Bicycle courier for a day - just how tough is it?

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Our intrepid reporter David O’Leary swaps shorthand for shortcuts as he joins couriers who know just how to get around the Capital.

It’s 2.50pm on a cold wet afternoon. Lee Barratt is awaiting his instructions outside the St James Centre.

Our man David O'Leary, left, has the satisfaction of delivering a package to a client on time.  Picture: Lesley Martin

Our man David O'Leary, left, has the satisfaction of delivering a package to a client on time. Picture: Lesley Martin

A loud beep from his Palm Pilot signals that he has a job. On the face of it, it’s a straightforward trip for a cycle courier. Head to the foot of Leith Walk, lift a package at a solicitor’s office and take it back to Waterloo Place.

No sweat right? Another beep . . . “the package needs to be delivered by 3.15pm”.

Helmet on, he’s off. Thighs pumping, eyes fixed on the road ahead, the minutes ticking by as he skilfully negotiates a traffic bottleneck, leaving buses, cars and taxis in his wake.

He arrives with minutes to spare, time for a breather – then beep goes his Palm Pilot.

Lee, from South Gyle, spends up to 50 miles a day, five days a week, dodging tram works and traffic, all the time with one eye on the clock while the other searches for a carelessly-opened car door.

As a result, you’d imagine a city cycle courier to be the first person to stick a spanner in the spokes of claims the city is delivering on 
increased road safety for those on two wheels. In fact the opposite is true. He feels the Capital is “a fantastic place to bike”.

“Yeah, you have the usual dangers involving buses, lorries and taxis but you encounter them in every other city too,” he says.

“You can’t help but have a smile on your face as you ride around Edinburgh – just look at it, it’s stunning. On the whole other roads users are generally okay in regards giving way and looking out for you.

“Most people think that as a cycle courier you must hate taxi drivers and bus drivers but actually we all get along. If you’re weaving in and out of traffic and coming up on the blindside of folk then you are going to have an off.

“If you ride with a bit of common sense then you’re usually okay. You’ll get the odd idiot but that’s life, isn’t it?”

In fact, the only significant ‘off’ that Lee has had was caused by two loose dogs on a cycle path – his right shin still bears the scars.

The 31-year-old only took up bike messenging after he struck up a conservation with a guy who delivered a package to the computer game shop he managed at Fort Kinnaird. A month later he had jacked his safe humdrum career and taken up one of the most dangerous and physically demanding jobs around.

He takes in upwards of 4000 calories a day – the normal daily recommended intake for an adult male is 2500 – as he pedals a single-speed bike around one of the hilliest cities in Europe.

Couriers don’t go in for fancy muscle-saving gear mechanisms, instead ‘fixies’ offer a more efficient, low-maintenance, and less expensive alternative to their multi-speed cousins.

Most bike messengers are self-employed and paid by the job, and as a result they are not entitled to sick pay or holiday pay.

Not that Lee needs it given he hasn’t suffered a cold or flu in the two years since he walked into Citysprint’s offices and asked for a trial run.
“I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been,” he says. “Even if I do feel a cold or flu coming on, by the time the day has ended I’m right as rain again.”

He adds: “The cold isn’t too bad, you just stick on an extra layer and you warm up anyway. It’s actually rather beautiful riding the city on one of those cold wintry mornings. When it starts snowing I just swap my single-speed for a mountain bike with bigger tyres.

“Rain is much the same as cold, you just wear a jacket, it actually helps cool you down.

“The killer is wind though, you might have a job out in Corstorphine and have to bike the entire Glasgow Road with the wind hammering into your face. But then you do get to head back in with it at your back.”
Lee’s cheery disposition is an essential part of his stripped-down kit, the rest of which constitutes just a handheld Palm Pilot to keep in 
contact with his depot and, of course, his bike.

No fancy gadgets or route-finding apps to help him along; old school word of mouth is still the best tool as shortcuts or tips on which parts of the city to avoid on a given day are shared among his fellow couriers as they await their next jobs in Festival Square.

“We’re a tight bunch regardless of who you are contracted to,” he explains. “We spend all of our free time in Festival Square which is slap-bang in the middle of the financial district, where we pick up most of our jobs. 
If someone has found a quicker route somewhere it’ll soon find its way around, the same if there are roadworks or an accident to avoid.”

He adds: “There will always be a need for us. By bike will always be the cheapest and fastest way of getting an item across the city.”

And with a beep from his Palm Pilot, he once again cranks the machine into life.

Why a single speed in a city with seven hills?

I HAVE encountered bike couriers on numerous occasions on my commute to work – each time they swoop in beside me at the lights and I’m left to wonder why in Edinburgh of all places choose to ride a single speed?

And each time as I’m wondering this they beat me to the lights and peel off, legs hammering away into the distance.

So I was glad to have finally wangled a reason to have one ride beside me.

Joining us is Justin Bates from Citysprint who is also filming our (my) efforts for posterity.

The day begins in Festival Square with Lee wolfing down a sandwich and banana, in ­between bouts of telling me how calorie-wise he can basically eat whatever he likes.

First job that Lee picks up is at an office building in the ­direction of Blackhall near the Dean Bridge, straight away it becomes apparent that he cycles fast – very fast.

I also notice the position he adopts on the road, confidently on a par with the vehicles around him not huddled in on the kerb – it offers valuable space on the crowded streets.

He leads me through Charlotte Street and down a handy shortcut on Randolph Place out on to Queensferry Street.

There’s no time to admire the view as we cross the Dean Bridge though as I concentrate on ­gulping down air in reply to his ready chat.

We arrive at the office building and Lee leaps from his bike before bounding in the door.

He returns to cheerily inform us that he has picked up a job at the National Museum on ­Chambers Street.

I immediately begin computing distances and gradients when Lee suggests: “We can go by the Castle if you want? Up Johnston Terrace and down the Royal Mile, it’ll look good on camera.”

For those in the dark in regards the city’s steepest streets, Johnston Terrace is most definitely in with a shout.

In what seems like seconds we are pedalling up it, Lee casually chatting away on his single speed while I slowly inch down through my 24 gears.

Finally we’re up and down the Royal Mile and along to Chambers Street. I now craftily ask him to give me a ­detailed rundown on the workings of his Palm Pilot.

No time for rest though as the package he’s picked up needs to be dropped off to an office building on Greenside Place for 2.30pm.

With minutes to spare we roll up and I’m given the honours of handing over the package that Lee has kindly biked across the city.

Another job rolls in for him on the other side of town and given the proximity to my Holyrood office I am more than happy to head back with an answer as to why he rides a single speed in Edinburgh?

Low maintenance, apparently.