Girls Girls Girls: Advice of a Female Bike Courier
Make your bike work for you, Juliet spills on why cycling for a living is the only way to ride.
There's no doubt about it, being a courier is hard, but along with the sore legs and bad pay come great benefits; good friends, a strong body and the ability to endlessly stuff yourself with cakes.
I didn’t set out to become a courier but in the summer of 2010 I injured my back pretty severely. It wasn't a terrible fall or an amazing looking crash, it was a simple air to fakie on a quarter pipe which I'd actually landed. I felt a twinge as I rode out but what I didn't know then was that this injury would not only stop me from riding but make it very hard to sit or lie down without being in pain.
My GP gave me some standard exercises to try but they were no use and for a while I just had to put up with not being able to ride BMX or hop around on my fixed gear; either that or face the consequences if I did. It got to the point where I would rest my back for two weeks then go to the skatepark for a half day session before coming home and lying on the floor for the next few days. I knew my excursion was going to result in pain but it seemed worth it for a ride. I was frustrated beyond belief.
As my back problems continued, I rode my fixed gear freestyle bike and my BMX less and less, but one thing that didn't seem to hurt me was just riding around on my fixed gear, in fact it seemed to help. I became convinced that riding my fixed gear and getting as fit and strong as possible was the key to my rehabilitation. Plus I needed money and I prefer being outdoors to in. So that's how I came to be a bike messenger; not only through my love of bicycles, but through my need for them.
I began at City Sprint in January 2011, a total rookie who'd been economical with the truth in order to secure a job; I'd delivered a couple of parcels in the past (to the post office) so when I was asked if I had any experience, I said yes. To explain the fact I didn't know how to use a radio, I said I'd worked at a firm which didn't use them. (Any City Sprint controllers reading this, sorry for the teeny little fib, I did all right though, didn't I?). So with my new radio and XDA (a computerised device which your jobs come through on) tucked into my messenger bag I headed off for my first day.
I didn't have any romantic ideas about being a courier. Sure, I knew it was a close knit scene and I liked the idea of being an urban cowboy but I was also aware of the fact that couriers don't earn that much money and it's hard work! The majority of couriers are freelance, so the harder and faster you work, the more money you make, but with rates being cut everywhere, couriers today take home less money than in the past but continue to work at the same pace. Being freelance also means no benefits such as paid holidays or sick pay but nonetheless I was keen to get cracking to see if my little girly legs could keep up. Being one of only a few female couriers didn't phase me in the least; there's true equality in bike messengering, it's one of the few physical jobs where sex is not a determining factor and male or female you are quite rightly expected to work at the same pace with equal pay and equal rights. So, A to Z of London in hand, and fuelled by a large breakfast, I logged on for my first day of work.
Here's how being a messenger works. In the morning you call on to say you are ready to work. You may be freelance but it doesn't mean you get to pick and choose when you feel like working; if you are meant to work certain days, you'd better show up or face the wrath of your controller. First thing in the morning, there are a queue of riders waiting to be given jobs which will get them going; on the whole you'll want a job which takes you away from the office, otherwise you'll be straight back down the bottom of the queue waiting for your next one.
When you are given a job over the radio, it also comes through on the XDA machine you carry with you, so a quick 'roger' over the radio lets your controller know you've accepted the job, plus a quick tap on the machine demonstrates the same. Beware of saying 'roger' when you haven't heard the address of your pick up as the machines don't always work and you'll get a telling off over the radio if you say 'roger' when you didn't hear where you're going.
When you arrive at the pick up, lock your bike then prepare for a long journey through a warren of corridors to the office where your package is waiting. Be under no illusions; you may be doing a service for the company who has booked you but you are a dirty secret who must be kept hidden, so no entering through reception, the service entrance is your friend. Getting to know where these service entrances are can speed up your pick up time no end, as quite often the address of the pick up can be misleading with the service entrance lying around the back on a different street entirely.
Job in hand and finally back out, a quick call over the radio lets your controller know that you have the package on board. If you are picking up one package, you'll say P.O.B, and if you are collected a few packages, you'll say 'all aboard'. After working out what order to deliver your packages you're on your way and the fun bit begins; navigating your way around London as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was lucky to have a pretty good knowledge of London streets before I began as the first few weeks can be tricky.
When you get to your drop off, head on in through the service entrance (or the front if it's a smaller office) and deliver your parcel. Every parcel needs to be signed for; you'll need a name and a signature and this is where you'll realise that everyone thinks that you are stupid because you ride a bike all day. It's astonishing how many times I've had people spell out their names for me when their title is no more complex than Sam or Tom.
Once you've dropped off your packages you'll need to tell the controller that you're 'empty', or have no packages on board so that you can be given more work (or left to stand around until there's more). This is when you try to stuff your face with as many cheap sandwiches as you can. Then repeat all day until it's time to go home.
When I was working as a messenger, I would call on to start work at 8.30 and I would usually finish around 6.30. During the course of a day I would ride about 60 miles, delivering around 20 jobs on a not so good day and 30 jobs on a good day. My pay could be anything between about £50 and £80 per day once City Sprint had deducted money for the hire of my radio and XDA so it's not that great for a ten hour day. But I would recommend this job to anyone, it's one of the most fun jobs I've had, but in my mind, it's only worth it if you truly adore your bicycle. My little legs went from spindly to muscular in a matter of weeks, so if you're worried you're not fit enough, you'll get up to speed just through the act of doing it. The main downside if the fact you might fall asleep pretty early in the evening, so you need to have an understanding partner!
People often ask me about being a messenger and what it entails so I hope this gives you a bit of an idea what to expect. For more info on being a messenger, or to hear messengers complaining about it, head on over to Moving Target Zine.