Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Paul Rance: not only a bike messenger | Interviewed by James Wise

Hi riders! 
Today could be a special day for you (if you are a bike messenger). Today we want show you an interview conducted by James Wise, a bicycle messenger from Manchester (UK), of Paul Rance, an experienced bicycle messenger from UK too.

Photo by Paul Davy

Enjoy this interesting interview, plenty of crazy experiences of Paul Rance....

James Wise: How did you get involved in riding for a living?
Paul Rance: I split up with my girlfriend of nearly 12 years and I was living in Leicester at the time. I didn't know what else to do so I came back to Manchester. I've been into bikes at various different times in my life and I did a bit of riding in Melbourne when I went traveling. I picked up a crappy old mountain bike and rode it to and from work. So yeah, I came back to Manchester and after the little bit of money I had left ran out I needed to get a job and I just thought 'bikes'. I looked for anything and somebody said, I can't remember who it was, but they said check out Evans at the Chill Factor. So I went online and literally typed in 'bike jobs Manchester'. Madly enough, fatedly, if you like to think about life in a romantic sense, 20 minutes before I'd entered that search Danny from MPG had listed the bike messenger job, so it was the first thing that came up on the search. It's mad because I've always liked the idea, it's weird to figure out a way to word it. It's not like I ever wanted to be a bike messenger, but you know you're aware of it as it's just like, it's cool.
JW: I remember I had that GT game on the Playstation. I knew what bike couriers were even when I was a kid.
PR: I'd heard loads of things about messengering over the years like 'badass' and 'punk-rock'. Someone said to me, or maybe it was something that I'd read, it went something like 'riding a bike, in a city, is just about the most punk-rock thing that you can do', and I kind of know what they were getting at. I remember when everyone referred to them as mountain bike messengers years ago and I distinctly remember coming into town (Manchester) with my dad. I remember coming in with him early and seeing mountain bike messengers. And then the few times I'd gone down to London to visit friends and seeing messengers there. But yeah, going back to the job, saw it and just instantly thought 'bike messenger', I could be a bike messenger!
JW: Did you associate track bikes with the work at the time?
Paul: No. I'd known about fixed gears for years. I remember my dad riding a bike for general fitness but it was his dad that, I think, that was more into cycling as a young man. I know your the same because we have discussed it at length anyway but all of the cool stuff aside and all of the modern stuff that is attached to riding a fixed gear bike now, for me, all of those old images of people like Tommy Simpson grafting their bollocks off training on one in winter time, you see that's cool because it's always been there. It has always been this tool of the cyclist. I love this whole idea of working -class men who were cyclists. They had one bike, one general do-all bike. And through the winter it donned full mudguards, long-reach brakes, and they fixed it, and then in the summer it was their race bike. So I've always been kind of aware of them.
(Meanwhile, a cat that has started to visit Paul's house begins scrathing at the back door).
JW: Is this that cat that's started turning up?
PR: Yeah, ironically enough he's started to just turn up and out of all the cats the we've had in the past he seems to be the one that's the most ideal. He sits on your lap but doesn't take the piss, doesn't meow all the time, he's just a bit more chilled out. 
But yeah the fixed gear thing, the old guy that taught me how to screen print, Norm, was big into cycling, like touring bikes and stuff. Because of him I think I started watching cycling again and searching on the internet, this must have been about 2003 or 2004, but stuff was starting to leak out. I remember one of the first Lucas Brunelle vidoes had popped up, I'm sure it was that halloweeny one in New York? And you now, you see something like that and you very quickly start searching and you find links to stuff like sites that have long since been abandoned like fixed gear 101 of Track Cycling. They were almost like a history of bike messengers using fixed gears, like in the early 80's it was all black guys who had brought them over from, was it Jamaica? Or a few other places? But literally all the bikes that they had over there were track bikes, and seeing this was where the obsession with bikes came in to it for me. 
