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Mike Morell with his dog Walter at the Cycle Messenger World Championships.

[This article also appears in Time Out Chicago magazine.]

Earlier this month hundreds of bike couriers from four continents converged on Chicago for the 20th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, a PBR-fueled gathering of the tribes with competitions, arts events and parties celebrating the delivery lifestyle. The centerpiece of the weekend was a checkpoint race held in the vast parking lot south of Soldier Field, simulating a day of Loop courier work. Seattle’s Craig Etheridge and Josephine Reitzel from Lausanne, Switzerland were crowned the world’s fastest messengers. We caught up with Mike Morell, 35, co-founder of Four Star Courier Collective, who was the top-ranking local at 17th place out of a field of 258.

No offense, but you look like an average Joe, not a superhero type. How is it you were the top-ranking Chicagoan?

A messenger race takes a combination of being able to ride your bike fast, but also being able to route yourself efficiently. After having done this job for twelve years I’m getting better at making decisions on the fly and that definitely helped make up for my lack of super-large legs.

Bike Snob NYC says being a messenger is like being a cowboy: it’s a job that’s still around because people want it to be around. With all the technology nowadays is it still relevant – do we still need people riding bikes carrying around envelopes and packages?

I think people will always want hard copies of things delivered. Yes, email and whatnot has certainly cut into the industry. Maybe that’s why racks are more of a thing these days, it’s larger files that can’t be so easily transmitted electronically. Food delivery has gotten a lot bigger. There’s always going to be a need and as cities become more congested bikes will always have the niche of being able to slip into tight spots and get to places quicker than other vehicles.

What’s your workhorse bike for messengering?

I have an old steel Masi road bike that I’ve been riding for the last couple of years. I enjoy riding fixed-gear but as I’ve gotten older it’s definitely easier to messenger on a bike with gears and brakes.

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Photo by Nathan Steinbach.

Are “fixies” still the default for messengering?

Less so than five years ago. Messengers these days are more into utility and comfort so you see a lot of full-fender bikes with carrying racks. There used to be a certain allure to track bikes, which has rubbed off a bit now that they’ve become so popular in the larger culture and don’t have as much of an edge anymore.

What are the perks of being a bike messenger?

It’s great to have a job where you don’t have somebody looking over your shoulder and telling you how to do the job. It’s great to be outside and get exercise. It’s not the most mentally demanding job in the world but it gives you time to think about other things. While I’m on standby I can read a book, I can do a crossword, I can do whatever I want.

What’s your favorite thing to yell at bad drivers who almost hit you?

Oh Christ. I try hard not to yell at people at work. But if somebody seems needlessly upset with the way I’m riding my bike and is honking their horn, I find a good ol’ thumbs-up is probably the best way to go, as if I’m saying, “Cool man, I got ya.” How could they get mad about that?

If nothing else, that confuses them. Any tips for secret, super-fast bike routes in the Loop that “civilians” might not be aware of?

Lower Wacker is great. You can bypass most of the busiest parts of the Loop by going down there and you can go six or seven blocks without hitting a stoplight. And if it’s a super-hot day it’s generally cooler down there, as long as you can put up with some sewer smells. I also like this route that runs from around the Sun Times building all the way down to 18th Street along some Amtrak railroad tracks. It’s probably illegal but it’s not marked as such, so you can always plead ignorance.

What are your favorite messenger hangouts?

I like to standby at the south side of the Merchandise Mart. They’ve got a rotating array of nice furniture you can sit on. After work I like Cal’s Liquors – it’s a great messenger bar at Wells and Van Buren.

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What’s the worst accident you’ve ever been in?

I was going northbound past the cab turnaround in front of 401 North Michigan. I was looking at a cab, giving them the evil eye, while still rolling forward. When I looked up there was a red light and an SUV was coming out of the turnaround. The only thing I could think to do was just fall down. The SUV ran over my bike but luckily it did not run over me. Both wheels were totally ruined and the fork got sawed off. But it was entirely my fault.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve had to deliver?

I delivered a prison mattress that was a piece of evidence going from a law firm to a courthouse. Prison mattresses aren’t very cushy so I was able to fold it three times and carry it between my bag and my back. Somebody had been stabbed on it so there were bloodstains, but fortunately it was wrapped in plastic.

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  • Jason Marshall

    How do you guys do it out there in the winter?