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Bicycle Messengers - A Subculture Returns

Words:

Edd Norval
March 25, 2019

Like cultures at large, subcultures don't function in isolation from their society, rather they reflect a certain part of it. Bicycle messengers flew around New York and San Francisco's financial district in the 1980s and 1990s, before email prevailed, transporting sensitive material from one place to another in their own iconic style.

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Many subcultures begin with a few individuals that connect over common ground. With bicycle messengers it was often those unable or unwilling to enter full-time office employment. Rather, they enjoyed the freedom of travelling through the city on their own terms, like a wheeled flaneur understanding the poetry of the sidewalk, retelling it in meetings with other riders as they shared beers and cheap food from local vendors.


Transient to the bone, the bicycle is a way for these people to find the freedom that would otherwise be out of their hands. Physically it is a way to move uninhibited through the American East and West's urban geometry and financially it is their lifeblood. Although these two facets, the physical and financial, are the ones that stand out, it's the ideas, style and attitude that defines the iconic bicycle messenger.


Carrying the spirit of punk, riding fast around the city, dressed in often shabby clothing, fit for the purpose of durability and comfort, their DIY ethos isn't too far away from the hardcore music scene, or even the punk spirit that had ruled these cities in the decades before.

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Always seen with their now-iconic 'messenger bag', a spacious bag that strapped diagonally across their chest offering riders maximum storage, freedom of movement and ease of access - they could just swing it round, rather than take it off. This maximised their delivery times and most importantly, the amount of jobs that could be done in a day.


Many are cyclists that weren't able to make it professional, either down to individual talents, or more likely discipline. Alcohol and drugs were common in a life that was spent mostly on the street. Clothes were modified by the riders and so were their bicycles - the most enduring part of their legacy.


Choosing to ride track bikes - bikes with no gears and often no breaks - that were light with dropped and cropped handlebars maximising the economy of their movement. Breaking was done by applying opposing pressure on the pedals, locking the back wheel in a skid. This mentality, of stopping only being a back-up, highlights the importance of the mentality - perpetual motion, we cannot be stopped. They were also adrenaline junkies, genuinely living life on the edge of chaotic traffic and pedestrian zones.

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This buccaneering attitude created a distinctly anti-establishment ethos within the community where messenger 'zines would pop up, all handmade, alongside messenger bands, art and poetry nights. It was an insular culture where other messengers could access events for cheaper, looking after their own, rare breed, rather than committing to a sort of public service.


Completely at odds with the people they were moving packages for, one in a refined cubicle, adorned in designers threads, the other, a hybrid of punk and motorcycle rider, made them stand out in their idiosyncratic juxtaposition, not only aesthetically, but with a whole way of living. That they operated within a system, whilst still technically being on the outside, was an irony not lost on them.


Largely phased out by the advent of technology, where sensitive material can be moved around faster than even the fastest riders, the messenger has made a resurgence in a new form - the Uber Eats and Just Eat delivery drivers. Many of these riders are immigrants, working due to the lax restrictions on labour, making cash and joining a community.

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Just like the original messengers from the US, they are a sort of marginalised group, existing on the peripheries of society, yet operating as a key cog. There's very few major cities now where one of these cyclists won't be spotted at regular intervals. As they weave their reckless trails, ducking and diving through traffic as a service to us, they go largely unnoticed.


As cultures morph, the messenger looked as good as dead but, showing its true strength, lives on through these riders and through the 'fixie' bikes that are ubiquitous on the streets of most major cities now for their raw simplicity and way that the rider feels more connected with the road they're riding on.


Even the messenger aesthetic lives on in the caps and bags favoured by many commuting city-dwellers. The irony has flipped, rather than envying their freedom, city-slickers have chosen to adopt it, riding their own fixed gear track bikes to work with their suits pressed over their shoulders.


Cultures and subcultures move and evolve and the messenger, as an idea more than anything, will endure, no matter what technological changes occur - we will always want things as fast as we can get our hands on them and few are faster or know the city better than these motley crews of outcasts, former athletes and cycling obsessives.

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