Lessons for living the dream

How I Work

This Bike Messenger Is So Good, He's Sponsored for It

Austin Horse on working as a courier in the age of apps

Austin Horse isn’t just riding for messenger bags. (Lucas Gilman/Red Bull Content Pool)
austin horse

Austin Horse on working as a courier in the age of apps

Some would describe zipping in and out of Manhattan traffic on two wheels as suicidal. Austin Horse, a Red Bull–sponsored bike courier (yes, that is a real thing that Red Bull sponsors), thinks it’s romantic. “Being a bike messenger in New York City is intoxicating,” he says. “To get paid to ride with a purpose is pretty remarkable.”

Horse worked at a bike shop throughout high school and often helped the messengers who came in. After stints of firefighting, working on a fishing boat, and campaigning for Ralph Nader, he moved to New York to pursue his dream of cycling around the city for a living. Horse made a name for himself in the local alleycat scene, a series of unsanctioned street races created by bike messengers and designed to mimic a typical messenger route. He compares the races to scavenger hunts on two wheels. “Alleycats get back to the heart of being a courier, when you really had to know your city and you couldn’t just punch an address into your smartphone,” he says. In 2007, Red Bull took notice of Horse and sponsored him. But the three-time North American Cycle Courier Champion and two-time Cycle Messenger World Champion isn’t just riding for messenger bags (the typical race prize). Horse is also using his bike as a platform to raise awareness for causes like health care reform and cyclists’ rights.

austin horse
Austin Horse "Everesting" the Williamsburg Bridge. (Ben Franke/Red Bull Content Pool)

Age: 35
Job: Bike messenger for Clementine Courier
Home Base: Brooklyn. “I love the history and energy of the city and that feeling of possibility. Sometimes it can be a frustrating place to live, but that’s also part of why you stay.”
Bikes: “I alternate between my All-City Macho King cyclocross with disc brakes and my Brooklyn Machine Works Gangsta Track fixed gear.”
Helmet: Lazer Z1
Favorite Bike Lock: “The Abus Bordo is so versatile. It can fit around any pole.”
Favorite Messenger Bag:R.E.Load, a messenger-owned company out of Philly, makes the best bags. And my friend Rob Nelson, of Mer Bags in Brooklyn, makes me a lot of super custom bags.”
Winter Essentials: “I swear by Gore-Tex Outdoor Research gloves.”

On Getting Started: “This is one of the most egalitarian jobs you can have. You don’t need any education or certification. Just don’t be a jerk. I tell people starting out to buy a smartphone and a fixie. The first company I worked at I found through an ad in the back of the Village Voice. Today, a lot of companies have messenger apps, like Caviar and Street Stream, to churn out couriers, kind of like Lyft or Uber.”

Hours and Pay: “Generally, riders work for one service, and that service has a number of clients. If you’re not busy, then you’re not getting paid. Some services, particularly food-delivery apps, pay an hourly rate, like $25 an hour. But historically messengers get paid commission, and that’s often $10 to $20 per trip. Some services pay a better percentage if you’re more reliable. As you get better at the job, you do more work. New York City has a bigger zone than any other major city, so you ride a lot more here. I work 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and ride anywhere between 25 and 60 miles in a day. But starting out, before the Red Bull sponsorship came along, I worked crazy hours, like 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.”

Making Ends Meet: “Back in the old days, messengers could buy a house with their earnings, but I don’t think that’s possible just on a messenger salary any longer and definitely not in New York. Cargo work has a lot of money to be made, and if you get a sweet food-delivery situation, you can really make bank off the tips.”

His Workspace: “In movies, the dispatch office always looks like this old-school New York City hole in the wall with bulletproof glass. We’re in a co-working space. The new economy has won. We drink coffee for free and at the end of the day hang out and drink beer.”

Most Heroic Delivery: “My most epic delivery was a super-rush job for a client whose father had just passed in Bellevue Hospital. He called to say the family was en route to see him one last time, but his dad’s dentures were in his apartment in Stuyvesant Town, and he wanted the family to see him for the last time with his dentures in his mouth. I had to race the family to ICU but got the dead man his dentures before the family arrived.”

Strangest Delivery: “An enormous jack o’ lantern for Wendy Williams.”

Urban Bike Pro Tip: “Never lock your bike to scaffolding. It might seem like the scaffolding has been there forever, but one day it’s going to come down, and when it does, your bike is going with it.”

Favorite New York City Road: “I always show someone new to New York the Park Avenue Viaduct, which goes through the Helmsley Building. The first time I rode it, I thought it was so cool that you could ride through a building.”

Pet Peeve: “Cyclists who stop in the crosswalk.”

Taking Home the Prize: “We have this tradition in the messenger world that we kind of took from the rodeo, where the rider gets a prize saddle. Well, the messenger gets a prize bag when you win a race. You get to wear it to the office the next day and look like a badass.”

Silent, Speedy Statement: “Earlier this year, I road from NYC to DC, ghosting my late messenger friend who died from a preventable medical condition that he couldn’t treat because he didn’t have health care. Ghosting is when you pedal your bike and hold onto the other bike alongside you as you ride. The ride took me three days. I’m going to do it again in October but ride to Albany to spread the message for affordable health care.”

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