I worked as a messenger in Manchester between 2006 and 2009. The two enduring memories that have stayed with me from this time are the fraternity with the other couriers and the solitary experience of being on the bike. The agony and fatigue of a long, hard week spent on your own, only to be forgotten when you met up at Sandbar on Friday night.

Two good friends of mine, now both ex-messengers, talk me through their experiences of riding for a living. First, Paul Rance, 40, an ex-messenger in Manchester, then Luke Walker, 33, ex-messenger in Amsterdam.

 

[Paul]

How did you get in to riding your bike for a living?

I split up with my girlfriend of nearly 12 years and I was living in Leicester at the time. I didn’t know what else to do so I came back to Manchester. I’ve been into bikes at various different times in my life and I did a bit of riding in Melbourne when I went travelling. It’s not like I ever wanted to be a bike messenger, but you know you’re aware of it. It’s just… it’s cool.

I remember my first full week I did for BMS (Bicycle Messenger Service) and it got to Friday. I was sat in Sandbar and I’d probably had three pints before falling off the bench at the table.

Yeah, the shock of having been riding a lot, it was just unbelievable. I remember I was staying at a friend’s house and I had the box room. I lay on my bed and, I swear to god, if you’d have put a microphone next to my body it would have given off a hum. But I think you always have that romantic sense of the job in mind because you are doing what most people dream of doing – not necessarily being a messenger, but being out in the elements under your own steam with, effectively, for most of the day, no-one to answer to.

You must have seen some strange things on the road over the years. Any stand out moments?

What, in general?

Yeah, riding on the streets – weird stuff, funny stuff, like when I saw a couple of ladies’ bits one Friday.

[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve seen plenty of nic-nacs. No, I shall recall a tale that I recalled only days ago. Store Street, Network Rail building. I was coming down off Pollard Street, not going particularly fast. It was the middle of the day, people milling in and out of Network Rail, bearing in mind there are some bigwigs who get paid a fortune working there. Loads of cars about, loads of shit going on. Two Eastern European prostitutes mooching about where the Parcel Force depot is. I double took and saw a third prostitute. Then it was another double take after the initial double take, on the grass verge, knickers around her ankles, having a piss.

How important is street knowledge to the job?

On a human level it’s about knowing your place in the city, because you are a part of the cityscape with your knowledge. I think that’s why people go on about that Zen state of messengering. When you know the streets so well, like for me, from MPG to a client, I know every possible route both forwards and backwards.

How do you think you will fare in the future with a young family to consider?

Physically I’m fine. Even though I’m 40 this year, I’m probably in better shape than I’ve ever been in my life. And that is something to do directly with being out on my bike all week. You know, it’s not like going out and doing 80 miles in the sunshine. You know that yourself. But I have to be honest and say that, having Joseph, I don’t think that has affected me because I’m never conservative when I’m riding. I don’t wear a helmet and I ride a brakeless bike, which to most people seems ludicrous. But in terms of taking risks, I still take a lot.

 

[Luke]

Can you give me a brief history of your career in messengering and describe what sort of work you did?

I raced mountain bikes from about the age of 13 through to my mid to late teens. Then, as many would confess, my passion, hobby and habit became neglected in the pursuit of the city’s nightlife, and my GT STS DownHill, which used to belong to Steve Peat [a downhill mountain biker from Sheffield], gathered a nice coating of dust in the shed. We used to drink in Sandbar on Grosvenor Street and at the time, around 2003 to 2004, lads who were bike messengers drank in there too. Sandbar is great, but the reason they did was because a good friend of mine, Paul Flanagan, had just opened Bicycle Boutique round the back. I can’t actually remember how I even started messengering, but more than likely it had something to do with this place.

Do you have any memorable stories?

I can recall one altercation with a black cab driver heading towards the crossroads at the Palace Hotel past the Grand Central one quiet summer’s afternoon. He got so pissed off over nothing that he chased me in circles all around that crossroads, up and down curbs, on the pavement. I managed to temporarily lose him by legging it up Oxford Road station approach, down the stairs and back on my bike down New Wakefield Street, where at the other end I bumped into him driving past. Trying my best to lose the enraged cabbie, he pursued me back up to All Saints Park, driving along the right hand pavement away from town. If he’d caught up to me I’ve no doubt whatsoever he would have ran me over.

You used to do well in the alley cat races…

They were a laugh. They were worldwide – London, San Francisco, New York – and we did them in Manchester too. They started out with just couriers involved – a bit of a test of speed and skill, and also your knowledge of the city. But they were a laugh too, usually with some pretty daft obligations en route.

Do you have any funny stories delivering passports?

Whilst on an M12 estate one afternoon, some lad must have recognised me and started shouting, “Yo! Yo! You’re the guy who delivers passports innit!” whilst I had tens of passports on my back. Or trying to make a delivery in some rough part of M8 and quickly realising the house had just been robbed.

Another bad one that has just sprung to mind is a time where I had a drop at a block of flats. The last time I was there the concierge (bouncer) was chatting to some girls stuck in the 80s lift, so I thought I’d take the stairs, to the 13th floor. Slightly unnervingly a trail of blood spiralled up those stairs for about ten flights.

I remember you having to get your Dolan welded a few times because the frame cracked. How rigorous a job is messengering in a place like Manchester?

I would estimate that as a full-time courier you would expect to have around three bad experiences a year. My first Dolan track frame was hit by a car at least three times before it couldn’t be ridden anymore. I used to go to an old motorbike garage in the arches under the railway just off Whitworth Street every so often to get it welded.

When do you think the scene began to change? It got to a point where the bikes were stacked three-high in Sandbar.

People started to imitate courier fashion. You would see more and more single speed bikes, ‘courier’ bags on people’s backs, little Kryptonite locks tucked into the arses of jeans, a lot of whom would also come and drink in Sandbar. Bike couriering became a bit of a fashion phenomenon almost, I suppose.

Background photo of Paul Rance.

James Wise