Speedy Delivery: The Messenger’s Tale

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleWorking in the design field in the days before the ubiquity of PDF documents and digital signatures, I had more than my share of experience with bicycle messengers. Whether sending design edits back-and-forth with a client, or checking proofs from a printer, bicycle messengers — with their trademark neon-spandex outfits and omnipresent single-strap messenger bags — were the go-to-delivery method for items that needed to get across town too quickly for regular delivery services, but which couldn’t be sent as faxes or scans because of their sensitivity or need for accuracy. (To this day, on-screen proofs are no real substitute for verifying printed colors off the press.)

At its height, the bicycle courier industry in Washington, DC, where The Messenger’s Tale takes place, had upwards of 400 riders.

Bicycle couriers have actually been around since the nineteenth century, with bicycles being used to transport mail and other documents, as well as for telegraph message delivery. But what we traditionally think of as the bicycle courier industry was born shortly after the second World War, when Carl Sparks founded a dedicated bicycle delivery service — called, appropriately enough, Sparkies — in San Francisco. Throughout the late twentieth century, the industry gradually developed a distinct counter-culture image, with messengers often viewed as hardcore, punk rock-infused anarchists. But across the 1980s and ’90s, a more collaborative atmosphere began to permeate the industry, and affinity groups for bicycle couriers began springing up, such as the Messenger Courier Association of America, as well as communal events like the Cycle Messenger World Championships, an annual competition composed of both proper cycling races and various stunts and activities meant to replicate the kinds of actions couriers encounter as a part of their daily work routines. And couriers also participate in so-called “alley cat” races — underground, unsanctioned competitions organized in cities around the world.

The technology used by bicycle messengers has changed dramatically over the years, from the early days of paper maps and in-person dispatching to two-way radios, mobile phones and GPS systems. But one area in which technology seems to have reversed — particularly since the mid-2000s — is in the only true requirement for being a bicycle courier: the bicycle itself. While messengers have long made use of a wide range of cycle types, based on everything from local terrain to personal preference, one notable standout among couriers is the fixed-gear cycle, or “fixie.” A kind of throwback to the very first bicycles ever built, a fixie has no freewheel mechanism — the rear wheel sprocket is locked to the wheel hub, meaning that pedal movement and wheel movement are locked in sync. This means the bicycle has no ability to coast — if the wheels are moving, the pedals are moving. But this also means the rider can use reverse pedal motion to brake, or even move in reverse. In point of fact, many bicycles in use have removed dedicated brakes entirely, relying solely on the rider’s own leg power. While all of this may seem odd, even anachronistic, the fixie does have several advantages. For one, not having the extra equipment makes the bike notably lighter than its more fully geared counterparts. For another, the reduced complexity of the design reduces the chance of mechanical failure — a critical concern when your livelihood depends on reliability. Many cyclists believe a fixed-wheel cycle gives them greater control, though this assertion is questioned by just as many others. And ultimately, such a simple, basic bicycle may be less attractive to bicycle thieves, an all-too-common danger in urban environments.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

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