By Oli Pritchard December 5, 2015
Bicycle couriers Bogotá

Some of the Urban Express guys relaxing after a run. Photo: Carlos@Urban Express

Oli Pritchard gets back to his messenger roots, joining Colombian couriers on the road and swapping tales

After university I saw an advert that changed my life: Couriers needed! A week into the job and I was hooked. I spent years as a bicycle messenger in London, a position that fitted my fiercely independent and cantankerous personality. Every day I fought and battled, against traffic, against my controllers, against pedestrians.

Having a few friends and contacts in the messenger scene of Bogotá, I decided to reach out and see if I could still ride. Ride properly that is, not like commuting.

Two of the capital’s companies graciously allowed me to go out on deliveries with them. First Urban Express and then Fixeito. So it was that I found myself arriving at the corner of 16 and 35 to meet Sebastián of Urban Express. A lean, handsome chap, he sports a giant bag over his shoulder, shades and a regulation cycling cap and long sleeve top. Surprisingly, he’s astride a real clunky bike, which he sheepishly admits is just for this job – “I’d normally take my fixie”, he confesses.

Within minutes we were loading a cake onto his luggage rack to go all the way up to Unicentro. Unlike in London, couriers here often go “one-up”, where they carry a single package over vast distances. The job’s not a rush, so we chat a bit, knowing we have a whole hour to get POD on the package. POD means Proof Of Delivery, a confirmation that you have completed the job correctly.

Sebastian recounts how he decided to become a messenger, “I wanted freedom” he says, echoing my first desire to ride for a living. “This job gives you independence”. Even more than in London. There, we always had contact through a shortwave radio. A fat old guy in an office sending you through the snow and dangers of the city, all while they’re cocooned in the warmth.  A Bogotá courier takes home between 50-80% of the package price, which starts from around 8-10 thousand.  That’s better than London, where the rates are falling, but the couriers have a lot more packages to deliver.

Electronic communication has taken a lot of work away from messengers, but there are still a wealth of things that have to be delivered personally. Sebastián tells me, “I’ve taken 20 loaves of bread, that was strange. From Chapinero up to Usaquén. Must have been special bread! We carry a lot of food – cakes for dogs, too”. But he laughs as he recalls the most memorable, “A sex toy! Even stranger, it was from a lady for her fella”.

With that, we depart, rolling into 16th with practised ease, both of us more comfortable on the bike in traffic than on feet in society. Couriers are written in the margins, said an old documentary, and it holds true. Not quite part of the traffic, at once inside the lines of the road and then out, between lanes, both pedestrian and vehicle. In offices but never part of them, part of a company yet nowhere near the base. Paid as a margin of the total cost of the service, transporting things they have to guard but never own. Like ghosts…until a car door or pedestrian, or in Bogotá who knows – a llama – suddenly enter our precious margin and provide a bloodying reminder of our fragility.

Sebastián is forced to take a helmet by Urban Express. He says the customers like to see it. There’s a good reason too – couriers are forced to take risks, sometimes by the job but more by their nature. This is more a calling than a simple job, I tell the other Urban riders. They nod and raise beers in agreement. Carlos, the ‘boss’, talks to me a bit about the history of the firm, which he founded after working in PR. “I got tired of it and one day I was like, “Fuck it! I don’t want to be doing this any more”. So I took my experience in graphic design, created a logo, a website, and started to advertise my brand.”

He continues, “Nine months we’ve been in business, and we have two main couriers. On busy days, though, we’ll go to eight. It’s easy to manage the deliveries with so few guys, but we’re hoping to use radios in the future”.

That’s confusing for me, as my radio was always one of the most defining things about being a messenger. “We work on phones and WhatsApp,” says Carlos, “and we have around 10-20 calls a day”. It’s not many – I would cover that easily in an afternoon back in London – but I tell him the future seems bright in Bogotá.

Bicycle couriers Bogotá

Our man with Sebastián as they navigate the streets. Photo: Carlos@Urban Express

And it does. This is a city strangulated and paralysed by transportation inefficiency. Bikes can avoid these problems more than most, as we slip through those margins towards our destination. Add to that the high price of petrol and a clear local government support for bicycling in general and the conditions look very rosy. I hear plenty of stories about couriers surprising clients with their speed, and it rings true. I’ve certainly only very rarely been beaten by cars, taxis, buses or motos in the city, point to point.

Couriers carry their office with them. Like snails, but really fast snails, everything goes on their back in one enormous bag. Tools for repairs, signature sheets, manifests, phones, the packages themselves, jackets, food, water. Sebastián carries a locally made (YUGO) specialist bag, but also has a luggage rack. Videito, founder-owner-rider of Fixeito, who takes me out the next day, has only his bag. His bike, too, is closer to what we might imagine. High rise bars, a single speed with chunky bars. Perfect for the routes he needs to take, as he leads me on a hair-raising flight through the choked causeways of Bogotá.

This job starts off at Virrey, where I find him chatting to Bogotá Humana staff, before swinging over the bars and heading down the bike lane. So far so normal…and then we drop onto the pavement, running parallel to the autopista before jumping contraflow into it. There are cops ahead, so we jerk back onto the 85 for a while, then cut the wrong way down a side street, dodging lorries. So far, so easy…and then we take a footpath, onto grass and between posts. I’m struggling now, his bike is far better set up for this rough and ready riding. I curse aloud as he starts putting serious distance between us. Then he beats me with a highly illegal cut across the autopista towards the Transmilenio and I’m forced to wait for a gap while Videito grins at me from across the way. We join again and race through the traffic in separate channels, both between groups of cars, jumping to the front of the lights and beating them, zipping in front of turning Transmis as we cheat our way onto the Ochenta. Here comes the real fun. We crank up and up. Videito is a real pro, knowing each pothole, each lane change, each sideswipe. We crest bridges that feel like rollercoasters and hold our breath for clouds of exhaust fumes.

Videito drops me in the traffic, both more agile and less concerned about safety. Watching him ahead of me, I remember being like that. Having those eyes, that ability to read the road and see the gaps that others never see. He tells me more over a beer after the delivery. “For me, it’s about flowing. My favourite place to ride is any road that’s full of traffic, a real trancón. And I…I flow through it. Like a fish among whales, we take the gaps and cut through it. Everything balanced and perfectly under control.”

It seems to me that a key problem is getting clients to understand that bicycles are a viable option for deliveries and Videito agrees, “Of course. We mainly work with creative companies, photographers and media, that sort of thing. They’re easy to convince, but other people don’t always understand how fast we are”.

There was a recent alleycat – semi-legal race through the streets – in which Fixeito took all three podium spots. Videito grins as he tells me, and I’m glad to see such camaraderie.

He’s passionate about the concept of community. He clearly wants to develop the scene, not just his own business. The companies work together, in a fashion. Friends, not partners, but certainly amiable. “We need a bar,” says Videito, “or at least somewhere we can meet and spend time together”. I think he’s right – the messenger community has always been a fraternity, a brother and sisterhood of people banded together by a common experience and interest. My friendships from the scene lasted for years after leaving the circuit, just like the calluses on my hands.

My short time on the road with Sebastián and Videito brought back the feeling of riding through the traffic in full control. Constantly scanning for danger, every sense alert. Knowing that it’s a lifestyle, not a career. Wherever you are in the world, from Tokyo to Bogotá, it’s a calling, not a job.

So remember to keep checking the road before you cross. Sebastián and Videito are already out there, and there’ll be more of them before long.