By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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Right now, bike messengers are supposed to ride off into the sunset along with other '90s relics like fax machines, beepers and CD players. Old Man Tim stands as a John Henry against the immense steam drill that is the Internet. He'll knock down that mountain with his legs. He's not supposed to know how to survive this, but it's apparent that he will.
"I was hoping to run the clock out with this deal, and I still am," he says as we slowly pedal amid the historic mansions in Courtlandt Place. "The law stuff used to be good gravy. Now we need to look for other gravy. Like Winston Churchill said, 'We must never surrender.' There will always be some messengers around. At least me."
Faux Go Go Go
Not all those bike messengers you see are the real thing.
• What is it like being a bike messenger? Read our writer's account of a week on the road and watch a video of Old Man Tim at work.
• Faux Go Go Go: Not all those bike messengers you see are the real thing.
• Ghost Riders: In Houston, bicycling is known as a killer sport.
Some casual observers on the streets of Houston may mistakenly believe that there are now more bike messengers than ever out and about. There aren't. Well, who then are all those people on fixed-gear bikes, wearing grungy messenger-looking clothes, with bike bags slung over their shoulders?
In a word, hipsters. And the old-school bike messengers hate them. "Fuck them all," says former messenger Butch Klotz. "And their moustaches."
Klotz backs up on that assessment a tad, but only a tad. "I'm happy that there are so many bikers here now that are tearing shit up," he says, but he remembers all too clearly his first encounter with one of these messenger replicants. He recalls the very corner he was on when it happened: Dunlavy at Westheimer. He saw a guy who looked to him like a messenger in from out of town, and as his is a close-knit international fraternity, he rode right up to introduce himself.
"So I'm like, 'Hey, what's goin' on?' and I get the fuckin' stink-eye," Klotz remembers. "The guy looked me up and down, like, 'You couldn't possibly know shit.' And I was like, 'What the fuck just happened here? You fucking turd. I'll bet you're in your car the first sign of rain.'"
Old Man Tim Bleakie shares Klotz's view. He, too, is glad more people are on bikes, but...
"They're a dime a dozen," he says. "You see them out there with their messenger bags that you can tell have never seen a rainstorm, or probably never even a package. And they usually use the sling-bags, and I've never used one of those because to me that's not really an appropriate way to be carrying things. The loads swing around, you get back problems...We call 'em coffee-shop couriers, or coffee couriers. The signature is the messenger bag." (Bleakie uses a backpack on his rounds.)
And then there's their choice of bike. Most of the old-school couriers came out of the mountain biking scene. While many have moved on to road bikes, hipsters nearly universally favor a more recent phenomenon, one that some messengers have also adopted in the last ten years. Namely, fixed-gear bikes, or "fixies": one-speeds with tiny, straight handlebars, no brakes, and the ability to be pedaled backwards and forwards.
"It's a fad, a style," declares Bleakie, who favors a road bike. "If they're on a bike, fine. If they want to ride around on the street with no brakes, be my damn guest, but don't expect to get paid if you get hit."
Bleakie also mocks the little handlebars. "They've all got those teeny straight-bars, and I'm sorry, but that's got to be the most uncomfortable and unstable way to ride you could possibly get. But if they think they're cool and they're riding their bike, man, my hat's off to 'em. I think I'm cool and I ride my bike, too."
"With that in mind," he continues, "people who ride without brakes or experience, who do it just because it's a fashion accessory, are fucking crazy."
"Some of these kids don't know how to ride them," Klotz says. [These hipsters] don't have toe-clips or clipped-in shoes. There's no recourse for hauling ass and being able to stop fast. I don't understand that."
Like many messengers, Klotz loves riding his fixed-gear. "The thought goes from your brain to your legs to your tires and to the street," he enthuses. "You get used to the rhythm of your bike. You know when you are coming up on a stop sign or an intersection that it's time to decide whether you will not make this one or you go through it. You have to adjust. Instead of bailing, you have to be real kung fu and find your way through the problem, instead of avoiding it."
The thing is, he and the other messengers on fixed-gears know what they are doing. "Now I am so absolutely tuned into it, my feet don't touch the ground except for when I get off the bike."
But the recent hipster embrace of fixed-gears has ruined some of his enjoyment.
"I can balance at a light, but I don't even do those tricks at lights anymore," he says. "Now that the words 'hipster' and 'fixed-gear' are in every fucking thing you read, I put my foot on the ground at lights so that I will look like a rookie. I'm gonna save that shiny stuff for my friends, but I don't want to give other folks a chance to lump me in with those turds."