Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Messenger of Doom

A date and an anniversary coincide this week. It’s the Riverport Duathon this Sunday and I’m seriously considering racing on 70” fixed. It'll be the first time in a year I'll have turned a pedal in anger; it's going to hurt isn't it? I think going on fixed will remove some of the pressure. If I only have a 14 (and a 39), then I can't possibly compete against folk with full-on crabon and twenty gears to choose from, right? Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. This will be the first time I’ve raced on fixed since the Crest CC day out at Calshot velodrome in 1990 where I found out the hard way the stalling speed of a track-bike high on the 49° banking (one of the steepest angles in the world!).

Slip slidin' away

The end of September is also the anniversary of my “big” crash. I think we all have a favourite chute, be it for the circumstances, unaccountable and expensive mechanical damage (or lack of), the publicity (I bet Adbujaparov still thinks fondly of the Champs Elysee in the 1991 Tour from time to time, but he probably doesn’t drink Coke any more!), a spectacular set of injuries or a combination of all four that turned a mundane pratfall into a son et lumière. This is mine. Yes, it was seventeen years ago but no, I’m not living in the past as I can’t remember the actual date, I just remember “end of September”.

Once upon a long ago when I was young, fit, weighed under 70 kg for the last time in my life and still imbued with that feeling of invincibility and sense of indestructibility that even a couple of decent crashes can’t knock out of the young, I needed a job. I wasn’t in a rush to leave London (perhaps Samuel Johnson was right). So bike courier it was.

In TZ at the ‘91 Airebrough Tri. Check out the bad taste paint-job on my Orbit. Hot pink fades to fluorescent green? And the helmet matched! Sweet.

I got a gig with Arrow Express on Binney Street, W1, a side-street somewhere between Bond Street and Marble Arch. Back then we used radios, not cell-phones and Crackberries and ours were famously bad; my radio really only worked in line-of-sight with home-base! I also got my call-sign “Alpha Eight Eight”, a number that still makes me stop and turn even today .

The myth of the courier is swinging around Piccadilly or Marble Arch on the drops with your shades on, courier bag slung jauntily over one shoulder, possibly with a couple of interesting looking cardboard tubes sticking out of it, swigging Lucozade and getting chatted up by hot secretaries and foxy chicks in convertibles “’ello darling’, wots that? Do I shave my legs?” and I’m not going to kid you, some days it was like that. There were also the bad days; the days it poured with rain all day, you were wet before you’d even started and you ended up sitting under a shop awning in Knightsbridge with your feet in your bag and the Evening Standard stuffed up your jersey nursing a single coffee trying to keep warm, less “’ello darlin’” and more “Yes officer, I’ll move on”.

Working conditions were pretty poor, and not only for the obvious reasons. We got paid piece-rate, in other words a fixed amount of the cost of each delivery was ours; £3 was the going rate for a job, of which we saw £1.75. Back then I was spending maybe £20 on groceries, £40 on rent a week then they’d take £10 for the radio so that’s maybe forty-plus jobs, a couple of good days or three bad ones, before you got into “your” money. You could be on for 12 hours and only do tendeliveries. That’s’ about £15 for 12 hours work! I know the maths doesn’t work out but you see customers on account got reduced rates, say £2.50 a job which meant the riders’ cut went down proportionally. Not to mention that the ratio of hot secretaries (the ones in short skirts and low-cut white blouses) to sweaty, balding, middle-aged shipping clerks in ill-fitting grey polyester uniforms, is depressingly low. Told you it sucked.

Far fewer of these than lore predicts!

Traffic? Blimey. We need to talk. Halifax is nothing. I’ll say this though, unlike Halifax, bikes are usually faster than cars in central London, which actually makes life safer. Still, close shaves every day and probably about an accident a week. Mostly getting doored by yuppies bailing out of cabs and bouncing off tourists looking the wrong way, but I do remember lying on my back in Hannover Square and seeing my bike under a Volvo! Once going down the white line in the middle of Oxford Street I hit a bus coming the other way with the corner of my bag that stuck out over my right shoulder. How close was that? Every now and there'd be a bout of road-rage, not that anyone knew what road-rage was in 1992. Turning right off Regent Street one day three guys just walked out in front of me without looking. Having just battled my way down Oxford Street I thought “That’s just f$#%*&g it” and made a classic “right turn” signal, straight out of the highway code, and clipped one of the guys over the top of the head with my outstretched hand at 15 mph as I made the turn. Bet that scared him!

