Meet the "Fixie," a type of bicycle favored by those in the cooler echelons of the bike-messenger hierarchy. A fixie--or fixed-gear bike--is designed for track racing. It has just one large cog in front and one small cog in back, meaning it has only one gear: high. There are no brakes, and there is no coasting. Your pedal speed matches the speed of the bike, or you fall. To stop, you pull backward on the pedals--like on a kid's dirt bike--and hope you don't lose control.

It takes a certain type of person to enjoy riding a bike with one gear and no brakes through downtown Seattle, up and down the hills, in and out of traffic, all day long, delivering documents and packages and settlement checks. It would be a person unworried about damaging his or her knees. A person unconcerned by a lack of safety features. Someone who likes a grueling job being made even harder, who is motivated by a logic of bravado and purity (the more challenge, the more risk, and the fewer accoutrements between me and my bike, the better).

Seattle is already home to a considerable number of these fixie devotees, and this weekend that number will increase exponentially as the Cycle Messenger World Championships come to town. The event, which hops to a new messenger capital each year, will bring hundreds of messengers from all over North America and Europe, and a few from places as far away as Japan, to Seattle for four days of competition and partying, beginning Thursday, September 11.

For the fixie riders among them, tests of jumping, skidding, balancing motionless (as if at a stoplight), riding in backward circles, slaloming, and flat-out sprinting will lead to the crowning of the overall fixie champion. Which raises the question: What is this all about?

A test of skill, for sure, but also the ingathering of a culture not easily understood by the world in which it operates.


When two years ago I left a desk job to spend a summer as a bike messenger, people around the office I was leaving all wanted to know the same thing: Why? They looked worried. Some told me I was making a big mistake. Others asked if I had a death wish.

I had a wish, but that was not it.

"Most people never know their true boundaries," says A. J., an elder Seattle messenger (he is 29), explaining the job's draw. "That's one thing I'm attracted to about messengering. Constantly knowing my boundaries, constantly knowing your limits. I think through messengering you can really find out a lot about who you are. I think that's one of the reasons it's attractive to young twentysomethings."

I was a young twentysomething leaving a job in a concrete box, and that was precisely my wish: to test boundaries, to see how far I could go in a new line of work that I saw as the antipode of corporate climbing. The messengers--some of whom were also looking for an anti-corporate hideout, but many of whom were simply there to enjoy riding a bike all day--took me in. I received a company-issue mountain bike, was paid $9 an hour, and nurtured a fantasy of rebellion.

As a way of washing out the soul-clogging accretions of several years spent in an office, the job worked quite well.


You walk in and out of glass towers all day, observing a world you are glad to have opted out of. You ride in elevators with office workers, but then you get back on your bike and blow through red lights and hop curbs and split lanes, passing commuters in SUVs crawling through rush-hour traffic. You move among corporate types, but you are not of them: You smell. Your calves rock. You wear cargo shorts that need ass patches from all the saddle wear. And your colleagues are not team players. They are individualists: painters and students and misanthropes and musicians, people who sometimes come to work stoned, people who sweat alcohol on certain mornings, people who say things such as, "I had to cut my partying short on Sunday to recover from Thursday." Your office is called "base" and the base is filled with bike racks and shoulder bags, a place where staff meetings are BYOB.

When you are out picking up and dropping off in real offices, what you observe tends not to make you wish for a speedy return to office life.

In elevators, you hear:

"When the market's down 1500 points in five weeks it's kind of nice to go home and remember what's important, huh?"

"How do you like your new job?"

"It's good. It's a huge change from misdemeanors. How's felonies going?"

On the walls of office-building corridors, you see signs that read:

Executive Diversity Services

Matrix Insurance Marketing

Contemporary Services Corp.

Office of Information Management

Übermind, Inc.

Inside offices, you come across scenes of quiet desperation and absurdity:

At King's Collections, located in a dingy basement suite in Chinatown, a man is asleep beneath his desk.

In a downtown high-rise, a secretary answers the phone: "Good afternoon, Garvey, Schubert and Barer... Did you want Junior or the Third?... Okay, just a moment please."

At a law firm on an upper floor of a high skyscraper, inside a glass conference room that looks out over Elliott Bay, men are leaning back in their big leather chairs laughing boisterously while their stenographer is hunched busily over her machine. At this moment, I wonder, is she writing, "...LAUGHTER..."?

At a bland office on Fourth Avenue, a pale secretary sits bathed in fluorescent light, her skin the sickly pallor of the ceiling tiles above her. She listens to a clock radio, the volume turned down so that she does not disturb the silence beyond her tiny space. The song on the radio is "Footloose."


It is a great way to look at life on the inside, but eventually I found there was a limit to the pleasures of playing the self-satisfied anthropologist observing the daily grind. I came to realize something my messenger coworkers already knew: However cool and freeing the work, however depressing the lives you see inside the towers, being a courier is in the end a job with a grind all its own--low pay, physical pain, and meager benefits.

The idea that being a messenger places you in a space untainted by corporate culture is, in the end, a fantasy. What's really going on is symbiosis: The corporations need the messengers, the messengers need the corporations. The existence of the office tower leads, indirectly, to the existence of a culture in which the fixie is king, to the very possibility of a Cycle Messenger World Cham- pionships (sponsored by Pabst).

In my quest that summer for the outer limits, I stopped somewhere far short of the fixie. Somewhere around September, when the rains started to come. Sometime after the realization that there were some good things about offices (roofs, for instance), and some good people inside of them.

Which is not to say that I ever stopped looking up to the messengers in whose trade and limit-pushing culture I had found temporary refuge. They strove for an ideal worth chasing on any level: The more challenge, the more risk, and the fewer accoutrements, the better.

The Cycle Messenger World Championships run Thurs Sept 11 through Sun Sept 14. For event listings and locations go to www.