Tokyo’s Street-Bike Culture
From issue 81 | Words: Tomohiro Okusa (translation by mot.tiff); Images: ROB Walbers
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“That feeling of moving from street to street is a blast,” says cyclist Kay. Between picking up a package and delivering it, the cyclist has the freedom to choose how to get there and what streets to take. Even when delivering for financeand advertising-industry clients, they essentially have total freedom. And that way of working suits them.
“I don’t think of it as a job. It’s more like I get paid to continuously have fun,” boasts cyclist Bruno. The track bikes they ride, too, are like toys in the streets. As with fashion or skateboarding, their bicycles are loaded with customizations. Not necessarily expensive items, but customizations that reflect their personal aesthetics. Zooming along, delivering packages on track bikes, it’s critical for each rider to choose the optimal route: the run, the stops, the flow. Their flow through the streets is an act of self-expression.
“When you’ve got little time to deliver something, you rise to the occasion,” says cyclist Peco. “And they’re grateful for it. You get hooked on the adrenaline.” The job is bound by the economics of the streets. And in today’s Japan, that’s not simply a business world with a graph that keeps rising. “In the five main districts of Tokyo, I’m certain that bicycle messengers are faster than motorbike deliveries,” says Massa, who’s rumored to be the fastest cyclist in the city. “If more people realized that, there’d be more messenger jobs.” It’s not as if he is making light of the job, or the enormous effort that goes into it. Messengers would never make that mistake.
So, is this a job or a game? People say they want to enjoy their work. But people also say it’s hard to find a job doing what you like. Few manage to earn a living in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, music or the like. But that’s just the sort of job being a bicycle messenger is. They work in the street, and play in the street. Messengers are that rare case that combine their work with their interests. And that duality defines the culture of the bicycle messenger.
“When you’re under the gun, you pedal like crazy,” says Hong Man. “The flip side of that extreme is that you also get to hang out with your friends. It’s great ‘cause it has both sides to it. You can expect to get along with people you meet while pursuing a hobby.” That’s not always the case with people you meet at work. Track-bike riders have a sort of brotherhood. It brings a certain kind of people together. And they get along. The six riders here today are actually from three different companies. But they get together at the same shop.
The flame handed down to this generation of bicycle messengers is still a long way from being extinguished.