The life and times of an American bike messenger

Jun 13, 2022
The life and times of an American bike messenger

Bike Auckland

In this guest post Justin Smith, Owner / Operator Full Cycle NYC and NZ, shares his experience as a bike messenger in some of the busiest cities in the world.

Cycling is often considered an elitist sport and I understand why. Bikes aren’t cheap and you have to be able to afford to have the time to ride them. These factors can exclude people of color, like me, an African American, as well as people from lower economic backgrounds.

When was the last time you saw a non-white person competing competitively in cycling? Yeah, it’s pretty bleak. It may be improving, but it’s only just starting to get better.

A symbol of freedom

Despite the challenges, I was riding bikes before I could even walk. I’ve always been fighting for my place in the cycling community. To me, my bike represents much more than just transportation. It’s a symbol of freedom and opportunity to meet new friends, and see new places. As an adult has become a means to support myself.

I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. By 10-years-old me and my friends had started riding BMX bikes. We would learn tricks and how to build dirt jumps and ramps out of pieces of scrap wood. I continued to ride bikes through high school. Later I attended DePaul University in Chicago, where I studied Environmental Science and worked as a cycle courier or a “bike messenger” to make ends meet.

From BMX to Bike Messenger

Justin in Chicago in the 2010s delivering for a Supermarket Co-op

Working as a bike messenger in Chicago certainly set me up for a career as a cycle courier in New York, or anywhere for that matter. Chicago has some of the harshest winters in the States and can be extremely dangerous if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. I learned the most important tricks of the trade from the veterans in courier community. Including, how to be stealth in traffic, cutting through intersections with confidence, how to get into most buildings with ease, (sometimes making relationships with security that allowed me to not have to sign in or leave my bag at the front desk) and being Chicago, I learned how to handle working outside on a bike in extreme weather conditions.

Chicago has one of the biggest bike messenger communities in the US (second only to New York City) and I would say it is mostly made up of punks and people of color so I fit in pretty well. Those were the good days in Chicago and being a messenger meant you start downtown with coffee and donuts and wait for your first job with the other messengers who are standing by at Merchandise Mart. After work we’d go to the handlebar for cheap beers or, if we were extra cheap, drink in the Alley between Illinoi St and Hubbard St.

Bike love

I have several different types of bikes, I don’t like to be pigeonholed into one type of cycling, I like them all. Fixed gear, BMX, mountain bikes, if it’s got wheels, I’m gonna shred it! In 2014 I bought my first Omnium Cargo bike from Denmark, it was one of the original models. I love Omnium and I have built four others over the years and it is amazing to watch the bikes evolve over time. I don’t have the titanium one yet but I’ll get one eventually!

Omnium is far superior to any other cargo bike in my opinion because it is designed to feel like a regular bike. It’s still a front loader but the weight sits on top of the wheel rather than behind the wheel like for the Bullitt Larry vs Harry or the other typical designs. Omnium Cargo founder Jimmi Bargisen is a veteran courier and works for a sister company By-Expressen who specialize in cargo bike courier deliveries in Copenhagen. I think the Danish really get cycling right as a whole, in terms of the way it generates community and how the whole country supports it. In Europe and other parts of the world being a cycle courier is seen as a respectable and well paid career, whereas in States and in New Zealand it is looked down upon and seen as a lower class job.

Landing in the Big Apple

Justin and wife, Leah, in New York

I moved to New York City in 2015 after attending Monster Track, one of the largest alley cat races in the world. I didn’t win but I managed to finish the entire race. I was enthralled by the vibe of New York City, and after my housing situation turned sour in Chicago I decided to make the move. I worked with a few startups who kept “restructuring” and I was always left looking for a new job.

New York is the kind of city where anything feels possible so I was pretty keen to get my own service up and running. I moved into Bushwick, Brooklyn and was delivering banana bread for a small business who was using a kitchen out of a cafe/bar. That’s where I met my future wife Leah who was a barista there.

