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

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Rock-it Delivery out on a call // Photos by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

Arriving at the duplex, Gibbons hops off his bike and rings the doorbell. No answer. He taps his phone a couple times. “Nobody answers their phone on the first try in 2016,” he says. On the third try, he gets an answer. After a brief reconnoitering, he hangs up and says, “Guy who ordered [online] punched in the wrong address.” But Gibbons is unswayed. “Happens all the time.”

We ride about three miles into downtown, a harsh wind blowing in our faces as we pass the Walker Art Center. The wind doesn’t seem to affect Gibbons; I push hard to keep up, damning my chunky-framed 8-speed and dad-flab. We cut through Loring Park and fly down Hennepin Avenue. When we arrive at Space 150, a digital marketing agency in the North Loop, I’m relieved to see that Gibbons, too, has a sufficiently lacquered forehead. He delivers the bag to the woman at the front desk. “You’re from Rock-It, right?” she asks. “Your co-worker’s here.”

We walk down the long hallway and wait at the top of stairwell. Ben Davies, clad in tight cut-off jean shorts, cleats clacking on the linoleum, sways under the weight of a hulking 8,000-cubic-inch freight of a backpack, which can bear over 40 pounds of cargo; today, it’s stacked with soda and hundreds of dollars’ worth of sandwiches and pasta salad. We do a dance to get out of the way of a guy in a white oxford coming through the doorway, and Davies quickly crunches up against the rail as the door swings in his face. Outside, he runs and hops onto his bike as if it’s a train leaving the station.

Gibbons and I swerve into an alley behind One on One bike-and-coffee shop, on Washington Avenue next to Sexworld, where we meet Sean, one of Rock-It’s riders, perched on a loading dock. Sean is the backup for today. “This is where we come during downtime—to grab a coffee, smoke, chill between runs,” Gibbons says, adding that we’ll meet up with Davies at his next stop.

Precious cargo // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Precious cargo // Photo by Aaron Davidson, The Growler

We continue our ride south, on First Avenue. Gibbons approaches a jogger in the bike lane, chanting, “On your left! On your left!” But she doesn’t hear him. As we cross North Fifth Street, he turns his head and says, “Headphones? Yep. Next time run on the sidewalk!” We ride onto Seventh Street, stopping in front of Radisson Blu hotel. Across the street, large yellow banners announcing Sports Authority’s closing flap in the wind.

A few minutes later, Davies pulls up, rests his bike against a large planter by the entrance, and runs inside. When he returns, he runs up to a woman and holds out his hand for a high five. She shakes her head and walks on. “Damn, that was cold!” Twenty minutes earlier, he tells us, he’d seen her and called out to her, saying she had a 100-dollar bill dangling from her back pocket. “She was, like, huh? Huh? And finally figured it out after I slapped my butt a few times. ‘Oh, my gosh. Thank you!’ she said. And now I get burned! But that’s the shit you see out here, man.”

They tell me a lot of people lack spatial awareness—like the incident in the stairwell. After 10 minutes or so, Gibbons checks his phone. “I’m getting skunked here,” he says. It’s 12:15pm, and the lunch rush, usually in full-swing, is over. By Rock-It’s standards, it’s a slow afternoon. Luckily, Be’Wiched brought them over $1,000 worth of deliveries in just under an hour. That’s a typical day for a courier: one minute you’re pumping your legs as fast as you can, the next you’re waxing nostalgic on a busy downtown street, slugging down Powerade.

After a day of tagging along, I’ve come to realize that actual bike couriers and the stereotype of bike couriers—that they’re all thrill-junky reprobates flying through red lights—are not one and the same. They take the job seriously, obeying traffic laws and cautiously navigating the roads. Chances are, couriers are among the most aware—and safest—people on the road. Do they sometimes ride at breakneck speeds? Yeah, but that’s the nature of the job.

On my way back, my tired legs stop me for a second, and I pause to admire the stamina, drive, dedication to being a green business, and efficiency displayed by the men and women of Rock-It. Hunger pangs soon usurp my thoughts, though, and I’m wishing I lived in their delivery zones. I’d be happy to see them outside my door. If and when that happens, I promise to answer on the first ring.

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