Bike courier Jeff O’Neill knows that drivers — and maybe time — are pitted against him. But he pedals on.
“Use your turn signal!” barked a woman while turning a corner in downtown Minneapolis. He had a retort at the ready: “I don’t have one! Do you?”
Such behavior typically fires up hotheaded motorists, and this time was no different. Screeching her tires, the driver sped off furiously, while a cardboard box, tucked in O’Neill’s backpack, neared its destination on a scorching summer Friday.
“Fun,” he said, smirking.
O’Neill, 31, is one of a fleet of about 50 bike couriers who continue to ply Twin Cities streets despite having been labeled an endangered species repeatedly over the past decades. They faced death by fax machine in the 1980s, and then by the Internet and e-mail. And the dire news continues. In July, Minnesota made e-filing legal documents mandatory in 11 counties, including Hennepin, killing part of the business. It becomes statewide policy by next July.
But the couriers persevere, committed to a calling that is as much a lifestyle as it is a career. Usually encased in Spandex, they flit through rush-hour traffic, swanky lobbies and the North Loop’s One on One bike and coffee shop — their version of a town square and clubhouse.
For 12 years, O’Neill has made a living carting everything from prosthetic arms and beach towels to subpoenas, evictions and divorce papers. During the day, he pedals for Metro Legal Services, one of the few downtown Minneapolis companies still employing bike messengers. By night, he delivers tacos for Taco Cat in the Midtown Global Market in south Minneapolis.
“Messengers are resilient and think of new ways of reinventing the wheel,” said Andy Larson, 33, a retired messenger in Minneapolis who sells cargo bags, a style the job made mainstream long ago.
The bike messengers are part of a close-knit, occasionally crass community. They have a vibrant social media presence that is peppered with inside jokes and, of course, their own jargon. If riders are perceptive, they might “groundscore,” or spy an abandoned or lost item — maybe a Louis Vuitton wallet, a smashed iPhone or some cash. A summer weekend likely will include an “alley cat race,” a scavenger-hunt-like competition on bikes.
A transplant from Philadelphia, O’Neill migrated to the city’s cycling scene three years ago after riding in the annual Stupor Bowl, a subzero melee that draws hundreds of bike enthusiasts from all over the country. For Metro Legal, he makes roughly 30 trips a day, for which he’s paid hourly. At Taco Cat, tips are key — meaning the faster he swoops up sacks of tacos and the shorter the routes he plots, the more money he makes.
Biking at least 20 miles a day, his frame is lean. And it’s decorated with tattoos — the word “Bike” in cherry-red letters marks a calf, while a forearm displays a Liberty Bell with the text “Philadelphia Ride or Die.”
His mother, Alma, was not surprised by his choice of a career.
“I knew Jeff would just never be sitting in an office,” she said. “I knew that forever. He had to do something where he was moving around or fixing something.”
Mike Stoesz, 53, worked as a bike messenger in Minneapolis during the 1980s. It was a time of little sympathy for bikers or respect for their rights on the road.
“It was actually pretty dangerous,” he said. “I almost lost my life a couple times.”
Nonetheless, Stoesz, now a math teacher in Minneapolis who still commutes by bike as often as he can, remembers the four years he spent delivering by bike as a thrill. He said he hopes that the occupation, and the support group it generates, prevail.
“Sometimes it’s just the easiest way around,” he said. “It’s just better to have less cars on the road.”
The couriers are optimistic that there will continue to be a calling for them. In fact, the very technology that many predicted would be their doom actually has turned into a source of income, Larson said.
“As technology advanced, you’d end up with hard drives full of marketing material that it still wasn’t efficient to e-mail back and forth,” he said.
While demand for document delivery plummets, there’s been a boom in food delivery — once perceived in some courier circles as selling out.
E-commerce newcomers to the delivery game operated by mobile devices, such as Postmates and Cavalier, have sprouted up the past few years. Local food operations such as Gene’s Gelato, Peace Coffee, Brake Bread and the Beez Kneez also have embraced the deliver-by-bike model. The national restaurant chain Jimmy John’s regularly has clusters of bikes parked outside. Rock-it Delivery, where O’Neill previously worked, delivers for some restaurants.
At Taco Cat, co-owner Tristan Jimerson said that without bikes the business wouldn’t be the same “spiritually.” Taco Cat staunchly refuses to switch to car delivery even though doing so would expand its delivery area.
“It would just be another delivery restaurant,” he said. “There’s no unifying community in delivering by cars. If it was cars, I don’t think anyone would care — or be as big of fans.”
That being said, however, Jimerson noted of his fleet of bikers and their penchant for dodging cars: “You’ve got to kind of be an idiot. It takes a lot of perseverance.”
Blitz and beer
O’Neill won his first Mongoose bike in a raffle when he was 16, kick-starting years of fixing up, selling and searching for other finds. He now owns 10 bikes, which he rotates depending on his mood.
When he isn’t riding for work, he’s usually riding for fun. He recently took part in the inaugural Koochella Classic alley cat race hosted by Koochella, a new women’s racing team. About 40 bikers spent 3½ hours covering 20 miles of Minneapolis, matching their leg power and their knowledge of the landscape in mapping their routes to check-in stops.
Observers probably “don’t understand why herds of bikers” tear down the streets at 20 miles per hour, O’Neill said. “It can get a little escalated.”
The bikers often travel together to competitions. Labor Day weekend, they’ll be in Denver for the North American Cycle Courier Championship. The camaraderie extends well beyond city limits, with the bikers even opening their homes for one another.
“You put him up, take care of him,” O’Neill said of an out-of-town courier who was visiting Minneapolis. “If you ever go there, he’ll do the same.”
To say that the couriers are focused on their biking is not an exaggeration. In 2007, O’Neill went to Ireland for the Cycle Messenger World Championships. When he got home, his mother eagerly requested to see his pictures of the sights.
He didn’t have any. But he did have lots of pictures of bikes and the insides of bars.
“Jeff, you went to Ireland,” she said disappointedly.
“Yeah. Well?” he replied.