Denver's Bike Messengers Are a Union Divided

Bike messengers ride fast and they ride alone, which is why an effort to organize them has hit the skids.

J-Bone reviewed city records and concluded that 75 percent of the citations issued for bicycle transgressions were to bike messengers working between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. To give messengers a voice, he built a roster and reported back to the city administration. Thanks to J-Bone's efforts, the ticketing slowed and the Mayor's Bike Advisory Committee was born, as was the Denver Professional Bike Messengers Association (DPBMA).

"But we had to regiment ourselves," J-Bone continues. "It wasn't a regiment; it was an embryo. It was me representing the bike messengers of the city and county. They were a little complacent, subdued. They had not yet had the experience of let's-get-together like I had in San Francisco."

So J-Bone created the Road Rash Bash, which became an annual gathering of bike messengers and enthusiasts who wanted to celebrate the trade — "a big fucking holiday," he calls it — replete with a race now known as the Abernethy Cup, in his honor. Over time, the cops began to leave the messengers alone, and the scene established itself as it had in San Francisco.

The Footdown competition leaves riders on their backs.
Anthony Camera
The Footdown competition leaves riders on their backs.
Biker boxing attracts a big crowd at the 2007 Road Rash Bash.
Anthony Camera
Biker boxing attracts a big crowd at the 2007 Road Rash Bash.

J-Bone views the DPBMA, and the events it spawned, as his baby. And while his baby has cried out here and there with a raucous messenger get-together or a rallying call whenever one of Denver's bipedal warriors is somehow screwed over, for the most part it has sat silent for the past decade.

But lately the baby has been stirring.

J-Bone recently called it quits as the de facto leader and turned the handlebars over to an ambitious new crop of messengers eager to make the DPBMA into something more, an organization that could help raise pay for bike messengers, earn them more benefits and put Denver on the international bike messenger scene.

But convincing a group of bike messengers — a notoriously skeptical subculture full of anarchists, anti-establishment-types and good-natured fuckups drawn to the trade's unconventional lifestyle — of anything, let alone the need for their association's evolution, can be an incredibly difficult task.

Maybe even impossible.

Young Lieutenant, August

"My student council slogan in elementary school was 'Vote for Jaimie, The Girl With Two I 's That Can See Into the Future,' Jaimie Lusk says, removing her helmet after a hot day on the job and collapsing into a pizza at City O' City. "I didn't win."

If Jaimie, 28, is still programming dates into her internal DeLorean, she's setting the coordinates for 2009, when Denver has a real shot at hosting the North American Cycle Courier Championship (NACCC), and 2010, when the World Messenger Championships could follow.

As the first woman to cross the finish line at the world championship in Dublin, Ireland, a few weeks earlier, Jaimie can be excused for being excited about the possibility. "It was just so cool," says Jaimie, who came in eleventh overall. "You meet the most incredible people. I met this guy from Dublin who lived in Berlin, and he was telling me that in places like Berlin, bike messenging is a legitimate life they can sustain, where people make as much as a postman or something. That's way more than we can make here."

Jaimie, who works for Denver Boulder Couriers, estimates that she makes $11 an hour and that locally, top pay in the industry is around $100 a day. Some companies, many offering a variety of delivery services in multiple cities, pay hourly wages, while others hire messengers as independent contractors or pay commission. Very few offer health benefits.

"When you average it all out, most guys are at around $9," she says, estimating that there are fifty to sixty full-time, mostly male riders split between eleven companies in metro Denver. "You work a nine-hour day, that's like $80 a day before taxes. Some people are working for a ridiculously little amount; it's definitely the working poor. A lot of people do make their livings off of it, but I think a lot of people who do it successfully have something else going on the side, or they learn to live within their means.

"I had money saved up but recently just ran out, so I sold my truck," she continues. "I'm actually weighing my options right now. I want to stay a bike messenger; we have a chance to throw nationals in 2009, then worlds in 2010, and I really want to go for it. But I'm probably going to have to work two jobs."

Anything will be easier than her last job. After growing up in Eugene, Oregon, and building the kind of profile necessary to make her an attractive collegiate candidate, Jaimie concluded that she didn't know what she wanted to do and didn't want to waste $120,000 finding out. So she researched the United States Naval Academy and liked what she saw, figuring she could go there for free and fashion herself into a sort of woman warrior, fearlessly traversing the globe.

Summer excursions at the academy — sailboating along the East Coast, hanging out on the Mediterranean — satiated her search for adventure, but once active duty began, the story began to shift. "It was kind of like Pinocchio," she says. "You know, when they go to that island, and it's all fun and games until everyone starts growing donkey ears?"

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