I picked up a Bianchi Pista, one of the first ones, the chrome ones, and I started to ride that to and from work in Leicester. So when I saw that job I rode there the next day and asked for a minute of the bosses time, gave him the whole spiel about my life being turned upside down, and the fact that I didn't have a CV because my arse was in the air, you know, I was staying at a friends. He said he'd throw me a bone and told me to come in Wednesday and shadow our courier Patrick and see where I went from there. I went upstairs in the office half-way through the day, I saw the boss again and he said 'I don't see why you can't finish the rest of the day, you've got the job'. 
JW: I remember my first full week I did for BMS (a Manchester messenger company) and it got to Friday. I was sat in Sandbar and I'd probably had three pints before falling off the bench at the table.
PR: I remember the shock of having been riding a lot, it was just unbelievable. It's really weird to describe because unless someone has done it, you just can't describe how fucking exhausting it is. I distinctly remember when I started, it was very busy then, even at the time you did that summer (2008). It was bedlam, just non-stop bedlam, and I remember I was staying at a friend's house and I had the box room. I lay on my bed and I swear to god if you'd have put a microphone next to my body it would have given off a fucking hum. I remember a month or so later I started to have these excruciating pains in my legs, they were really abnormal - I thought I was going to have to quit the job. But yeah, six-years later and I'm still doing it.
JW: Clodge (a long-standing Manchester messenger) once described your riding style as 'wanton and reckelss', how do you respond to that?
PR: Haha did he say that?! I know what this was about.
JW: Did he ride home with you back through Stretford one time?
PR: Yeah, I mean what he's talking about is really home ground stuff, my territory really.
JW: Well whilst we are on the subject of home turf, what are your ideas about the zen thing and street knowledge? How important are they to you?
PR: From a work point of view, and from my personal point of view, for most couriers, I'm not a courier. Let's get that straight. My clients are very samey. Street knowledge in terms of looking after yourself is more important than doing the job because it's riding the bike, being safe and knowing how to get out of trouble as well as boring aspects like knowing where the fucking potholes are. But you know yourself  that it's a piece of piss to find somewhere. I think you always have that romantic sense of the job in mind because you are doing what most people dream of doing, not necessarily being a messenger, but being out in the elements under your own steam, with effectively, for most of the day, no one to answer to. So yeah, I think not knowing where your going or having to find where it is you need to go is part of the fun of the job. In terms of safety, having to drag yourself through the day, then street knowledge is important.
JW: It is a total experience, not like riding your bike through town to work and then back home at the end of the day.
PR: On a human level it's about knowing your place in the city because you are apart of the cityscape with your knowledge. I think that's why people go on about that zen state of messengering. When you know the streets so well, like for me, from MPG to a client, I know every possible route both forwards and backwards. And I know that if something's cut-off at any point in the route I can go another way. It's satisfying to think that you are apart of the daily working of the city. 
JW: We have spoken about the Red Hook Criterium and how the fixed gear thing has been elevated to a professional level. Do you think it has a future away from the shift towards professionalism?
PR: It's difficult to say really. It just becomes something different and not necessarily worse or better.
JW: It's had a bit of a renaissance in the past few years so I suppose it will always renew itself one way or another.
PR: You forget when you've gone so far down the line that there all these new people that you're unaware of. Even in Manchester there are still young lads getting in to it and it's exactly the same as what everyone else did getting into it in the first place. We weren't in the first wave getting in to fixed gear, this country wasn't. But essentially it's the same thing every time: it's lads that haven't got a pot to piss in as far as buying cycling gear,  they're just doing it anyway they can. I see young lads on cobbled-together fixed gears and I smile to myself because I've been there and done it.
That Alfred Bobe Jnr (New York City mesenger), he's now involved with Cinelli. It's just that it's gone so much further and I think that it is cool that it has become part of the professional ranks of cycling. There are some really talented riders and some messengers who have made it in a big way. It's just become different. It's like life isn't it? It always comes back to me about money, and because it's gone so much further and that it's got so professional it just seems further out of reach. It's terrible really because it's not through anyone's fault, the sport or the scenes fault either, it's just the nature of things. 
