(Image: John Trotter)
For a brief moment, I peep over the shoulders of the man they call "Horse." I feel like screaming "F ......" but instead I bite my tongue, pedal as hard as I can and give serious thought to just closing my eyes. The speedometer on my handlebars shows 25 mph, my pulse is pounding against my temples and the man in front of me, whose passport is actually issued in the name of Austin Horse, is gunning straight for a narrow gap between a cab and bus that is rapidly closing.
I would never ride my bike through Manhattan like this, but Horse is the best messenger in town, a master of his trade. He is a two time US champion, came in second in the messenger worlds last year and only because he received a penalty. This year he's going for the rainbow. So I decide to put my fate into his hands and trust that I'll survive, if I just do what he does.
Of course Horse doesn't hit his brakes. He has no brakes. His bike is a custom fixie, tailored by a small Brooklyn workshop to only one thing: speed. Instead, he accelerates by picking up his cadence to well over a 100 rpms. His crank is now whirling like the blades of a chopper, with the New York autumn sun dancing in the spinning metal. With barely three inches of space to the left and right he slips in between the vehicles, gently padding the cab on the hood as he whizzes by, as if to push him out of the way. And indeed, the Pakistani driver understands the signal, slightly veers to the left, giving me just enough space so my pedals won't scratch his door.
It's a suicide mission to try to hold Horse's wheel, even for a seasoned New York City bike commuter. Within a mile of gunning down Broadway – the average distance of one of his deliveries- death lurks at least half a dozen times. A delivery truck passes on the left and cuts off our line by abruptly pulling to the right. He never even sets his lights. The traffic roars past our shoulders by only inches, when suddenly a 10 inch deep pothole opens up in front of us. Next – a pedestrian jumping onto the street from between parked cars, without even looking up from his cell phone conversation.
New York traffic is still a deeply hostile environment for cyclists, even after mayor Bloomberg's genuine efforts to make the city more bicycle friendly.
But Austin Horse is a different kind of animal than the rest of us. Horse is perfectly adapted to this environment, he moves around it like a shark around the ocean.
The essence of his art of survival is to stay in perpetual motion. Horse has perfected this technique. That's why he's the best.
When Horse is bombing toward a busy Manhattan intersection and the light turns red he slows down ever so slightly by stemming his legs against the inert force of his pedals – just enough to get a quick glance at what's coming from the side. Now there are two options: to swoosh across the intersection between two cars; or, if traffic is too dense, to make a turn and recalculate the route. The worst case scenario is to have to come to standstill and wait in a trackstand until a space opens up that is big enough to weave through. But that rarely happens to Horse.
When Austin Horse tries to explain his art, he likes to talk about the „flow" of the city. He explains that Manhattan traffic has it's own rhythm, it*s own beat. In order to survive on a bike you have to feel that rhythm, he says, you have to absorb it's energy – like a surfer using the the power of a wave. „You don't want to resist the flow. Then it will break you. But if you read it right, it becomes easy."
When he catches that wave, Horse says, it*s a rush, a high. It makes him feel like he owns the city. „I just see people sitting in their cars not going anywhere and not even knowing why while I'm moving around at 30 mph however and wherever I please. I'm in total control."
Of course the whole thing is a walk on a tightrope. The wave can collapse on top of you at any moment. Just a few weeks ago Austin was hit by cab which, on top of grounding him, ran over his ankle. Miraculously he didn't get hurt. A colleague of his at „Samurai Messengers" was less fortunate. On his way home after his shift he got doored and broke his wrist. It meant six without a pay check. A disaster. Luckily „Samurai" unlike other New York companies is a collective that provides solid health care for it's members.
Moments like these remind Horse of the fact that messengering in New York City isn't just fun and games. It's also a nasty underpaid grind. Horse takes home 200 bucks from a ten hour shift, in which he has risked his health countless times and has ridden up to a 100 miles through the car exhaust of New York cabs– rain, shine or snow.
