The air is filled with shouts and the sound of skidding tires as riders jump from their still-rolling bikes and sprint to the dispatch station. Jostling like hungry men on a breadline, they push forward shouting, “Dropping off—stamp me, stamp me,” or “I need a package—I’m going long.” Moments later, they’re running alongside their bikes, vaulting into the saddle in mid stride as supporters hand off water bottles and shout encouragement: “Do it for San Francisco. Go, motherfucker!”
Through the din, a voice comes over a radio: “He’s liquored up, brown Bianchi coming to you.” The race marshal gives a “roger” and flags down the weaving offender as he pulls into the pickup station. “You’re drunk—out of the race,” he tells the spiky-haired, shirtless rider (later identified as “Willie from Boston”), gently leading him by the arm away from the bedlam.
“Who the hell wants to race for four hours anyway?” replies Willie. “Give me a beer.” High-fives are exchanged as his support team rushes up, struggling with a cooler and a portable radio blasting the Cro-Mags. Willie pops the top on a cold Schaeffer, takes a long pull, and watches the sweating, frenetic riders for a moment. “Hey guys,” he calls out, “only three hours, 40 minutes to go.”
Five hundred and fifty messengers from 25 countries descended on Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park last weekend for the Eighth Annual Bike Messenger World Championships, a gathering equal parts bacchanal and carnage-strewn athletic event. (Originally slated to take place in Boston, the competition was moved to Philly after a Beantown messenger knocked a Federal Reserve Bank executive into a coma.) While some riders train hard for the event, many view it primarily as an opportunity to establish friendships with their global counterparts; past host cities have included Zurich, San Francisco, and Barcelona.
But the competition’s international makeup has brought with it cultural tensions. Alongside the three-mile course, Stephanie Larkin and her heavily tattooed fiancé, Sean Terwilliger, both Philadelphia messengers, shout encouragement to friends from the shade of a maple tree. But they remain silent as scores of tall, blond riders storm by—each sporting thighs that appear sculpted of bronze Plasticine.
“Those Danes are pros,” says Larkin, pointing to the identically spandexed riders. “They come over here every year and kick our asses and it really pisses me off.” Before the race, Jasper Jensen, the reigning European bike messenger world champion, denied charges of professionalism. “Our advantage is that we wait until after the race to party,” he said, sitting next to his $2000 18-speed Colnago. But he admitted that many Europeans are part-time messengers who use the job to stay in shape when they’re not competing in top-level amateur road races. “For the Americans,” explained Jensen, “[being a messenger] is more like a lifestyle.”
“In Berlin, people respect you, they think you’re doing something unusual with your life,” confirms Pitt Kirstein, a veteran female messenger of both Berlin and New York City. “In New York they think you’re a fucking loser—dirty and uneducated.” And she acknowledges, as do many others in attendance, the steady stream of middle-class outcasts and rebels who gravitate to the job—simultaneously fueling and reveling in the outlaw aesthetic.
The other messenger demographic—and one noticeably absent at this event—is the working-class black and Hispanic courier who rides for the money, and for whom “messenger culture” is irrelevant. “They just got fired from McDonald’s, so they get a mountain bike and start supporting the two wives and five kids,” explains one contestant, her voice dripping with contempt.
Out on the racecourse, most of the riders are still sprinting hard well into the fourth and final hour of the Main Race. In an attempt to simulate real-world conditions, eight dispatch stations are spread over the course and points are awarded for each pickup and delivery. On the sidelines, a group of messengers who didn’t make the finals trade stories about the previous night’s party: “He sees something white and figures it’s a toilet and pisses all over them while they’re sleeping.” Bowls of marijuana are passed among the support crews. A Scottish rider crashes, sliding along the pavement at no less than 30 miles an hour, then rises bloody and drunk, and in a thick brogue demands to continue the race.
A horn blows, signaling the final five minutes, and riders surge to get their last packages and corresponding points. The clock clicks to 4:00 anticlimactically. There is no immediate winner, and the judges start tallying scores to be announced later. Near the finish line, a woman lies under a tree, drenched with sweat, tears rolling down her face. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she tells a friend.
The track-bike competitions are next, and here the Europeans are at a disadvantage; they don’t ride these gearless bikes that are at the heart of New York City messenger culture. The stripped-down, lightweight bikes were originally designed for racing in banked velodromes. Adding to their allure is the fact that they have no brakes, making them rolling death traps for all but expert riders and the perfect accessory for this subculture.
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.
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.”