Happy is the Messenger
Photos and words by Ryan Le Garrec
HAPPY IS THE MESSENGER
NO GPS, NO DEVICES
No GPS, no Strava, no smartphone, no device if only an old Nokia burner. No Macbook in the bag but a map book that rarely makes it out. After ten years on the streets, Karadama a.k.a. Karl Heinz Pohl knows the client list and all their locations well enough. He knows enough shortcuts and safe ways to make his day smooth rolling, dodging delays, anticipating complications, chasing any trouble out of his way. You’ll rarely see him hammer but when he does it’s with this emergency motto in his head “it had to be done yesterday”, that kind of speed.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
I met Kardama seven years ago. Or maybe a first encounter happened way before that when he was selling those CDs out of his bag with a minidisc player. Long story short. I was shooting a report on the film “Brussels Express”. I had just gotten a bike, I was obsessed with it and everything related to cycling in the city -New shops, new ideas, the hype of the fixie, messengers, bike polo, you name it. I started the report with him, interview with the director and screening came after. I was already fascinated by this weird Finnish guy. The TV was also one of Pedal’s clients so I often saw him passing by the office with his aura and samurai style- all black, shorts, tights, helmet, big bag, pouch on the hip, phone in holster, that kinda New York thing and his young but already old sailor face, skin battled by the winds and salt, he was ahead of the hype, beyond the hype, the real deal. I think many people also saw something in him. Probably Karel, his young Flemish associate was the first. “Karel was the best thing that could ever happen to me when starting Pedal, we had our share of fixie hipsters wanting to be cool and hammer around the city once we were started but Karel was for real, he meant business, reliability and true dedication. He was the first rock.”
We did that interview and it was obvious that we were getting along fine. I will never forget how he described the pleasure of cycling, the feeling of freedom, the incredible alchemy between man and bike.
A few days later we met on the road, I was so in love with the idea of bike messengering that when my girlfriend needed something to go around, she’d never hesitated to ask me. That day I was bringing a little package from where she worked to someplace I can’t remember. Kardama asked me almost on the spot if bike messenger was a part-time job I would consider.
My first shift happened not later than two weeks after this encounter. Lander, another rider and associate at the time gave me the best advice ever, “be the turtle, never mind the hare” which is funny considering he was probably both at the same time, fast as the hare and sharp as the turtle!
I fell in love with the job instantly on a cold rainy day.
DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER
A bike messenger is probably the best job in the world. You will never meet an express messenger who works for the money (there is no rich messenger). You will never meet a messenger who’d rather make tons of money and sit at some desk. Actually, you might even never ever meet a messenger who is not happy, that’s why I use the expression “happy like a messenger” on my happiness scale.
I think i had my share of cool jobs, I am a filmmaker, I worked on a world tour with a rock band and before that as a photograph/artist/scenographer and video maker in Sweden in my early twenties. I’ve worked on festivals and movie sets in various countries around Europe, waking up in places without remembering which town I was in.
But believe you me, nothing beats a hard messenger day under the rain by freezing temperatures with a chain that breaks, flat tyres, crazy emergencies and hard hills, with pollution invading your lungs and colouring your skin, with barely enough time to rush out of a supermarket and eat your sandwich on the bike while riding express deliveries, hoping you’ll get to pee at some point in the day, while looking for an address in the middle of a “docking station”, being rushed on the side of the road by lorries and hammering among hateful cabs and oblivious buses, avoiding near crashes with pedestrians or opening doors. The kick you’ll get is impossible to explain.
There is a romantic aspect to the job, you hang out on the streets, you eat the weather, you suck the traffic, you fly over stillness and rush hour is a minute to your eyes. You get to know every corner of the city, homeless and beggars recognize you and say hi with a wink, actually you feel a little like them, so much time on the streets between the luxurious lawyers offices with skyscraper views, the fashion designers, the production companies, the radio stations, all these fancy places that see you rush through wet, dirty and happier than most, feeling like some Jack Kerouac character on an exotic adventure in the middle of every day’s bustling hustle.
A SLOW CITY
Brussels is a slow city, on many levels, trends and new business seem to take more time here. The e-cigarette was booming in Paris and London and still looked really weird down here, Tamagoshi hardly ever made it and pokemon-go trip still struggles. It’d be ok if only local businesses would understand that yes, a bike is the fastest way to get something from A to B in Europe’s most congested city, a slow city. Ten years ago, when Pedal was founded by Karl and Karel (Rowies) people thought Pedal Bxl was a bike shop. So much that one day, Karl’s bike -a fixie with no brake – got stolen. A few minutes later the Pedal Dispatch phone was ringing with an unhappy “customer” who wanted to add brakes and “unblock the pedals” on his bike. Let’s just say the shop looked weird and the welcoming cops was a bit of a shock; one should never underestimate the unpredictability of stupidity! I’ve seen Karl’s bike getting stolen at least five times once even in front of me- the thief was so uncomfortable on Karl’s track bike that we caught him just a hundred meters away. Somehow his bike never got far enough and a bit like a trustworthy horse would always come back to its owner. It’s now part of the Cycling Museum of Brussels, where maybe thieves will find it easier to get.
