Bicycle Messengers

Bicycle Messengers

Posted on 23. Nov, 2010 by in Bike Delivery

In the last year and a half or so, since we set out to define utility cycling, we have covered a wide breadth of topics from bike services to bike mapping to community building and much, much more. We have been slowly filling in the all of the categories and subcategories that we identified of utility cycling, along with a wide range of other posts. However, in the category of bicycle delivery, we have not yet written anything about bicycle messengers, which is certainly a major gap, as bicycle messengers are perhaps one of the most iconic types of utility cyclists on the road. Therefore, today’s post is dedicated to the bicycle messenger, or bicycle courier, if you prefer. Header photo credit: Libcom.

The Imagery or Imaginary?

So what constitutes a bicycle messenger or courier? Is it the bike? The fashion? The attitude? There is certainly a lot of hype and popularity these days for fixed-gear bicycles, bike messenger bags, and other stereotypical bike messenger gear and paraphernalia. In most cities I have traveled to in the U.S. in the last few years, it is a common sight to see lots of flashy fixed-gear bikes with very short handlebars (for navigating in heavy traffic, presumably), spoke cards, bright colors, thick chain locks, hipster-clad riders, and other bike messenger-inspired fashion. But I do wonder, how representative is this image of the people who actually make their living as bike messengers?

bike-messengerImage Credit: 100 Mile Bike Ride

A Brief History of Bicycle Messengers

To answer that question, I set out to do a little research on the history of bicycle messengers in the U.S. First and foremost, it is important to note that bicycle couriers or messengers deliver things, be it a legal document, a package, or just about anything else that can fit in a messenger bag. Bicycle delivery is certainly nothing new, as the bicycle has been an important vehicle for delivery ever since its invention. Some of the earliest stories of bicycle messengers are from the 1800′s, when bicycles were used to transport mail and other documents between or within cities for various reasons. There are also some very interesting stories from the late 1800′s and early 1900′s about bike messenger relays and races to highlight the benefits of using the bicycle for urgent delivery of packages and documents.

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Image Credits: BlackBirdSF

Telegraph messengers were also very popular, especially with companies like Western Union, who used messenger boys to deliver cables and other small parts for telegraph service.

1911-westernunion-childworkerImage Credit: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, what we might consider the modern bike messenger appeared shortly after World War II in cities like New York and San Francisco. In 1945, the first bicycle delivery service was founded in San Francisco by Carl Sparks called Sparkies, which later became Aero and then CitySprint. Modern bike messengers quickly became more popular in Canadian and European cities, as well. In the 1960′s and 70′s, as general fashion changed, so did the fashion of the bike messenger, and jeans and t-shirts became the norm.

In the 70′s, with the advent of punk rock, bike messenger companies became sources of employment for punk rock inspired individuals with mohawks and the like. From there, the bike messenger evolved as a somewhat counter-culture individual, and the rigors of the job required strong-willed, brave, and tenacious individuals. The bike messenger culture in the 80′s definitely had an air of trouble, with some messengers being generally unruly individuals and causing public discontent and dislike. To some extent, that image lives on – of a hardcore, punk-rock-inspired, tattooed, pierced bike messenger bravely (or crazily) weaving in and out of traffic bearing important documents – but it is important to note, that bike messenger culture and community is much more complex and influential than that image alone might suggest.

species_courier_06_pImage Credit: SolonBicycle

In the late 1980′s and early 90′s, a strong culture of outreach and collaboration was breeding in the bike messenger community due to the general political atmosphere, economic changes, critical mass, and other events. Official organizations to support bike messengers began to appear in the 90′s, such as Cycle Messenger World Championships, the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations, and others. Nowadays, bike messengers have a strong community worldwide, and especially within large, urban centers, and they are definitely an incredibly important type of utility cyclist. Most popular bike messenger cities have strong local organizations, such as the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association, the New York Bike Messenger Association, and many others, as well.

Bicycle Messenger Equipment

So, is it true that bike messengers exclusively ride fixed-gear bikes and carry messenger bags with big chain-link locks? No, not really. The one essential piece of equipment for a bike messenger is obviously a bicycle. Although fixed gear bikes are often the bike of choice for messengers, due in large part to their simplicity and lack of components that could be broken or stolen, other bikes are popular among messengers, as well. This FAQ from the New York Bicycle Messenger Association answers the question of what bike a messenger should used based on the rider’s personal style and preference. Naturally, this makes sense, as the rider will be spending a significant amount of time on the bike, so getting one that suits the terrain and rider seems natural. In general, it seems that flat handlebars and slick tires are relatively commonplace, and from there, many of the choices on gearing and brake systems vary by rider.

Other common equipment is a bike messenger bag, which is typical a one-strap bag slung over one shoulder and buckled around the torso. Messenger bags are easy to swing around from back to front in order to access the contents of the bag quickly and efficiently. For an interesting brief history on the messenger bag, you can check out messengers.org. Additionally, messengers typically carry a heavy-duty and versatile lock for attached a bike to whatever stationary object is most convenient.

chrome-berlin-messenger-bag-chest-strap-stockImage Credit: Bike Bag Shop

In general, there are a lot of myths and stereotypes associated with bike messengers, as I have shown here. Of course, there is definitely some history and truth behind these images of bike messengers, but it is important to understand where they come from and how much truth there is to them. These images have positive and negative effects, but to a large extent, they can encourage more people to get around by bike (be it fixed-gear or otherwise). Bike messengers have had a significant impact on bicycle culture and advocacy, and they are definitely a very important part of utility cycling.

9 Responses to “Bicycle Messengers”

  1. JG

    18. Dec, 2010

    Great reading.. wow what a great blog! love the pixs!!

  2. Melanie Meyers

    20. Dec, 2010

    Thanks for checking us out and glad you enjoy the blog!

  3. Bill Layman

    20. Feb, 2011

    I used to ride for Sparkies in the early 70′s .I met a lot of good people back then and wish I was still in touch. When ever I hear “Bob Dylan’s Dream”, I think of that group sitting around Sparkies waiting to go out and hit the hills of San Francisco . Wow thanks for jogging the memories

  4. Melanie Colavito

    23. Feb, 2011

    Hi Bill,

    Sounds like you have some interesting stories to share. Would you ever be interested in a guest post about your messenger days? Thanks for the comment!

  5. bill layman

    23. Feb, 2011

    Sure but it’s getting harder to remember names and dates. Like Mark Twain said I remember everything …whether it happened or not.
    I can tell you we used one gear heavy bikes that had been re welded many times I think my pay was 98cent /hour plus commission . But I always got screwed on the commission.I was always amazed when you came into an office soaking dripping wet and the secretary would ask “Is it raining”

  6. Robert 'Clips'

    17. May, 2011

    Sparkies in the ’80s here … and Harvey’s Place .. I still have the t-shirt lurking somewhere

  7. [...] rubber, black, filthy & often lightless & breakless as well. Don’t forget the bike messengers, those original fearless riders of NYC. These tattooed nihilists, with their separated shoulders [...]

  8. [...] Cudal, has been a bike messager for 17 yrs and he loves it. Sometimes he dispatches but he loves to ride around Chicago busy [...]

  9. robert

    07. Oct, 2014

    It was an interesting article.i just started working for a photo company that takes pictures in restaurants in waikiki and we deliver by bike or moped..i didnt knpw that most msengers prefer fixies some of our guys have fixies and some have 21 or 10 speeds i have a walmart genesis 21 spd road bike but i notice the guys on fixies get real fast

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