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Cycle messengers: A really tyring way to work

Cycle messengers have been part of our cities for more than a century. But despite the fashion for 'courier chic', their numbers are declining. Eleanor Morgan saddles up for the day to find out why

I've secretly always wanted to be a bicycle courier. Little makes me happier than cycling, whatever the weather. Whenever a courier passes me, I get a sting of jealousy because they get to spend the whole day doing my favourite thing. But would I be cut out for it? Yes, I'm fit – I run between 15-20 miles a week and cycle around 60 – but couriers cycle, on average, 60-80 miles a day in London. That's basically London to Brighton, five days a week.

I'm confident after cycling around town for eight years, but couriers have a libertine-like reputation for being indifferent to anything, or anyone, on the roads. Could I be reckless enough? I got screamed at by one cycling behind me once because I didn't plough through a red light and he had to stop. Still, I wanted to try. I always have. So, against the wishes of friends and family, I followed a bicycle courier – or "pushie" – around for the day.

The day begins at around 9.30. I meet Barry Warner, the courier I'll be following, at City Sprint (one of the country's largest distribution companies) HQ in east London. The information on the screens in the control office reminds me of my dad's old Amstrad and I soon stop understanding. Barry, or "Cuda" (as in, barracuda) as he's known on the radio networks – everyone is called by a "hang name" – has been a courier for 17 years. Until a few months ago he had a huge blue mohican that, in the picture he shows me, looks about seven feet high. I feel safe with Barry, whose skin alone is an advert for working outside; milky peach, smooth, blemish-free – like he's just stepped out of Iceland's Blue Lagoon. "I love my job so much," he smiles, the whites of his eyes bright. "I wanted to be a courier ever since I watched Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver and could never do anything else." If anyone can show me the ropes, it's him.

When I see Barry's bike, a Trek that he bought for £50 off eBay, I'm startled. It looks like the bike I rode when I was 12. "I used to have a fixie," he says. "But it did my knees in." Any judgement quickly dissolves, though, once Barry "calls on" on his radio and we're off to our first pick-up in the City.

He. Cycles. So. Fast. I thought I was quick, but I'm delusional. I also thought my calves were pretty good until I saw his – like taut, fleshy animal hooves threatening to burst through his legs. I shout lots of questions, keen to know what he usually picks up – the first envelope looked scary and legal. "It's 99.9 per cent documents," he shouts back. "Legal ones, mostly. Although sometimes we get bundles of magazines, which is a bastard." And the weirdest thing? "Either an £8,000,000 cheque that, because of some contract small-print, was legally mine while in my possession, and a crystal vase worth about half that amount from a shop on Bond Street going to Knightsbridge. It didn't smash." He also delivered some documents to Rupert Murdoch last week.

After the city, we head to "The Island" – what the couriers call Canary Wharf. "We end up here three to four times a day," he says. The security guards are a bit stuffy with Barry, which surprises me. But not him. "Them and receptionists treat pushies like the scum of the earth sometimes." Why? "Who knows. It's like there's some weird hierarchy and we're at the bottom." Nothing seems to really bother him, though. I complain of being hungry at 11, and he says he rarely eats during the day. Apparently that's normal. "If I start eating, I slow down and get sleepy. I have a big breakfast and dinner, usually steak and chips, but rely on coffee and Red Bull to get me through. A lot of pushies are the same."

I Pacman my way through two cereal bars, avoiding Barry's gaze. For some reason I really want to impress him. I don't think that happens when I ask about toilet breaks. "Do you need to go already?" he asks. I pretend no, but ask where he goes when nature calls. I can't imagine couriers can really get away with a crafty off-the-saddle tinkle like Tour de France racers. "Friendly hotels, usually. And pubs. And some post rooms let us sneak in – you just have to be charming."

