Messenger Championships are like no other race. They are human and fun, and the bike handling is incredible. The whole thing is an endearing and competitive take on the average messenger’s day. The European Cycle Messenger Championships (ECMC) took place this July in Copenhagen. Seb Ross was part of the Copenhagen team putting the event together, and I asked him about the fine details and what the event means to him.
Listen to the interview here:
Hi Seb. Tell me about what led to the European Cycle Messenger Championships in Copenhagen this weekend.
This is the 21st annual European Cycle Messenger Championships. The first ever ECMC was held in Hamburg when at some point the Germans began organising championships and there was suddenly, 21 years ago, a demand to expand it. The Swiss started turning up, the French, the Fins, the Danes. There was a demand to expand it into a European Championships, so the 4th or 5th annual German championships morphed into the European championships in a spontaneous evolution.
I attended my first championship in 2014 in Stockholm two years ago after having been a messenger for two years and having heard all the tales of revelry and all the exploits, and having not ‘got’ the in-jokes and references that courier language is smattered with – all the little running jokes and the lingo – I knew that I just had to graduate into the next echelon of being a courier.
“It’s some kind of logic game. It’s like a game of chess that’s played with the body, on a bicycle in this minefield of a race course.”
You’ve gone over every minute corner of your own city and your brain is itching to expand further and further and explore. I mean the myth about bike messengering is that you’re constantly exploring the city but you’re going over the same thing. You ride around on autopilot after a few years and this city’s small, so that happens fairly quickly. Your brain starts to want to broaden its horizons so suddenly you’re in a new place – if only for a weekend. There’s also the camaraderie.
That year I attended with maybe 20 Copenhageners and someone piped up that ‘yeah maybe we’ll put in a bid next year’ and that got the ball rolling. Then the next thing was that we were having a meeting in Christiania [in Copenhagen] a few months meeting like ‘do we really want to do this?’ This was the preparation for the bid. Then ten months later we presented our bid in Milan. I wasn’t there personally because I went to the World Championships in Australia, I couldn’t really afford another championship that year. So loads of my colleagues, mainly Fergie, who’s a main organiser along with me and Soya, he pitched and there was a vote over the course of the weekend.
We just saw the bids happen a minute ago. Three or four people stood up and invited the 300 messengers attendees sat in front of them to their city. Was that the main part of it?
Yeah. You stand up, you invite. It’s an invitation. You get heckled, you get asked five questions like ‘how much is a beer?’ or ‘how many messengers are there?’ Sometimes you’ll get relevant questions like ‘how many people are in your organising committee?’ But it’s an invitation mainly. Then there’s a vote which is orchestrated and overseen by Leah and the International Federation of Bike Messengers Association (IFBMA) who are a logistical organisation who help keep the flame burning and help the progression of passing on this flag.
I’m constantly answering emails that corporate sponsors want to make sure they can take part next year and I’m like ‘well it doesn’t work like that’. The organising body is a completely different one every year. All it is is a loose network of international bike messengers who don’t always speak the same language, who don’t always have a common tongue, so it’s more fluid and it’s not a rigid authoritarian organisation in any way. So the IFBMA, they help facilitate the whole smooth running or relative smooth running – ‘smooth running’ sounds optimistic.
It’s an umbrella of all these bike messenger associations, many of which only exist [temporarily]. The Copenhagen bike messenger association used to exist but doesn’t any more. It was disbanded some years ago and there’s no body like that that had a big kitty of money. There’s no treasurer or anything. We started our own organisation between a charity or a corporation. We’re an officially registered organisation, which is a good start. Pooling money into this giant black hole. [He laughs] The money has to come from outside sources because … the money people have spent to come here is a registration fee of its own, but it does cost a lot to take part in it. You’ve got 500 people here who have saved up for this stuff. And a lot of people haven’t been able to make it even though they’ve saved up and have been scraping the pennies together. You know, we’re not well paid unfortunately.
So how much do you think about the race beforehand or do you generally go in with the attitude of ‘let’s invite shitloads of people and see if we get it’?
It’s probably the latter. Let’s see if we get it and then we can talk about race locations and side events, and delegating tasks to affiliated organisations. Like there’s the Danish Cycling Federation who are one of our sponsors. They’re organising a party tonight. And you’ve got little loose groupings of messengers that you can call on to help out.
So is the format for every race the same or does it change each year?
Main race format mutates a little bit. You’ll find that race rules are often copy and pasted, and then adapted according to the different criteria or different limitations put in place by like, where your main race is going to take place.
The main race is a closed course sanctioned bike race which simulates a bike messengers’ work day in miniature. The course is small and in a closed-off area with no car traffic. It eliminates the local knowledge aspect of it. Otherwise you know…
How does it simulate a day?
