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Frantic, but fun

By Pat Christian

     How do you photograph gonzo bicycle messengers on downtown metropolitan streets? 
Riding with them crossed my mind. I do ride. 
     But I knew there wasn't a chance under a rainbow I could keep up. 
     These urban cowboys can sprint to 30 mph in a blink.
On a good day, I'm wrenching my gut to sprint to 20. 
   That's how I found myself sitting in the back of my SUV on the lowered tailgate, the flopping rear window thrashing my head as I tried to grab a few acceptable photographs for my bicycle messenger story. 
   I almost fell out the back when Julia Peterson, the fiancee of a bike messenger whom I had enlisted to drive, pulled out of an alley over an unexpected bump. 
   "Sorry, sorry. I forgot about the bump," she said. 
   "It's OK. I'm still with you," I comforted her. 
   This was actually working. I could get some shots off, and shooting was exciting -- not as exciting as the messengers weaving through traffic, jumping obstacles and short cutting sidewalks, but still pretty fun. 

THE BIKE messengers could always get hit by a car, fall and see the underside of a city bus, up close and personal. I'd have a prize-winning photograph. I, on the other hand, could fall out the back of my vehicle and see the underside of that city bus. That always makes work less boring. 
   In the back of my mind a thought revolved like clean clothes in a hot drier. I could hear it and it sounded something like, "I bet the cops won't think this is too cool, even if I'm a journalist chasing a story." 
   Born in San Francisco, bike messengers had sort of been my urban anti-heroes in my rebel days -- which may or may not have ended. 
   I'd seen them at downtown diners looking and smoking like the messenger of cancer himself -- Mr. Marlboro Man -- just come off a dusty cattle drive. 
   But boy could they ride with that enviable-to-an-insecure-young-man "Outta my way, you motorist" attitude. Then they'd climb California Street with 50 pounds in their bag like that street was flat instead of a gut busting bicycle Mt. Everest. 

LATER, NOW living in Utah and having mountain biked Moab's famous Slick Rock trial, I was on holiday in the city by the bay. 
   I got on the subway with my mountain bike and got off on Market Street. 
   Traffic, one-way streets and tricky downtown intersections threatened. There were pedestrians to dodge and weave through, some probably with attitude enough to throw me down and beat me to a pulp. 
   I loved it. 
   It was crazy, but it was way more fun than any Moab trail.
   I ventured into the business district. I found them. They were everywhere, darting like individuals in a school of silverfish. 
   I tried to follow a few of the bike couriers. It was impossible, but it was fun trying. 
   I arrived on California Street. I looked up. A cable car was halfway up the hill. 
   I went for it, found a low gear, stood up and climbed. I was holding my own. 
   A cable car passed me and I could feel the envy of the tourists as they watched me climb into the sun. 

version of this column appeared in The Daily Herald
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© 1999 Pat Christian
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