From The Island into the West End we go, making drop-offs in the City. Barry says we cycled about 25 miles before midday. "We try to pick up jobs en route. We let the controllers know where we are, and pick up multiple jobs. That's how you make money." Barry earns £400-£500 week, before tax, based on a rate of roughly £2-£10 a job, gauged on distance. He's self-employed, and the more work he does, the better he gets paid. Hard work is also, Barry explains, how you earn respect – both from the controllers and other couriers. "Ten years back I could tidy up £1,000 a week if I worked hard." Is there less business now because of the internet? "Yep," he shouts against the wind. "And there's fewer media organisations now, which used us the most."

Although there are fewer bicycle couriers – in New York the number is estimated to have dropped by 1,000 over ten years – they have been around pretty much as long as bikes themselves. In David Herlihy's 2004 book, Bicycle: The History, he talks about the messengers working in the late 19th century, particularly the couriers for the Paris stock exchange in the 1870s. In the US, when the bicycle boom started in the 1890s, Western Union was one of the first companies to take on messengers, in New York and San Francisco. It wasn't until the early 1980s that couriers were a common sight in London and other European cities. It still makes brilliant sense for the environment – in 2010 CitySprint's pushbike fleet pedalled 808,722 miles, saving 930 tonnes of emissions.

Barry takes us down backstreets, through warehouses and down alleyways – if there's a shortcut, he knows it. And he's a safe rider; no running red lights or pedestrian crossings. "Most couriers are like this," he says. "Not that many are reckless." It's a riveting ride, and makes me feel like I'm on holiday in my own city. Couriers are a constant, silent, urban presence but it's not silent when you're being one – the wind rushing around your ears is almost operatic. Barry stops to fix a rear-tyre puncture (in four minutes flat) that another courier helpfully points out – the camaraderie between them, regardless of what company they're working for feels, Barry says, like "an odd sort of family".

We talk while he listens to the inner tube for escaping air. "I usually get three of these a week," he sighs. When you start out as a courier, is it a bit like a black cabbie doing The Knowledge? He laughs. "Sort of. But don't talk to me about cabbies." Why not? He shakes his head. "They're our nemesis, always cutting us up and screaming out their windows," he spits. "Them and bus drivers are the worst – they just wish we weren't on the road. It seems personal." Then we talk about accidents, and Barry is less animated. "I've lost friends who were couriers," he says. "But you can't dwell on it. We rarely have accidents, and when we do it's usually by car doors being opened."

Obviously one of the perils of being self-employed is no healthcare benefits, and no insurance. "Can you imagine the premiums!" Barry laughs. But there's a scheme he refers to as "messenger insurance" that lots of London couriers pay a little into each month, like a kitty, which "pays out for people's rent and bills if they're off the road from an accident".

We spend the afternoon darting between post rooms and receptions across the West End, stopping for an uncharacteristic sandwich for my sake. A guy on a tarted-up fixed-gear bike slinks past, wearing skin-tight Lycra and a messenger cap – that "courier chic" look that is appropriated in abundance. "Ah," says Barry, smirking. "A fake-enger." Pardon? "A fake-enger. A fake messenger. People that cycle round on their 'stripped-back' courier-style bikes in all the gear are hilarious to us. You can spot them a mile off." I wince, looking at my single-speed resting against the wall. "You're alright," he says. "You're wearing normal clothes."

The day usually winds down for Barry at around 7pm ("although my friends know not to trust me with timings"), but I slope off at 5pm. I'm not especially tired, but am starving.

We say goodbye near King's Cross and, as Barry disappears into the traffic, I get that sting of jealousy again. But it's only going to get worse now. The world of the bicycle courier is one of solitude, and of community. They move in rhythm with the city, but also slice through it like cheese wire. It's an existence that demands hardiness, for sure, but Barry is a very happy man because he "spends every day outdoors, in motion".

As I wash the grease off my ankles in the shower, I think about sitting in my uncomfortable desk chair and really, truly think I'm in the wrong job. I want to be like Barry.