“Your bag is smoking! I think it’s on fire!”
The racer pulls off his bag, and takes out the smoldering box, which he had just picked up from checkpoint 5. They both stomp on the box, and shove it back into the racers bag. “Those fuckers at the bus put a firecracker in my package before they gave it to me, and it blew up in my bag!”
I laugh to myself for a minute, until I realize that I am headed to checkpoint 5 next. Having been a messenger in Chicago for the past three years, I am used to putting up with some nonsense while trying to do my job. Chicago has the strictest, most time consuming, demeaning building security procedures in the United States. The race designers wanted to try to recreate this with checkpoint 5, so the racers from other parts of the country could get a taste of what it’s like to be a messenger in Chicago. I pull up to the checkpoint and lock my bike behind the line per the security guards instructions.
“Lets see some ID.”
Luckily I am wearing the same pants I wore for work the day before, and my ID card is in the front pocket. I produce the ID card, and after a few “yes, sir’s” and “thank you, sir’s”, I am at the table in front of the Cuttin’ Cruiser. After waiting for one of the checkpoint workers to draw a remarkably accurate picture of a penis on my box with a Sharpie, I am off. That wasn’t too bad. I make a few drops, and turn in my manifest, barely making it into one of the last qualifying positions for the final the next day.
At first glance, it is hard to believe that this is the National Championships for arguably the hardest working professional athletes in North America. Even though there are very loose guidelines for course design, and the host city is free to throw just about anything they want at the racers, only select cities are capable of hosting the NACCC’s. Most of the racers are professional bike messengers, who work at the same level year round, in all weather conditions. There is no chance to rest up and heal in the off-season, because there is no off-season. Bruises, cuts, sprains and strains come with you to work every day until they heal on their own. The majority of the racers worked all week on their bikes, only to then get on a plane bound for Chicago to race over the weekend. Amid the chaos and confusion on the race course, and the rampant partying and carnival-like atmosphere among the checkpoints and spectators, a dramatic story is unfolding among the racers. Much as they rise above adversity in the streets of their home cities, all of the top contenders to win the 2008 North American Cycle Courier Championship have made the cut, and are ready for Sunday.
The final round would have the traditional Le Mans start for the 50 racers who made the cut in the previous days race. After giving it all on the course the day before, then running a successful campaign with my girlfriend to win King and Queen at Messenger Prom on Saturday night, I was happy just to make it to the starting line Sunday morning. Our bikes are laid down and locked in the order that we qualified the day before, with Chicago’s own Mike Gipson coming out of nowhere the previous day to take the pole position. We all mill around the Chrome sponsored start/finish area waiting for our final instructions from Augie, and finally we receive the order to “GO!”
The sound of a hundred cleated bike shoes running across the pavement fills the air along with the shouts and catcalls from the spectators and racers who didn’t make the cut the day before. The racers all scramble to unlock our bikes, grab the manifest out of the spokes of our rear wheels, and take off toward the first checkpoint. There are only a couple different versions of the manifest, and you have to do the pickups in order, so the first couple of checkpoints are crowded and hectic. The checkpoint workers take it all in stride, though.
Checkpoint #1, Pabst Blue Ribbon, is run by a couple girls who are PBR reps. The duo make you lock your bike to a fence, but are very friendly and seem to be having a really good time. The Chicago Couriers Union at checkpoint 3, and Chicagoland Bicycle Federation at checkpoint 2 are both run very efficiently and businesslike. I kept waiting for drama to come out of checkpoint 4, Trackstar/Dynamex, but it never does. It seems funny to me that one of the biggest messenger companies in the US got paired up with Trackstar. One of the big bosses from Dynamex is helping run the checkpoint, looking very business casual in a Dynamex polo shirt and khaki shorts next to the Trackstar workers, who have been pounding beers since the late morning. Checkpoint 5, 4-Star/Breakaway has streamlined their policy for the final day, but it is still a pain. You have to lock your bike up behind the bus after checking in with a guard in a banana suit, the check in with the guards at one table, the go to another table to receive or drop your package. Checkpoint 6, Upgrade/Continuum is at the top of a small hill. Most racers dismount and run up the stairs to this checkpoint, but a few are able to ride off-road through the mud to the top. Checkpoint 7, Yojimbos/Velocity is the furthest checkpoint from everything else on the course. They seem genuinely happy to see a racer every time one comes through. Checkpoint 8, Seagull bags is probably the fastest checkpoint on the course. They get you in and out in no time. The final checkpoint #9, Freight/Chuey, is very laid back. They have set up among some bushes by the edge of the lagoon, and a lot of SF and Portland people are hanging around this checkpoint everytime I come through.
