In the shadow of Bay Street’s office towers, bicycle messenger Fred Gardiner, 26, weaves his gold Dawes Galaxy 10-speed through the menacing rush-hour traffic on his last delivery of the day. Gardiner, a former cook who rides for Sunwheel Bicycle Couriers, says that, despite the hazards of his job—sleet and cold, for starters—he still prefers the work to his old job of
cooking beans “in the grungy kitchen of a Mexican restaurant.” George Metropoulos, 22, another Sunwheel rider, shares Gardiner’s enthusiasm for the gruelling work. “The cold isn’t too bad, because messengers are in and out of buildings all day,” says the veteran of two winters. But, he adds, “when the streets get messy, watch out for sliding cars.”
Toronto’s 10 full-time delivery people-only two are women —make a living dodging traffic for Sunwheel, a small bicycle messenger service. Owners Hilda Tiessen, 40, and Barbara
Weiner, 36, founded the company in May, 1979, with the help of a $5,000 Young Canada Works Grant. So far, according to Tiessen, Toronto and Vancouver are the only Canadian cities with a cycle courier service, but cycle messengers have become permanent fixtures in New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.
Most riders are free-spirited students who turned to pedalling when they were unable to find other jobs. Others are aspiring sculptors, musicians or actors. All have two things in common: a passion for cycling and a need to break away from the confines of a 9-to-5 office routine.
Though their initial debut in the courier field three years ago was anything but easy, Tiessen and Weiner have not looked back since. The company started with three cyclists servicing 100 small accounts and turned a $100 profit in the first year. Today Sunwheel’s list of clients has tripled. Operating out of a renovated ink factory on the fringe of the Spadina Avenue garment district, it services such accounts as CBC Transportation, the Ontario ministry of energy, Info Globe and Maclean’s. Last year the firm showed a profit of $20,500. This year, despite the depressed economy, Tiessen predicts that Sunwheel will double that amount.
For their part, messengers earn 50 per cent of the fee charged for each piece of mail delivered. The rate for each run starts at $2.50 but increases with the distance travelled. Ace cyclists—those who ride nonstop and make as many as 30 runs a day—can earn as much as $300 a week, no small feat considering the cyclists’ vulnerability to accidents. Still, in the threeyear history of the company, only one employee has been seriously injured. Ironically, the rider was struck by a concrete-mixing truck while stopped at a corner waiting for a light to turn green.
Compared to its larger competitors, who operate fleets of cars and trucks, Sunwheel is just a young upstart in the highly profitable courier industry. Nevertheless, with the spiralling cost of gas, scarcity of parking space and evermounting traffic chaos in downtown Toronto, Tiessen predicts that it is only a matter of time before bicycles become an integral part of the handling of interoffice mail. “Right now, we’re playing a waiting game,” she says. But, with the realization that the price of fuel will continue to go up, Tiessen is prepared to bide her time.
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