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Messenger-scene vets swept the North American Cycle Courier Championships

Christina Peck and Nico Deportago-Cabrera cut their teeth delivering in Chicago.

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In two-way radio speak, "10/9" means "please repeat." That's exactly what Christina Peck and Nico Deportago-Cabrera, former and current Chicago bike messengers, respectively, did at the North American Cycle Courier Championships in New York City earlier this month.

The NACCC (pronounced "nack") tests the mettle of messengers from all over the continent, as well as visitors from other parts of the world (although they're not eligible to win), with races meant to simulate a day of two-wheeled delivery work. Back in 2009, Peck won top overall honors at the championship race in Boston, and her good friend Deportago-Cabrera was the top male finisher.

This year, on October 9—which is also 10-9 Day, or international Messenger Appreciation Day—the pair repeated those very same feats in New York. Peck, who now works for Godspeed Courier in San Francisco, was also the overall winner in the 2013 NACCC in Seattle—that's a total of three overall North American championships. On top of that, she's been the first-place female in two Cycle Messenger World Championships, in Mexico City in 2014 and Melbourne in 2015.

Deportago-Cabrera, who rides for Chicago's Cut Cats Courier food delivery collective and as an independent contractor, is no slouch either. In addition to being the top male finisher in the main NYC race this year, he was the first-place out-of-towner in a nighttime "alleycat" race (a messenger-style competition in live traffic) held in Manhattan earlier that weekend. (Out-of-towners are often ranked separately because they don't have the hometown advantage of knowing the street grid.)

I caught up with these speedy folks last week to discuss their achievements, and the state of the courier industry.

"It's rad that we got to share the award again," Deportago-Cabrera said. “It's getting to the point where I'm getting used to being beaten by Christina. The championships are really a mental game—it's about how fast you can think on the fly. She's such an intelligent person that it’s no surprise she won again."

Peck was modest about her latest triumph. "Nico's generally faster than me," she said. "He's beat me plenty of times in alleycats. But alleycats are more about pushing it in live traffic, while the NACCC in New York was a lot more about studying your delivery manifest and keeping a cool head."

—Male North American messenger champ Nico Deportago-Cabrera

A cool head was definitely needed for the final championship race, held Sunday afternoon on 17 blocks of Bushwick, Brooklyn, which the city rendered car-free for the occasion. There had been heavy rains associated with Hurricane Matthew the previous night and morning, delaying the start of the competition by three hours. At race time the streets of the industrial zone were still slick with water—not to mention rutted with potholes and railroad lines—and riders faced some brutal headwinds.

The three-hour competition involved flying around the course trying to earn as much (symbolic) money as possible by picking up and dropping off envelopes, parcels, and mailing tubes, with each racer choosing his or her own route. Some items were classified as "all-day" deliveries that could be dropped off at any time, while "single rushes" were due within 20 minutes and were worth an additional four dollars, and "double rushes" were due within ten minutes and added six dollars to the base rate.

To reproduce the frustrations of actual messenger work, the organizers purposely provided riders with a few wrong addresses. There, checkpoint volunteers portraying bored receptionists and surly mailroom clerks would order the riders to take the package to a different "office." In the end Peck earned $300 while Deportago-Cabrera made $281.

They both agreed the New York race was particularly mentally grueling. Deportago-Cabrera competed in the world championships in Paris last August and won third place in the out-of-towner category during the weekend's alleycat. "After [the main Paris race] I could barely walk and breathe. But after [New York] I could barely think straight because my brain was fried from staring at the rate sheets and the list of jobs." Peck sat out the world championships after breaking a collarbone in a mountain bike crash earlier this summer.

Both couriers have had years of experience to hone their messenger skills. Peck, 30, grew up in southern California and was exposed to the alleycat scene while doing a postcollege internship in San Francisco. After visiting Chicago on a road trip, she moved here in 2008 with her twin sister, Alison, a DJ. "Chicago was fun and affordable, and I wanted to try something different," she said.

Peck soon tried her hand as a messenger, starting out at Standard Courier and eventually making her way to Intercept Courier, then Deadline Express. That year local couriers hosted the NACCC in Garfield Park. "The Chicago messenger scene was so great back then," she said "There were just a lot of us who were young and coming into it with lots of enthusiasm." Deportago-Cabrera, now 32, also started courier work in Chicago that year.

