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Bike messenger embraces a race-y way of life

Updated: August 22, 2013 6:22AM

Mike Morell and his fellow bike messengers once made a pilgrimage to Marshall Field’s to meet a hero of theirs.

Three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond was at the flagship State Street store to promote a bicycle manufacturer in 2004.

“He signed my manifest,” Morell said of his delivery checklist. “I was pretty happy about that. He said he respected our jobs.”

Like many other downtown couriers, Morell is a fan of bike racing and participates in amateur cycling contests on weekends. Over the past two weeks, he and other messengers have been closely following the world’s most prestigious bike race, the Tour de France, which ends Sunday.

That’s not surprising, said Jeffrey Kidder, an assistant sociology professor at Northern Illinois University and author of the book “Urban Flow: Bike Messengers and the City.”

“When you spend time working on a bike, riding a bike fast, you identify with other people riding bikes fast with a lot less traffic,” Kidder said of the Tour de France.

This year, Morell’s favorite rider in the Tour is Colombia’s Nairo Quintana, a powerful climber in the mountains with only 120 pounds on his wiry frame.

“I am kind of small and slight, too. I feel my strength as a bike rider is hills. I am in the wrong part of the country,” he joked.

A California native, Morell, 36, became a bike messenger in 2000. He was looking for part-time work while attending Northwestern University, where he graduated with a journalism degree.

“I fell in love with this job and it’s still what I want to do,” said Morell, who is considered a veteran among the hundreds of bike messengers in Chicago.

In 2005, Morell and five other couriers started Four Star Courier Collective. They rotate duties, dispatching jobs and making bike deliveries. They also operate a delivery car.

Unlike many of the Tour riders, messengers like Morell aren’t getting rich on their bikes. Morell said he charges $6 to make a delivery in the Loop within an hour.

“On paper, it’s an entry-level, poor-paying job,” Kidder said. “But unlike fry cooks, there is a whole subculture. Fry cooks don’t travel to France to compete over making French fries. These guys [messengers] race all the time.”

Like the Tour de France, which has featured harrowing crashes in many of its 21 stages, messengers are familiar with pain.

At work, they swerve around cars, go the wrong way on streets and sprint through red lights. Accidents are part of the job description.

“I’ve been hit a couple of times,” Morell said, describing a recent crash in which a car made a U-turn in front of his bike, throwing him onto the trunk.

“It was relatively low-speed. I trashed my front wheel, but I only had cuts and scrapes. It was really no big deal.”

Morell sheepishly admits he doesn’t wear a helmet during deliveries. But he said he always wears one in races. Morell participates in timed criterium contests with Chicago Cuttin’ Crew, a team founded by bike messengers.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in a criterium without a helmet,” he said. “I have wiped out many more times in criterium races than in my job as a messenger.”

Morell has also competed in international bike-courier championships, which are similar to the “alley cat” races held in Chicago and other cities.

In an alley cat, messengers might gather in a park, Kidder explained.

“You would see a group of ragtag people with bags on their shoulders,” he said.

Suddenly, the riders would dash into the street, speeding along their favorite routes to a list of downtown addresses. The winner would be the first one to reach every location.

“It’s like a simulated work day,” Kidder said.

Morell said alley cat races have dwindled over the past decade because the number of downtown bike messengers has fallen sharply.

The city estimates 300 bicycle messengers work downtown, but Morell said that number is probably inflated. He believes there were at least twice that many couriers when he started in 2000. Meanwhile, the number of recreational cyclists has skyrocketed, he said.

Morell said he rides about 40 miles a day at work, but considers those “garbage miles” that he doesn’t count toward training for races.

“By the time you really start to push yourself, you are at a stoplight or at a building. You just never dig deep enough to build some endurance or have some room to sprint and improve your maximum speed,” he said.

Like many other messengers, Morell once rode a fixed-gear track bike, which doesn’t have brakes.

The bike —controlled entirely by the rider’s legs — was built for velodromes, the arenas used for track cycling.

Morell liked riding his “fixie” because it has fewer parts to maintain than a road bike.

But fixed-gear bikes have grown popular among Chicago’s young hipster crowd — prompting many messengers to switch to road bikes.

“It’s kind of reversed,” Morell said.

Morell now mostly rides a Masi road bike equipped with gears and brakes.

“I think it’s kind of cool that I ride my dad’s bike,” he said.

After work, bike couriers congregate at their favorite watering holes.

One of them was Cal’s — a grungy bar on Van Buren in the Loop where messengers drank alongside stockbrokers after scarfing down triple cheeseburgers across the street at the Billy Goat Tavern.

But Cal’s recently closed and messengers now count Handlebar in Wicker Park and Blue Frog on the Near North Side as their hang-outs.

“Handlebar has free fries and $1 PBRs for messengers on Mondays,” said Jake Huizenga, a 27-year-old messenger. “They’re tolerant of us.”

At the bars, messengers swap stories about their road combat with cabs and tourists — and the strange things that happen on their deliveries.

Huizenga said he’s made deliveries to naked people who reach around their doors to accept their packages.

And Morell said he once delivered a bloodstained jail mattress to the federal courthouse. A law firm was using the mattress as evidence in a case, he said.

Bike messengers have their own subculture, which they often celebrate with tattoos.

A logo of the Mercedes Benz symbol and the words “Get Paid” are tattooed on Huizenga’s left calf. He said they commemorate a legal settlement he received from an irate motorist who allegedly assaulted him for “accidentally spitting” on the man’s car.

Morell’s tattoos are tamer: an old-time Campagnolo bicycle chain ring on one arm and a 1960s-era Schwinn chain ring on the other.

Kidder — the Northern Illinois University professor — said couriers are divided into two cultural groups: “lifestyle messengers” and “occupational messengers.”

Some do the job for the love of cycling — lifestyle messengers like Morell.

Others just ride for a paycheck.

“A lot of people grow out of the business,” Kidder said. “It is a physically dangerous and strenuous job and a hard job to make a long term career out of it.”

“But there is a lot of freedom in the job. Management looks the other way while you run red lights and act like a maniac. It’s a profession that doesn’t have a lot of rules. There is a certain irony that messengers deliver a lot of material to law firms and break a lot of laws getting those packages to them.”

It’s no wonder then that “lifestyle” messengers like Morell would become Tour de France fans, Kidder said.

“You start to identify with the bike, cycling in all sorts of forms. And watching people suffer as they climb mountains is in some way analogous. You can reflect on riding in the peloton [the pack of main riders in the Tour] and riding next to a bunch of cabs. There is a connection.”

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