Latest News

Capital bike couriers ride hard, drink hard, crash hard

WASHINGTON—When Jason Harper came to, his roommate was shaking him, asking why his face was a bloody mess.

"I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Harper, 29, said of what proved to be facial abrasions and a concussion. "I've gotten plenty of concussions before."

The last he remembers, he was zipping through downtown Washington, racing his bike against time and traffic. He's a bicycle courier—one of several hundred free spirits who, whether in sleet or steamy summer, make deadline deliveries in the famously impatient capital. Some smoke, others chew tobacco and most drink—heavily. More wear tattoos than helmets. Few have health insurance.

The faster they ride the more money they make. The companies they work for charge clients zone-based rates that start at around $6 for delivery within one hour. For rushes and after-hour deliveries, fees double. For double rushes, they triple. Couriers pocket about half the fee.

"One-hour local is insulting," rider Chris Brown said. "Double rush gets the adrenaline going."

"On a good day it feels like flying," said Dana Heater, 31, a five-year courier with a large forearm tattoo and a nose ring. "It's like we're the only people in the city and everyone else are obstacles. It's really a dead-end job, but it's beautiful."

A courier might pocket $200 on a busy Friday, less than $80 when it's slow. Impressing the dispatcher helps. Dispatchers deal out the juiciest jobs to the fastest riders or favored ones.

As independent contractors, couriers set their own hours. But that freedom stings when they face serious medical bills. Like Harper, most walk away from accidents and lick their wounds on their couches.

When it comes to taxes, "Everybody has their own idea," said courier Brian Petit, 25.

Because time is money, many couriers tweak their bikes for speed. Hans Scheltema, 31, a veteran rider who pulls in around $40,000 a year, saws his handlebars to the width of his waist to squeak by side-view mirrors.

"I don't want to do anything else. Even when the weather's crappy it's great," Scheltema said in a cell phone interview.

A squawk interrupted the conversation. "Let me call you back. My parrot's getting p-----," said Scheltema, explaining that the parrot, Pookie, who can say only "Hello, how are you?" and "10-4," bites his neck and ear when vexed.

Motorists know couriers best from the red lights they run. Bikers call it "shooting the hole" or "cutting the gap." Instead of looking for cars, they look for where they aren't, several explained.

"We know the light cycles," Heater said. "I know when to slow down or speed up."

She and many other couriers ride track bikes, which have single fixed gears and no brakes. Riders stop them by leaning forward over the handlebars and pressing back against the pedals, which locks up the wheels.

"I've seen people who can stop those things on a dime, but that takes amazing skill," said Sheba Farrin, 32, a veteran messenger.

Track bike riders say the secret's simple: Don't stop.

Even the fastest couriers will never beat e-mail, which has hurt the industry nationally. But the capital's couriers have a unique advantage: Washington's a city of deadlines, whether it's for court filings, Securities and Exchange Commission reports or lawmakers awaiting Wizards tickets from lobbyists.

Sometimes riders schlep personal items, too, such as umbrellas, forgotten laptops, Chinese takeout, hockey sticks or even, in one case, a set of golf clubs. One courier said he returned a little black book that conservative pundit Robert Novak had forgotten.

Counterterrorist measures are worse obstacles than e-mail. Several riders recalled the pre-9-11 days of the "Capitol Hill multiple," when they could personally deliver their goods to every member of Congress, collecting a fee for each. Now they must leave all their packages for lawmakers at one stop—a security trailer at the base of Capitol Hill—and collect only one fee.

At the end of the day, couriers march into saloons in their jerseys and bike spike shoes, toting their massive bags. Jell-O shots are a favorite: paper cups full of Jell-O made with vodka.

Kim Reynolds, 31, gobbled down one, which was nearly the same color as her electric pink hair, and explained the hazards of her work.

"With concussions, you go into shock," she said. "For 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after you don't remember" anything.

She doesn't remember hitting her head in a crash in August, for example. She does remember waking up surrounded by people looking down at her.

"That was the funny part; these people looked horrified," Reynolds said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CAPITALCOURIERS

Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC