San Francisco’s Bike Messengers; A subculture of street cowboys

 media, messlife  Comments Off on San Francisco’s Bike Messengers; A subculture of street cowboys
Dec 032016

Thanks to David A. Hughes for taking the time to write this article. You can read the PDF file here. The plain text is below.

San Francisco’s Bike Messengers;
A subculture of street cowboys

David A. Hughes
Urban Sociology 2016

“When I was a little boy, I used to pray
every night for a new bicycle. Then I
realized, the Lord, in his wisdom, doesn’t
work that way. So I just stole one and
asked Him to forgive me.”

Emo Philips. 1980


I’ve always been addicted to cycling. Since I
got my first bike I’ve been riding along
everywhere. I did a 1000 mile trip with my
bicycle down the Carretera Austral in the
Chilean Patagonia. I used to compete in 120
miles races through the mountains in
Argentina. And I even survived the streets of
Buenos Aires with my bicycle, dodging
buses and cabs. There is no greater feeling
when riding a bike than when you dodged
cars at full speed on a street, when you
timed everything perfect. There is a feeling
that is hard to explain, you can go as fast as
your body can push. There is adrenaline,
danger but there are also moments of
contemplation of riding without thinking
about it and just being lost in one’s own
thoughts. And you‘re doing all of that with
the power of your legs. That’s was me, a
crazy bike rider. Five years ago all of this
came to an end. I had a horse riding accident
that damaged my hip and the doctor said
“forget about cycling for a long time.” I was
devastated. I gave my bike away to a friend.
I sold my bike shoes and all my equipment,
except my shirts. Those I kept because I‘m
still hopeful l‘ll ride again. I tried to ride
again a couple of years ago but the pain was
too much. So now I just look at those
cyclists with a sort of mild envy. I look at
them from the bus window, seeing them
breathing heavily and going through small
gaps, put a small smile on my face.

When I first moved to San Francisco I was
amazed at the amount of hills, and their
height. Of course nobody will be riding their
bikes around here, I thought to myself. Oh,
how wrong I was. Cycling is a big part of
this city. There are plenty of famous bicycle
rides in the city happening all year round,
such as the Critical Mass. World Naked Bike
Ride, Bike to Work Day, and many more.
But the cyclist that captivate me the more
are not the daily commuters or the hipsters
with their fancy bikes, it’s the subculture of
bike messengers. These guys are the masters
of street riding, plus they are getting paid for
it. How great is the idea that you get paid to
ride your bike around the city, going fast
while delivering packages. It’s also more
than that, they are a group of people who
share their love for the streets and their
bikes. It’s a job first of all, and it has it pros
and cons. But as experienced bike
messenger Mongo said in an interview: “We
do this because we love to be outside an
office, we are not people that like to be
indoors, we like our freedom.”

Mongo has been riding his bike around SF
for more than ten years, delivering packages
all over the city. He was my informant
for this project, and thanks to him we got to
know more about this fascinating group of
people, he was a type of informant to this

Who belongs to this group (what are the
general demographics) and what does
inclusion mean for its members (why does
this group exist)?

In the sea of suits and ties and dress suits
that move along San Francisco’s downtown
you find a small group of men sitting at the
steps of Montgomery and Market Street.
These are the bike messengers from
downtown. They are a mostly men with a
few women, with ages ranging from the 20s
to the 40s. Its interesting to look at them,
they are all dressed in their own fashion, but
even though they are different they all seem
to be alike. You have those who are dressed
in leather jackets and long pants. Those who
wear shorts and biker caps. They are all
expressing their persona in their wardrobe.
So what makes this group a unified group of
people? It‘s their camaraderie, they are all
sitting together, having lunch together and
laughing. But mainly it’s their bikes, all
resting against whatever they can find along
the sidewalk. Sometimes they would rest
their bikes against one of the trees, to be
quickly reminded by the security guy from
the nearby building that they can’t do that.
The security guard is not angry he is
friendly, he knows them from seeing them
everyday, but in a friendly way reminds
them that it’s his job to make sure the trees
are clear. It’s a group respectful of its

It’s their place here on this corner, they keep
it clean, they cherish it. I was observing
them, from away, looking at their manners
and how they interact with each other. One
learns a lot by just looking. But I needed
hard empirical evidence of such group.

And thus I approached Mongo, who I
mentioned before. Mongo has a sort of look
that would look more as a motorbike rider
than a cyclist. He wears a black leather
jacket and black pants. He is tall and well
built. I introduce myself and ask a few
questions, he gives me a small glimpse to
what it means to belong to this group. He
explains to me that it’s not much a group per
se, but a way of life. They are attracted to
the job as hike messengers by the need to
ride their bikes and not be stuck in an office.

