30 years of bike messenger stories: meet Keirin Berlin

In Berlin, Features by Claire

Born from the heart of Berlin’s messenger scene, Keirin is a cycle cafe facing the problems of rising rent. It’s half cafe, half bike store, with the bike stuff gently exploding out into the cafe. The owner, Mortimer (Mo), has spent years riding different cities as a messenger. He has a tonne of stories.

Tell me about Keirin. What’s Keirin’s vibe and what do you want to offer people?

Mo: Keirin is for everybody. Even if we are deeply rooted in the courier scene (15 years on the streets of Berlin, London, NY, Toronto and Budapest) our idea was to have a hub for all kinds of cyclists and also for normal folks. The bicycle is not only Lance Armstrong and dutch commuters – it’s art and design, and therefore it makes sense to have a coffee shop next to the bike place. You gotta give folks the chance to find out.

Keirin is a track race held in Japan, also it is part of the olympics games. We thought it was kinda cool to use, as Keirin is not like a normal “boring” bike race. Body contact, held even in the rain etc. The nine different colours allow a lot if graphic ideas.

How would you describe the cycling scene in Berlin and how have tastes changed?

In Berlin it is pretty normal to ride a bike. A bike is not a status symbol yet, but it’s on the way to being one. When we opened in 2004 folks laughed about us! ‘Coffee and fixed gear?’ We started with fixed gear bikes – everybody was making fun about us. Nowadays it’s the all new thing. The past 10 years in Berlin cycling has got so popular that you see the trendiest bikes in the weirdest part of towns and everybody seems to have a bicycle or want a bicycle. When I say ‘trendy’ I don’t mean ‘really nice’. [There are] lots of colours and shitty fixed gear bikes.

So therefore Berlin does not really need Critical Mass (but I guess it is good we have Critical Mass, to make the car drivers aware of the cyclists). I remember being at a Critical Mass in 1996 in San Francisco during the Cycle Messenger Worlds and a few years later it was in Berlin. It started with the geeky folks (with Ortlieb side bags and such) and now it is kinda hip and thousands of folks ride for hours and hours.

There are group/night rides organised by Fahrtwind. Fahrtwind was formed by Anselm, a bike messenger, with some friends that couldn’t get enough of cycling and went for night rides. Later they rode to Paris together and nowadays they organise all kinds of rides. E.g. riding through the Alps together etc. Maybe you can call it a hip Critical Mass.

And there are lots of alleycats (not only organised by couriers).

How are you involved in Berlin’s cycling culture?

We have organised lots of alleycats and the Berlin Hallowe’en Race (from 1993-2013) but we thought it was time to give it back to the messengers. We’ve just had MASH SF here for their new film, and we have different exhibitions about bicycle culture. The next is about street fixed gear bikes.

What were your alleycats like? Were they the first in Berlin or were you to helping to grow the scene?

In 1993 the first Berlin Halloween Race started. Folks from London and other spots in Europe came to Berlin for that, and for many years it was like that. Berlin was the place to go. Nowadays with the internet there are alleycats everywhere but back in the ’90’s, there was only the Berlin Halloween Race. I went to the first Dublin AC in ’98 and did a bunch of London races, too. We actually went to London for races because for many years, there was only a few races a year. So in early’ 97, I organised a alleycat race, that wasn’t the Halloween one. And then whole thing started everywhere in the world [shortly after]. Alleycats got big. Toronto organised the Human Powered Roller Coaster (HPR), a figure-of-8 velodrome that you could only enter if you won a race. Dunhill sponsored messengers worldwide and flew them to Toronto for it! I won a race in NY and entered too! It was best thing ever – 125 meters long! Definitely a roller coaster.

In 2002 we organised 10-20 Berlin, 10 years after the first Cycle Messenger World Champs (that was in Berlin) a long weekend, of races, fixed gear nonsense and a big 3-4 hr long final, during rush hour traffic, on a monday! Real customers and picks and drops.

What’s your cycling background?

I did started BMX racing in 83 for 10 years and then became a bike messenger.

