Hell on wheels
Sydney Morning HeraldFriday 2 January 2004
|Author: Nick Galvin
Nick Galvin gets back in the saddle to explore the close-knit world of the bike courier.
I was going fine until Essex Street. A short, steep street in The Rocks, it is lung-bursting, leg-destroying and malevolent in a way only cyclists can fully understand.
I was two hours into my stint shadowing a professional bicycle courier around the city and feeling pretty cocky. Then Essex Street struck, sapping my energy, breath and confidence.
I'd learned to hate the street in 1989, when I was a Pommy backpacker working as a bicycle courier. As I stared at my whitened knuckles gripping the handlebars, fighting back nausea, I remembered why Essex was my personal Everest.
The reason I was toiling up Essex was the editor's notion it would be amusing for me to get back on two wheels 14 years older and 15 kilograms heavier. After insisting on a "no-Lycra" clause (at 37, you have to know your limitations), I teamed up for the day with Allied Couriers rider Henry Scott.
Scores of bike couriers in Sydney work for 11 companies. The number of riders grows a little before Christmas to cope with demand and also fluctuates with the ebb and flow of backpackers who make up about a quarter of the workforce.
They have a tough and at times unpleasant job at which they have to work very hard for a decent income - even the top couriers do not make much more than $45,000 a year.
But it's also a lifestyle that's easy to fall in love with, especially in a city like Sydney.
How else do you explain why Scott - 32, with a degree in Asian studies - has been pedalling up to 100 kilometres daily around the city for five years when the job was only ever going to be a "stop-gap thing"? Or why Harry Tzakostas (37, three kids and a mortgage) has been on the bikes for three years and has no intention of giving it away.
I was reminded of the joys of the job almost immediately. I'd forgotten just how much fun it is to scoot around Sydney on two wheels, not knowing where the next delivery will take you. I'd forgotten the glorious feeling of being an integral part of the city, from the adrenaline rush of a mad dash down George Street, to waiting for a job in one of the city's hidden corners. And I'd forgotten the curious feeling (most pronounced in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon) of being out in the playground while the rest of school is in class.
Scott admits he is still smitten by Sydney, even after five years working on her streets.
"I always feel good going under the bridge and seeing the harbour," he says. "And you really get a feel for the vibe of the city. I know whether it is Monday or Friday just by the feel of the people on the street. You ... become attuned to it."
When I told people I was going to be a pushie for the day, the response was the same: "Oh my God, you'll be killed!" If the dire pronouncements were true, CBD intersections would be knee-deep in dead bicycle couriers each day.
Sure, it's dangerous, but not that dangerous. I did the job for about nine months and got away with a few scratches and bruises. I don't count the tooth lost when I rode into the back of a parked ute because, frankly, anyone who does something that stupid deserves all he gets.
Scott's own injury record after five years is similarly undramatic. He has fallen off "about five times", mainly in wet weather, and was hit by a car once ("I believed him when he said he just didn't see me").
"I suppose I'm more careful than most couriers," he says, "but I can only think of one person who has been seriously injured in my time. When you tell most people that they just don't believe you."
According to Sydney City Council, 40 cyclists were injured in the city last year, about average for the past six years. Crucially, these figures are for all cyclists and cover an area much bigger than the couriers' usual beat. As couriers are generally highly skilled riders who work only in daylight, it's reasonable to figure they make up only a small percentage of that injury toll.
Considering the 100,000-plus deliveries made by pushies each year, they escape remarkably unscathed.
Scott says the city is relatively safe for cyclists because the cars can't get up much speed, meaning most accidents are minor.
"But I reckon the people that ride on bike lanes on the highway are crazy because a car only has to go off line a bit and you're dead," he says.
Despite the facts, most people are convinced cycle couriers have a life expectancy near that of a soldier on the Western Front. Maybe it's because so much of the bike courier legend is built around the idea that the job is incredibly dangerous.
Internationally, cycle courier culture has spawned documentaries, exhibitions, internet e-zines, regular courier "olympics" and, of course, newspaper stories.
Looking over bike courier stories published in the past 20 years, two themes emerge. One is the standard "cool urban outlaw" story. The other decries the despicable courier and outlines the latest scheme to nail them with undercover cops, new rules or compulsory licence plates.
In a 1990 letter published in the Herald claiming to be from the "Pedestrian Liberation Front", the writer encourages pedestrians to "rush encampments of delivery cyclists and kick in their bicycle spokes and slash their tyres".
Pedestrian Council of Australia boss Harold Scruby is a long-standing foe of the city's bicycle couriers. "Ninety-nine per cent of people in the city hate them," he says, adding that pedestrians are injured daily by couriers running red lights and riding on footpaths.
Challenged to substantiate his claims, Scruby admits he has no figures but adds: "It's happening all the time. I get people ringing me up all the time."
When I suggest cyclists fell somewhere between pedestrians and cars and should be cut some slack with road rules, Scruby was less than impressed. "F--- that, it's the law!" he says. "Half of them are backpackers over here to make a few tax-free dollars anyway. No one should be put in the position of walking down the footpath in Sydney with [couriers] 15-stone and more coming down at them."
There are few hard figures on such collisions and many probably go unreported; still the demonising continues.
Tzakostas is resigned to the fear and loathing his courier uniform inspires both on the street and in the city's office buildings.
"They look at us as scum of the Earth," he says. "We've been told by one company if we use their toilet they will throw the account out. They think we're some sort of disease, that's for sure."
Scott believes bike couriers provoke rage among fellow road users - especially taxi drivers - because they efficiently cut though the traffic and, yes, ignore red lights and one-ways, leaving drivers snarling behind the wheel. He likens a courier to a jockey riding the favourite: "You're always going to be the fastest between two points, it's just a question of getting through the traffic."
Getting through that traffic after so long out of the saddle made me acutely aware of the frailty of flesh and bone compared with the tonnes of metal passing within inches.
And while the rhythm of cycling in traffic soon came back to me, I had a harder time dealing with the suspicious glares I was attracting from other couriers. "They think you're a pecker," says Scott.
I thought I was inconspicuous.
It turns out that peckers are right at the very bottom of the intricate feudal system of the bicycle courier world. They are the new boys and, because the riders still get most of their income by competing for jobs over the radio, a new bike means a little less in the pot to go round.
When a pecker starts the job it becomes a test of wills between him and the established riders until the new boy proves he's going to stick around. "People don't want you to hang around, so they give you a few days' grief so you think, 'Bugger this', and you leave," says Scott.
Favourite tricks include "buttoning out" the pecker on the radio (interrupting his messages with static), and sending him to the wrong address or on low-paying jobs.
As I locked up my borrowed bike at the end of the day, I had brief fantasies of rejoining that fraternity in a Plugger-esque comeback to the cycle couriering scene.
But then common sense set in and I realised that physically - and mentally - my days of working in the saddle are well and truly over.
I never looked that good in Lycra, anyway.