“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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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.