Cover Story: Keeping Up With Old Man Tim

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, I knew I would have to learn firsthand what it is to be a bike courier. While I have been an almost daily bike commuter for over a year, I knew that my bike was not up to the task.

That bike -- which I named Sweet Jones for reasons I cannot fully explain -- is a tank. It's a black beach cruiser and though it's small in size, it's like a block of granite on wheels. I would be astonished if it weighed anything less than 50 pounds. It's too low to the ground, the saddle is comfy though wobbly, the tires are comically wide, the chain slips pretty much every day, it's a strenuous-to-pedal one-speed...I could go on and on.

As my involvement with the bike messenger continued over the course of the week, word had spread about Sweet Jones, and most of the messengers regarded her with bemused indulgence. In their view, any bike is a good bike, but mine was fit only for bar-hopping, not daily commuting or a day on the messenger grind.

Messenger Tim Bleakie seemed a little incredulous when we first met for our ride. Luckily he had arranged a rental for me for at West End Bicycles, a perennial winner in our Best of Houston issues. The bike they furnished me with was a sleek beaut -- a skinny-wheeled, blue-black, 24-speed, featherweight Lemond road bike. Keeping up with Tim would not be a problem on that sexy beast.

And to keep up with Old Man Tim, even at what I believe was his ride-down-to-the-rookie's pace, I would need all the speed and ease of pedaling it could muster. During the course of the all-day-ride, we delivered packages of former mayor Bill White's gourmet coffee everywhere from deep Montrose to the Memorial Park area to the heart of the Houston Heights, interspersed with hot-shot legal runs downtown. There is no way I could have kept within a block of Old Man Tim had I been riding Sweet Jones. It would be like chasing a thoroughbred while astride a donkey.

Along the way, my riding style changed. Where I once hugged the sidewalks, especially downtown, Old Man Tim taught me not to fear the main lanes. I now zip through downtown like a real messenger. It's probably a little safer; what's more, it's legal. (Riding on sidewalks is illegal in Houston's business districts, though the ordinance is fitfully enforced.)

At the end of the day, it was decided that I would ride the Lemond home and keep it overnight. What's more, since the last package of coffee was on my way home, I would deliver it myself. Bleakie handed me the coffee and a manifest to have signed, and off I went. Turns out the delivery was to Gracie Saenz, Houston's former mayor pro tem and City Council member. Friendly as can be, she let me in the gate to her Washington Corridor-area condo and asked me a little about how I liked my job. I told her I wasn't really a courier -- I was a writer for the Houston Press. She laughed as she signed my manifest and let me back out of the gate.

But if I were not a writer for the Houston Press, and if there was money enough in it to support a family, I certainly would love to be a bike messenger, trials of the job be damned. It certainly would be a shame for the Internet to cause this whole way of life to go the way of most record stores and increasingly, bookshops too.

And this week's feature just might have you thinking the same way....

And by the next day, I was so in love with the Lemond, I called my wife and begged her to buy it for me for Christmas. (Bleakie had been egging me on, saying that anybody who rode 15 miles a day deserved a much better ride than Sweet Jones.) My wife called West End, who gave her a very good deal, and so now the Lemond is in my stable too. She's fast, but I'm still learning how not to flatten those delicate tires.

Sweet Jones is now relegated to backup duty, a semi-retirement she so richly deserves after her year of faithful, if plodding, persnickety and downright donkey-like service. In point of fact, the Lemond has a flat right now so it was Sweet Jones who brought me to work today.

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