“Both clever and fast”: Montreal just hosted the 25th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships

Here we go. Image: author provided.

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.

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Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.