The two of them helped bring the world championships to Chicago in summer 2012. The main race took place in the south lot of Soldier Field (where George Lucas recently hoped to build his Museum of Narrative Arts), drawing hundreds of couriers from across North America as well as Europe, Japan, and Australia. At the end of 2012, Peck moved back to San Francisco with her sister.

"Our dad had a heart attack the year before, so we wanted to be closer to our family, and I missed the accessibility to nature," she said. "For all the things Chicago has, it completely lacks that."

I noted that while it's rare for men and women to compete against each other in sporting events, it's even more unusual for women to dominate men in competition, as Peck has done three times at the North American championships. "There are physical limitations," she replied. "But lack of encouragement and funding has historically played a big role in women's sports." She said she thinks that dynamic is starting to change, though, and noted that this year the 4,200-mile Trans Am Bike Race was won by a woman, Lael Wilcox.

North American male champion Nico Deportago-Cabrera - CAROLINE PAULEAU
  • Caroline Pauleau
  • North American male champion Nico Deportago-Cabrera

In the eight years Deportago-Cabrera has worked as a courier in Chicago, he's seen dramatic changes in the industry. After the 2008 economic crash, traditional courier work dropped off dramatically, and many of the older companies folded. "Around 2010 we were down to 100 or 120 couriers, but now it's back to 300," he estimated. "More companies started basing themselves around food delivery, which is not affected so much by the financial sector."

Food delivery has a different workflow than transporting documents, since food has to be delivered as soon as it's ready and can't be carried around in a messenger bag for hours. "But they're both challenging," Deportago-Cabrera said. "You're still dealing with the same foul weather and bad drivers."

Bad drivers have been a major issue for Chicago cyclists this year. Six people were fatally struck while biking in the city in 2016, and five of the cases involved allegedly reckless commercial vehicle drivers. One of the victims was Blaine Klingenberg, 29, a courier Deportago-Cabrera was friendly with. 

In the wake of the crashes, commenters in newspaper op-eds and online forums have scapegoated bicyclists, particularly couriers, accusing them of taking foolish risks on the road. "I think it's an unfair criticism, Deportago-Cabrera said. "For every bad cyclist, there's a dozen bad drivers. It's easy to lump all cyclists in with the person blowing the red light or the driver doing an illegal U-turn, but we're all human and we're all imperfect."

Moreover, he added, the difference between a cyclist disobeying traffic laws and a driver doing it is that the cyclist usually only puts him- or herself in harm's way, while the driver is endangering others. "A cyclist is basically a big bag of water—we're very vulnerable," he said. "This year's fatalities show us that it's not really what you're doing on a bike, but rather being on a bike that puts you in danger."

That said, alleycat races are especially controversial, because competitors are basically required to break laws in live traffic in order to win. In 2008 during the Tour de Chicago race series, Matthew Manger-Lynch, a 29-year-old nonmessenger, was fatally struck by an SUV driver after he ran a red at Irving Park, Damen, and Lincoln. The tragedy, believed to be the only death during a U.S. alleycat, shocked the national courier community, and had a chilling effect on Chicago's underground racing scene for several years.

Still, Deportago-Cabrera argued messenger racing isn't inherently dangerous. "To the outsider, ripping through thick traffic may come across as very reckless, but I know what I'm capable of, and I think the majority of alleycat racers are the same," he said. "You have to have a healthy dose of fear and respect for the vehicles around you. No bike race is worth a bent wheel, let alone a fatality."

On a more optimistic note, Deportago-Cabrera and Peck say they're looking forward to 2017, when the NACCC will be held in Milwaukee, and Chicago will host races and parties the week before. At the end of the week there will be a group ride around Lake Michigan in order to camp near Muskegon, Michigan. Then the crew will catch the high-speed ferry across the lake to Brew City. The world championships will be held in Montreal next year, so it's likely a decent contingent of Chicagoans will compete.

"2016 has been a great year for messengers," Deportago-Cabrera said. "It looks like 2017 will be even better."    v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.


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