We see them everyday, like urban pony express riders weaving between cars, dodging fenders and potholes, a satchel slung across their backs. There are more than 300 bike messengers in Toronto, and while people have been predicting their extinction since the invention of the fax machine, they’re showing no signs of slowing. Toronto will host the 16th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (www.cmcw2008.com) in June, which will attract close to 1,000 bike messengers from as far away as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. Even organizer and activist Leah Hollinsworth, who made headlines a year ago when she got into an altercation with a Kensington Market motorist after she threw his litter back into his lap, chatted with NOW about her experiences as a messenger.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A BIKE MESSENGER?
I was a suit – working in sales on Bay Street. I started pulling a rikshaw one year and befriended a few bike messengers. I’m a stubborn clown and thought I’d give that a try even though they never thought I’d stick it out. That was eight years ago.
DO YOU HAVE TO BE A LITTLE CRAZY TO BE A BIKE MESSENGER?
There’s certainly a risk-taking mentality. We are all adrenaline junkies on some level, getting off on those close calls we have every day. There are even Youtube videos called MASH SF with crazy messengers doing insane things that we would never really do, unless you were a rookie or an idiot. You have to balance the risks with being able to read the roads.I know the city so well I know which sewer grates are turned the wrong way. So I’m able to give much more of my attention to the traffic.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?
The glory and the money, of course. It’s actually a tie between the comraderie and the personal freedom.
WHAT’S THE WORST?
The lack of respect. Most people have a negative opinion of us, they say they’ve almost been run over by one of us or they were stuck in an elevator with a sweaty smelly messenger. It’s a sterotype that rookies unfortunately help to perpetuate.
ANY BIG SPILLS?
Sure, a few. I had a woman illegally turn in front of me and I hit her, broke three ribs, she drove away. But I’m careful. I want to go home at the end of the day.
ANY TIPS FOR DRIVERS?
Signal your turns and not just five feet before you make them. Look before opening your door. Share the road. Realize that just because trhe snow is gone all the sediment that was in the snow is now along the curb and I have to steer clear of it.
ANY TIPS FOR CYCLISTS?
Don’t ride on the sidewalk. It’s dangerous. If you don’t feel comfortable on the street then get more practise. And if you want to race a bike messenger – and a lot of commuters do – go for it. But keep the pace. Beating me for one block or cutting in front of me at a stoplight is just annoying.