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On Biking: Taking a ride in a bike messenger's shoes

Posted by Emily Files  September 4, 2012 02:02 PM

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Premium Rush sounds like a great movie. It’s got action, adventure, and lots of bicycles. So why haven’t I, a guy who likes movies with action, adventure, and lots of bicycles, gone to see it?

Maybe it’s because I’m still traumatized from my brief career as a bicycle messenger.

I’d always wanted to be a bicycle messenger. Riding around town and living the dream sounded pretty good. Or so I thought, until I spoke with Jack Tigh Dennerlein of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Jack is an avid cyclist, who also happens to be an expert on workplace safety. Putting his passion and his profession together led him to study urban bicycle messengers in 2002.

What he found was sobering: the injury rates for urban bicycle messengers rivaled those of professional football players. That’s not surprising when you consider that their daily routine is, according to Jack, one of “Dodging cars and pedestrians in a high-risk environment.”

A lot has changed since Jack did his study: the mean streets of Boston are not as mean as they used to be, thanks to a huge uptick in activism and urban planning. I guess that made me think I could live the dream, if only for an afternoon.

That’s why last fall, I called Gregory Letarte, the owner and co-founder of Fly Over the City, and asked him if I could join him for a delivery. Gregory was game; if anyone could give me a feel for what it’s really like to be a bicycle messenger, it would be Gregory.

Gregory and I met up in Government Center. Before heading, we chatted about riding in the winter, best cheap eats, and bicycle safety. When it came to safety, Gregory did not mince words: “I’ve had a few accidents, but all of them could have been avoided if I’d been more cautious. They weren’t 100% my fault, but a big piece was.”

Okay, I’ll state the obvious: messengers don’t have a reputation for riding safely. They are known to run red lights, salmon (ride the wrong way up one way streets), and weave in and out of traffic. I won’t defend that behavior, but then neither did Gregory.

“Riding like that is just plain wrong.”

And with that, we headed out.

So about our ride: Gregory had planned to take me from downtown Boston all the way to Chelsea. Fortunately, somebody else had grabbed the package that we were going to deliver. To whomever cut in line and saved me from getting in even more over my head than I already was, I offer my eternal thanks.

Gregory and I ended up shepherding a package from Government Center to a high rise near the waterfront. This I could do. Sure it was rush hour traffic, but how bad could it be? After all, we were only riding seven blocks. Besides, I was an experienced urban cyclist. This would be fun.

Let me start by saying that I’m still not sure where we rode, but that’s only because I was so terrified that I can’t remember much of what happened between Government Center and the waterfront.

I do recall feeling like I’d been teleported into the video game Frogger as I dodged potholes, buses, trucks, irate taxi drivers and jay-walking pedestrians. I managed to avoid getting hit, but only because I followed Gregory’s lead.

Okay, I admit it was intense. And maybe even a little fun. For a moment, I thought I could see my adrenaline coursing through my veins. But would I do it again? In a word: No. A man’s got to know his limitations, and Gregory certainly helped me know mine.

After my one short ride I was done living the dream. Jack was right: avoiding cars and trucks seemed easier than avoiding a Jerod Mayo tackle.

From now on I’ll leave the job of delivering small packages to experts like Gregory. In the meantime, I’ll try to work through my fears so that I can find a way to see the best (the only?) Hollywood bicycle movie of the year.

Jonathan Simmons is a psychologist and an avid cyclist. His book, “Here For the Ride” will be published later this year.

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