Pedal to the Mettle

Bike messengers gear up for a showdown in Philly.

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Can't catch a brake: Freewheelin' messenger Andrew McIntyre. - Walter  Novak
Can't catch a brake: Freewheelin' messenger Andrew McIntyre.
They don't wear helmets, and they don't use brakes. They dive through Cleveland's streets every day on bicycles built for racetracks, rushing dozens of packages across downtown, dodging hostile buses and cars.

And at the end of the day, they relax over pints on a bar's patio, five of Cleveland's two or three dozen bike messengers, their hair thoroughly messed by the wind, all dressed in fading T-shirts and shorts that reveal their thin, sinewy legs.

They are daredevil former skateboarders and misfits -- "tattooed, punk-rock-listening guys and gals who look good," says Andrew McIntyre, one member of the ranks. Cleveland's bike messengers are part of a distinct community common to most big cities. "It's a job that kind of washes over into a subculture, which kind of washes over into a sport," says messenger Brent Kwiatkowski.

This weekend, that international clique is coming together. About a dozen Cleveland couriers are traveling to Philadelphia to compete in the Cycle Messenger World Championships: four days of competitions and parties expected to attract a couple thousand bike messengers from around the world. The weekend leads up to a bike race through a city park, where about 500 to 800 messengers will race from checkpoint to checkpoint -- an event meant to simulate a workday.

Other competitions include basic sprints and cargo races, in which couriers transport huge objects such as pony kegs. In between, the Cleveland messengers will be checking out cafés and clubs full of messengers' bands, art, photography, and films.

Cleveland's teams will include some strong riders, like Steve Grove, who won an alley cat scramble -- an illegal bike race through traffic -- in Columbus in April. But they know they'll be up against tough competition, especially from German teams, which show up with masseurs and heart monitors.

"The Cleveland guys might not win the race, but we'll definitely be up there in terms of being the drunkest," says McIntyre.

Camaraderie is the biggest draw for Cleveland's team -- the excitement of being surrounded by like-minded colleagues after risking life and limb in a car-dominated city.

McIntyre wears shorts and a faded Superman T-shirt to work, but he's far from invincible. Lately, he's been carrying around the pain of two broken ribs. He's broken his fingers and gotten 37 stitches in his lip, both after drivers cut him off. "The mentality in Cleveland," he says, "is that bikes are for kids on the sidewalks. [People] come downtown, they see somebody on a bike, and they have a fit, because we're in a lane."

Messengers also take risks that recreational bikers never would. Because they're paid according to how many packages they deliver -- McIntyre says he averages 50 to 70 a day -- speed is of the essence.

Couriers shed everything that could slow them down. So they don't wear helmets. And they ride racetrack bikes with one gear and no brakes. To stop, they have to push back on their pedals, forcing their wheels to skid to a halt. The simple track bikes help them avoid costly maintenance bills. But there's also a daredevil attitude behind the no-helmet, no-brakes rule.

"It's all an ego trip," admits Grove. "There's no good reason not to have brakes." The messengers insist they're in control of their bikes, and that they can anticipate how traffic will flow. Still, when asked about the dangers, they grow quiet. One says he'd rather change the subject. They search for wood to knock on. "I know a killed messenger," says McIntyre. Others agree. The championships are dedicated to a courier who was killed by a driver.

They used to take part in bike-awareness protests, riding en masse from downtown to University Circle -- but after getting menaced by too many drivers, they stopped.

But once they're off the streets and delivering to offices, they usually get polite receptions. Suit-and-tie professionals say they wish they had the messengers' jobs (on sunny days, anyway). And whether it's because they radiate rebellion amid corporate conformity or just because they're in shape, the single messengers admit they get a lot of attention from women downtown.

"I can honestly say that the last five girlfriends that I've had, I've met on the job," says Grove.

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