You get a manifest at the start of the race. The manifest is your list of jobs for the day – the virtual ‘day’ in inverted commas. You’re picking up a series of jobs and you’re delivering them elsewhere. They might pay more or less or they might be rush jobs. It might be a points based system or a virtual money-based system, which tomorrow’s main race and qualifiers will be. It’s a kind of classic simulation ‘make as much money as you can’ in the most efficient, speedy and logical way. It’s a mind puzzle with a very highly demanding physical element. You might have to lug some oversized bulky orders. You might find that a job that on papers looks worth your while turns out to be an absolute shit-show and you have these unforeseen elements, with small challenges along the way.
For example you might enter a checkpoint where you’re expected to lock your bike.
I was going to ask if there were ‘bike thieves’ at this event..
There might be bike thieves, there might be security at a loading bay. You might be asked to go around the back and not deliver in the reception but go around the back and find a loading bay. These are all aspects that we face on a day-to-day basis on the road. So these are little fun interjections that all races organisers will want to introduce to spice things up a little bit and to try and recreate this miniature workday experience situation.
The information bombardment is a real challenge.
“The ability under high pressure, to have this analytical ability to ‘crack the code’ essentially and then to actually carry it out by picking up and delivering these virtual packages at breakneck speeds on a bicycle.”
It works on a step-by-step system so when you start the race you’re ‘despatched’, you’re handed your manifest, your dispatcher tells you to go and pick up five of these seven jobs and then you have to stand and think for a minute about what are the most efficient jobs to choose. There’s a bit of a degree in variation in formats.
A lot of people are highly competitive and have such prowess in this race. It’s some kind of logic game. It’s like a game of chess that’s played with the body, on a bicycle in this minefield of a race course with 50 other riders at any one time, or maybe more, maybe 100, on cobblestones, on gravel, on paved roads, on stairwells, staircases, lawns, grass, mud sections. There are many aspects to it.
If you’re ever the person who’s sitting there looking at the manifests that these racers have completed it’s really often works of genius. The ability under high pressure, to have this analytical ability to ‘crack the code’ essentially and then to actually carry it out by picking up and delivering these virtual packages at breakneck speeds on a bicycle. So that’s super inspiring to see the brains and the smarts and the physical prowess on top of that. It’s like the ultimate combination of abilities that will win you titles. You’ll see a handful of elite people who consistently win the main race and who even win triple crowd titles – the European, the Nationals, the North Americans and the World Championships – in one year.
“It’s not enough just to be fast.”
You’ll see people who absolutely dominate in other forms of more ‘crude’ bike races like an alleycat race which is also challenging in that you’re under pressure and your coordination and ability to plan a route and carry it out is super impressive, but this is like the next level. You’ll see people who are extremely prolific on podiums at alleycat races maybe can’t quite cut the mustard in this race format. Or, they’re good at a sprint race but they can’t come anywhere near the top 20 in a main race at the ECMC or the CMWC or whatever.
If you’re working on a checkpoint it’s quite clear who’s racking up the virtual money or who’s languishing despite overtaking people on the race course. But it’s not enough just to be fast.
Blood, sweat, tears.
Tell me about being a bike messenger in Copenhagen.
Being a bike messenger is all about being in the know about something that other people aren’t. Whether it’s the wildest shortcut or some passageway or some four stage passageway network that no one else has discovered yet, and you know the code to that one locked door or having that inside knowledge about what time the Japanese Embassy’s loading bay is closed for their lunch break or what have you. It’s an accumulation of knowledge that’s embedded in your body somehow.
That’s like that autopilot aspect. You know like sometimes I pick up a job and start riding to where my body thinks I’m meant to be going but it’s just because I’ve done this route maybe 60/70 times and it’s the one time in 100 that this pickup is going to another destination instead of the regular place. Then you wake up and you’re there – you’ve been transported but oh, you’re at the wrong place. It’s ingrained in your body.
If you have no satisfaction from sitting indoors and you want to be outside all day and just ride your bike, then being a bike messenger’s a good choice. Even if you don’t quite get anywhere, you know.
I was talking to a messenger earlier who grew up in Glasgow and their earliest memories are jumping on a bicycle and riding away from home and the neighbourhood and going on adventures, out exploring. That’s kind of part of the myth of being a bike messenger. You’re kind of on a circuit. There’s always a limit, the boundaries of the catchment area – the circuit you work on. So it’s more akin to equating the myth of having the wind in your hair and being on the one road to what is essentially being on the bumper cars at the fairground.
Seb Ross, Copenhagen Courier and part of the ECMC 2016 team