It*s not the easiest way to make a living and sometimes Austin wishes he had other options. „I love messengering", he says. At the same time he is not sure, if he wants to do it for the next 20 years. But the issue isn't pressing, Horse is only 28. So he saves the thought for another day.
Austin Horse got into the business simply because he loved to ride. He discovered mountainbiking as a teenager in the suburbs of Houston, TX and soon began to race. But the Houston area wasn't a great place for a cyclist, the scene was small and isolated, the terrain boring. So Horse moved to Portland as soon as he got out of high school.
Horse started college there but also began messengering and racing. After a while he had to admit to himself that school had become little more than an excuse to ride and that he had really become a full time cyclist. So he decided to move to New York – to the heart of the bike-messenger culture, where it all began 30 years ago.
New York also had the advantage that despite the rise of email, the messenger industry continues to be relatively stable. Business has gone down by about 30% in the past ten years but there are still about 2000 messengers. Horse's company, the „Samurai" is doing well. The bulk of their clients are advertising and PR- as well as modeling and casting- agencies – any business that still has to send hard copy proofs and prints around the city in a rush.
Horse's work day starts the moment he logs in with his dispatcher on his smartphone. A few minutes later he receives a text with the info for his first pick up.
Today Horse is off to a high-octane start. „A triple", he says laconically, while he's still sipping coffee in the kitchen of the Brooklyn apartment that he shares with two other messengers. „Triple" is messenger code for the highest level of urgency. Within less than two minutes Horse has packed his 60 Liter backpack, strapped on his belt that has a pouch for spare tubes and tools as well as a buckle for his U-lock and has grabbed one oft he 12 or so bikes hanging in the bicycle room of the Williamsburg commune.
The next fifteen minutes are an all out sprint, almost like a grand tour prologue. We head across the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan, the subway rumbling next to the bike path so loudly that we can't hear our own heavy breathing. Then we dip into Chinatown, left, right, left, right, the street signs flying by so fast that they're impossible to read. In front of an ad agency in a SoHo loft on Prince street, Horse hops of his bike in full swing, like a cyclo crosser, slaps the lock onto the top tube at a street sign and disappears into the building before we even come to a full halt.
By the time Horse re-emerges our heart rates have barely gone down. He grabs his bike, jumps into the saddle and shouts „26th and Park" over his shoulder, just in case. And of course we loose him after less than ten blocks. Our legs are burning already and it's not even ten o'clock.
Thankfully, after an hour, there is a sudden lull in Horse's work day. We are stranded on 34th street where his last job took him, in a neighborhood that's already being worked by three of his peers. After 20 minutes of hanging out on the curb and chatting with other messengers, Horse decides to hit a coffee shop.
But of course, the next text from his dispatcher comes the second that he is stirring the sugar into his espresso. A Triple. Again. Horse slips a lid onto his paper cup and before we can even order a drink, he's in the saddle again, holding his cup in one hand, pedaling up against traffic on Fifth Avenue with cars honking at him.
The pickup is four packages on Madison Avenue. As Austin tries to stuff them all into his pack he quietly contemplates the route, trying to figure out the most efficient way to connect the dots. Times Square. Union Square. Columbus Circle. Chelsea. Always full throttle, always flowing.
Somewhere on Sixth Avenue we loose him again and aren't all that disappointed about it. The constant flirtation with sudden death is mentally exhausting and our legs are shaking like birch leaves in the fall wind.
Later, toward the end of his shift, we meet Horse on his way back to Brooklyn. By this time he's sprinted around town for 60 or so miles. But that doesn't mean he's had enough. He heads to his Williamsburg pad, changes into Spandex, grabs his road bike and rides all the way out to Floyd Bennett Field, a defunct military airport in the outer reaches of the city not far from Coney Island. There's a crit on the old airstrip that night, a good preparation for the messenger worlds, Horse thinks. He comes in third, we hear later.
A guy like Horse just has to keep moving. We on the other hand drag our butts back across the Manhattan Bridge and hit the first watering hole we can find. Rarely has it been so nice to just sit still, sip a beer and let the bustle of the city pass by.