Navigating one stretch of urban congestion after another – especially on two wheels – is, to be sure, an inexact science. But it is one that Nico Deportago-Cabrera has managed to master the past nine years through periods of trial and error, and cause and effect.
Deportago-Cabrera accepted his first courier job more out of necessity than desire. Now he is hooked on this open-air office space being his world as he traverses the streets of downtown Chicago as one of the city's 300 bicycle messengers.
Like most members of the eclectic bike-messenger community, Deportago-Cabrera had to learn how each city has its own vibe. Its own energy. Its own pace. To truly become one with this bumper-to-bumper world, bike messengers must first understand their place in it to survive.
"It was literally being in traffic and the sensation I got when I was in between lanes in thick traffic," Deportago-Cabrera says of the job's appeal. "You kind of look and there's this canyon of cars and buildings. It's like that scene in Star Wars where they're flying down the corridor to the Death Star."
Given the uneven ratio of automobiles to delivery bikes, there is an inherent risk of working the daily messenger beat. But that is part of the attraction for riders like the 32-year-old Deportago-Cabrera. Motorists assume they are reckless daredevils willing to do whatever possible to stay ahead of the curve. But for Deportago-Cabrera and the myriad others who share a love for his line of work, this isn't just a job. It is living. Pure unadulterated living.
Turnover within the messenger community is high. But for those who figure out how to survive -- and thrive -- on a daily basis, reward is measured in ways those outside the community cannot imagine.
Especially when taken to the extreme.
Deportagago-Cabrera recently captured his second men's North American Cycle Courier Championship in Brooklyn, laying claim to a title usually accompanied by nothing more than bragging rights. Christina Peck of San Francisco was the women's and overall champion.
For nearly three hours on a rain-drenched Sunday afternoon in October, Deportago-Cabrera covered a 17-block course blocked off by police barricades against 71 other finalists charged with making as many pick-ups and deliveries as humanly possible.
The annual event, which started in 1998 in Montreal and is more commonly known among messenger racers as the NACCC, brings together hundreds of cyclists for a weekend that is as much about celebrating the community as it is about the racing itself.
The concept of the NAAAC is ironically silly: A collection of money-strapped messengers who often spend their nights on couches of strangers to avoid costly hotel charges act as if they are working while on their days off.
The faces are familiar, both among top-notch competitors and the also-rans alike. But for those who have managed to set themselves apart from the field – widely recognized riders like Austin Horse, Peck and now, Deportago-Cabrera – three days worth of warehouse parties, art crawls and non-sanctioned races through city streets, known as alley cats, culminates in three hours of proving their worth to their fellow bike messengers.
But within the community, there is honor in being the best.
"It's totally like street cred," says Deportago-Cabrera, who won his first NACCC in 2009 in Boston, only a year after he started working as a messenger. "When somebody rolls up and you know that they're the champ of that year, it's like instant respect. It's like the same with any of these races. You might win a messenger bag or a bike frame, but really, we really enjoy being able to say, 'I'm the fastest.'"
To claim a title, champions oft-times need to blend speed with strategy.
At the NACCC, winners are determined by the amount of "money" earned during the course of the three-hour event. Racers work based on rate sheets and delivery zones, both of which are handed to competitors on pieces of papers before the NACCC final begins. In addition to all-day delivery assignments that are valued on a fictional base rate, racers also have bonus opportunities called rushes and double rushes. These have time limits that add anywhere from $2 to $6 to the base rate, and they're on a manifold that includes 11 checkpoints.
When, if and how many of the delivery zones competitors hit throughout the afternoon is up to individual racers. Although traffic doesn't factor into strategy because of the closed course nature of the final, ultimate success often comes down to a mental game and a reliable Google Maps smartphone app – especially among top-tier competitors.
For Peck, 30, who has worked off and on in the field the past nine years both on the West Coast and Chicago, out-thinking the competition has served her well throughout her messenger racing career.
Peck won her sixth NACCC title this year, when she – for third time – posted the best overall finish and topped Deportago-Cabrera and the rest of the field by collecting $300 in NACCC dollars – $19 more than her Chicago-based counterpart.
Peck's victory in Brooklyn came a year after she captured her first courier cycling world championships in Australia in which her strategy of not worrying about how fast she was covering the course compared to the rest of the field again came in handy.
"You know there's definitely not a lot of room to make mistakes," says Peck, who holds a sponsorship with All-City Cycles and works on a daily basis for Godspeed Couriers. "What my upper hand is in that situation is the fact that I'm being really smart and that I'm on top of it. I'm still fast – I'm probably faster than a handful of the guys that are out there – but I'm not as fast as some of the top dudes.
"So to beat those guys, I have to be super on top of everything."
Peck makes sure she has even the smallest of details covered and thinks out her course based largely on what makes the most logistical sense. Fueled by the competitive nature that has always consumed her since he was playing soccer, competing in horse jumping shows and running while growing up in Southern California, Peck cut her teeth on alley-cat races. Then she moved up the scale, leading to multiple NACCC championships and the world title in 2015. Once she won her first NACCC in Boston in 2009, Peck was hooked for good.
