[messengers] Rider on the storm: A rookie bike courier's first winter on the road

Date: 26 Feb 2011 16:41:38 +0100
From: Joe Hendry <messvilleto@xxxxxxxxx>


Rider on the storm: A rookie bike courier's first winter on
the road


February 24, 2011 , CityNews.ca


By Michael Talbot

 

They are bold, at times abrasive, and always seemingly in a
race against the clock. For bike couriers in Toronto, time is money, and come
the winter months earning an honest wage becomes a war of attrition.  In this feature article we find out how a
middle-aged rookie rider survived his first stormy season on the streets.

It was the kind of day that would have tested the mettle and
endurance of a finely honed athlete. 

John McFadden, a 48-year-old smoker with a propensity for
pints, didn't quite fit the bill.  But
after a lost summer of jobless torpidity he jumped at the chance to put in some
honest work when a local bike courier company called him up in September, saying
they needed an extra body on an unusually heavy day.    

 

McFadden applied for the job a few months earlier, figuring
it would be a good way to earn some extra cash while burning off the pounds
he’d accumulated in front of the television. After all, he reasoned, he had a
bicycle and was accustomed to navigating the city streets.   

 

He would soon learn that the differences between a bike
rider and bike courier are monumental. 

 

“I probably did somewhere between 60-80 deliveries that very
first day," he recalled, saying it was the hardest work he'd even
done.  "I thought, 'Oh my god, what
have I gotten myself in to?' "

 

What he had gotten himself into is an inherently dangerous
profession that during peak times employs roughly 500 people. According to some
estimates, that number drops to less than 150 once December rolls around and
the risks start to far outweigh the monetary rewards - when temperatures
plummet, the roads are slick with ice, and a split second mistake can have
dreadful ramifications. 

 

McFadden, known to his friends as "Johnny Mac,"
was in deep.  He was approaching 50, out
of shape, out of his element -- and winter was right around the corner.  

 

 

Fast forward to February. 
Six months and 20 pounds have melted away since that first day on the
job for McFadden.   Against the odds,
he’s still at it. 

 

“As far as I knew it was going to be a one-day deal and I've
been there ever since --- and that was in late September.”

 

The learning curve has been steep.  There have been collisions with vehicles,
heated confrontations with cabbies, misplaced packages, and torturous stretches
where titanic physical efforts have barely earned him minimum wage.   

 

“There’s been days, particularly when I started, I was this
close to calling in and saying, 'I’m done, I can’t ride anymore.'  But I never did that.  I’ve kept riding.”

 

Despite his tenacity and dedication, McFadden admits he
hasn’t found acceptance in the community of hardcore couriers, with whom he
rarely socializes.  According to
McFadden, newcomers to the profession are eyed with suspicion.  

 

“Some of these long-time guys kind of look down their noses
at the people that they know are relatively new to the business.”

 

Still, he defends his two-wheeled brethren. 

 

“There is a reputation of hard-living, hard-riding,
drinking, perhaps indulging in a few other things.  I think there's some people who live that
life, but there's lots of others that don't.”

 

“I see no reason whatsoever that bike couriers should be
looked down upon.  We are providing a
needed service.”

 

A winter storm has blanketed Toronto.  It didn’t quite reach the epic proportions
first projected, but it’s still a significant snowfall.  Schools are closed and most drivers have
heeded warnings to stay off the roads. 
But in Toronto’s Financial District, where the bulk of bike deliveries
are made, there's no such thing as a snow day.

 

Before McFadden heads out on his bike that morning, I attach
a small camera to his helmet.  When he
returns at the end of a long day, he’s exhausted and miserable.  His back is aching and he laments the lack of
progress he made on the snowy streets. 

 

"There's no f****n money in this business, I ride and I
ride and I ride,” he says, sounding somewhat defeated.  

 

I buy him a beer and he sinks into the couch at a downtown
pub.  He’s so tired he doesn’t even reach
to sip the complimentary brew for a good five minutes.   

 

Johnny Mac, like 90 per cent of bike couriers, is considered
an independent contractor.  He’s paid a
commission on every package he delivers and inclement weather severely hampers
his earning potential.