A bike full of baguettes

In 2017 I married Leah and with her encouragement and administrative skills we officially launched Full Cycle NYC, a sustainable bike courier service based in Brooklyn. We wanted to use the Danish model with an emphasis on Cargo Bike Delivery. I’m genuinely stoked that our bikes are the most sustainable way to transport goods within dense urban areas. We started doing daily bread deliveries from a bakery in Brooklyn to a Co-op Supermarket down the street.

Man we delivered so many baguettes for them, those things sold like crazy! At peak I would have had at least 150 baguettes on my bike and I also remember a separate delivery of 300 croissants to Union Square Market.

We also quickly signed up Catbird Jewelry, doing daily round trips between their studio in Brooklyn stores and providing home/office delivery to their customers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. The company has been trucking along for five years now with a dedicated and solid customer base of like minded small businesses in Brooklyn. 

Cargo Bike Champion

Justin with his Omnium after winning 1st in the cargo race at the 2018 NAACCC.

In 2018 I won the Cargo race at the North American Cycle Courier Championship (NACCC)  in Philadelphia on my Omnium Cargo bike. NACCC is a yearly bike race hosted by a different city each year. I have attended three, the one in Chicago, in NYC and the one in Philly. It is a race where Cycle Couriers come from all over the States and the main race is designed to mimic a typical day in the life of a courier. They also have the cargo race to see who can deliver the most within the fastest times. Winning the cargo and being placed in the top 20 of the main race was definitely a highlight of my career because I had put in a lot of work the previous couple of years setting up Full Cycle and clocking over 200 miles each week so I had been training while working. To have this recognition meant a lot to me and meant all the hard work I put in had paid off.

A move down under

Covid hit in 2020, and Leah’s family encouraged us to come to New Zealand. Within a week we packed up our NYC life and came to New Zealand indefinitely. We certainly didn’t intend to stay but that’s how things worked out and now we have been back for about a year and a half. Initially our clients in New York shut down, but slowly everything opened back up and most of our clients came back. Fortunately we have been able to continue to manage Full Cycle NYC from Auckland, having a solid team on the ground holding it down in New York really makes the difference!

During lockdown last year and wondering what I would do for work here in New Zealand we realized that there were no bike courier services in Auckland, there’s a dope one in Wellington, Nocar Cargo who we absolutely love, but there was nothing going on in Auckland despite it’s traffic issues. The courier scene here is a bit different than what we are used to in the Big Apple so we decided to bring our expertise to Aotearoa.  We have launched Full Cycle NZ so hit us up with any and all delivery needs! 

From New York to Auckland

Justin isn’t fazed by the hills in Auckland

It has been a huge adjustment riding in Auckland, and honestly, I have struggled a little bit with it. Not because of the hills or riding on the opposite side of the road! I love the hills! Coming from Chicago and New York where it’s pretty flat, the volcanoes of Auckland and the hills that go along with them provide a new challenge for me as a cyclist! What I struggle with is the cycling infrastructure on the streets, which seems like it has been designed by someone who has never actually ridden a bike on a street in any other city or country.

But also its the attitude towards cyclists, from other cyclists, from drivers, from buses, from pedestrians, from every direction. One of my main issues is that there are universal codes of conduct for cyclists that are observed in every major city but it doesn’t seem to be a thing here? Like the bell for example, it is always taken as being aggressive when I use it (maybe it is taken as extra aggressive because I am a black man…) but it’s actually an important and necessary tool for a cyclist.

If you are overtaking another cyclist for example, you can yell at the person that you are there, or you could use your bell to let them know and say hi, that is literally what it is there for.

In my experience there’s often no bell or shout “on the right”. Don’t get me wrong, I love this country. I am happy to be here and have the opportunity to bring Full Cycle to New Zealand. As an outsider I can see so much potential in the future and we need to ensure cycling is part of it. I dream of Auckland being a city where cycling is embraced and enjoyed by people from all communities and backgrounds.

Everyday I hit the streets I’m doing my best to try to change the attitudes of people towards cycling and cyclists. If there is a place for me in the cycling community, surely there is a place for anyone. 

Justin doing deliveries for Beer Jerk on Auckland.

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