Corey the Courier: stories from New York

In Interviews, New York by Claire

Corey Hilliard, known as Corey the Courier, has a story for pretty much every aspect of cycling. A courier in Philadelphia and New York, I meet him in Brooklyn with a list of things to ask about ranging from cycling cross-country, winning and hosting alleycats, couriering for the last 17-odd years, reinventing rules of bike polo, mountain biking around public parks, to name a few. He has a lot to talk about. We start in Red Lantern Bicycles and end the evening up delving through custom alleycat winner bags, polo trophies and talking about bikes and plans to dominate way into hours not designed for my one-day-fresh European jetlag. (Cover photo by Phil Penman.)

Hi Corey, how did you get into couriering?

I got into mountain biking when I was in college. Then I left college and became a bicycle messenger and after a few years I got pretty good at it. I had my own courier company in Philadelphia.

Why did you move to New York?

I’d seen so many bikers travelling around, doing things in different cities, and doing well. The hometown I grew up in is nice but what about other stuff in other places? Right now I’m working as a bicycle mechanic.

What’s Philadelphia like for cycling? I’ve heard it’s quite an aggressive city.

It’s hard to register Philadelphia as aggressive, considering that New York is really aggressive and super densely populated. I never understood the idea of [Philadelphia] being aggressive, maybe because I’m from there and I just got used to it. I just feel like it’s homey. Like a used pair of slippers – they just feel comfy.

The cycling scene there is really good. I used to do unofficial Thursday night mountain bike races in the woods in Philadelphia. Everybody would go and meet up, someone would set up a course and create a maze, and everyone would do laps based on their ability.

There’s also a river trail that goes at least 40 or 50 miles in one direction, so you can go for hours and hours and never have to deal with automobile traffic. It’s beautiful with the river on one side, then probably 10-15 miles north of the end of that bike trail, there’s Lehigh Valley Velodrome which is pretty good quality.

“I wasn’t exactly humble”

What’s it like for home-grown races, like alleycats?

It’s good for the locals, but it’s definitely difficult for the out-of-towners. It’s on a grid, but there’s a certain feel where you just have to know the timings of the lights so you can just float right through traffic. I used to win a lot of alleycats down there. There’s a little bit of jealousy about that too, because I wasn’t exactly humble about it.

Is that a slight understatement?

Yeah. I was kind of like a jerk.

Photo by Christopher Lee

Photo by Shardy Nieves

Do you still win alleycats and are you still a jerk about it?

I didn’t do any last year because of the cracked ribs I got in Berlin [at last year’s Fixed42] but the potential is still there. The [winner’s] bag that I brought my stuff in today, that was from two years ago, so I do still win them.

It’s a little bit suicidal though. I feel weird saying this on tape, but in the alleycats you’re going at full tilt through red lights. There will be two cars in a row, going at a normal pace and you’ll just kind of ride right through, somehow making it through, weaving your way, and hoping not to get hit. I like to do that.

This is the one weird quirk about me – I might do the alleycats and do all the crazy stuff that everybody else does, but I don’t believe in holding on to cars, trucks or busses. Some people say “That’s the way it is” but I think: “No, that kind of sucks and you suck.” It gets into a back-and-forth about how I win alleycats without skitching – that’s a term for holding on. I don’t believe in skitching ever. I feel that my legs are strong enough to push me wherever I need to go.

April Fools is Philadelphia’s April 1st race.

How do you find it riding in New York compared to Philadelphia?

It is faster. I would dare say it’s safer because the intersections are wider so you can see around corners easier than in Philadelphia where you’re usually on a narrow strip with another narrow strip intersecting it. If you’re going full tilt then you’re really relying on your ears because you can’t see around the corner.

Alleycats happen a lot in New York because there’s so many people. Everyone wants to be the king of their own little world, because there’s so many groups and cliques. There’s the guys from the Bronx, the guys from Harlem uptown, the Queens people, Brooklyn, and all the guys who just hang out in Manhattan all the time. [In Philadelphia] it’s not all separated by a river like New York is, so it’s all connected. It’s not like little fiefs all on their own. That’s why Philadelphia has a more cohesive scene because everyone all meets up.

