Olympics of Bike Messenger Racing

Welcome to the Olympics of Bike Messenger Racing

WORDS: Katharine Erwin 
PHOTOGRAPHY: Caroline Pauleau

The world of bike messenger racing like you’ve never seen before

The North American Cycle Courier Challenge, or NACCC (affectionately pronounced “The Knack”), is considered the bicycle messenger Olympics. It has been going strong since 1989 and is held each year in various cities around the continent.

A tailored course simulates the real everyday experience of messengers in each host city. Far from your typical bike race, there is no sanctioning body that anyone can identify. There are no jerseys for winning stages, no support cars, no masseuses. Just bike messengers and former bike messengers coming together every year to have fun. This year’s NACCC — hosted in the New York neighbourhood of Bushwick — was no different.

Chicken winging the cargo race.

Since there is no full-time organization that governs the NACCC, the coordination of the event has to be done by volunteers—often a very dedicated messenger and his cohort of friends. This year, that messenger was Austin Horse, one of the biggest faces of the New York bike messenger scene. He has won numerous NACCCs and courier-style street races, but felt a need to go beyond just participating in the event. “I have won this event a number of times, and if anyone cares about it, it is probably myself,” said Horse. “I have enjoyed successes because of it. So when it came to New York, it was really my turn to give back.”

This year’s course was located within 10 blocks of industrial Bushwick with the headquarters in the centre at The Acheron (a bar that was co-founded by a former messenger.) “The street grid was really conducive and easy to control,” said Horse. “It just made sense, an industrial area that has very few residents and they allowed us to be disruptive on the weekend.” The streets had been blocked off, with a sprinkling of cops surrounding the area redirecting traffic, but trucks, cars, and unassuming pedestrians still found their way onto the course, making the race all the more realistic. 

Map of the course at the bike messenger olympics

Map of the course.

NACCC races begin with each rider at the starting line with their bikes locked up. Officials attach manifests with detailed instructions for picking up and dropping off packages at various checkpoints throughout the course onto each bike. There are four manifests and the messengers must plan their stops according to these. Messengers must be careful not to make costly extra trips. The checkpoints are often run by other messengers who aren’t just there to give and receive deliveries, but also provide the rider with appropriate encouragement or heckling.

The NACCC had officially kicked off on Thursday with resignation and various crawls (a group of people who could come and go in their clusters at their leisure) touring NYC. Friday’s festivities were more race oriented with some more traditional track events followed by an epic party. Saturday was qualifying for the main race which consisted of many shorter heats of riders picking-up and receiving paper envelops. These results determined who would be able to ride in Sunday’s finals (only the top 60- 100.) Sunday’s race was much longer with jobs varying in price, urgency, distance and with boxes mixed in. 

In the Brixton Cycle jersey, Bruce Beran, messenger for decades, takes rest during the bicycle messenger olympics

In the Brixton Cycle jersey, Bruce Beran, messenger for decades, takes a rest. 

But the biggest loads were at a side race featuring cargo bikes—one of the newer (and more interesting) categories in the event. The main challenge for this group had riders load up their bikes with an empty beer keg, a tire and long rolled plastic tubes. Anyone could enter the race on any type of bike, but most racers had cargo bikes, which are a fast growing option for urban deliveries. These bikes ride like a chopper, with a long front haul that has a mind of its own and requires a bit of coaxing to turn. The challenge is to evenly disperse the haul in the front to steer and balance from the back.

The atmosphere at these types of races oscillates between casual, fun-loving friendlies match and the type of intensity present at any high-performance competition. While waiting for the heats to start, some racers snacked on protein bars and hydrated, while others chain-smoked. For the level at which these athletes are expected to perform, there are a surprising amount of messengers who practice a Keith Richards lifestyle over a Michael Phelps regiment. 

A racer trying his hand at the cargo race

A racer trying his hand at the cargo race.

Watching the messenger races is a bit like watching society unravel. Despite gallant efforts of Horse and his crew, the course was never clear of distractions and unplanned obstacles. The crowd at The Acheron cheered on racers even if there isn’t a clear winner.The New York NACCC saw three times the turn out of previous events and Horse believes that he knows why the competition is gowing in popularity: “Partly because of this city and partly because people saw that we were going to throw a good event. For a lot of people, this is their big trip of the year.” 

One such messenger who made the trek was San Francisco’s Christina Peck from Godspeed Courier who has won several NACCC titles. “Of course, I would like to think Godspeed Courier had a lot to do with making “Teeners” the Courier Champion she is today!” Brandon Correia, Peck’s boss, joked. “But, really, Christina has what it takes to succeed in many ways on her own. Racing the NACCCs or being a courier requires a lot of problem solving and I think Christina thrives in these situations.”

Christina Peck, brightens everyone’s day at the bicycle messenger olympics

Christina Peck brightens everyone’s day.

NACCCs races aren’t only about speed, they take a ton of planning and ingenuity to win. “Peck exemplifies the attributes of a champion messenger; smart, fast and cool-headed. She is a delivery juggernaut,” said Horse. Peck was the clear over-all winner with her puzzle-solving skills and agile maneuverability. 

The NACCC itself isn’t just a race. It’s an immersive experience into the messenger community. “The gathering has its strength because of the race. You can’t have one without the other. If it was just a messenger reunion, it would have a third of the turn-out, or if it was just serious racing it would have a third of the turn-out, but the two together means that you get three times what you would expect,” said Horse. “It is a community event, thrown for the community and people opt into that community. There is a lot of messenger culture and history outside of the event, but it always seems to get passed down in analogue form from one year to the next at NACCC.”

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