Sweaty and breathless, the bike messenger strides up to reception to deliver a package and politely asks for his delivery manifest to be marked. “Drop your bag, drop your bag,” barks the staff members. “Sign the log. Where’s your ID? Security!”
It’s not an uptight guard desk or mailroom in a Loop office building. It’s a checkpoint on the racecourse for the Eleventh Annual North American Cycle Courier Championships held in Garfield Park. More than 200 messengers from as far away as San Francisco, Montreal and Copenhagen have converged on the Windy City for a weekend of competition, camaraderie and tomfoolery.
“It’s great that we could finally bring this to the Midwest,” says co-organizer Augie Montes of the Chicago Couriers Union. At the end of the weekend, New York’s Kimberly Perfetto and Austin Horse will earn bragging rights as the fastest female and male couriers on the continent; at fifth place overall, Andrew Nordyke is the top Chicagoan.
In addition to the checkpoint race, the champs feature a bike polo tournament, trick riding contests, a labor forum and the Messenger Prom, which packs the Bottom Lounge with revelers wearing everything from cocktail dresses and leisure suits to giant banana and Mr. Peanut costumes. A prom king and queen are crowned with headgear fashioned from bike chains and cogs.
The race, simulating a typical day of two-wheeled delivery work, has participants picking up and dropping parcels at nine stations on a city-sanctioned, car-free course throughout the lush West Side park. To keep things realistic, this checkpoint, incorporates many of the headaches and hassles local messengers face on a daily basis. There’s even a dude in a rooster suit “stealing” unlocked rides.
“It’s almost like a real mailroom because there’s so much confusion and animosity,” says veteran courier Brent Olds, sipping a PBR as Public Enemy blares from the sound system of the Chicago Cuttin’ Crew racing team’s school bus.
Nicole Brewer, an ex-messenger who’s working the checkpoint, says couriers here have more security hoops to jump through than anywhere else in the nation: using loading-dock entrances to high-rises instead of the front door; signing logs and leaving ID; and leaving their bags with the building guards. “Chicago’s all freaked out ’cause they think a terrorist is gonna fly a plane into the Sears Tower,” she says.
Couriers zoom around the park’s curved roadways on single-speed, fixed-gear bicycles, three-foot-long mailing tubes in their bags, their bodies and bikes banked at steep angles for speed. Neighborhood folks are barbecuing near the racecourse to sounds of Z. Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” and teenage girls saunter obliviously across the cyclists’ paths.
“I like having all the racers out here,” says Garfield Park resident Joe Davis, 68, straddling a Trek. “It’s good for people to see this is a beautiful park and they don’t have to be afraid to come out to the West Side.” (John Greenfield)