For some, a bike is less a means of transport, and more a way of life. I don't mean lycra fetishists LARPing as Chris Froome on weekend peddles, but bike messengers – the little-peaked-cap-bluetooth-headphone lads – for whom being on two wheels is often as much a job as it is the basis of an identity and the key to a community of fellow messengers across the world.
Work-wise, bike messengers are exposed to some of the worst excesses of capitalism. It's a gig economy job, the pay is bad and it's physically gruelling, dangerous work: racing through traffic to deliver time-sensitive documents, blood, organs – anything that needs getting from A to B quickly and discreetly – comes with a level of risk you don't typically encounter as a mid-weight advertising creative.
With shared risk comes shared solidarity, so it's no surprise there's camaraderie among the messenger community – a camaraderie that often materialises as a big piss-up when people get together. The other favourite pastime of the messenger community is street racing – a celebration of techniques honed over the years – which also ends in a big piss-up.
This year, Brussels plays host to the European Cycle Messenger Championships – the centrepiece of the racing calendar. As it draws in competitors from around the world, hundreds pass through London on their way – and while they're in London, there's time for a quick race.
Crashing in my flat, Jake and Natalie* are two couriers who – upon arrival – increase the household usage of "breh" and "dude" by roughly 300 percent. Apart from that, and the presence of oversized messenger bags, nothing else really changes. My guests are as enthralled by the horny energy emanating from Love Island as I am, and are only too happy to join in complaining about the weather.
"Does it ever stop fucking raining?" they ask.
Luckily for them it does, and the next day we’re standing in a sunny south London park, surrounded by upwards of 50 messengers. I'm standing out like a sore thumb, but Natalie has promised to vouch for me.
"Stick a recorder in the wrong person's face and they’ll beat you up," she warns me. I'm grateful for the help. She then goes on to tell me, "I'm everyone's favourite to hate," which immediately makes me feel I've made a terrible error of judgment. "It's because I'm still a rookie," she explains. "I've only been on the road for three years and I've never carried paper, so I'm not a real 'messenger'."
This seems like a pretty arbitrary distinction to me, but it's apparently one that matters. Messengers carry paper – legal documents and that kind of thing – while delivering packages or food makes you a courier or a "foodie".
These meet-ups are meant to be safe spaces: sexism, racism and transphobia won't be tolerated, and racers who've come from Riga to Rio de Janeiro are catching up with old friends, with all the usual slogans – "Fuck TERFS", "ACAB" – appearing on patches and bags. A communal meal is being served, while weed and booze is passed around.
The race today is an "alleycat", which begins with a frantic 100-metre dash to your bike, where racers will find a manifest to be completed by marking off a number of checkpoints and crossing the finish line. There's no set course, so riders use the skills they've picked up over their careers to gain whatever advantage they can. They'll jump red lights, head into oncoming traffic and take whatever gamble they can to cut down their time.
There are risks, of course – being arrested is one. Events like these are well-organised, but that doesn't stop them from being technically illegal. Police are always looking to clamp down on races, considering them a danger to cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. Racers argue that they know what they're doing: "We’re not stupid – we're experienced, and any risk we take is calculated," says one veteran.
Injuries are common, though. Natalie's legs are marked by bruises and scars from ungracious dismounts or collisions with cars; Jake's are noticeably less so. "Usually, the cars are the ones coming off worse," he tells me.
Sadly, deaths aren't uncommon – not so much in races as simply day-to-day life for couriers. Anybody who cycles in a major city is taking their life into their own hands, and if you're on your bike for ten hours a day it doesn't matter how good a cyclist you are if somebody behind a wheel isn't paying attention. With a community as tight-knit as this, death reverberates.
Earlier this year, just a few days before New York’s biggest race, the Monstertrack Alleycat, popular bike messenger Aurilla "Gorilla" Lawrence was killed in a hit-and-run by a truck driver in Williamsburg. "It was fucked up," Natalie says. "It hit everyone so hard. I never met her but people say I remind them of her. They tell me to be careful."
Today she will be, sort of. Natalie is riding with the slow squad. They'll not jump red lights like most racers will, but that's about the only precaution they'll be taking. "Riding in London is scary, man," she explains. "You've either got to have no fear or drink so much you forget you're scared."
Natalie – sensibly or not – is going for the latter.
Slow squad also serves another purpose: they're who you come to if you need anything. "You need water? Here you go. You need some coke? Well, I've only for speed on me. You need my socks? Sure."
Not for the first time, Natalie comes "dead fucking last", but it's not because she's going slow. After ticking a few checkpoints off her list, she has an idea. She heads straight for the nearest WHSmith and finds the marker pens that match those used by the race organisers. Cribbing from a fellow racer's scorecard she forges the signature on every checkpoint, and decides instead it's time to put her feet up and find the nearest pub.
Of course, anybody with any experience of day drinking will know time has a funny way of dilating, and by the time she makes it back to the meeting point, her plan has been for nothing.
Not that she minds; it was never about the winning for her, or for many of the competitors it seems. "It's about the freedom I feel being on the bike," another racer tells me, "the thrill I feel." "It's a celebration of what we do," says another. Maybe that’s just what the losers tell themselves, but either way they don’t dwell on it too long.
Soon after the race ends, my guides and a group of their friends make themselves scarce to find an alleyway in which to kick off the evening's festivities with an aperitif of cocaine and speed. It's worth pointing out here that not all messengers are this decadent; many are straight edge, while others simply know their limits.
The night will take my guests to a squat rave somewhere off Brick Lane, but there's always another party, another afters to get to. Despite living on the far side of another continent, it feels like Jake and Natalie know my city better than I do. They’re certainly getting more out of it than I am.
It will be over 24 hours before I see the pair again, showing up on my doorstep just in time for Love Island, having not slept for over a day, with a head full of amphetamines. How long can this life be sustainable? Eventually something will give – the knees or the back, probably.
"There's a guy we know, still going into his seventies – he's a legend. And a guy at the race had kids older than us," Jake and Natalie tell me. "We're not so sure, though."
Jake's going to school next year, to learn how to weld. But Natalie's still young, being a messenger pays her bills and it's her world – she doesn’t need to think about the future, and nothing about her tells me it's in her nature to.
*Names have been changed