There were really only two ways to make money in this game. One was distance. That’s how the motorbikes made their cash. Us bikes were used in central London; EC1-4, WC1, WC2, W1, W2, NW1, SW1, SE1. Inside this zone, where the bikes are the fastest things on wheels, it cost the flat rate of £3.00 per package (£1.75 to me) to take a package from say EC4 to W1. Outside this zone, where the bikes were no longer kings of the road, it was the flat rate plus mileage, say 50p/mile. This was the domain of the motorbike guys. Give a package to a bloke on a motorbike and tell him to take it to Heathrow or Bristol by 2 o’clock and ker-ching, the guy’s a winner. Bikes got few mileage jobs. Once I was asked if I could make it out to the BBC at Shepherds Bush, five or six miles from our usual haunts “8-8, that’s a ten mile round trip” they cautioned. I radioed back that I’d raced a 100 mile time-trial two days earlier, and yes, I think I had the gas. “Very funny 8-8, get yourself over there pronto”. That trip turned out to be a nice little earner ’cos I also hit the second way of making money on that trip; multiple jobs. It’s three quid per packet right? If you’ve got two packets on board then that’s six quid, or £3.50 to you. Having multiple packets going both ways and on mileage I was quids in. Of course you’ve got to prove to the controllers that you can carry one packet first and not get lost on the way, we all heard of the guy who went to Queen Street EC4, not Queen’s Square WC1 (muppet!), so it takes a few weeks before controllers start to trust you. Thus the first few weeks as a courier are pretty lean, and more than once you find yourself doing the math “have I eaten more than I’ve earned today/this week?”. It could get pretty close some times!

Our patch; the orangey bit in the middle (hmmmm, Jaffa Cakes) and the surrounding postal codes....

One thing about a courier is your days are never the same. I’d leave the house at about 06:45 and swing by the all night bagel bakery at the Hackney Road end of Brick Lane on my way to Liverpool Street station to sign in when the circuits opened at 07:30. Why there? Well firstly I was coming in from east London and it was the first bit of the “The City” I hit, especially if I’d just picked up a days’ supply of bagels. Besides, I could sit down and read a bit, get a coffee and they had toilets. Signing on that early got me a nice little earner, six to ten packages from a commercial bank behind Bishopsgate to various places around the City and the West End, which usually left me at the Chemical Bank on Hannover Street up west. It netted about £7 for just under an hour’s work, not a bad little earner. Not minimum wage either, but it could be the most productive hour of my day!

Hot salt beef bagels.....

There are certain industries you can’t stay too long in. Porn is one, they say. I reckon couriering is another. I know there are guys who’ve been doing the rounds in London or New York or San Fran and who are legendary within the community but for most of us, no, not long. The physical toll mounts while your ration of luck decreases. It only takes a moments inattention; yours, someone else's, maybe the guardian angel on your shoulder was checking out his reflection in a shop window but sooner or later you’re going to see the underside of a bus or the inside of an ambulance. My exit came courtesy of an innocuous little, poorly filled in trench on Bloomsbury way. I was going up west at a great rate of knots and bunny-hopped it. Or at least I tried to. I landed all wrong which is to say everything but the tyres hit the ground. Ker-runch.

What had actually gone ker-runch was my face: a depressed tripod fracture of the left zygoma and a fractured mandibular condyle (that’s the lower jaw) to boot. A surprisingly negligible amount of actual road-rash however (I still wear the jersey!). The jaw would set on it’s own but the zygoma required surgery a week later to re-set it and I still have the screws in; they’re titanium and no they don’t go beep in airports (but I remember was traveling a month after 9-11 and I seemed to set everything off so I did get to wondering…...) . The fractured zygoma was pressing on the trigeminal nerve and my upper lip was numb for ages afterwards.

Check the helmet too. A huge chunk of it didn’t make it as far as the hospital and the remaining pieces were only held together by the straps. I dare-say if I hadn’t been wearing it a huge chunk of my brain probably wouldn’t have made it either (and my skull would only have been held together by the helmet straps). The scary thing is this didn’t convince me right away that wearing helmets was a good thing (it actually took another crash!) . This still gives me cold chills; almost as if like a goose is walking over my grave in a parallel universe, the one where I put on the little bakers' cap that morning instead.

Back then helmets were only legal for road-racing, where accidents were to be expected, given the close proximity of all those bikes, speed, corners and cyclists’ brain (which is like runners brain but with a Phil Liggett/Paul Sherwen laugh-track). We all used to ride to the Thursday night crits at Eastway with our helmets slung over the stem or clipped to our musette bags; seems kinda ridiculous now doesn’t it (but I've seen it in Quebec!)? I definitely didn’t wear one for time-trials back then, I mean riding on your own, what could possibly happen?

Helmets in TTs? What could possibly go wrong? Oh, wait....

So, even though it has it glamour moments (“‘ello darlin’”), couriering is a hard slog and unlike most of our jobs, requires one take almost suicidal risks on a daily basis. But hey, I was getting paid to ride my bike, and how many of you can say that? I was doing it in a city I loved and knew like the back of my hand, which hardly made it a great intellectual drain and besides, there were the hot secretaries and foxy chicks in convertibles!

At Cyclesmith a couple of years ago we had a courier come out and do the race on fixed. He said “oh, so you’re the ex-messenger they were talking about, do you want to come out to the courier races?”. You know, for a second there the temptation was there, to go screeching around town on the drops on fixed wearing shades with a couple of cardboard tubes sticking out of a cordura courier bag slung jauntily over one shoulder, checking delivery-schedules on a Crackberry while swigging Red Bull and “’ello darlin’ yeah, they’re shaved”, but you know, I reckon couriering is a young man’s game. I no longer feel indestructible or invincible, I weigh more than 70 kg, I’ve used up all my luck and besides I think my guardian angel has also grown up and has forsaken me to do postgraduate work. So sure, I was a courier, but as countless young actresses have said before me, hey I was young and I needed the money!


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