“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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.