"I don't think there's a lot of things I enjoy that I'm bad at," Peck says. "I think it's a lot easier to keep going back when you have a title to defend. It's like when I first won in Boston, I was like, 'Well, s----, I guess I'm pretty good at this – why would I not want to come back?' But it's fun to see if (a win) was a fluke or it was something I could repeat or when you're at the top and there's no place else to go, you want to keep maintaining that."
For top-level messenger racers, organization plays a critical role. The closed-course nature of the NACCC final puts competitors on as even of a playing field as possible. But because an unexpected hurdle can throw things off kilter, charting the right course often sets top competitors apart from the rest of the field.
The entire race requires constant thinking ahead and understanding that even what seems to be an insignificant decision can spell the difference between victory and merely a Top-5 finish. But for those who have won courier cycling titles at both the North American and world championship levels, grasping how fellow top competitors think and operate plays into individual strategy.
That's where Austin Horse enters the conversation. When asked for his racing resume, Horse can't recall how many NACCC championships he has captured.
"Countless," he says matter-of-factly.
Horse is widely known as one of the world's fastest and most organized messenger racers as evidenced by the world titles he won in 2013 and 2015. Like Deportago-Cabrera, Horse has earned a sponsorship with Red Bull. Horse, who had won the previous two NACCC North American titles before this year, often finds himself at the starting line of an event surveying the competition, which allows him to better chart his own course.
While he is known for speed, Horse ties much of his success to being a reliable messenger in his day-to-day life of working as one of the more than 5,000 couriers in New York.
New York is known among bike messengers for its long avenues and abundance of green lights once cyclists master the rhythm of hitting lights in the right sequence. As opposed to Chicago, where streets aren't nearly as densely populated by traffic as in New York, Horse has learned to understand the best way to maneuver around the city in an effective manner. Yet, like the rest of the messenger community, instincts factor into street survival, especially in a city as unpredictable as New York.
"What that comes down to is, I think with humans, there's this sort of normal threshold of risk that you can operate with," Horse says. "If you're below that threshold, then you're not satisfied – you're not maximizing your human potential.
"As a people, we push what can be achieved and so there's risk in that. The more time you spend with certain risks, the more familiar you become with that edge and for someone who is very experienced with traffic, they can do something that would be very alarming to the lay person. But I know I am fully aware of the risks. I make no moves when I'm counting on someone else to react. I never do something where my safety is depending on the actions of another person and I think that this experienced messengers learn."
Regardless of how many competitions he has won, Horse knows being a champion bike messenger racer doesn't carry much weight outside of his chosen community of cyclists. But he treats his daily work with the same level of dedication as he does any North American or world championship, knowing that's when his cycling abilities really matter.
Among his proudest moments: Racing against the clock to secure the dentures of a man who had passed away and delivering them to a New York City hospital so that the man's family could remember him the way they had always seen him before his death.
But in other lighter moments, Horse is happy to let his customers know of his racing success.
"When you're the world champion and you're delivering a package to someone, they'll be like, 'That was really fast' and then when someone says that, what do you do?" Horse said. "I'll be, 'Yeah, I'm the best in the world.'"
No matter the differences between the cities where messengers work, some rules still apply.
After nine years on a job he never expected to last more than more than a few weeks, Deportago-Cabrera has long relied on his street smarts to get him from one side of Chicago to the other while splitting time working between two courier companies.
Over the years, Deportago has blended well-known industry secrets with his instincts. He can predict when traffic is going to shift or when drivers are going to make a quick turn before they actually do, which allows Deportago-Cabrera to remain one step ahead and act accordingly.
After making a tactical error in this year's NACCCC final Deportago-Cabrera estimates put him 15 minutes behind the competition and seemingly out of contention for a win, a split-second decision to make one last pick-up and delivery worth $4 as the final minutes of the race ticked away proved to be a difference-maker.
Deportago-Cabrera, who also won the weekend's Out of Towner alley-cat race, ended up finishing $1 ahead of the second-place finisher and $2 ahead of third-place, giving him not only his second win of the weekend and the bragging rights that accompany a NACCC championship, but a title that will be linked to his name for the next year.
For someone who grew up skateboarding and roller blading, but never enjoying much athletic success, Deportago-Cabrera has started to enjoy the benefits of being one of courier cycling's top competitors. He travels more than he ever did. He has competed in international locales such as Paris and Tokyo and become a mainstay in what he refers to this "crazy world" that he never knew existed before stumbling upon it a decade ago.
And as much as he loves a day-to-day messenger lifestyle he assumed he would one day gave up in exchange for "a real job," Deportago-Cabrera relishes the thought of being the best at what he does – at least in North America and at least until someone comes along and takes his title. For Deportago-Cabrera, who also performs for Chicago-based punk rock bands Young Distractions and The Static Age, that is living.
"Dude, I wake up every day hyped because yeah, I'm f----- Nico and I'm the best bike messenger in North America," Deportago-Cabrera says, "It's awesome."