Bad pay, no benefits, calloused hands and sub zero temperatures – just why would anyone want to become a bike messenger?
Juliet Elliott often pondered this question while shivering in relentless downpours, with wrinkled prune-like fingertips and feet often sloshing in grimy water. But Juliet also knows the positives far outweigh the cons and shares them with us in her account of a day in the life of a bike messenger, a job she had for many years.
Alongside the simple appeal of taking on the mean, dirty streets of London under your own steam, an urban warrior with membership to an elite club of bicycle renegades, at it’s most basic, as a bike messenger, you’re getting paid to ride your bike all day. So, if you’re not sure you’ll ever make it onto team Wiggle Honda, being a messenger is a great way to make cycling your job.
If the mere fact you’ll be riding all day still isn’t sufficiently appealing, consider this. You can get fit, work outdoors, eat gigantic fistfuls of cake on a daily basis and enjoy a true sense of freedom. So, if like me your chances of Olympic fortune are somewhat miniscule, why not become a glorified postman like I did?
Here’s my run down of what to expect from a day on the bike.
Kit you can't be without
Though you’ll be self- employed, you’ll not get far without something to deliver so first up, you’ve got to get yourself a job with a courier company. Your new employer will issue you with a radio and an XDA or computerised device on which to view and sign off your jobs – paper and pen are rarely used anymore.
Most likely, a hire charge for your equipment will be deducted from your wages, and almost definitely, you’ll consider this fee to be too high but it’s very important for messengers to have plenty to moan about.
You may get issued with a messenger bag, or you might have to provide your own.
Kit collected, it’s time to get yourself and your bike sorted. You’ll need a reliable bike, a strong lock such as a Kryptonite mini-d, a waterproof jacket, a map and crucially, the ability to understand what’s being said on your radio so that you know where to go. Don’t forget some extra tubes, a pump and tyre levers - if you get a flat and can’t change it quickly you’ll find that voice on the radio becomes very loud and grumpy. If you don’t know how to change your own tube, then you need to brush up on some basic skills before considering a life on the road.
Tweak or add in extra gear as you see fit and increase your level of comfort – doing the same thing 5000 times a day can be annoying if you’ve not got your kit quite right; I had the key to my lock on the end of my bag strap and my Kryptonite in a ‘lock holster’ where it was easy to access. I also invested in some really good clipless mountain bike shoes - road shoes are impossible to walk in.
And the day begins...
You’ll begin the day by ‘calling on’ over the radio to let your controller know where you are and that you’re ready to work. Although you’re freelance it’s not a free for all, so if you want to make money it helps to be reliable and call on around the same time each day. Beat the queue and you’ll be straight out on deliveries making money; call on a little later and you’ll have time to get a coffee and shake off your hangover.
Once you hear the controller say your assigned number or nickname over the radio, reply with your name or call sign. All other instructions should be confirmed by saying ‘roger.’ I found it really hard not giggle saying ‘roger’ all the time, but perhaps you aren’t quite as immature as me. Your controller will tell you where to pick up and where to deliver so listen carefully. Beware of pretending to understand what they’re saying - you’ll end up in a right pickle when the instructions fail to come through on your handheld device as they should.
Once you’ve enjoyed riding to your pickup, have a little think about where you’ll need to collect your package from. Is the building huge, glass fronted or in the city? If the answer is yes, you’ll probably need to find the service entrance around the back and make your way to the postroom. If it’s small, in Soho or someone’s house, then just head on in or ring the doorbell. Tell your client where you’re going, stow your package in your bag and head off to deliver or pick up another.
Never take the package out of your bag until handing it over at the final destination - you might lose it, have a heart attack and lose your job.
The cycling part is of course the most fun, and if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy plotting ingenious routes to maximise your efficiency and speed and figuring out in what order to pick up and drop off your multiple packages. You’ll get to explore so much of the city and with at least eight hours in the saddle you’ll stack up some impressive mileage.
If you ride regularly and have a good base level of fitness, it’s more than possible to build up your stamina on the job – just expect to spend the first few weeks falling asleep as soon as you’ve had dinner. As for speed, well it’s not all about riding like a lunatic on a caffeine high – reading the roads to pick a good line is more effective than constantly starting and stopping and a good knowledge of geography can go a long way.
You also need to be confident riding in heavy traffic – curb huggers need not apply!
Once you’ve found your destination, head on into the postroom or the front desk, hand over the appropriate package and ask the client to sign off the job on your XDA. Continue this routine until you have no packages left in your bag then call your controller on the radio and tell him/her where you are and that you’re ‘empty.’ You’ll either be given more jobs straight away, or told to ‘stand by’ – your cue to get some food, try on clothes in Topshop or all of these.
After a few weeks on the job, you’ll know where to find the cheapest sandwiches, the location of every public toilet and where other couriers hang out which can make ‘standing by’ less boring. It’s also a great opportunity to grumble about how few jobs you’ve done/how long you’ve been standing by/how you had to peddle all the way to Chiswick with only one package.
So Juliet, sell it to us
In it’s most basic form, that’s really all there is to working as a bike messenger – without wishing to oversimplify the glorious profession you just pick up and drop packages, stand around on street corners, then head home to eat vast quantities of food. The hours can be pretty long – it was not uncommon for me to work 10 hour days, and the pay can be bad – it’s pretty much minimum wage, but refreshingly there’s no gender bias; women are just as poorly paid as men and you’ll have to carry the same packages.
It’s a physically demanding job and sometimes the prospect of spending all day drenched and chilled to the bone can be really unappealing. There are also no benefits such as sick pay, so if you can’t make it to work you won’t get paid. The amazing voluntary organisation London Courier Emergency Fund provides support and financial help to bicycle couriers who have suffered an injury while at work but their assistance aside, you’ll need to look after yourself should the worst happen.
But the positives are manifold; the strong sense of kinship with other couriers,
the playful relationship with the streets, the seriously strong legs and the sheer fun of cycling all day. Lack of sick pay and benefits also mean you can take extended unpaid holidays.
I enjoyed the dichotomy of the simple, uncomplicated nature of the job and the need for razor sharp reactions and found great satisfaction as a messenger.
Eventually, the long hours and bad pay became too much as my own business took off, but I smile fondly when I think of my time on the roads and even now feel a twinge of nostalgia for my past life on the pedalling around London.
So my advice? Go for it!