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[This article also appears on the environmental website Grist.orgView more photos on the Flickr group.]

Under cobalt skies last Sunday, I’m standing atop the man-made sled hill next to Chicago’s Soldier Field football stadium. To the north are the gleaming skyscrapers of the Loop business district, as well the pummeling beats of the Lollapalooza fest. To the east, ocean-like Lake Michigan is filled with bobbing sailboats. To the south, hundreds of bicycle couriers are gathered in a huge parking lot for the finals of the 20th annual Cycle Messenger World Championships, the ultimate test of two-wheeled delivery prowess.

It’s been a long, alcohol-fueled week of events celebrating the courier lifestyle, including on-street “alleycat” races, a film night, track racing and the Messenger Prom, with cyclists dolled up in cocktail dresses and pastel tuxes. Many pundits predicted that bike couriers would go the way of the Pony Express, rendered obsolete by digital technology. It’s true that email and online file sharing have cut into business since the salad days of the 1990s. But the crowd of messengers, who’ve come from as far away as Guatemala, Japan, and Australia, suggests that as cities grow more congested there may always be a place for fast, efficient, environmentally friendly bike delivery.

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Photo by Dave Schlabowske, communications director for the Bike Federation of Wisconsin.

Dozens of couriers are competing in the finals of the championships’ main race, simulating a day of work in Chicago’s Loop business district, with multiple checkpoints to visit and plenty of split-second logistical decisions to make. Many are riding sleek fixed-gear cycles, and most wear some combination of high-tech bike gear and thrift store threads. There’s plenty of brightly dyed hair, dreadlocks, piercings, and tattoos, and nearly everyone carries single- or double- strap messenger bags customized with colorful patches.

Rolling down from the hill I buttonhole a courier dressed as a giant hotdog, an unofficial symbol of this meat-obsessed city. “My favorite thing about the championships is seeing all of my friends from other places, getting drunk and racing,” says S.K., from Minneapolis. “If you’re a bike messenger sometimes it seems like everyone else in the world is a jerk and other messengers are the only people you want to hang out with.”

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He offers to sell me a copy of “The Full Package,” a pin-up calendar featuring male Minneapolis couriers in their skivvies, benefiting the 2014 North American Cycle Courier Champions in the Twin Cities. As I walk away from the human frankfurter another courier teases, “You wiener’s showing.”

At one of the checkpoint booths, longtime Chicago messenger John “Blunt” Robbins, sporting turquoise dreads, poses shirtless with his trademark banana-seat bike held over his head. “The people here are all my family,” he says. “We’re all related and we’ve all got the same mother, no matter what race, creed or color, because as messengers we’ve had the same experiences and the same difficulties.”

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These hardships include pedaling hard in heavy traffic in pouring rain, freezing cold, and this summer’s record-setting heat. Broken bones and totaled rides are common, and many couriers have war stories of near-death experiences. But while the job used to offer relatively good earning potential for “unskilled” labor, with efficient couriers making over $25,000 a year in commissions during the late ’90s, nowadays most messengers make little more than minimum wage, sans benefits.

As the checkpoint race wraps up, Yuki Ogawa hangs out on the asphalt with a dozen or so of her courier colleagues from Tokyo, which hosted the world championships in 2009. She says the challenges of messengering in her city include hard-to-find addresses, speeding motorcycles, slow-moving housewives on “mamachari” utility bikes, and taxicabs with automatic doors that can suddenly open in a cyclist’s path.

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Next the cargo race competition begins, with contestants transporting boxes, bricks, car tires and wooden pallets via trailers and specialized cargo bikes, or simply stuffing items into their courier bags and carrying them by hand. During a sprint contest the guy in the sausage suit is one of the top dogs, and the next heat features a racer who streaks in the nude, save for his bike helmet.

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Photo by Dave Schlabowske.

Afterwards courier Raphael Pfeiffer talks up next year’s championships, which will be held in his hometown of Lausanne, Switzerland. “It’s a beautiful older city with castles and cathedrals, and it’s a great party town” he says. Accordingly, hot tubs are popular there and Pfeiffer says the local courier association plans to build the world’s largest Jacuzzi for the champs.

Next is skids, with contestants on brakeless fixed-gears locking their knees to halt their tires, performing amazingly long slides on the pavement while leaning over the handlebars at a 45-degree angle to the ground. After the final trackstand competition, the couriers pedal to a nearby rock club for live-band karaoke and an awards ceremony. When the final results are tabulated the overall male and female winners are announced: Craig Etheridge from Seattle and Josephine Reitzel from Lausanne. The scruffy, sweaty, PBR-swilling crowd goes wild.

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Photo by Dave Schlabowske.

The couriers’ passion for their job is palpable, but with all the difficulties, dangers, and low pay, why do they still love it? “If you’ve got some alternative ideas about using oil and using cars in the city, being a messenger is a great way to do what you’re talking about,” explained Jérôme Demuth from Paris. “You’re outside, you’re getting exercise, it’s a rush — and it’s good f—ing work.”

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