But I also feel that it lets them be
themselves. They have tattoos, unorthodox
haircuts, piercings, things that would go
against the social norms of professional
workers. But Mongo describes a great
camaraderie amongst them, they help each
other in whatever they can, they are a
healthy human group in this age of virtual
friendships. Even more than help they even
have something called the Broken Bones
Fund. Where they collect funds for those
bikers that suffer an accident and are
struggling to pay medical costs or need a
financial hand.

What is the history of this group and
where can they be found today?

The idea behind bike messengers in the Bay
Area can be traced back to the 1894 postal
workers strike, which led to a bike shop
owner to come with the idea of using
cyclists as couriers. I find that the bike
messaging idea can be related to that of the
Pony Express, being todays bike messengers
a type street cowboys with steel horses. An
official association, exists now a days called
the San Francisco Bike Messenger
Association, which was founded in 1990 by
a group of bikers to help get together the
city‘s couriers and organize events and
fundraisers, and also to help and support the
workers rights (SFBMA). Today they can be
found all over town, you can recognize them
by their bags and bikes. They zoom through
the streets between the cars. You can know
who they are because of their bike skills,
those who commute are much more cautious
of their riding. Bike messengers live on
these streets. I bet they could even ride
through these streets with their eyes closed,
if buses weren’t running.

What are some common identifying
characteristics and social behaviors found
among the members of this group?

There is sort of a blase‘ attitude from the
general public towards bike messengers.
Maybe it is because they are different, or
they choose a different path in life, there is a
sort of alienation from the techie culture.
Most of the bikers agree, as Mongo said,
that this is not a job for life. Messengers
workers come and go, as it is a hard job.
Bike messengers never stop being part of
this subculture (Stewart. 2004) they share
the same passion for being outdoors and
riding their bikes. Bike messengers tend to
have this freedom from office work, they
do not take work home, they are always
moving around, each day is a different day.

They would not fall into a routine, as the
traffic and the city is always changing and
evolving. They are attracted to this freedom,
even though they work from Mondays to
Fridays. Also bike messengers create a
connection between themselves due to
sharing the experience of working in a
dangerous job (Fincham. 2008). Apart from
their work, they participate in fundraisers for
different causes, they have a sense of
community that spills into other
organizations, whenever there is a bike ride
event, they help and participate of it. This
tells us about their to help others, to assist. A
behavior that not many times we can say
we see in a modern day subculture.

There are no physical characteristics that
one can describe per se, but the common
things that bound the together go beyond the
physical appearance that a subculture could
have such as the goths, punk or hipsters.

They are unique in their personal way, but
they are part of this family of bikers.


It‘s hard to write about a subculture that one
feels so connected to, but at the same time
one is not part of. Having last ridden a
bicycle four years ago, it was only matter of
time I‘d find myself back and trying to peek
into this world of cyclists. They are a
subculture that has lasted time and that will
surely carry on existing even though with all
the technology advancements. There are
certain things that you cannot send by binary
code. And electric cars will surely replace
the environmentally destructive diesel
engine. But nothing will replace the feeling
of human powered transportation and
feeling the lungs fill with air as your pushing
yourself through with your bicycle. There
might be a time when streets will be bicycle
only streets, which would start to resemble
what Holland looks like or Vietnam. But I
also wish that streets don’t lose the chaos,
because where else would you get the
adrenaline of dodging vehicles? They are a
crucial part of a city veins and arteries, they
are the white blood cells of it. Delivering
packages, flowers or boxes. I cannot wait to
be back on a bike and hopefully get a chance
to at least be a messenger for a day.

Works Cited

Broken Bone Fund, Web, October 2016,

Fincham, Ben. Balance is Everything. Bicycle Messengers, Work and Leisure, 2008, SAGE Publication. London.

San Francisco Bike Messenger Association. Web. October 2016.

Stewart, Benjamin. Bicycle Messengers and the Dialectics of Speed, Russell Sage Foundation, 2004. New York

FoundSF, Bike Messengering, Web. October 2016.

Gold Sprints at the KnockOut on 9/19 – Update

 fundraisers, messlife  Comments Off on Gold Sprints at the KnockOut on 9/19 – Update
Sep 162015

Update : 9/19/15
Congratulations to Carlos and Wren for both winning free entry to Quake City Rumble 2015!

Are you coming to gold sprints Saturday? Presented by the SFBMA and QCR Project! $5 at the door, grand prize is free entry to QCR! (If you can’t make it to QCR and win, speak to me for alternate arrangements) 4-9 pm. 21+, sorry kids. I’ll try to plan something all ages soon. Come out and get loose. Music by The Messfits, Lone Whale and the Krill, and DJ Salvatore. Many thanks to The KnockOut for hosting us, we love you!
It’s EmKay’s birthday too, come out and buy her a beer!