middle America with enthusiasm but little success until Henrik Rivold from Denmark appears. The Dane turns into a one-man wrecking crew, bouncing deftly onto the car hood and smashing the windshield with his tires. For his pièce de résistance, he has a volunteer lay spread-eagled on the ground, then rears up on his back tire atop the car, free-falls five feet, and lands balancing on his rear wheel, inches from the volunteer's crotch. The crowd goes wild, sprays him with beer, and the Danes are forgiven their earlier transgressions.

As the day comes to a close, the 27-year-old Petrulio, who placed second in the women's trackskid and first among the women's track riders in the Main Race, stands on the grass, hugging old friends as they wander by. She's sporting a bloody knot the size of a golfball on her left arm. Like most here, Petrulio is well-spoken, comes from a middle-class background, and has some college education. She's also the self-described "black sheep" of her family and an eight-year veteran of the Boston streets.

"I have a love-hate relationship with my bike, with my city, and with my job," she says. "The suits treat you like shit—you take a verbal beating. We're making $800 a week tax-free. We're coming home with more than them. They're jealous they never took a chance, they never stepped out to change their lives. They wonder, 'How will I survive without health insurance?' I do and I've been hurt many times. I think about all the times I've been so close to death. I think about the fundraisers we've done for the families of messengers killed in other cities. We're very aware that we have one life—that's why we all love each other so much. When I come here, it reminds me why I love being a messenger."

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