The fixie days are long gone, replaced by a luxurious pair of sponsors: Ritchey replaced the no sponsor fixies and Katusha replaced the cheap B-Twin jerseys and Dunlop golf shorts purchased at a discount at Sports Direct.
However Pedal had its share of slippery slopes on wet cobbles with a disastrous collaboration with FEDx that almost got them out of business and the arrival of highly non-ethical food delivery businesses. But if you value a company on its people, on the number of packages they receive from people wanting to work for them and on its street credibility, Pedal is by far one of the most successful entrepreneurial ventures in the last ten years. Just second to Pokemon Go . And Kardama won’t even argue about the ecological aspect of bike messaging: “We ride bikes but honestly just because it’s faster than anything and we love to do it. It’s only convenient if cycling meets some ecological aspect too, it’s almost an accident! We’re just passionate cyclists.”
The essence of Kardama’s strategy is to dodge delays like a quarterback avoids tackles, to anticipate troubles and at all cost and at all times to keep a clear communication. “When rookies start their first shift, they always think they have to hammer over anything when the real deal is to keep clear communication and always make sure the dispatch knows exactly what you are up to. I don’t care if a messenger is slow as long as we know what’ s going on, you can’t be faster than miscommunication in this job. No matter how fast you are if you missed an easy pick on the way, you re sabotaging the whole operation”
Thursdays can be busy, today’s no exception. The phone rings for a tricky pickup, far south and out of town. It’s all under control until a long phone call with a prospecting client blocks K. on a corner for ten minutes, then he jumps back on the bike and he turns his head around towards me: “Now it’s almost like it had to be done yesterday!” And when I see him stand on the pedals and show me he’s going left while putting his head down, I know the next shots are gonna be blurry at best. We reach a street along the canal, I get a few shots, I look down at the camera to close the iris a bit more and when I look up he’s already more than thirty meters away. Fifteen minutes later, not one shot has made but quite some drops of sweat on my lense…
Picking a package out of town is a tricky situation, for a moment you are out of reach, useless. Where you are going, there will most likely be no pick or drop and so the other guy in town is stuck on his own. Should something urgent come up he’s left alone and exposed, in the line of fire. So K. has it in his spine that no matter the level of emergency he now has to “get his ass back in the safe zone as fast as possible “ dodging delays, but K. just keeps swimming against the current and gets himself back in the center while texting dispatch and making sure all remains under control. We are back uptown in the safe zone and steady, I’m catching my breath.
We have been cruising two hours now, left and right dance of avoiding main axes and busy routes, I have come now to realize that today we have not yet encountered one stop, one red light or any kinda slowing down, cruising at a slow pace but never stalling. When you learn the job with K. you learn the art of cruising efficiently through the city, it can be more efficient than blasting from red light to red light in a dense traffic…
ALPHABETICAL ORDER (if only!)
K’s job sounds so simple.
Pick A Deliver it at B.
Then comes C and D.
C pick up is on way to B, perfect.
D is a bit far up north but no worries, you got time, it s a “green” (under three hours)
Oh and now there is E and F, exclusive (less than an hour)
E is near B so pick it up after delivering A maybe…
now G has called and needs a package to be picked at H and del at I.
I is near C so pick it after delivering B and picking C, I is on your way just a bit before F (you still on time for that exclusive!)
Now comes L,M,N and O, all need to be picked and go to P,Q,R and S.
L is near D, perfect, now remember that M pick up is in that weird old parking lot but don’t get it wrong, don’t take the red door, it’s the blue door.
O is near F, pick it first after the drop.
Are you still on time to deliver E at F?
Cause there is this new client T who wants you to go pick U and bring it back to T. U is near M, you can pick it before N.
might have to explain to him how we work and bill, give him some bons and a flyer.
ok, on it, now delivering G which is I.
got a flat? it’s raining? copy, had no lunch?
wait! U and V exclusives to W and X.
When you are done with all this, there are a few cargo rides from downtown to uptown, you’ll need to switch bike and get on Bullit, they are over 80 kg loads, let’s hope you don’t get exclusive rides while on the heavy bike!
This would be ok with a dispatch sitting behind a computer but it turns out that there is no such role in Pedal and the dispatch is always on the road, the days I follow K., he’s also the dispatch.
that Friday, I came to find K talking with Zjef and Sven, Zjef (with the glasses) has a blown up knee. He needs replacement on Monday, Sven is overworked, seems my immersion is taking another turn.
The next Monday is a rainy Monday, I’ll most likely get zero shot and hopefully I will do no mistake, am back on duty for a micro shift to make Sven and K’s life a bit lighter. Haven’t been on express for way too long, missed it way too much. monday, December 3rd, 5 hours micro shift, from 10 am to 3 pm, kinda rush hour, weather forecast, kinda rough, rain and wind. Now, all that nonsense about the beauty of rain and cold days being great for a messenger is turning back on me, am in the line of fire and have to “real proof” all my romantic writing!
BACK AND FORTH
In seven years I’ve been in and out of Pedal. Sometimes out for a year or more but somehow always back at some point. Coming back again for that replacement was a smooth blast, it was rain and winds but not too cold, all the pickups seemed to be like a giant magnet coming at me on my way all the time, lucky, very lucky till my last drop and some corner that got me on the ground , I finished my smooth shift with a slight crash. Something had to happen.
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