Article on Pittsburgh Messengers
Renegade cyclists stay edgy
Pittsburgh Tribune Review, April 17, 2006
By Andrew Johnson
Gothic black bottoms, down-the-back dreadlocks and pierced septums
don't exactly mesh with Lance Armstrong's image.
Michael Camp, 29, of Rochester, is no Armstrong. He likes to combine
his bike rides with a trip to the 31st Street Pub, a Strip District
Camp recently downed a Presque Isle Pilsner before riding in The
Caffeinator Alleycat, an organized bike race around the city. Other
participants of the same race prepared for the aerobic test by smoking.
An "alleycat" is a bike messenger-style race, where renegade riders
compete in an urban setting at breakneck, red-light defying speeds.
It's one of the last remaining vestiges for these mostly male cyclists,
whose profession is disappearing in a digital world where electronic
court filings have replaced hard copy documents.
Ian Newell, 27, works for Quick Messenger on the South Side and said
the trade is down in Pittsburgh.
Triangle Messenger Service lasted in the city nearly 20 years and grew
to 25 bike messengers, before closing four years ago. Newell said he's
one of four messengers at Quick, one of the city's bigger companies,
among several small ones.
Brad Kenner, 27, of the South Side, said he biked briefly for Jet
Messenger Service, Uptown, before quitting. He said after an eight-hour
shift, he sometimes pulled in $40. Kenner blamed technology for the
dwindling need for bike messengers.
With the Caffeinator Alleycat earlier this month, they brought the
street spirit of maverick bicycle riding back to Pittsburgh -- at least
for the day.
In this race, about 40 bikers tried to navigate the quickest way to
seven coffeehouses -- downing beverages at each -- between Mellon Park
and the Mexican War Streets.
Alleycat races, in general, are a nod to bike messengers' creativity in
finding their city targets, organizer Brian Janaszek said. Janaszek
said there are about six to eight of these under-the-radar local races
a year. They are advertised in a magazine called Dirt Rag and on blogs.
The group at this alleycat was more Social Distortion than Tour de
Frank Elia, 41, brought eight members from BABE -- Beaver Area Bike
Enthusiasts. Elia drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon and wore a utility man's
blue workshirt that said "Kirk."
He said his group loves the fixed-gear bikes popular among messengers.
The stripped-down bike, with super-skinny tires, gets him close to the
road, producing a "Zen"-like ride.
"It's a pure feeling," Elia said.
A fixed-gear bike doesn't shift, not even into neutral, and a biker
can't coast on one, even downhill. If the cyclist stops pedaling, a
heels-over-head handlebar flip often follows. Some at the alleycat
added brakes to their rigs, but many bike messengers slow down solely
using their pedals.
Camp, a child therapist in Beaver County, has a burgundy-colored
Schwinn Traveler steel frame, dating back to the time of President
Reagan's near-assassination. The bike cost him $55 to construct.
Adam McNeish, 28, of Butler, crashed the single-speed party with
something more elaborate. It still fit the category of low-tech,
though. McNeish used a section of gray plastic outdoor floor mat for a
super-long banana seat for his recumbent bicycle. He said the gray mat
was better than the green mats with flowers on them. He had to look
hard to find it.
A recumbent bicycle is the kind of extended low-rider bike one sits
down in. It looks like something made for circus performers.
McNeish, after a wobbly start, went missing from the finishing line.
But Brian Rayburn, 20, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore, was there.
Rayburn crossed the finish line first. He ditched his bike and ran into
Beleza Community Coffeehouse on Buena Vista Street in the Mexican War
Streets, practically heaving.
Rayburn was the only non-courier who said he aspired to be a full-time,
Endurance renegade racing
There will be a weekend-long Alleycat starting April 28, from the
Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Point State Park in Pittsburgh.
Visit Crushing The Commonwealth for more information