Who do you tend to ride with most in New York?

I’m like a stray cat, but I’ve put on a few alleycats [in New York]. I put on one two years ago but other people yelled at me because they said was too long and difficult, but I knew it was.

What was difficult about it?

It came pretty close to hitting all five boroughs, which is a lot of miles – somebody said it was maybe 40 miles. It was called ‘Bridge Battle‘ and it made people ride over all the bridges. I just sent them all over the place. The other thing was the way the checkpoints were laid out, it took the fastest route along the streets and avenues so you couldn’t really hold on to a car or truck for a long distance and get a shortcut.

I’m just cutting out people’s ability to be shrewd doing the race; like no way can you figure out this race better than anyone else can and have a distinct advantage. The only advantage you’re going to have is just knowing the lay of the land, not any other ‘schemes’.

Photo by Cesar Macay

I hear you’ve done some crazy rides of your own – like riding across the country. How did that work out?

42Below Vodka come from New Zealand and they sponsored the Bicycle Film Festival a bunch of years ago. Then – I don’t know where the connection came, but – they decided they wanted to do a promotional tour from New York to Los Angeles. They put an advert on their website saying to send an email to answer a few questions. I sent it in. I usually have a big mouth and mouth off about everything but I really wanted to do this one, so I kept it Mum. They picked 42 people and I was selected.

We split up in Philadelphia and then went in two separate groups: north and south, and then we all met up in Los Angeles at the end. We averaged about 80 miles a day and camped out most of the time – at least, on the northern route. We left at the end of June and arrived in Los Angeles at the end of August.

What kind of route did it go?

Our group went Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, to Cleveland to Detroit, to Chicago to St Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, across Nebraska, Colorado, Denver, Salt Lake City, Utah, across into Reno, Nevada, Sacramento, San Francisco and then down to Los Angeles. It took 58 days.

We only got one day off because all the riders mutinied and got upset. They knew the next stage was going to be two 30-ish mile days and said “We can just knock out a 70 mile day tomorrow, let’s have a day off.”

Did everyone mostly enjoy it? You sound a little jaded.

It was mostly fun. It was weird because we didn’t get huge crowds, it was just this big adventure. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go ride a bike across a country. It was great in that respect.

There was another guy on the trip, a bit cocky like me. Another bike messenger. We were kind of back and forth with a rivalry going. Every day we’d race each other to the camp site. We’d get our cue sheet with directions to the next town and we’d take off, with a few other guys as part of ‘the pain train’ because we’d ride as fast as we could. Other people would just go on at a moderate pace and actually enjoy the trip, stop and take pictures, go to restaurants. For the pain train, we’d all be riding and one person would break away and the others – who were interested – would go fast, and wait for the other person to crash.

In Rocky 4 there’s the guy, Ivan Drago and he says “I must break you.”

They had a truck with everyone’s stuff in it. At the end of every day we’d go and get our stuff from the box struck and set up our tents and stuff. After the first couple of days the guys were getting to know whose bag was whose, I said: “Can you pass me that one over there?” The guys asks: “Yeah, which one is it?” and I say: “The one that says ‘I must break you.’ They were like “I get it now..”

Where was nicest to ride?

California, Utah. I really enjoyed it once we hit The Rockies. Everything was so wide, with wide open sky and landscape.

What’s it like going through them?

Peaceful, quiet. The population density is maybe one person every few miles. Going through Nevada was like the longest road in America.

I was going to say, that’s got to be such a headfuck right, because every time you look up it’s the same?

Yeah and there were only five towns on this one road going across the entire state. So once we left the town, for the first mile there was nothing. No people, no stores, no animals. Just one road in the desert.

I think that cycling across America sounds like lots of fun.

And the thing was that we got free vodka in every town, too.

That sounds very important.

It was a tour to promote vodka, so we’d get to the hotel, go out and drink vodka. They’d drive us back to the hotel, we’d pass out. Then ride to the next town the next day. Somehow it worked. Mostly I think we were too tired to get bonked but I know in Denver I lost it because I didn’t know that alcohol has twice the effect at altitude. Denver is a mile high. As you go east to west, you’re gradually going upwards until you hit Denver.

