On The Wheel.
You can trust me to my line, if you see me slip past. I know my wheel. I am a bike messenger in Boulder, Colorado.
Everyday, I ride the perimeter of the city, delivering payroll, pharmaceuticals, medical samples, X-rays, bank deposits, manuscripts, construction plans, legal records, sandwiches or service and process forms. My power is one. My power is the wheel.
The wheel is my baseline. Altering my weight along the wheel, I will climb up to Chautauqua or Airport Road. With 10 speeds on my back, I choose the 28 tooth cog to climb, and my 11 tooth cog to coast back down again. With five other cyclists in Boulder, and six in Denver working for Denver/Boulder Couriers, I experience all parts of Colorado’s Front Range. Ours is a city with two down hills shaped like a half-pipe, and for me this means rolling in every direction in this rocky basin like I am in a giant skate park, operating at the mercy of gravity. I have to watch the lights, and
of all motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians, and prairie dogs…but my speed is not only a measure of my strength. It is also a matter of what hills I can bank.
I love Boulder’s thriving cycling culture, and think (at times) I get the best of it, riding the web-work of interconnected bike paths all day. I was raised in Arvada, about 12 miles from the Pearl Street Mall. My family brought me to Miami, and after college I went to Chicago to find a life in the theater. Instead I found Critical Mass, the anarchist cycling movement that aimed to change the city’s attitude about automobiles. My attitude about cities had already been influenced by what I call the vision of Boulder.
I wrote a book about my rookie year as a bicycle messenger, The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. I describe a similar vision, but for the city of Chicago:
I have shut my eyes and begun to listen. I am trying to imagine what it could be like, to live both dense and peaceful. I am trying to see it as I scroll through her tired streets in my mind, a sustainable Chicago covered with bike-only streets, quiet trains, a patient, car-free, delivery based roadway. I envision inner-city schools that thrive and parks that are in use.
Was it Portland? Amsterdam? No. It was the Creek Path, the CU campus, and the Mall. When I was a 19 year-old kid, just a traveler, I took a stroll down the mall wondering if this was the city I would call home again. Wherever I go, and wherever I have been, my bicycle turns around the Earth, and operates as if it is a shield of peace, and a plan for life. I call on the wheel for my advance movement, and my defensive movement. Falling, I know to roll. In ice and snow, the wheel acts as a knife. I cut lines through powder, and follow those left by other cyclists and pedestrians to know the little shoulders of Boulder, and where “the path” ends.
There are maybe a hundred couriers in Denver, seven hundred in Chicago, and twice that many in NYC, but most of them don’t stay at the job as long as I have. For one, the job is dangerous. Additionally, it can be uncomfortable. Following trucks down Arapahoe in a blizzard requires a skill that few people think they will ever need to learn, and working for eight hours in the snow all winter can seem like an unrewarding task.
The reward is ours. Covered in ice, plastic, sand, Lycra, suntan lotion, canyon water or perspiration, myself and the other couriers I work with have the joy of seeing Boulder through every little utterance. We experience every long wondrous season, the wackiest juxtaposition, the most unexpected view, the funniest headline, the best tag; the festivals, the tribes, the deer, and the kids. My day is full. There is no bubble. There is only a thin metal ring, a wheel that we suspend ourselves from. Then there are a handful of triangles that swing along the centers of these circles. Knees up, elbows down; my imagination is mine. It keeps me awake, tells me to slow down, reminds me listen, even to wait for the outside chance of what may be coming up beside me. I need to have an imagination, and nourish my imagination, to replenish that which is required of it everyday.
After reading this, be sure: you’ll see myself or another bike messenger at your local coffee shop, beeping and running away again. You’ll see one of us at your door dropping or picking up a delivery. All we’ll need is your name, and we’ll text it right in. Every package needs someone to sign for it. It is part of the wheel we live in.
Travis Hugh Culley is the author of The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human-Power. His next book is due out by Spring of 2011.