Messenger Daze

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As a destination Berlin feels like it was made for cycling! And in the nineties, post unification and during its reconstruction, Berlin’s cycle couriers delivered plans for the shiny new city you’ll see today. Gary Williams was one of them.

Image: Flickr, m.a.r.c.

 

I blame my dad; one of my earliest memories is of his blue Claude Butler decked out with Campy Nouvo record, standing in my parent’s bedroom in our flat in Streatham. Later it was the hours in the car driving to some remote stretch of country road, to watch the Milk race pass us in a few minutes of whirring chains and the hum of tubs on tarmac. And so it was that this impressionable youngster was infused with a passion for bikes and predestined for a career in cycling. In the end it wasn’t to be riding in the peloton but delivering packages that had me riding every day and in all weathers.

 

An empty Potsdamer Platz in August 1962 

Image: AP Photos/Edwin Reichtert, Markus Schreiber

In 1988 a little over a year before the fall of the Berlin wall I moved with my German girlfriend to the divided city, without the slightest notion of the historical events which were about to unfold before my eyes. At the time West Berlin where we lived, was an almost forgotten island, land locked by the red sea of the communist East. You could only reach West Berlin by plane or on one of the few heavily controlled transit routes that connected it to the rest of West Germany. The geopolitical situation meant it was not a place big business was inclined to invest and alternative culture flourished. It felt like another world. After the fall of the GDR regime in 1990 the lack of infrastructure between the two halves of the city (there were only a few connecting roads open initially and most people in the East didn’t have a telephone) made it fertile ground for the budding courier companies that started in the early 90’s. I was looking for work at the time and it seemed like the obvious choice for someone like me.

What could be better than riding your bike all-day and getting paid for it right? The rebuilding of the Eastern part of the city where, even after the 40 odd years since ceasefire, war damage was still very visible, combined with a flood of investors who wanted to get into the capital of reunited Germany, meant that messenger work was abundant. So taking architectural blueprints from the printers to the planning offices and building sites. Or legal documents to and from the solicitors or lithographs from the ad-agencies – anyone remember Seagate data cassettes? 

 

Gary at the Cycle Messenger World Championships in 1993

 

Of course these were the golden days of messengering nobody had even heard of the Internet and a cycle courier was the closest you could get to the instantaneous data transfer that we all take for granted today. We’d ride 8, 9 sometimes 10 hours a day earning enough to finance our addiction for tricked out mountain bikes which was the ride of choice for most of us back then, complete with CNC’d bling from sunny California or Colarado. In 1993 largely thanks to the vision of my boss at the time, Achim Beyer and a messenger he’d met in New York James ‘the general’ Moore, Berlin hosted the first Cycle Messenger World Championships, which was a game changer for the global messenger scene and for me and many others took the whole thing to the next level. Over 500 couriers from all over the world took part and we suddenly met fixed gear riding New York legends and other like-minded international ‘colleagues’, all individualists who shared our love of the freedom that a life on the bike gave us.

For three glorious summer days we raced, talked and partied through the night and a true community of messengers was born that year. The following year the event was held in London and a year later Toronto, followed by San Francisco where the ground stones were laid for the International Federation of Bike Messengers Association and the Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund. Back in Berlin heavily influenced by what we had heard and seen we started organizing our own alley cat races, the first on Halloween of 1993 was also the first in Europe, and publishing messenger ‘zines. 

A busy Potsdamer Platz in September 2014

Image: AP Photos/Edwin Reichtert, Markus Schreiber

I stuck at it for 6 years full time. But towards the end of the 90’s work had become thin on the ground and it became harder to make a living. So I switched to fixing bikes not riding them. Although many great things have happened in my life since, including the birth of my kids and meeting my wife (funnily enough she was researching for a book about cycle couriers) it was a magical time as a messenger back then and truly some of the best days of my life. Like I said I blame my dad.

 

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