Downtown cowboys

Messengers: They clock hundreds of miles a week, weaving through city streets. A select few have no brakes on their bikes. They don't need them.

June 22, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Among the bicycle messengers who flash through downtown Baltimore traffic like urban cowboys through a motorized stampede, there's a hard-body, hard-pedaling avant-garde who ride track bikes, single-speed, fixed gear velodrome racing bicycles -- with no brakes.

They don't care to stop much, anyway. These guys make their money on the number of packages they deliver and the speed at which they deliver them. Track bikes are sleek, simple and fast, and on the kicky edge of messenger machismo.

"You want to maintain a constant spin," says Jason Kehayias, a tall, tanned, 24-year-old messenger who wears stainless steel wraparound shades and close-cropped hair.

"You want to be thinking in circles," Chris Bishop says, somewhat mystically. His black beard outlines his chin and jaw like a "W."

"What you really want is to get a full circle. You want to be pushing forward, down, pulling back, up. Your foot's just floating inside your shoe."

The track bikes that messengers use derive from indoor bicycle races, where braking invites a crash, like chain-reaction rear-enders on a foggy expressway.

"They were first called safety bikes," says Bishop, 24. Maybe in a velodrome. In traffic, the occasional stop seems prudent.

"You have to build up muscles to resist the force so you can slow down," Bishop explains. You have to backpedal, in effect. "It's almost like downshifting on a car. But you're using your muscles to do it."

They corner a bit like vintage sports cars.

"You've got to skid around turns," Bishop says. "You cut your turns quicker. When you're skidding around town, it's short skids. You really don't want to skid very far. You want to stop as gently as possible. If you need to stop real fast, you can just lock up your wheel altogether."

So what happens then?

"You slide."

Bishop is the North American sliding champion. He won the skid contest a couple of weeks ago at the North American Cycle Courier Championships in Toronto.

"What you want to do," he says, "is to get your weight all over your front wheel and knock your back wheel up."

Which also sounds like a formula for skidding on your nose.

"The goal is to slide as far as possible," Bishop says. He made it about a block and won the contest.

Some other courier contests included delivering as many packages as possible within a time limit, racing up and down ramps in a parking garage, standing upright on the bike for as long as possible, and tossing a bicycle lock at a driver in a car, "every messenger's dream hee hee hee hee," in the words of the contest program.

A half-dozen Baltimore messengers went to Toronto, including Bishop and Kehayias. They're planning to go to the cycle messenger world championships in Zurich, Switzerland, next month.

In Baltimore, about 25 "regular" cycle messengers ride year-round in all kinds of weather. Another 25 or 30 are fair weather "sunshine riders."

All are young men, these days. Mary Vivian Pearce, an actress in John Waters films since "Pink Flamingos" and a longtime -- and senior -- messenger ("I love it"), is taking a sabbatical. And a young woman remembered only as "Christy" has left town.

Not all, or even most, ride track bikes. Reggie Howie, who inspires awe with his weekly mileage totals, rides a Cannondale Cyclocross, a sort of combination street and mountain bike.

400 to 500 miles a week

"He's the man," Bishop says. At 31, Howie routinely clocks 400 to 500 miles a week.

He specializes in the long rides to Mount Washington, Towson and Timonium, often making two trips a day.

"They treat me like an automobile," says Howie, who has a bachelor's degree in broadcasting from the University of Maryland. He makes $300 to $440 a week delivering packages for Magic Messengers Inc., the oldest and probably the biggest of the courier services.

"I love riding," he says. "It keeps me healthy."

No question about that. He's all muscle, gristle and veins, with not an ounce of body fat.

"I've done many, many centuries," he says. That's 100 miles in a day. After he clocks about 300 miles during the week, he rides a couple centuries on the weekend. He rides to Washington or Gaithersburg or into Pennsylvania.

"I don't really stop. There's no need, really. I stop when I get back home, where I recover," he says.

The moneymaker

Michael "Big Dog" Wright, who claims to be the big moneymaker among the messengers, doesn't ride a track bike, either. But then he doesn't make his money riding. He's a kind of bike-borne paralegal who researches documents at the state Department of Assessments and Taxation.

"What I do is pick the package up on my bike," says Wright, 31. "Bike up to the state department, look everything up, do the work they require me to do, then rush it back downtown."

He figures he makes as much as $900 a week. He also says he's delivered photos from Camden Yards to The Sun on North Calvert Street, which is maybe two miles as the bike rolls, in three minutes.

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