The race starts to fall apart for me almost from the start. Unlike the previous day, when I didn’t really make any mistakes, I get on the wrong loop while I am on my first manifest. This means that I have to do a complete lap around the whole course to get back on track, because the entire course is one-way, and you can’t double back if you miss something. I decide to drink some water and regroup for a second. I think back to Messenger Prom the night before, one of the biggest parties I have ever been to. Over 600 people showed up. I barely remember the end of the night. It ended with someone poking me with a polo mallet and waking me up on the sidewalk in front of the Bottom Lounge wearing my crown and custom “Prom King” Chrome bag. I found the Queen, and went back to her apartment to get a couple hours of sleep before coming back out to the park for the race final.
I finally finish my second manifest, and move on to the third. For a while, I end up working on the same part of the manifest as my good friend Marco from Philly. I follow him around for a few checkpoints, admiring the smoothness and efficiency that comes with being a veteran bicycle messenger. Kym Perfetto flies by me at one point. She yells to another racer that she is in fourth. As I pass by the start/finish line, I realize that the Chrome tent must have run out of manifest #4s. This was planned by the race organizers to clear off the course for the top contenders. There are a limited number of manifest #4s, and even less #5s. The only people left on course at this point are the leaders, who already have manifest 4, and a few stragglers like me who are still trying to finish manifest #3. I slow down even more, and decide to just enjoy my last couple laps of the 2008 NACCCs. I can’t win the DFL prize either. Marc Daniels from DC has that in the bag. He has been working on his first manifest all day. Every time he passes the start/finish line, Billy from Chrome hands him a beer. After the first couple of beers, Marc tells Billy that the beers are too cold. Can’t he find him some warm ones? Being the last day in August, this isn’t a problem, and the next time around Billy hands him an 80-degree can of Pabst.
I finally make it to the Chrome tent with my third manifest complete. Handing it in, I am told that I am finally done. Thank God. Shortly after, Marc comes through again trying to complete his last lap. Billy hands him his fourteenth hot beer, and everyone waiting at the start finish line screams for him to keep going. At this point, Marc has a crazy look in his eyes, but he continues on.
The course has been cleared of slower racers by now, and the stage is set for the top contenders to battle. There is a lot at stake for the winners. Bike frames, bags, wheel sets, and a trip to Tokyo for the 2009 Worlds are all on the line. Everyone watching goes nuts as the top two riders come for the finish. It’s Fergus Tanaka from San Francisco and Austin Horse from New York. After five manifests, 45 packages picked up and delivered, about 50 miles of racing over three hours, the race comes down to a sprint finish. Austin noses out Fergus for the 2008 NACCC win. It is pretty amazing witnessing the skill and strength of the NACCC winners. The average messenger does about 25 deliveries and rides about 30 miles in an eight-hour workday. The NACCC winners have done almost twice that in about three hours. Shortly after the top two come in, the rest of the racers come in for the finish. Craig Roth from Boston takes third place, and Kym Perfetto from New York takes fourth overall and top female. The rest of the top ten was: Andrew Nordyke and Nico West from Chicago in 5th and 6th. A former Chicago messenger, now from San Francisco, Mike (Deuce) Gill in 7th. JoJo Reeder took 8th place for NYC. The Chicago Cuttin’ Crew’s own Stanley Schultz took 9th place overall and the top citizen prize. Chad Rice from Milwaukee rounded out the top ten.