Then The Rockies start after Denver, which just blew my mind. I always thought that Denver was just really high but it’s basically at the bottom of the mountains.

That must be an amazing way to see the country. How much have you moved around before you did it – was that your first view of America?

I’d done a race from San Francisco to Portland, but that was it. It was an unsupported underground race. It was 750 miles/1200km and you carried your own clothes, food and tools. I didn’t know anything about the mountains because I’d only been on the east coast before, where it’s relatively flat. Then I got out there and learned what mountains were.

I had a backpack full of stuff and just wound up throwing more and more stuff away. By the end I stayed at this motel in Oregon and told the woman at the front desk to just mail my stuff home. I was so disgusted by the whole thought of riding that bicycle and carrying anything. I had saddle sores, my shoulders were killing me, and I had carpal tunnel syndrome in my fingers.

But you kept going anyway?

Well, my plane ticket was from Portland and I was 170 miles away when I started that morning. That was a long day. But I’d already done four days of that kind of distance over mountains.

I was disgruntled by then. Everyone who competed in it was just as disgusted by the whole affair. They wouldn’t talk to anybody.

Is that because people underestimate it?

A little underestimation, a little bit of complete exhaustion, and a little bit going into a deep part of your psyche because each person’s just riding by themselves for hours at a time – like 16 hours a day. I’ve been doing increasing intensity rides since then.

So do you like endurance rides? It doesn’t sound like it.

I do like them. It’s very peaceful, just on the bike. Riding the bike is fun. That’s it. Sometimes you see nice things.

Do you think they’re more interesting over 24 hours or over longer periods?

Over longer periods are better but 24 hour things are a little bit odd because if you don’t see anything, just riding at night, you’ll see the occasional car passing you at night wondering what you’re doing.

Tell me about some of your bicycles.

This is the single speed cyclocross bike.

..And says ‘fuck this’ on it.

Yes. I did the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships in Victoria, British Columbia a couple of years ago on this. For some reason I decided to put a fixed gear on it and ride the race fixed. I qualified and raced the main event with a fixed gear. When I finished they were like “Wait, you did that on a fixed gear?” and they dubbed me The Fixed Gear Cyclocross World Champion. I call that bike ‘The Upsetter.’

It is done. #sscxwc15vic #fgcxwc

A post shared by Corey Hilliard (@coreythecourier) on

The other one’s a single speed mountain bike, because I’d gotten hooked on riding the one gear in the dirt. The Belmont Sticker on it is the name of a park where everyone in Philadelphia normally goes on Thursday evenings to ride to do the maze. There’s a network of trails and people block off [some] and make a loop. Every week they alter it. It’s the same park, but you go in different connections and it challenges everyone. It’s a race, but it’s not sanctioned so no one needs a license to do it. I named the bike Thursday after that.

This [gestures at other bike] is my track bike. It’s made by my old roommate. This is the one I was riding when I fell off and broke my ribs in Berlin. I love riding it.

Which is the one you’ve done your crazy long distances on?

This one [gestures], and a couple of weeks ago ago I rode from Miami to Key West, about 140 miles to Key West or 210/220 kms. I went there and back in two days: I rode 220 there, had something to eat, slept in a hostel, got up, then rode the other way and suffered because it was ridiculously windy – it was all headwind going back. It was eight hours going down there and eleven hours coming back.

Is it becoming easier?

Yes. The plan is to build up and be really strong and beat everybody on the planet.

That’s the end goal?

That’s a weird concept in itself. To say I’m going to ride and beat everybody on the planet. Like the whole ‘I need to learn to be humble’ thing, but then that’s what I’m training to do… to beat everybody.

How do you think you’re doing progress-wise in your goal to beat everyone on the planet?

I think I’m coming along nicely. I just need to keep getting a lot of sleep.

Follow Corey on Instagram.

ClaireCorey the Courier: stories from New York