It’s an oft-told story that fixed gear riding among bike messengers began with an influx of Jamaicans at some point in the 1970’s to San Francisco or New York (depending on who’s telling the story). So impoverished were these immigrants that they couldn’t afford geared bikes and got jobs as messengers riding single-gear fixed wheel bicycles. Thus began a trend which took 30 years or so to reach critical mass and be firmly accepted into mainstream culture.

CMWC New York bike Pile Bike Parking CMWC NYC 2005

Whatever the truth of this tale, what we can say is that bike messengers are firmly associated with fixed gear bikes and have certainly played a massive role in the modern fascination with them. I was a bike messenger for 13 years so I speak from personal experience.

When I started waaaaaay back in ‘95 I was riding a terrible Raleigh Max mountain bike with ‘oversize’ (read, heavy) tubing, plastic pedals and knobbly tyres. In my first week I was involved in a bad crash when a girl stepped off the pavement in front of me. I snapped both brake cables trying to stop but went straight into her, flying through the air and landing on my back. I was ok, in shock but ok.

She wasn’t so lucky, her head bleeding profusely and an obviously broken arm. As we both sat on the pavement waiting for the ambulance to arrive I started to question what the hell I was doing in this job, as passers by stopped to curse me for hitting her, oblivious to the fact that I did everything in my power not to hit her. Even the paramedics were judgemental, giving me dirty looks and never once asking if I was injured. I somehow worked the rest of the day with no brakes, riding very slowly and wondering if I’d bother to show up again for this ridiculous job.

ECMC Eindhoven 2008 Main Race Start Eindhoven 2008

It turns out I did, and kept going for the next decade or so. As time went by my style of cycling evolved, and my cycling needs changed. I needed to go faster, so off went the knobbly tyres and on went some narrow 26” slicks. I wanted more power, so off came the plastic pedals and on went Time ATAC pedals and proper cycling shoes (and yes, I did fall over the first time I came to a set of traffic lights). I wanted to not look like a rookie, so I ditched the Raleigh Max and got myself a steel Specialized Hardrock. Back in the late 90’s most messengers in Dublin were still riding mountain bikes that had been modded for road use; super-skinny slick tyres and road cassettes were all the rage.

As the years went by I went through a variety of mtbs, my last being a blue Klein Pulse Comp that I still have fond memories of. After that it was time to give 700c wheels a try. I picked up an old, steel, Italian road bike from a friend and within weeks I was hooked; everything just felt faster, sometimes a bit too fast. Being a messenger means a lot of starting and stopping, especially in a compact, dense city like Dublin. Most deliveries were 1km - 2km in distance, and with heavy traffic there was a lot of time spent speeding up and slowing down, even occasionally stopping for red lights...

ECMC Dublin 2002 ECMC Dublin 2002

It quickly became apparent that I was only really using a few of the 18 gears I had available on the bike, yet I was having to maintain an entire groupset; cables, derailleurs, shifters, the lot! During the wet Dublin winters this meant a lot of time and money spent on maintenance that could have been better spent in the pub. This led me to try singlespeed, with the notion of reducing maintenance and simplifying everything. A simple job of removing the cables and derailleurs, and making the rear wheel singlespeed; having an old road frame with semi-horizontal dropouts meant it was a simple switch.

For some reason singlespeed never sat right with me. I loved the simplicity of it, and the bike looked awesome with no gear cables and components cluttering it up, but the experience just wasn’t doing it for me. At this stage in Dublin there were a few messengers riding fixed, I had always thought they were insane, as they all rode brakeless, but I figured I’d leave my front brake on and give it a go.

ECMC London 2003 Messenger Memorial Ride, ECMC London 2003

The first few days were awkward to say the least. Riding fixed meant having to be fully switched on, all the time, which can be mentally draining over a 9 hour workday. I had to remind myself constantly that my legs needed to keep spinning as the temptation to freewheel was overwhelming. The odd time I did try to coast the bike got mad at me and tried to buck me out of the saddle. You learn quickly though and in a couple of weeks the constant pedalling was second nature to me and I started to really enjoy it.

Monster Track 2007 A Snowy Monster Track NYC 2007

I moved to New York for a time, the mecca for bike messengers and fixed gear bikes, and found some messenger work. It was there that I decided to learn the dark art of riding brakeless; probably not the smartest idea I’ve ever had, but it seemed like the best way to do it was to jump in at the deep end. If you ever get the chance to ride in New York City, particularly fixed, do it. I’ve never ridden anywhere like it. A far cry from the cramped, winding, medieval streets of Dublin, the sprawling Manhattan grid system is built like a Pac-Man game for bike riders. Multi-lane avenues, bombing down Broadway and catching the wave of green lights, alleycat racing through the 5 boroughs, so many good memories.

Monster Track artwork Monster Track Artwork by Greg Ugalde

When I came back to Dublin I kept riding brakeless for many years, then as middle age and sense crept up on me I decided to stick a front brake back on and have never looked back. In hindsight I was probably riding brakeless for purely aesthetic reasons, as having a front brake just saves so much energy. Why struggle with your legs to stop when you can just use 2 fingers on a brake lever? You still have all the fun of fixed, just with a little less hassle, but maybe that’s just me being old and boring.

CMWC Dublin 2007 Main Race Start, CMWC Dublin 2007

My bike and I have travelled to many cities for messenger events, Berlin, Eindhoven, Stockholm, Toronto, Edinburgh, London and Barcelona, and we’ve met messengers from pretty much every major city on the planet. While there are many other bikes around, the one constant is fixed gear. No matter what city, how hilly, how big or how small, bike messengers just love to ride fixed gear bikes, and it now appears everyone else is figuring out how much fun they are as well!

Graham worked as a bike messenger in Dublin from 1996-2009 and travelled to multiple World and European Messenger Championships (CMWC/ECMC) in that time. He was also an organiser of the 15th CMWC in Dublin in 2007.

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