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L.A.'s traffic-dodging bike messengers gear up to prove their mettle.

August 20, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

IT'S a recent Friday, the busiest day of the week for bicycle messengers in downtown Los Angeles. Psycho John, making a brief appearance, drives an orange Ford Fiesta up over the curb and parks behind a concrete piling, where he is welcomed with assorted hoots and animated profanity. Among the area's 100 or so messengers, Psycho John is a legend.

He has been known to grab hold of trucks on harrowing rides down the Hollywood Freeway or to cover his eyes and blast through busy downtown intersections. The closer he comes to death, it seems, the more alive he feels.

Psycho John has come to the Bridge, where messengers gather between deliveries and after work -- either as employees of various law offices or for messenger services, taking their assignments from dispatchers. Tucked away to the side of Flower Street in the shadows between 4th and 5th streets, the Bridge is the hub of the L.A. messenger world, a world similar to that of rock 'n' roll, except without the music.

Instead, there is sheer speed and the execution of deft slalom maneuvers that require precision and varying degrees of abandon and good fortune. Rather than a screaming guitar or thundering drums, there is the bicycle, which represents ultimate freedom, riffs of power and joy.

Upon them, messengers can perform acrobatics, moving backward in small circles on fixed-gear track bikes to avoid touching a foot down on those rare occasions when they stop at intersections. They can hold their balance at a standstill or bunny hop as if bouncing on two-wheeled pogo sticks for minutes at a time.

From Thursday through Sunday, messengers will gather in Los Angeles for an event known as City on Lockdown: four days of testing their skills, their art and their ability to consume vast amounts of intoxicants. The public is invited. The name of the event, sponsored by the Los Angeles Bicycle Messenger Assn., is something of a warning to the unsuspecting.

Among the events are an uphill climb, an "obstacle brawl" in which riders must avoid broken glass and 2-by-4s with nails in them, and then carry their bikes over a chain-link fence. Riders will work their way through the city based on clues related to the Black Dahlia murder mystery, and compete in a bunny-hop contest and sprints at the Encino Velodrome.

The competition is a tuneup for the September world championships in Seattle, which differ from City on Lockdown in that events are more controlled. Police will maintain order and streets will be closed for competition.

That contest, known as the Cycle Messenger World Championships, takes place in a different city each year and is organized by local messenger associations, which find private sponsors. The contest brings together messengers of different cultures and languages who share a passion for the bicycle and a rejection of conventionality.

Here at the Bridge, it doesn't matter what you wear or what you ride. Nor is ethnicity a factor. What matters is whether you can ride. There are artists and musicians, former gang members and college graduates.

Todd Cole, 30, is a writer-filmmaker whose documentary "Blue Collar" was shown at Maryland Film Festival 2000. Megan Gigney, 23, has a degree in literature from Towson University in Maryland.

At the Bridge, there may be a game of dominoes being played on a concrete bench in the center of the area. A guy known as Gonzo sets up shop at the side, repairing bicycles. He used to be a messenger but found it too difficult to deal with people on both ends of deliveries, so he now earns a living fixing bikes for his cohorts. He arrives with tools and parts in a backpack and plastic crate that he attaches to his bicycle. It's not an option to drive.

"I feel dead in cars," he says.

Like Gonzo and Psycho John, many messengers go by nicknames or first names only. There's Val and Designine D'Madreama, the Problem Child, Boo Boo.

About 3:30 p.m., cellphones begin singing as law offices call for papers to be picked up and delivered to the courts before they close for the weekend. One by one, messengers head out onto Flower, speeding through traffic lights and rush-hour traffic. They know every bump and pothole, every alley and, over time, absorb the pulse of the traffic.

Soon after 5 p.m., their final deliveries made, they return to the Bridge, demonstrating how many ways there are to dismount a bicycle. It's time to party and await the start of an impromptu "alley-cat race," which will take them about 26 miles from the Bridge to Hollywood, down Wilshire Boulevard then to the Venice Pier.

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