The Messenger Goes Hollywood
New York Times
September 30, 2011
By j. David Goodman
ON a side street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Austin Horse cobbled together an impromptu podium last weekend out of a plastic milk crate and a case of Red Bull.
The scene, more reminiscent of a garage-band festival than a bicycle event, captured the spirit of the East Coast Messenger Stage Race, Mr. Horse’s hastily arranged, informal competition for a small group of hardy riders- mostly bicycle messengers- from across the country. The five-day race, through a tangled network of roads from Boston to Washington, was the latest project for Mr. Horse, a competitive cyclist and bike advocate who has emerged in recent years as one of the best-known figures in the city’s brigade of professional messengers.
Mr. Horse, 29, has raced against a sport utility vehicle from Harlem to Brooklyn in a Web advertisement for Mercedes-Benz, worked as a producer and cameraman on a reality series about bicycle messengers for the Travel Channel and performed stunts for more than two months for Premium Rush, a bike-centered action movie to be released next year. He has won national and international messenger competitions, as well as sponsorship deals with Red Bull, Oakley sunglasses and the urban bike-wear company Outlier.
But there is a paradox at work here: just as corporate brands and Hollywood try to harness the increasing visibility of urban cycling through its most recognizable character, the grease-grizzled New York City messenger, that subculture is dwindling in the face of higher-tech competition.
The contradictions don’t end there- what kind of grunt job garners brand sponsorships? But such is the changing state of the messenger’s role as it has morphed from job to lifestyle. The Stage Race, too, is more about messengering as a rugged cowboy ideal than as an efficient way to shuttle important documents between corporate offices. Surely, few- if any-have sent a package from Boston to Washington by bicycle.
Amid this shift, Mr. Horse has become a symbol for a group that prides itself on standing apart.
“There’s no typical New York City bike messenger,” he said, wearing a gray cloth Red Bull cap over his shoulder-length hair. “So in that way, I’m typical.”
Mr. Horse would not discuss how much of his income still came from delivering packages, and how much came from sponsorships and other activities. He said his messenger work was on hiatus while he put on the race, which ended Monday.
The race, run in increments like the Tour de France, was inspired by Mr. Horse’s own informal group rides in the United States and Europe while traveling for the Cycle Messenger World Championships and other sanctioned international competitions- part of the transformation of street riding into an extreme sport like those at the X Games.
“They call it messenger style,” said one competitor, Marco Antonio, 29, who makes deliveries in Philadelphia. “If you want to crack a beer, it’s not frowned upon.”
During one stage of the race, out of food and water after becoming lost, Mr. Antonio stopped at a roadside 7-Eleven outside New Haven for refueling: a churro, a Pepsi and two bananas. He did not win.
“To finish is to finish,” he said gnomically. “I just want to put in as many miles while I can.”
It’s a philosophy shared by Mr. Horse. “I will probably messenger while I have all my teeth,” he said. “When I start losing them, I’ll reconsider.”
Originally from Southern California, Mr. Horse spent two years in college in Portland, Ore., before ending up in New York delivering packages in 2005. He traded his surname- a German name that means horse -for its English translation soon after he began competing in illegal street races known as alley cats. “They put the results online,” he said, so he decided to adopt what he described as “a persona.”
He now lives above the storefront of the bike advocacy group Time’s Up, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and tries to be less standoffish than many messengers. “We’re trying to create more cyclists,” he said of his advocacy work at Time’s Up, “and part of that, for me, is to be approachable.”
Michael Green, a cycling blogger and former messenger, said that when Mr. Horse began riding in illegal street races, he looked clean-cut, and some cyclists suspected he was an undercover police officer. “He looked like the kind of guy who would lead you down the road and then tell you he’s an F.B.I. informant,” Mr. Green said. The same could be said of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the lead in Premium Rush.
Despite the new attention from Hollywood, there are far fewer messengers on the streets of New York now than when Mr. Horse began riding, a steady disappearance sped along by successive technological advancements- the fax, scanners, the Web- as well as competition from walking messengers, who are often cheaper to hire. Currently there are about 700 bike messengers in the city, not including food delivery cyclists, said William Goodman, the director of the New York State Messenger and Courier Association. A decade ago, he said, there were several thousand.
Robert Kotch, the owner of Breakaway Couriers, saw it coming. “I said it 10 years ago: the Internet python is slowly swallowing the business, and it’s still slowly swallowing the business,” said Mr. Kotch, whose company was the subject of the documentary series Triple Rush; the Travel Channel broadcast three episodes this spring before canceling the series.
“It was a pretty realistic view,” Mr. Kotch said. “The most poignant moment was when they showed a guy living at home, trying to eke out a living.”
Making that living as a messenger was always a challenge, but the job has grown increasingly less glamorous as corporations divert messengers to special centers away from the main entrances of buildings.
“On the West Coast, messengers are admired,” said Aias Cienfuegos, a delivery rider for 18 years in various cities who started a messenger-owned delivery company, Mess Kollective, in New York three years ago. “I worked the hardest for the least amount of money in New York.”
Mr. Cienfuegos, a self-described “ancient” messenger, was one of more than a dozen riders milling around last weekend for a leg of Mr. Horse’s race. Some had come from as far as Los Angeles, and stayed with friends or fellow riders along the race route.
For Mr. Horse, who followed along in a pickup, the race was another attempt to open doors- in this case, for messengers and others who want to ride fast but are perhaps not in shape to race regularly. “I wanted this to be as accessible as possible,” he said. “They couldn’t expect a bed or even a couch, but they got a bathroom, a roof and a locked door to protect your bike. That’s all you need.”