I got my first BMX in 1983, when I was 10 years old. I starting racing afterwards and did it for nearly 10 years. I did races all over Berlin. The wall was still there – I am talking about the mid-80’s, so travelling to West-Germany was impossible for most of us. They took me for a race to Münster, Hamburg and other spots tho.

Brooklyn Bridge

When I was 20, in 1993, I started messengering, first on a GT Zaskar, later a Brodie Expresso, and tried a road bike and crashed a lot. Then I changed to some riser bars and tried a fixed gear the first time in 1998 while messengering in NYC and never really went back to any other bike. From 93-98 I worked in Berlin, went to London for half a year, over to DC and Toronto for a long summer and then got stuck in NYC till mid 2003. In between I toured Asia, from Tokyo to Bangkok with friend on a 93′ Cannondale. 5,500km on a fixed gear bike no brakes, I guess thats what folks do when they are under 30.

When you went to Berlin, London, DC, Toronto and NYC were you a messenger?

Yes, did all those cities – also Budapest! NYC for 5 years, London for only 5 month – living on Brick Lane opposite the bagel spot for 45 pounds a week, hah!

What’s it like riding in each city? How are they different? Which was your favourite?

I like NYC and Tokyo the most. NYC got flow and space, gotta watch those potholes though. Tokyo is a bit hilly, but its also perfect for a trackbike, as its only rolling hills.

Why did you become a messenger?

I saw it in SF in 1989 and asked my Dad. He said those are bike messengers and I was like ‘what, I can make money riding a bike and not doing sport? Damn!!!’ I applied in 1990 but was too young so started three years later.

“Yep, that’s me too.”

Did you ride in the Cycle Messenger World Champs? What was it like?

Toronto ’95! Yes, fell in love with the city! It gave us the idea for the shop, as the Jet Fuel Coffee shop is there. It’s a very fun event, lots of crazy folks and good parties. Alleycats on shrooms and so on. London ’94, was at the Victoria Docks, all crunched together in a dirty warehouse. Those were the days.

Do you still ride in the alley cats?

My friend Zorro did an anniversary race, [because he’s spent] 25 years as a messenger on the street. I entered and the kids where like, ‘What you doing here?’ I said ‘I am here to win’, and guess who won. I did so many races, everywhere: Tokyo, Budapest, DC, Philly, Baltimore, NYC, London, and Hamburg etc. Over 100 races. I risked a lot and I always will. It’s a kick and lots of fun, but I think I am over it.

What type of bike(s) do you own and ride now?

I usually ride my Durcus Stylin by W Base. It’s a fixed gear freestyle frame, but not for tricks, just for cruising around…Wide riser bars, platform plastic pedal with straps. 42-15 gear ratio. I rode from Nice via Genova to Milano and through Morocco, and made many trips. It’s comfortable but not really fast or light. I do have a ’93 Cannondale – that’s just hanging on the wall and will rebuilt it soon to something like a track bike with drop bars, but I probably end up with risers again. I cracked a ’93 Cannondale before as I entered bunny hop competitions at courier events and rode this bike to death all over the world. Luckily I found another one, before the trend.

I have a Cinelli Strato Caleido carbon road bike, but I never ever really ride it. Definitely too many bikes. Of course I have a Keirin bike – it is a Nagasawa. Some 24 Bmx bikes. And an old long John Cargobikes. And I sometimes commute with our rental bikes.

What’s your dream for Keirin?

To have our own cycling team and a shop that will eventually pay my bills so I can travel in the winter for a month (cycling of course). But now we first gotta #savekeirinberlin, as we have to move out in June. Berlin is not so cheap anymore – we have a 30% rent increase or we can buy [the property] but as we can not cope with either, we will move out.

If someone was visiting Berlin for a couple of days, where would you tell them to cycle?

Definitely see the Teufelsberg, as you can see how green is Berlin and from there you are almost in Potsdam. I like riding around West City too. Berlin is pretty interesting and the best by bicycle, but I guess that’s also nothing new, the bike is the future!

Thanks guys!

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Claire30 years of bike messenger stories: meet Keirin Berlin