Pedal the mean streets

A network of messengers on two wheels and four keeps businesses spinning. To feel the rush, Rhymer Rigby saddles up for a day's hard graft as cycle courier

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I start out by doing a mini-knowledge, the City of London Courier's test for potential recruits. I don't do too badly, but it makes me realise that it's possible to live in the capital for 10 years and still not be able to name two roads off Fleet Street. Trickiest of all, though, is that many buildings in the City have a delivery entrance on a street different from their postal address. Learning all these, I suspect, is the work of a lifetime.

Still, my less than stellar score isn't a problem. Plenty of people, says City of London Courier's owner-manager Michael Lyons, learn on the job. I can shadow an experienced courier for a day, with me doing the deliveries. So he introduces me to Michael Stevens and we saddle up and head into the City.

In the Square Mile, we sit down and 'plot up' - ie, we hang around a street corner with other couriers, many from different firms, waiting to be radioed for jobs. They're a diverse bunch, with backgrounds that range from labouring and the forces to print - there's no well-trodden path in, although many leave to become cabbies. And, although there's no particular 'courier' look, they tend to be in their twenties or thirties and all have that lean, hard-body look that you just don't get behind a desk. Some are 'on guarantee': they get a fixed amount to be there - great on slow days, less so when it's busy. A typical courier can expect about £250 to £350 a week.

Today is pretty quiet. For 20 minutes we're chatting, admiring bikes (some are objects of beauty, others heaps of junk) and killing time. A lot of cigarettes are smoked, which seems odd for such a physical job, but if you're in London traffic all day, it probably makes no difference. There's a lot of texting and sharing of video clips on mobiles, which makes me realise that the internet is a white-collar creature of the deskbound.

Our first job involves heading up to East India Dock. We're taking share transfer certificates between banks; these are just stapled sheets of paper with all the deal details on the top, along with the address. The lack of envelope makes me wonder if there has ever been any courier insider trading. Certificates signed, we cycle back, do several drops round the City and head across the river to SE1. Then it's back north of the river again and a stop for lunch. This is one in the eye for the obesity excuses industry, the energy/weight equation in its simplest form: if you cycle for seven or eight hours, you can eat three sausage rolls from Greggs most days and never put on an ounce.

We're off to the Peruvian embassy near Victoria to collect a business visa. Mostly, we ride using the quickest routes possible - generally busy roads. Anyone who thinks you have to go to the Alps to experience extreme sports should try following a courier round Parliament Square. Michael keeps pointing out places where fellow riders have met with fatal accidents - often on bridges with their terrifying ill-designed cycle lanes. In this small community, of course, everybody knows everybody else.

Still, you soon toughen up. A well-meaning type admonishes me for jumping a junction, telling me that my actions 'reflect badly on all of us'. What does he mean us? He probably cycles 10 miles a day, tops, and I react angrily. If you cycle round London all day, you realise that the Government's pretensions to being bike-friendly are a joke.

Being a courier certainly isn't dull. It's hard to get bored when some idiot in a Porsche Cayenne is barrelling towards you at 50mph. But you also get to see the back entrance to everywhere, the whole service infrastructure that underpins the shiny face that the City shows to the moneymen. You chat with receptionists, courier vans and cars honk at you, other cyclists wave. You know the guys in the postroom, the cleaners, the security guards. But you're invisible to the suits, part of a parallel world that theyÕre barely aware of. For all the advances in technology, there's a lot that needs to be physically moved from A to B - particularly in the world of finance. Electronic communication doesn't yet rule the world.

The day wears on, and at 5.30 I'm praying this drop will be the last. It is. I go home, and I'm in bed by 9.30. Next morning, I bash my thigh on the kitchen table and want to cry. I recall Michael's words: 'Your first week is a bit like joining the army.'

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