The streets of Helsinki may not be the urban jungle that is New York, Tokyo or London, but the city has a thriving bicycle courier community nonetheless, which was recognised earlier this month when Helsinki hosted the European Cycle Messenger Championships (ECMC) 2006. During the four day event I met up with Jeremiah Tesolin, whose recently completed Masters Degree thesis for the University of Industrial Arts, Helsinki looked at the role design and branding will play in the future of the bicycle courier. He talked to me about the cycle messenger industry, the way it is changing, and how an underground subculture of bicycle enthusiasts became a global youth icon.
Written by Matt Sinclair
Jeremiah, what kind of people typically work as cycle messengers?
The first thing to say is that for many messengers it’s not so much work as a way of life – for some couriers it truly is the perfect job, being paid to do the thing they love. It’s true that messengers are usually young, but sometimes you’ll see older couriers, or couriers who have set up their own companies and now run the business or operations side of things.
Then there’s a number of books that have been written about ‘courier style’, and I’m sure many people have a stereotypical image of a cycle messenger with piercings and dreadlocks and wearing combat pants rolled up to the knee. But what’s interesting is that when you study you the industry you find that’s only one extreme – at the other end you find couriers whose style is much closer to a professional cyclist.
Leo, a picture perfect messenger from the book ‘Messenger Style’ © Assouline Publishing 2000
Fixman, wearing expensive, highly functional clothing, from the book ‘Messenger Style’ © Assouline Publishing 2000
They wear expensive, high performance sports clothing and are often supremely fit. And then there’s a whole spectrum between those two extremes. So I tend to think that couriers are less united by outward appearance and more by an inner attitude to life. Most couriers love the freedom of the job, the freedom to wear what they like and work the hours they want, to be outside rather than in an office, and to be part of a tight knit community.
Salary is rarely a motivating factor, instead they find satisfaction from a fundamental understanding of how the city and the street work, in a similar way to how skateboarders understand architecture.
one of the older boys, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
one of the cyclists relaxing at night, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
When you talk about the sense of freedom that a cycle messenger finds important, that’s one of the things that makes them iconic isn’t it?
Yes, the idea that a person’s motivations are about freedom and self expression rather than money is always attractive. And even today there’s something counter-cultural about a person who doesn’t work nine-to-five in a shirt and tie. Then when you add the fact that cycle messengers often ride in ways that can be viewed as foolhardy, dangerous or illegal, and which certainly annoy a lot of people, you almost have a recipe for a youth icon!
Is that why, for example, the messenger bag is now so common?
Yes, but what’s interesting is, in the same way as with other subcultures, the things which are appropriated by the mainstream aren’t really understood, and often they aren’t the things which the subculture themselves think are important. So with messenger bags, couriers see them in terms of function – they’re big enough to keep documents flat, and having only one shoulder strap means the bag can be swung around the body to remove packages or to read a map. (Those who regularly carry heavier items often use bags with two straps, more like a rucksac, which distributes the weight better and puts less strain on the shoulders).
Citizen professional one shoulder strap messenger bag, by Chrome Bags
same bag from inside
Citizen professional two strap messenger bag for heavy deliveries, by Chrome Bags
same bag from behind
Bagaboo Bags messenger bags for sale at the event in Helsinki, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
FIXIE KING engraved into a furry messenger bag as a trophie for event heros, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
Couriers don’t think of their bags as being cool. For them, style is about how someone rides, the way they weave elegantly through traffic, the fluidity of their movements as they navigate from one street to another, and the confidence with which they take a blind corner or jump a red light. Those things are invisible to most people, there’s no way you can fully appreciate the skill involved unless you’re trying to do it yourself.
Talking about the skills of an experienced messenger is a good way to come back to what goes on at an event such as the ECMC. This year in Helsinki, in common with similar events such as the World Cycle Messenger Championships, the competition featured a main race with a preceding qualifying stage, and a number of ‘satellite’ competitions. Typically the main race is testing two things – firstly the speed and stamina of the cyclist, and secondly their logic in working out the fastest way to deliver packages from one place to another.
Map of the racecourse
Riders at Checkpoint 1
A package is picked up at a checkpoint with instructions as to where it should be delivered, but the messenger can decide whether to take it there immediately or pick up other packages en route. Some events even employ ‘thieves’, who will steal a bike that isn’t locked up.
For obvious reasons, this kind of competition appeals to those couriers whose idols are professional cyclists such as those competing in the Tour de France that same day. But not everyone shares the same view. “Fucking spandex jockeys” was how one competitor described some of those he thought were taking the competition a bit too seriously. Then again, he probably hadn’t seen the guy racing completely naked apart from his cycling shoes and a Planet of the Apes mask…
Away from the main race, the satellite events are mainly about testing a messenger’s bike handling skills, and it’s these events which particularly interest you, Jeremiah. Right?
Yes. First of all, you have to understand the kinds of bikes that these guys are riding, which are essentially track racing bikes, maybe modified by changing the tyres or the handlebars. And the main thing about a track bike is that it has no gears, or rather only one gear, and a fixed hub on the back wheel.
