Bike couriers from cities across the world converged in Montreal last weekend for the 25th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC). Most events, including the gruelling three-hour main race, took place on the concourse of Montreal’s 1976 Olympic stadium.
The much-maligned building is capped by the world’s tallest inclined tower, but is best known for its calamitous construction history, exorbitant price tag and status as the ultimate architectural white elephant. But, said event organiser Alan Adriano MacQuarrie, it was the obvious choice of location. “It’s a concrete paradise. It has a richness and complexity that lends itself to such a strategic race.”
Indeed, the iconic location was a key factor in Montreal’s successful bid to host the championships – as was the city’s thriving bike messenger community. “There’s a very strong-willed messenger scene in Montreal,” MacQuarrie said. “We have tough winters. If you are a serious messenger, and work during the winter as well, that takes strength and determination.”
The main race mimicked an urban bike messenger’s typical work day and tested riders’ navigation skills, strategic thinking and speed. Each participant was entrusted with a ‘manifest’ at the beginning of the race – a piece of paper to be stamped at various checkpoints – and had to choose the most efficient routes between all the pick-up and drop off points listed on it. The twisting course involved one-way systems, roundabouts and made full use of the stadium’s multiple concrete ramps. Extra points could be gained by completing several manifests, or completing ‘rush manifests,’ in a narrow window of time.
“You have to be both clever and fast,” Montreal bike messenger Brett Barmby explained on the final day of the championship. He’d competed in the qualifiers the day before. “Often people who are really enthusiastic about bikes and are really fast give it a try. But they don’t think like a messenger, and so they don’t do so well.”
For many, the annual championships are not only a competition but an excuse to party with old friends for five days. “This is our Olympics. People come from everywhere,” Barmby said. “On the first day, it’s amazing to see people who haven’t seen each other for a year reunited, and so happy to see each other.”
Informal street races held over the weekend called ‘alleycats; gave participants a taste of the particular challenges of being a bike courier in Montreal and a chance to explore whilst hurtling around the city. The city is notorious for bad roads, reckless drivers, potholes, and year-round construction. Moreover, hills are inevitable, given that many of the city’s different neighbourhoods are clustered around Mount Royal, the large hill from which the city is thought to take its name.
Alleycats operate in a legal grey-area. They are organised on the side by people outside of the official event team and are left off official programming. However, they are “the foundational events of the bike messenger scene,” according to MacQuarrie, and are inevitable fixtures to each CMWC. Like the main race, contestants were given a manifest and had to choose which order to visit various checkpoints scattered across the city.
A pop-up bike polo court was installed outside the stadium for the duration of the championships. Visiting players from across the world participated in friendly matches with the Montreal team and each other, with a swell in activity and court-side beers after the final race wrapped up on Sunday afternoon.
Bike polo has featured in the past as a side event at CMWCs; while invented by an Irish bike enthusiast in 1891 and played on grass at the 1908 London Olympic games, it was resuscitated on a hard court by bike messengers in Portland in the early 2000s.
An industry in flux
The bike messenger industry is evolving, explains MacQuarrie. Bike messengers earn less and work longer hours than they did in the 1990s: cheques, custom forms and bills are now mostly sent by email, and newspaper deliveries have plummeted. Independent companies are moving into food and bulkier items – one company in Montreal even delivers mattresses. “Twenty to 25 years ago, a food delivery guy was a food delivery guy. It wasn’t noble work. But now people are diversifying.”
Corporate food delivery companies, like Foodora and UberEATS, are a relatively recent phenomenon, and according to many people at the championships, there is a definite gulf between the traditional independent companies and the big firms. The difference, MacQuarrie said, is “professionalism”. In an independent company, “Every delivery is personal to you, you have an interest in your company, you are dealing with clients. You are not just a faceless employee hired to do deliveries by a huge company.”
Barmby agreed. The corporate food companies “don’t get a lot of respect in the community,” he says. “They will hire anyone with a bike who thinks they can do it.”
Earlier this month Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was partially transformed into centre for asylum seekers fleeing the US. If any asylum seekers were present at the championship, however, they kept a fairly low profile among the heavily-inked beer-chugging bike messengers.
Cecilia Keating tweets as @ckeating14.