How many people dream of being able to cycle for a living? To be a professional racer is beyond the realms of possibility for all but a few very gifted riders but there are other opportunities, such as being a bicycle courier.
Cycle couriers, or messengers, have long been popular in major cities. New York is perhaps the best-known location for cycle couriers, made (in)famous by thein countless online videos showing off their unique riding style – often a case of don’t try this at home, kids! In the UK, London has by far the highest number of cycle couriers simply because of its size and the number of businesses operating there, but numbers are growing throughout the UK and all major cities have some form of cycle courier operation going on locally- there’s simply no quicken way of delivering urgent mail through busy, traffic- clogged urban streets. It’s also cheap to operate and environmentally friendly.
But while working for courier firms such as the ubiquitous Deliveroo might technically mean you’re earning money from riding a bike, what is the reality? We’re not sure riding with a backpack the size of a small house is our idea of fun, but for many, it’s a way of life.
A hard day on the streets
‘Arriving at the Office, just outside the city center, I feel like I’m jumping in at the deep end. After being given a bag and a radio and being shown how to use the phone app for receiving and accepting jobs, I’m sent out onto the roads to fend for myself. As I already have a little knowledge of the city, I’m hopeful it won’t be a day spent looking at signs and figuring out where I am.
Five minutes later, the first job comes in over the radio, a crackling voice yelling at me, “John, head to St Mary Street and grab a wait-and-return going up to Tongwynlais.” Panic sets in immediately. “Errrr… Where is St Mary Street?” This could turn out to be a long day.
Fortunately, after being given some directions, it all becomes clear it’s not long before I’m on my way, urgent letters on board, heading towards the most northerly suburb in the city.
‘Cardiff might be relatively small compared to London, but cycling is still the fastest way to get around, helped by a reasonably good network of cycle paths. With a National Assembly and also a network of small TV companies based here, there are plenty of companies who all appreciate the essence of a fast turnaround. What isn’t helping me right now, though, is a killer headwind!
‘Drop-off completed, return delivery on board, it’s time to head back south into the city, complete with tailwind making it feel like I’m on a superbike rather than the heavy but reliable steel-frame single speed that I’m actually riding.
‘With a few more jobs ticked off, I’m starting to get into the swing of things and loving the freedom of being outside and riding. I have to admit I’ve been lucky with the weather, though-the temperature is cold but manageable, and at least it’s not raining. The thought of being soaked through and dripping wet all day is far from appealing but no doubt is a reality of the job for those who do it full time.
‘You might think in this modern age of emails, where large files can be transferred almost instantly, that there would be hardly any demand for a courier service, but with a network of people riding each and every day in most major cities across the world that certainly isn’t the case.
‘After a quieter spell and a chance to grab some lunch, I have to admit that fatigue is setting in. I’d consider myself pretty fit and more than capable of completing long, tough rides, and yet here I am feeling pretty whacked after just 20 miles! The constant stop/start at lights and junctions, and having to push a big 48×17 single gear is giving my legs a bashing. The focus on finding the quickest route between jobs is mentally draining, too.
Another call comes in. “Boomerang to S4C, Express.” In other words, ride to one side of the city to collect a package, and then ride back to the opposite end to drop it off- and all within 30 minutes, half the standard delivery time. Shoveling down the rest of my lunch, the pressure is on, but the challenge of a tough job like this actually gives me a real buzz of the kind that urban riding would normally never deliver. It takes all my effort but completing it in the nick of time is very satisfying.
As the afternoon progresses and the light starts to fade, the jobs are still rolling in and despite the shattered legs, I find I just don’t want to stop riding. But all good things must come to an end, and with the last job of the day done, I call back in to the office to drop off the bag and radio, and look back over a tough but rewarding day-although not all that rewarding financially, with just £49 earned for the 12 jobs completed.
‘With no guarantees on what you can earn each day, and the prospect of having to ride all day every day regardless of weather conditions or how tired you feel, being a courier is not a job for everyone.
But if you are set on the idea of riding a bike for a living, and relish spending your time outdoors, why not give it a shot?’
Top 10 Tips for Surviving Life as A Courier
Don’t spend a fortune
Couriers don’t spend a fortune on their bike-a lightweight carbon racer won’t stand up to the rough and tumble of the job. A steel-framed single speed is durable, low- maintenance – and cheap to replace if it breaks. And given the amount of use the bike will get, things do break and wear out often.
Keep your bike in order
Even a steel single speed needs some maintenance to keep it running smoothly, and given that you depend on your bike for your job, you can’t afford for it to break down. Spend some time every day checking your brake blocks, chain, tyres, cables, bar tape etc, and replace as necessary.
Invest in a good bag
The courier’s most vital bit of kit after his bike is his bag. They take quite a beating, so it’s worth investing in a quality item or you’ll be replacing it every five minutes. They also need to be comfortable enough to wear on your back all day.
Leave the Garmin at home
We used a Garmin on our day as a courier just for interest, to see how many miles we would rack up, but most of the time, it’s an entirely unnecessary bit of kit for a courier-and just one more thing to worry about getting broken or stolen. Couriers generally aren’t interested in KOMs.
Don’t forget your phone
Unlike a Garmin, the mobile phone is an essential for the 21st century courier, especially as many courier firms now use smartphone apps to send details of jobs to riders. Remember to recharge it at the end of every day and consider carrying a cheap back-up phone just in case it breaks.
Expect the worst
The amount of time a courier spends mixing with cars, buses and vans on busy streets greatly increases the odds of getting knocked off. Even the most experienced cyclist needs to stay hyper- vigilant at all times for the sake of self-preservation, especially when fatigued at the end of a long day.
Use side streets
Bearing in mind point 6, it’s worth looking for routes that take you away from the heaviest traffic. OK, they may add a little distance to your route to the next job but quieter roads can be much safer- and in fact, the lower traffic density means they can be quicker to navigate than congested main roads.
Follow the highway code
Couriers have a bad rep for jumping lights, hopping across pavements and generally behaving like a menace to society, but the ones who want to live to tell their grandkids about their adventures remember that traffic lights are there for the safety of you and others, not just to be an inconvenience.
Fit some blinky lights
Also known as ‘daylight running lights’ these will do a good job of increasing your visibility on the road at all times of day, not just at night. Flashing lights are especially good at getting you noticed in daylight. For more on this and other kit to use.
Keep your cool
Sometimes it will feel like the world is out to get you, but road rage is never a cool look. If a driver cuts you up, don’tgo screaming through their window or smashing their wing mirror with your D-lock. Be thankful you’re still upright, stay calm and focus on getting to that next job alive.