Anne-Marije Rook

The Riding Reporter: a ride with the world champion of bike messengers

Interviewee: Craig Etheridge
Occupation: Bike messenger
Riding style: zigzagging in-and-out of cars to deliver packages; racing

His ride: An old steel Rossin with a flat bar

Joining me for a short loop around Lake Union on a rather wet and grey afternoon last week was reining World Champion of bike messengers, Craig Etheridge.

Despite the weather and the fact that it was his day off, Etheridge agreed to get back in the saddle for the purpose of this interview. On an average day at work for KNR Couriers, Etheridge spends an estimated 40 miles on a bike, zigzagging through traffic to deliver packages from downtown to West Seattle, Ballard or even the East Side.
Craig tells me that KNR is just one of five or six companies in Seattle that provide bike messaging services.  

“There is quite a bit demand for it,” he said.  “Photoprints, court documents, bank deposits, architecture plans, that stuff still demands hard copies.”

Craig said in the short term, companies chose bike messengers for the speed of things.

“It’s easy and certainly faster than any postal service,” he said. “Plus in more recent years it has become an environmental thing. They feel good about sending packages via bicycle.”

Originally from Wisconsin, Craig moved to Seattle seven years ago.

“When I moved to Seattle I hadn't really been that much of a commuter even,” he said.  “I ended up deciding that riding a bike was a lot more efficient and it was shortly after that, that I thought it’d be cool to be a bike messenger. It’s gone pretty well ever since.”

After a year with ABC Legal, Craig felt he had outgrown the company and got hired by KNR.

“[Bike messaging] is one of those fields it’s really hard to get a job in. I had to be very persistent. I had to keep going into the places that I knew were hiring and pretend like they weren’t hiring in order to finally get a job,” Craig said.

“More often than not, they just want to make sure someone is really committed to doing it rather than trying it out for a couple of weeks or months.”

Other than commitment and access to a functioning bicycle, there aren't too many requirements to qualify for the post of a bike messenger.

Considering the nature of the job -- spending all day in the midst of traffic -- I thought health assurance may have been a requirement but Craig said most bike messengers work as private contractors and are responsible for their own health (and taxes).

"It is kind of a dangerous job but a lot of times, it’s just about as dangerous as you make it," Craig said. "Sometimes when I make it dangerous, it’s because I feel that I’m prepared to push the limit of where I might feel unsafe."

Craig said Seattle is fairly safe although he admitted that his limit of feeling safe is probably much higher than the average bicycle commuter.

"The city gets safer the more you’re in it," he said.

In the six years he has worked as bike messenger, Craig has never had an accident at work.

"Unfortunately, I know the odds aren’t that great, especially the longer I do it, but I feel like I continue to be pretty cautious," he said.

Craig's love for cycling was born at his job and he continues to enjoy being on a bike everyday whether he's at work or not.

"It doesn’t pay well but not a lot of bike messengers are into it for the money," he said. " It has kept me in the shape I’ve always wanted to be in."

His fitness, bike handling skills and quick thinking earned him the title of Cycle Messenger World Champion. The championships were held in Guatemala last year and Craig was the first of 50 competitors to navigate through the maze of often unpaved streets and complete various tasks.

Yet Craig said he's more comfortable in the dirt than on the streets. He likes to spend his free time mountain biking or competing in single-speed cyclocross. In fact, he's the 2006 Washington State Champion in Cyclocross single speed and took third at StarCrossed last year after crashing at the starting line.

"I prefer the dirt. When I make a mistake when mountain biking or in cyclocross, I crash. But people who crach on the road, often it wasn’t even their mistake," Etheridge said. "You’re more likely to crash in the dirt but when you crash on the road it’s more severe."

Not that the crashing potential keeps him from competing in road races all together. Craig has won many Alley Cat races and can be seen racing in the occasional criterium, like the Volunteer Park criterium he competed in last weekend.

When asked if he had a message for the many drivers with whom he shares the road, Craig said that in addition to better overall awareness of who's on road with you, people getting out of their cars create the biggest safety concern.

"People always seem to be in a big hurry getting out of their cars and it’s one of those things I’m always very cautious off," he said.

"I think hitting a door is one of the scariest things for me because in my experience it has the potential to happen so fast that nobody has any time to react. I really hope that’s something that won’t happen to me because I would lose a sense of security."

The Riding Reporter is a new series in which BNT's bike-riding reporter, Anne-Marije Rook takes interviewees on a short bike ride around town to talk bicycles, transit, and any other issues that may arise when seeing the city from a two-wheeled point of view. Previous interviewees include Mayor McGinn and ultracyclist Chris Ragsdale.

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