Single-Speed Service: The fast-paced world of bike delivery couriers

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Rock-It Delivery co-owner Nick Gibbons // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

I arrive at the Uptown Minneapolis office of Rock-It Delivery at 10am on a warm Thursday in June. It’s a cave-like space, dank and minimal, with a vintage couch by the window, a desk with a computer, and, of course, bikes lined up along the far wall. There is a cargo bike for large orders and a fat tire bike for harsh winter days.

Nick Gibbons, co-owner and chief administrator of Rock-It, sits at the computer and logs into TwinJet, a website and iPhone app that allows riders to track pick-ups and deliveries and receive notifications for new orders. Their technology has come a long way—they used to communicate via Nextel phones. “Which were terrible,” Gibbons says. “You get downtown and can’t hear anything.

“When we started four-and-a-half years ago,” Gibbons continues, “a big part of our model was just taking calls. ‘We’ll open up the whole city,’ we thought. ‘Anybody can get anything!’ Little did we know, most people want cigarettes and Taco Bell. You start to lose faith in humanity pretty quickly.”

One time, a Rock-It rider delivered live mice to a client for his snake. This spring, they used the cargo bike to deliver a couch. “The weird shit like that makes up less than one percent of our business,” Gibbons says.

The Rock-it crew gets their daily assignments // Photo by Aaron Davidson

The Rock-it crew gets their daily assignments // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

TwinJet builds a scaffolding of the day’s deliveries for Rock-It employees, though there are always spur-of-the-moment requests, many of which are food orders. Ninety percent of Rock-It’s business comes from restaurants in downtown and Uptown Minneapolis—Kindee Thai, Juice So Good, and French Meadow, to name a few. It’s not lunchtime quite yet, but Nick shows me the two orders already pending in Uptown. Ben Davies, Rock-It’s other co-owner, is already downtown, gearing up for the lunch rush. That leaves Gibbons to cover Uptown, and one on-call rider in case Davies needs back up.

At 10:40am, we bike about a mile to Glam Doll Donuts on Nicollet Avenue. Gibbons wears a helmet, clip-in cleats, and rides a sleek single-speed, shouldering a large, sturdy courier pack. We dart down tree-lined West 24th Street. Gibbons throws out deft hand signals, riding quickly, his brawny calves flexing. He’s calm and attentive to traffic. For a few blocks, we ride side-by-side. I ask if he’s ever had any wrecks or freak accidents. “There are close calls every day,” he says. “You have to put your head on swivel mode. Ninety-nine percent of the time close calls are caused by people on their phones.”

We turn south onto Nicollet Avenue and cross East 26th Street on a yellow light and ride onto the sidewalk. Gibbons slips his U-lock from the holster above his back pocket, leans his bike against the front of Glam Doll, and locks the front tire to the frame. When you’re delivering perishable products like food, and when you’re expected to have them delivered by a certain time, efficiency and speed are imperative.

Rock-it Delivery co-owner Nick Gibbons // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Rock-it co-owner Nick Gibbons out for a delivery // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Inside, the young woman behind the counter smiles and indulges Gibbons in chit-chat as he grabs three pink boxes stacked beside the donut display case. World Street Kitchen’s next-door ice cream parlor, Milkjam Creamery, will use the donuts for the “Jam Bun,” a decadent ice cream sandwich. Gibbons buys an extra dozen donuts for the team at World Street, our next stop. “Gotta keep your clients happy,” he says.

We ride on, south on Nicollet for a block and then down 27th Avenue for about three-quarters of a mile. We dismount, lean our bikes against the picnic tables out front, and deliver the donuts. Gibbons’ dozen-donut surprise leaves a few workers open-mouthed and salivating. “Nine times out of 10,” Gibbons says, “this will be our first delivery.” Rock-It serves as World Street’s sole delivery service.

As we wait outside, Gibbons tells me what it’s like being a bike messenger, including about the competitions, like the North American Cycle Courier Championships (NACCC), which was held in Minneapolis a few years ago, and the Cycle Messenger World Championships, in which he’s participated three times. “It’s a tight community,” he says. “And it’s fun to get out and see how other people do the job.”

After about 15 minutes, Gibbons’ TwinJet app lights up. “Here we go,” he says. But before we go, we wait for more orders, to “maximize our run,” he says. One more order comes in, and we duck into the restaurant to grab the two bags. The first delivery goes to a duplex near East 22nd Street and Harriet Avenue, the other downtown.

Next page: On the road with Rock-It

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