CRITICAL CLASS: Bike messengers sport cool clothes as they wend their way through city streets

Taking a break from her courier duties for First Legal, 24-year-old bike messenger Miriam Hinds sits in Yerba Buena Gardens eating a prepackaged sandwich and discussing the state of bike messenger fashion.


Published December 31, 2006 by The San Francisco Chronicle
By Damon Poeter

[[image:messenger_shoot.jpg::inline:1]]CA — Taking a break from her courier duties for First Legal, 24-year-old bike messenger Miriam Hinds sits in Yerba Buena Gardens eating a prepackaged sandwich and discussing the state of bike messenger fashion.

"Nowadays, everybody wants to look like a messenger," says the Brooklyn transplant, with her short red dreads poking out from under a camouflage cap. "But they don't ride your bike for eight hours a day, dodging traffic."

"You see a lot of hipsters at art openings,'' Hinds adds. "You see all these snazzy, nonmessenger track bikes out front. And on Mission Street. Go down there on a Friday night and you'll see all kinds of hipsters."

"But the hipster today is the hippie of yesterday," she says, trying to pin down the derogatory label flung about so loosely these days — on the letters page of S.F. Weekly, over drinks at the House of Shields on New Montgomery, and in casual conversation with just about any young city resident with a pulse and a social life.

Form has followed function in the evolution of the courier's fashion and gear, Hinds believes. "The style is what's practical, comfortable. We all feed off each other. Somebody figures out something that works, then it becomes a style. The practical becomes the fashion."

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The bicycle messenger's identity begins, unsurprisingly, with the bike. And no bicycle is more emblematic of the devil-may-care lifestyle of couriers than the brakeless, fixed-gear track bike. Legal messengers like Hinds, who operate almost entirely on flat terrain, have practical reasons for riding them. But taken purely as a fashion accessory, the track bike must rank somewhere between cigarettes and high heels as a health hazard to its operator.

"They're dangerous," says Larry Morris of nonmessenger — or "fakengers," as he calls them — track bikes. Morris, 38, rides a largely self-built 9-speed Bridgestone mountain bike on the job for Western Messenger. His routes take him up and down the city's brutal hills, making a fixed-gear bike impractical.

Morris has an insider's take on the evolution of bike messenger style. The Sacramento-area native started riding in his 20s, took some time off and is in his second five-year stint as a courier. His wife, Diana Stoen-Morris, also works for Western.

In the 1980s, Morris recalls, messengers wore a simple combo of jeans, work shirts and sneakers. They rode "clunky Schwinn single-speed cruisers with coaster brakes and a big basket in front."

"The style sort of blew up after Puck," he says. David "Puck" Rainey was a cast member on MTV's "The Real World: San Francisco" in 1994. Though Rainey said he was a bike messenger, few in the courier community remember him. Morris thinks Rainey may have worked for one of the courier companies "for a few days."

There's no disputing, however, that Rainey's antics on "Real World'' made him the public face of bike messenger culture, introducing a generation of kids to a freewheeling lifestyle defined as much by Puck's obnoxiousness as his supposed feats of derring-do.

"Puck was a real tool," says Morris.

If Rainey made bike messengers look bad to a mainstream audience, courier bag designers are making them look good. Timbuk2 may be the trendiest bag maker among the noncourier public, but messengers say they prefer side slings made by designers who have been messengers themselves.

"You hardly see anybody with Timbuk2," says John "Ducky" Williams, 20, a messenger for King Courier. "They're not the most durable bags out there. And I want to support bag companies owned by former messengers."

Williams carries a messenger bag by R.E.Load, a company started in 1998 by a pair of Philadelphia bike couriers. Morris sports a side sling by Travis Poh's Freight Baggage. Poh, who still works as a messenger in San Francisco, sells off-the-rack and custom-made bags at the Freewheel Bike Shop, with one location on Valencia street and another on Hayes Street.

"It's the best bag I've ever had," says Morris.

Messenger bags, built to be durable and waterproof, are a hit with the nonmessengering public as well.

"We probably sell more to nonmessengers than messengers," says Poh of Freight Baggage.

Hinds admits that when it comes to bags, for her at least, fashion has trumped functionality.

"I don't like having stuff everybody else has, but I finally break down and get it," she says, nodding to her Freight bag. "I actually prefer a backpack to a side sling, because of better weight distribution, but …"

Williams, a student at the Academy of Art, says his look is a mix of form and function. The scrunchy key chain he keeps on his arm, his fingerless gloves, stiff sneakers and hip pouch are necessary for the job. But his earring and the patches on his courier bag — bearing the logo of Mouthpiece, a straightedge band from New Jersey — tell a more specific story about who he is.

Hinds, who attended the North American Cycle Courier Championships in Philadelphia earlier this year, says there are subtle differences in fashion on the East Coast and West Coast — especially among female riders.

"In Philly and in D.C., girl messengers wear knee-high socks with shorts," Hinds says. "Here, it's more skirts with leggings. Guys wear tighter shorts back East."

She's quick to point out that for an up-close and personal look at bike messenger fashion, people ought to come to next year's NACCC, to be held May 25-28 in San Francisco. But while the public is free to watch the various races and trick competitions at the event, Hinds hastens to add, "No hipsters allowed in the events."

Damon Poeter is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.