 

“We’re paid by the delivery,” he tells me, his beer still
untouched.  “We get 60 per cent of every
delivery we do.  So clearly on a day like
today, you’re just not gong to be able to get around as quick as you would on a
normal day…you’re not going to have a big money day, there’s just no way that
can happen.”

 

The nature of the job and its pay structure seems to promote
the type of risky riding that’s helped couriers earn a collective reputation as
daredevils of the road.  

 

“There’s no doubt that the faster you ride the potential to
make more money is there,” he admits. 
“That’s why you see these guys racing like they do, these guys are dead
serious and they don’t allow anything to slow them down.”

 

Where does that leave a 48-year-old rookie rider who is well
past his physical prime?   Like a cagey
veteran boxer who neutralizes speed and youth with the so-called tricks of the
trade, McFadden has found ways to compensate, not all of them legal.  

 

“What I lack in sheer speed that the 20 year old’s have, I
make up for in breaking every rule of the road. I'm [exaggerating], but we do,”
he admits. 

 

“But if there's people on the sidewalk I hop off the
bike.  I’m very careful around
pedestrians, extremely careful about pedestrians.   I've been pulled over by the police twice,
both times with just a lecture if you will. 
They don't care if you're courier, in fact it might work against you
because of the reputation.”

 

McFadden asks me not to delve into the details of his
previous career, but he will reveal that it was sedentary work, and the pay was
much higher. 

 

“It's not a big money making business for the delivery
people.  A bad day would be $50,” he
adds. 

“And a really good day would be $100.”

 

He finally takes a sip of his beer and stares blankly ahead
- the long day’s struggle finally over, but the punishment on his mind and body
still reverberating. 

 

"If you're f******n honking at me I'll just f****n ring
your neck.  F**k you, f**k off!”  McFadden screams at a cabbie who is blasting
his horn at him after he loses traction on a slippery street and edges
dangerously close to traffic.  

 

McFadden catches up to the cabbie and they exchange heated
words before offering half-hearted apologies and parting ways.

 

It’s all captured on the helmet cam he agreed to wear during
the season’s most significant winter storm (video below).  

 

"I try to show motorists the same respect that they
show me, which at times is not very much,” he snickers.  “I don't want to brand all cabbies as people
who don't respect cyclists but I've had more run-ins with cab drivers than
anybody else.”

 

The footage reveals how the daily grind is exasperated by
the bad weather.  There’s plenty of
breathless profanities directed at drivers, Mother Nature, and himself.

 

He explodes when his chain falls off while heading towards
the Financial District to make a delivery. 

 

“Oh my god!,” he screams. 
“You piece of s**t bicycle!”

 

We also see the mundane elevator rides and hear the
cantankerous, omnipresent dispatcher barking over the radio.

 

“When they get on that radio it’s almost part of the job
description to be grumpy and angry,” he laughs.

 

At one point, McFadden takes a brief break to order a
sandwich.  When he’s informed that the
item he wants isn’t available, his impatience becomes evident.  The slightest delay seems to fill him with
anxiety.  After all, time is money. 

 

“Clearly there are no scheduled breaks and no lunch breaks,
I’ve gone days without a coffee or a lunch, it’s just that busy,” he
stresses.  “I can stop and have a coffee,
but it’s money out of my pocket and it frustrates the owner/dispatcher.”

 

There are, however, parts of the job that he loves.

 

“There’s something that makes you feel satisfied about
getting something from A to B.  It got
there on time, you got the signature and somebody is happy that you got it
there,” he says.  “I mean there’s lots of
jobs out there where nobody ever notices that you are doing your job.  This is a job where people notice that you
got your package to them on time.”

Another perk? 

“I’m answerable to the owner of the company who is also a
dispatcher, and other than that I don’t really answer to anybody.”

 

Johnny Mac clearly remembers the way some of his former
colleagues reacted when they found out he was a bike courier.  

 

"I essentially got stunned silence from them.”

 

Some may regard his foray into manual labour and
comparatively paltry paycheques as a step backwards, but McFadden has never
been prouder of himself.

 

“I think it says a lot about my work ethic and my gumption
that I would take this job, do this job and then become pretty good at it. I’ve
learned that I still have that intestinal fortitude, that I’ve still got the
guts and still got the drive," he explains.

 

“I’ve gone down and been hurt, but I dust myself
off, get up and carry o


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