London Lives: Ain't nothing like the wheel thing

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'You'll recognise me, promises Buffalo Bill, editor of Moving Target, London's only magazine for cycle couriers, over the phone, simplifying our arrangements to meet. And indeed I do recognise him: peaked cycling cap over long-ish black hair, purple Gore-Tex cycling jacket and (at nine on a drizzling morning) reflective sunglasses. Mean, moody, macho.

Commuting cyclists dress down: old trousers and a yellow reflective stripe over the shoulder. Couriers, by contrast, dress up, as if they were going surfing. As indeed they are, surfing the waves of traffic, diving past vans, taxis and other sharks in the swirling metropolitan waters. They pour their limbs into Lycra, so tightly around the nether regions that it's a wonder that the species manages to reproduce.

For more than six years Buffalo Bill was a pushbike despatch rider, a pioneer who roamed the Wild West End, tall (or possibly crouched) in the saddle. At 26, he became an 'Old Git. That is, he hung up the shoulder-bag and two-way radio.

'My back won't take any more, sighs Bill. 'The human body is not designed to carry weights and the radio is really heavy. That's before the lumbar vertebrae are lumbered with the actual parcel. 'You are constantly stopping and starting. Every time you start up there is a lot of pressure on the knee. But better an Old Git than life as a 'donkey - a surly cyclist burnt out in body and mind.

Both are occupational hazards of a ruthless trade. There is no sick pay, just a whip-round for an injured mate from fellow couriers. Bill remembers several months in hospital (a smashed ankle) and not even getting a get well card from his then bosses - and they were one of the better firms, Bill says.

The money is not good. For a short job, the rider's share of the fee can be a mere pounds 1.75. So why do the capital's estimated 1,500 couriers spend their days inhaling traffic fumes and risking their lives darting in front of double-decker buses?

Sometimes they give their lives in the line of duty too. Moving Target (note the military tag) recently printed a moving account of a memorial procession which stopped Oxford Steet traffic to pay tribute to a courier killed in mid-delivery.

And the forthcoming cycle messenger world champion-ships will feature a funeral cycle-past in honour of two-wheeled fatalities.

Maybe it has to do with masculinity, with being a knight of the road, one of the boys. Take Buffalo Bill. The nickname began as a call sign. Now he answers to nothing else.

One colleague was called 'Groover. Others were 'Violet, 'Daisy and 'Gladys. All are blokes: these are such macho, not to say sexist, circles that they can handle insulting female monikers. Bill laughs when he says that his former employer, On Your Bike, was known in the trade as 'On Your Dyke.

'Part of the attraction is that you have enough time to think, Bill explains. 'I had all day to think about the magazine. If you enjoy cycling, you feel fairly euphoric anyway. It makes you feel good about yourself.

They have time out of the saddle as well. Unlike the bike frame, the human frame can take only three or four days per week in the job. This gives scope for long lie-ins with the sound system on full. Or it allows them time to play in a band, make a film or take photographs.

'I've never known such a well-educated bunch, enthuses 'Paris (his former call-sign) of Security Despatch. 'There's the highest number of degrees per capita of any industry. They are middle-class drop-outs.

Bill is the nicest guy you could find crouched over a set of handlebars: a fine advertisement for his precarious profession. But there's a downside to the macho sub-culture - aggressive couriers who clearly resent sharing road space with slower pushbikers. Fortunately they tend to nip about in the fast lane while we commuters potter along 6in from the curb.

But not always. On the way to meet Bill, I braked at a red light. 'For fuck's sake, muttered a courier behind me. He slid past, shot through the lights and turned left into a no-entry street - on the pavement.

What a. . .donkey.

LIFE CYCLE

Hovis National Bike Week began last Saturday and ends with the London-Brighton ride on Saturday 19 June. Details from London Cycling Campaign (071-928 7220).

The Cycle Messenger World Championships are at the Royal Victoria Docks from 12 to 14 August. Competitors will race between checkpoints representing London postal districts, with obstacles such as one-way streets and traffic policemen. There will be fashion contests for the 'coolest riders and bikes, and an art exhibition of bikers' work. Details of sponsorship, etc, from: Moving Target

Productions, 137c Isledon Road, London N7.

(Photograph omitted)

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