JW: You must have seen some strange things on the road over the years, any stand out moments?
PR: What, in general?
JW: Yeah, riding on the streets, weird stuff, funny stuff, like when I saw a couple of ladies bits one Friday!
PR: Haha yeah I've seen plenty of nic-nacs. No, I shall recall a tail that I recalled only days ago. Store Street, Network Rail building, I was coming down off Pollard Street, not going particularly fast. It was the middle of the day, people milling in and out of network rail, bearing in mind there are some fucking big wigs who get paid a fortune working there. Loads of cars about, loads of shit going on. Two Eastern European prostitutes mooching about where the parcel force depot is. I double took and saw a third prostitute, then it was another double take after the initial double take, on the grass verge, knickers around her ankles, having a piss. 
JW: Jesus.
PR: Here's another one. On Friday I was with Clodge in Caffeine and Co which is in St James Place off John Dalton St. God knows what we'd started talking about but he dropped his pants and started shaking his cock around. The worst one I heard was when he took a shit on one of the pic-nic tables in front of everyone in Sandbar. So if you want outrageous then talk to him!
JW: Haha. My final question then: Courier numbers have dwindled in Manchester over the years due to a number of social, economic and technological factors. How do you think you will fare in the future with a young family to consider?
PR: Physically I'm fine, even though I'm 40 this year, I'm probably in better shape than I've ever been in my life. And that is something to do directly with being out on my bike all week. You know, it's not like going out and doing 80 miles in the sunshine, you know that yourself. But I have to be honest and say that having Joseph, I don't think that has affected me because Im never conservative when I'm riding. I don't wear a helmet and I ride a breakless bike, which to most people seems ludicrous. But in terms of taking risks I still take a lot.
JW: But they are educated risks...
PR: Yeah I mean it is probably a little bit of energy and the type of person that I am. I do have days where I've got it on me - my legs feel good and I'll fucking roast it around and I just don't care. If your fucking pissed-off then you start to think that everyone's an enemy, but even in those situations I still stay relatively conservative. 
I didn't think that I'd be doing it for this long though. Our whole idea when Joseph was born was for Justine to be a stay-at-home mum, two years max. Her earning potential is greater than mine so the whole idea was that she'd go off and get a job, I would probably get a part-time job somewhere in a bike shop, so be a part-time stay at home dad. If a situation presented itself in the future that's what we'd do, but I wouldn't say that I'd miss it. There are days where I just think I'd fucking love for someone to help me so I don't have to ride this bike anymore and I don't have to come into the city centre anymore. But I know that probably within two weeks I would miss it dearly, and you know all those things that we discussed, the sense of place, the sense of freedom, the sheer fantasticalness of being able to ride a bike where most people are stuck indoors, I would miss that too.
Someone said to me recently, 'Gosh, what would they do without you?!' I said they'd just get someone else to ride the bikes. It doesn't matter who I am, how well I can do my job or how long I've been there for, it doesn't matter. It is a difficult one to deal with.
JW: It's like the famous line in Rambo when he is told that he is dispensable by the Colonel or whoever.
Paul: Yeah it is, but like I have said before, the perk of this job is that you have that sense of freedom but it could be a killer as well because you are pretty much stuck with yourself all day. There have been times when I've had stresses in my life and I've almost driven myself fucking mad. You have times where because you've been doing the job that long it feels like you're on auto-pilot and you are just dragging your body around.
There is that standing joke within bike messenger circles that your always tired. You're doing it, you're able to do it because you've been doing it for so long. It's bizarre really. My ride home is usually only 15-20 mins but some nights you feel close to death because you are so drained of energy. You just get up the next morning and do it again.
About three weeks ago I spoke to Paul. He said that the company he works for are drastically reducing their client base which will effectively render him obsolete by mid-summer.
February 2014.

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