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Going Gonzo: Messenger Worlds

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BIKE MESSENGER WORLDS PARIS, FRANCE. The news came as a shock. An email read: “We have accredited three photographers and one video crew for this event…. We are no longer giving accreditations to the press. I am sorry but you will not be allowed to take pictures of this event.” There it was, in plain writing. After nearly three decades in the sport, I had officially been refused my first accreditation at a cycling event. And it came not from the Olympic Games or the Tour de France, but a comparatively modest event: the Cycle Messengers World Championships. Held for the first time in 24 years in my hometown of Paris, France, I was looking forward to a more-relaxed cycling event after the Tour. I had assumed that such an event would be more open, less elitist. I was wrong.

Words/images: James Startt

Just slightly stunned at my rejection, I responded to Pierre Vicarini, the author of my accreditation veto. Writing from Turkey, he clearly was not part of the local organizing committee, but since he was the only one to respond I had to assume that he was in fact the press officer. At least that is as close as it came. Although my ego was admittedly bruised, I responded with restrained diplomacy that I had covered virtually every major professional cycling event including 27 Tours and the Olympic Games. I explained that I held two internationally respected press cards and was representing an internationally respected cycling publication. Little matter, Vicarini would hear nothing of it. Remaining steadfast he retorted: “We are sorry, but accreditation was given month ago. We are not accepting any more people to cover the event. This is part of CMWC policy…. Sorry for the answer but all has been taken care of months ago.”

Clearly they were uninterested in such an “establishment” reporter as myself. Perhaps I would have improved my chances of acceptance had I mentioned that I was once a proud employee of the Mobile Messenger Service in New York City. Yet somehow I doubted it.

Less shocked, but still dumbfounded by this second response, I considered staying home, perhaps watching the Rio Olympics on TV. But then I decided differently. No, I thought, such obstinacy deserved a dogged response all its own! It was time to go gonzo on this freewheeling band of bike messengers. I decided that if I could not report the goings on of this enigmatic event in an official manner, then I would just have to go undercover.

Fittingly, news on the official site was light on detail regarding the different events that made up the weeklong championships in Paris, August 1–7. Intrigued by the uphill time trial on Rue Lepic in the historic Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, I called my friends at Urban Cycle, one of the Paris-based messenger services. They informed me that, unable to get clearance from the city, they were forced to move the time trial to the Square de la Butte du Chapeau Rouge, itself an extension on the Buttes Chaumont on the eastern edge of the city.

Arriving at the park, I found the first entrance closed. Confused, I began wondering if the organizers had really managed to privatize the entire park. My suspicions were confirmed as I arrived at the second gate, also closed. Inside, I could see riders lining up for their turn at the time trial. But how to get in? A sign on the gate confirmed that the park was indeed closed for the event.

But just as I began to wonder if Vicarini and his misguided management team had succeeded in transforming these world championships into a private party reserved only for participants paying an entry fee, a flock of messengers pulled up at the same gate. Pointed away, they rode off to yet another entrance gate. Equally frustrated to find another park entry closed, they opted to scale the gate, passing each bike one-by-one over the top. I decided to join them.

Finally I was on the inside! But for how long? Perhaps the event possessed its own security to reject such apparent party crashers like me. I decided to remain low key. My 200mm zoom lens would be a dead giveaway. Best to keep it in my shoulder bag until I had scoped out the place. Fortunately, not everyone was in bike-messenger attire. Visibly, a sprinkling of riders’ friends and passersby had managed to make their way inside too.

Ironically, as I started to mix and mingle with the participants, I found that none of them were privy to the privatization of their event. And many were equally stunned, only too happy for a sprinkling of media coverage or simple interest. And, truth be told, once inside the Cycle Messenger World Championship was much easier to cover than the Tour de France with full accreditation.

I quickly found what I’d expected: a group of passionate cyclists, drawn together simply by their common love of the cycling experience. “I just came for the people,” said Max Bismarck, a medical student in Berlin, who works for the Twister Messenger Service there. “I enjoy the pre-events more than the championships. I rode here from Germany.”

Some were more competitive. Mario Scandella with Velokurier in Bern, Switzerland, said, “I came here to win!” He too rode to Paris, coming directly from Copenhagen, Denmark, after the European championships, where he was competing in the cargo-bike competition. A lifelong bike messenger, he came for the friendship, but also in hopes that a good result would allow his city to host the world championships in the future.

It was clear from the way that different participants approached the time trial that ambitions differed greatly. Some were in full aero-tuck as they powered up the sinuous hill, while others were clearly just having a good time. On the sidelines, everyone was committed to having a good time as they cheered fellow participants up the hill. Beer flowed freely, and by the scent of certain aromas in the air, Floyd Landis would’ve had a devoted clientele for his burgeoning cannabis company.

The good mood continued into the weekend as the most competitive messengers prepared for the main event: a messenger race through the Bois de Vincennes, the large park on the eastern outskirts of Paris. There was no set time or distance. Instead, participants had a number of runs to make—picking up and dropping off packages at different stands along the circuit. The winner was simply the rider who completed all of the runs the fastest.

Arriving at 10 a.m., the announced start time for Sunday’s final, I was surprised to find the park empty. By this point, however, I was also getting used to the ever-morphing logistical map that represented these world championships. Nevertheless, I was relieved to finally find a messenger approaching. He confirmed that I was at the right location. “It was scheduled for 10 a.m., yeah, but we had a big party last night so it got pushed back to noon, and now 1 p.m.,” he said. “I would say that would be 1 p.m. at the earliest.”

Most definitely these world championships would resemble no other.

As participants streamed in, they took shelter from blazing summer heat under a small bunch of trees. Participants relaxed in hammocks and beach chairs. And they waited. Fortunately for them, no one was in a hurry. Occasionally, a voice would crackle over a loudspeaker with updates. Mario, evidently one of the favorites, prepared meticulously—beer in hand.

Finally, an announcement confirmed that the official start would take place at 2 p.m. Around 1:30, the finalists gathered near the start for final instructions. Organized like the Le Mans 24-hour motor race, each participant placed his bike on the ground near the start and then lined up at another start line, approximately 200 meters away. From the official start, participants would then sprint to their mounts and take off for what many estimated a four-hour race.

It came with at least a dash of irony that, while all participants were at the start line nearly 10 minutes ahead of the announced start, they nevertheless waited until 2 p.m., the now-official start time. Rules, after all, are rules.

And then they were off! The 250 finalists charged en masse toward their bikes. Keeping tabs on the leaders quickly proved impossible as messengers from the different categories perpetually made pick-ups and drop-offs from different stands. Mario, I would find out later, finished second in the cargo division. But he showed no disappointment in losing. For Mario, like everyone here at the Cycle Messenger World Championships, he was firstly just interested in participating. Participating in these worlds, after all, guaranteed you entry into this good-spirited tribe.

From issue 58. Buy it here.