It’s the most efficient way to get power from the cyclist’s legs and move the bike forward, as long as you don’t have to go up or down hill. But the fixed hub means if the back wheel is turning, the pedals are turning – you can’t ‘freewheel’. The other thing is they have no brakes, because if you’re racing on a track you don’t need them. So here you have a bike which is totally unsuited to riding in a city, in fact in some cities they’re illegal. But messengers have taken these bikes and the skills needed to ride them, and turned it into an art form.
Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
Most of these events would be impossible on a normal bike, you have to be riding with a fixed gear, which couriers call ‘fixies’. That’s because on a fixie you can ride backwards as well as forwards, and so in one event, the competition is to see who can make the most circles cycling backwards.
Backwards Circles, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
Trackstand, at a previous event organised by BC Hellsinki
Then maybe you’ve noticed before, bicycle couriers at traffic lights who don’t put their feet down, they just rock backwards and forwards. Again it’s impossible on a normal bike. But couriers have a competition called Trackstand to see who can do it for longest. After three minutes you have to take one hand away, after three minutes more you remove the other hand. And after another three minutes you have to take one foot off the pedals, which is when most people fall off.
One other event is to see who can do the longest skid, it works because when the rider stops pedalling, the back wheel of a fixed gear bike locks up.
Getting his weight off the back wheel helps the rider skid further, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
another rider skidding, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
As we’re watching, Jeremiah recounts when, as research for his thesis, he shadowed some of Helsinki’s couriers during a typical working day.
There’s more to riding a fixed gear than purely the madness of travelling at high speeds in downtown traffic, without brakes. It’s the simplicity of the bicycle and the pedalling movement that makes it special. These guys have a fluidity of movement through traffic which means that they can make really quick decisions.
People who cycle a lot in cities often say that cars seem like personalities in their own right, the person behind the wheel is non-existant. Cars follow their own rules and logic, and by understanding that logic couriers gain a belief and a confidence that they can out-think or out-manoeuver a car. It was this confidence that amazed me, the intuitive trust that a gap will appear in traffic which the courier can slip through without slowing down. Later, when I asked if they ever rode wearing helmets, one of them replied we don’t come to work to crash.
A few days after the ECMC had finished, I met up with Jeremiah again to talk about his Masters degree thesis project.
Your thesis is also about how design and branding can play a part in the growth of the industry, but it seems to me that for most couriers their own identity is really important – as opposed to branding. Wouldn’t they be quite resistant to working for a company if it became more like UPS or DHL?
Yes, there’s an inherent contradiction for many messengers in the work that they do. On the one hand the notion of being outside of ‘normal’ society is important, but on the other hand they’re delivering documents to banks, businesses, lawyers firms…
screenshot of StreetBike, a London based bicycle messenger service: If you’re one of the most skilled and professional riders in London and you want to be part of StreetBike’s elite delivery team, please complete the rider application form!
messengers at the event in Helsinki in their company outfits, Photo © Tommi Hyvönen
But the problem is solving itself. In some big cities bike delivery is a multi-million dollar industry, and courier companies have realised they can make a lot of money by tailoring their image to what clients want. This might mean the company supplying its couriers with bags or jackets that display the company logo, or even supplying bikes. Of course some messengers are resistant to change, who love the lifestyle exactly as it is and would see wearing a company jacket as a uniform. But I think that attitude differs in different countries and you also meet couriers who are proud of the job they do and the company they work for, who would see company-supplied clothing as a perk if they didn’t have to pay for it.
You also designed clothing specifically for messengers. How did you actually go about designing this collection?
Messengers want clothing which breathes and allows them to sweat, essentially the same as a professional cyclist. But they also need pockets for keys, mobile phone, wallet, etc. They’re riding in all weather conditions, so they need different layers that can be put on or taken off as the weather changes. And of course they’re also wearing a bag, maybe a chain, over their shoulder, so the clothes need to take account of this.
Photo © Jeremiah Tesolin
Photo © Jeremiah Tesolin
And what was the results of these considerations?
One thing that helped a lot was working with Halti, a Finnish company with a lot of experience making clothes for harsh and wet conditions. And they gave me full access to their warehouse, so I was able to experiment with some very advanced, high-tech fabrics.
Photo © Jeremiah Tesolin
Photo © Jeremiah Tesolin
I concentrated on the style and cut of the garments, and the use of different fabric combinations. The theme of the clothing played with distances. I used reflection to create a pattern when viewed from a distance in a car for example. And stitching patterns when viewed up close. I also had in mind what the wider appeal might be, to anyone who cycles in the city. Bike messengers are a tough group to satisfy, though! If you can meet their requirements, you’ve probably thought of everything.
Thanks Jeremiah, for showing your work and giving us an insight into the world of the courier. Special thanks also to Tommi Hyvönen for allowing the use of his photos, you can see more of them at his website.