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"Life sucks, but work is really cool."
--Travis Hugh Culley, The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power (new from Villard, 324 pages, $19.95)
The Amtrak from Seattle to Portland last weekend was packed. Families on Mother's Day cruises crowded the "bistro" car. Lone business types returning sat with their laptop companions.
Sherlock Holmes often boasted to Watson of his ability to identify the professions of passersby by observing their dress and physical attributes. Victorian doctors stuck their stethoscopes in their hats and thereby created tell-tale bulges, while cork-cutters developed distinctive calluses. I haven't honed this particular skill, so the livelihoods of nearly all my fellow passengers remained mysteries to me.
Except for one guy. He sat across the aisle and two rows in front of me, tattered-but-sleek cycling cap cocked high on his forehead, pirate rings through his ears, chin bristling with stubble, leather low-top shoes ornamented with the small steel spikes more usually associated with biker jackets.
Might as well have had BIKE MESSENGER carved in his forehead.
The combination of a dangerous trade, raw speed and a marginal-but-vital position in the business world seems to have melded the whole messengering profession into a corps of buccaneers and adventuresses. This isn't just a job. It's a subculture. Its denizens have their hangouts--the Vern, Captain Ankeny's, Ash Street, all known as unofficial courier clubhouses. And they have their amusements, many of which involve rubber, asphalt and speed.
"We do races pretty often," says Hazel Gross, one of the many young Portlanders who defy the age of email to make a living hustling architectural plans, sensitive legal documents and checks from one side of the city grid to the next. "Everyone kicks in five bucks, winner takes all but buys everybody beer.
"Mostly, people do 'alley cat' races," Gross says. "Sometimes, everyone gets a list of buildings or businesses they have to visit and find something out about: What credit cards they accept, when the building was built. Sometimes there are objects you have to collect. Like a scavenger hunt, kind of."
For desk-shackled subjects of the Kubicle Kingdom, it may seem strange and wonderful that there are people who can turn their jobs into off-hours entertainment. Portland messengers, however, aren't unique in their competitive spirit. An international network of messengers has organized world championship races for the better part of a decade. This weekend, thanks to Gross and others, Portland braces for a small invasion of these sprocket-obsessed sportsfolk. Riders from as deep inland as Oklahoma and as far afield as the East Coast will swarm into town for The Westside Invite. The three-day festival of races, stunts and full-tilt socializing is the only gathering of its kind on the West Coast, where geography precludes the frequent courier rallies seen back East.
Gross hopes the invite will attract 100 riders, including its PDX-based core group. A social hour/dance/art show leads off the weekend's agenda--and how many sporting events can you say that about? In between a few beer-focused events, the serious racing will consist of a two-stage alley cat tourney and a "mystery race" with the ominous name Hell of Southeast, which Gross promises will explore some of Portland's more challenging industro-urban terrain.
It might be hard for spectators to check out these semi-guerrilla competitions, but Gross recommends that rubber-neckers take in scheduled skid-stop and stunt contests and combative jousting demonstrations on home-built "chunk" bikes. The Invite ends Sunday at Mount Tabor Park; as with any sports event, winners will be proclaimed, but I'd guess that no modern-day Hermes will feel like a loser in this celebration of the speed, sweat, adrenalin and street guile that define the messenger's working life.
"There hasn't been anything like this on the West Coast since the world championships were in San Francisco a few years ago," Gross says. "Portland has a more cohesive courier community than a lot of cities, but last year a few of us realized that we didn't really know any of the people from San Francisco or Seattle. We're hoping this takes off. We'd love to do it every year."
The Westside Invite
West Coast Bike Messengers' Invitational
Friday, May 25:
"The sight, sound and feel of messenger life...
turntables, libations..." Ash Street 225 SW Ash St., 226-0430 9 pm
Saturday, May 26:
At Mount Tabor Park
*Group Ride, 9 am
*Alley Cat Race qualifier, noon
*"Chunk" bike joust and circus, TBA
*Hell of Southeast Mystery Race, TBA
Sunday, May 27:
*Alley Cat final, noon
*Skid stops, track stands, "award-winning crashes," 3 pm
*Awards, 5 pm
The 9th Cycle Messenger World Championships will be held July 27-29 in Budapest, Hungary (www.cmwc2001.hu ).