Wheels of Commerce (Hartford Courant; July 11, 2005)

Original Hartford Courant article here.

In an age of faxes, cellphones and e-mail — when messages traverse the globe in an instant — bicycle couriers should be an endangered species.

Not in Hartford.

Five male bicycle couriers zip through the city streets from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to deliver important documents on deadline.
“Bicycle is the quickest way to get around town,” says Peter Barr, 27, an independent contractor who has worked for Hartford Courier Service for six years.

“They’ve saved our butts many, many times,” says Suzanne Obedzinski, supervisor of the service department office at the Shipman and Goodwin law firm. Her department would “die” without the couriers, she says.

On average, the law firm needs couriers about a dozen times a day. “Attorneys file at the last possible moment,” Obedzinski says. “It’s the nature of the business. That’s why [couriers] are indispensable. I swear they can get to court before I even give them the documents. They know shortcuts, people, where they can get into — and they’re very conscious of what they have to do.”

Not making a delivery on time can cost clients and the firm millions of dollars, Obedzinski says.

“It’s really, really, really important what they do for us,” she says.

Bicycle couriers also deliver documents for politicians when the General Assembly is in session, and for other businesses and individuals around the city.

“You’d be surprised what people forget,” says Ryan Hart, 30, a courier for one year. “I’ve delivered cellphones, pocketbooks, lunch, X-rays.”

Barr says he delivered frozen lasagna from a wife to a husband, and Darrin Rees, 33, says he has delivered umbrellas in the rain to “suits who didn’t want to get their hair wet.”

Although bike-courier business has declined because of technology, Hart says, some things are always going to be needed.

Rees is the veteran at Hartford Courier Service, with seven years of experience. He looks like a punk-rock musician, with tattooed arms and black, quarter-size plugs in his earlobes. The messenger bag strapped around his chest is enormous — it can hold 150 cans of beer, according to the sales pitch he got.

After working late and grueling nights at restaurants, Rees decided he wanted a job where he could go home at the end of the day.

“I can’t think of doing anything else, because I love the freedom,” Rees says. “And I love being outside, and I love riding my bike.”

On an average workday, Rees arrives in front of CityPlace (considered the hub for the couriers), calls his dispatch officer on his walkie-talkie and waits for his first delivery.

One benefit of working for Hartford Courier Service is that the company never hires more than five couriers at a time, Rees says. Deliveries are divided among the couriers, so everybody gets the same number of assignments, from 20 to 25 a day.

In bigger cities, where competition among businesses is fiercer, couriers bid on deliveries, Rees says.

Most deliveries cost $10 one way, and the couriers get a 50 percent commission. They make between $500 and $625 a week. August is the slowest month.

One late June morning, Rees is assigned a $20 round-trip delivery from CityPlace to the U.S. attorney’s offices at 450 Main St.

He walks into CityPlace, says his usual hello to the familiar clerks, accepts the package, and secures the receipt in his silver clipboard. Outside, he grabs his bike and takes off.

Rees rides with confidence, aware of traffic and pedestrians. He says it takes him only 10 minutes to go anywhere in Hartford’s business district.

“I don’t abide by traffic regulations,” he says, zipping through every red light on Main Street.

At his destination, he goes through a series of security checkpoints. Even though he has delivered here for years, he waits in line to go through a metal detector.

“They used to flag us through, but after 9/11 they stopped me,” Rees says.

He hands off the documents to a courthouse employee, who signs for them; receives a stamp of proof; and makes his way back to CityPlace, where he waits for the next call.

The couriers cover 20 to 30 miles a day on their fixed-gear track bikes, which require less maintenance because they don’t have brakes. Rees pedals backward, and the resistance stops him.

When Rees started as a courier, he bought a BMX bicycle, but evolved to his current bicycle, which has sawed-off handles so he can slip easily between cars.

“Before this job, I never rode a bike,” says Rees, who lost 50 pounds the first five months of the job. “I didn’t know how to do bicycle maintenance. Now I help fix all the kids’ bikes in my [Asylum Hill] neighborhood.”

The high-risk job has its breaks — literally. A year ago, Hart flew off his bike when a truck hit him, shattering his ankle, which now is held together with pins.

And what about his delivery?

“I actually had to go to the hospital and pick up the package and deliver it,” says Jim Carbonneau, owner of Hartford Courier Service.

[link to story]

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