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A Book Review (Actually, It's More)
by David Teall

The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley, Villard Books 2001 324 pages

I first heard of The Immortal Class listening to an NPR interview in which the author, Travis Hugh Culley, was trying (with mixed results) to defend his central thesis: that the conception of the American metropolis has centered around the personal automobile as the only practical means of getting from point A to point B, and has done so to the exclusion of all other means of transit--especially the most efficient human powered machine, the bicycle. The NPR interviewer, Noah Adams, was more interested in the lurid, hard core world of the bicycle messenger than Culley’s political statement. You’ll find both the politics of cycling and the hardest of the hard-core cyclists in this book.

I read the first hundred pages of The Immortal Class in the Emergency Room of Flower Hospital. It seemed the obvious choice to grab off of t
he shelf as I went to get my forearm stitched up and, with its black and white jacket cover, disdainful messenger juxtaposed by bicycle wheel, an appropriate text to hold in my hand as I answered all of those so-you-fell-off-your-bike questions. As I began reading in the waiting room I noticed an eerie parallel to what was unfolding on the pages and were I was. The author got serious about bicycle activism after he sustained serious injury following a crash. Culley got "doored" by cab Number 876 (visualize the verb, i.e., door opening as unsuspecting cyclist speeds past parked cab on busy urban street), while I, the reader, went down in a tight echelon on Williams County Road V. The uninsured author had his girlfriend stitch up his gash; stitches were the only thing the reader, insurance card in hand, wanted from Flower. "Did you hit your head, Mister Teall?" asked doctor Vickers-McKenzie, as she suspiciously perused the imprint of a Bell Nemeses Pro air vent on my forehead. "No," I lied. "Really, I can take care of the superficial stuff; I’ve done this before. It’s just this open wound that I need . . ." Back to the book, where the author was treated quite differently by the system, beginning with the police officer who wrote out the accident report. "What were you doing riding a bicycle anyway?" This "what are you doing on a bicycle" sentiment becomes a thread throughout the book in its us-against-them portrayal of urban cycling.

As for that mysterious, somewhat romantic figure, the bicycle messenger, Culley quickly dispels the general perception of an occupation peopled by hard-drinking, uneducated derelicts and replaces it with overeducated, underemployed, pot-smoking, vagabond workforce. Some of which consider the bicycle a means to an end; others regard urban cycling as an aesthetic, like the messenger who rides a track bike with no hand brakes. (I thought this was total B S until the end of the chapter, where there’s a photograph the track bike and the messenger. They both look real.) Whoever they are we all know what they do: they deliver parcels within the largest and most congested urban areas on a bicycle because the bicycle is more efficient than anything else in such a setting. But that’s only true if the cyclist takes chances. Serious chances. After chronicling the risks messengers all run and their eventual aftermaths, Culley introduces a statistical formula for something he calls "exposure time." The messenger can work only X number of hours before he or she will likely be involved in a serious accident. How serious? The penultimate chapter, "Requiem for the Working Man", is about a messenger who was killed in action.

Parts of Immortal Class are, for me, a bit too much like a Disney sports film, like the messenger race that the author, having no experience or race training, defeats an all star field that includes a professional cyclist; or the part where his trick knee gives out one day and he and the dispatcher exchange jobs and, you guessed it, he becomes, for that one day, the greatest dispatcher who ever lived. It’s not my intent to spoil the end of these particular chapters for any prospective reader. Believe me, you’ll see it coming. But those are the only corny parts. For the most part, Culley heralds the bicycle messenger as the vanguard of the revolution against the auto-centered city. This is why the messenger raises his U-lock against the road-raged motorist, smashing an occasional window here or denting a fender there. It is why the messenger takes the Critical Mass movement to its lunatic-fringe furthest, blocking the busiest intersection with nothing more than his person, bicycle held overhead in defiance. On balance, Class is a very good read.

Post Script

Since reading and writing about The Immortal Class, I’ve been wondering what the author would make of our own microcosm of cycling. I’m fairly sure he would have a hard time with 50 or so suburbanites driving their respective SUVs or sports sedans 30 or so miles to a remote rural location where the ritual we call Thursday Night begins. As for tossing a water bottle into the path of an oncoming minivan, though it might fit in the pages of Class, I think that the author would view this particular act of aggression as detrimental to the preservation of our beloved Thursday Nights. The bicycle messenger tries to utilize an unoccupied space that exists on the urban street. The enemies he encounters are those who become enraged when the bicycle gets through traffic faster than their automobile, doing things, like riding between lanes of traffic, running red lights, that their automobile physically can’t do. The enemies we encounter are those who become enraged when they see us impeding their progress on the rural roads that we tenuously share with their automobiles. It’s reasonable to assume that the driver of the minivan had never before encountered an oncoming, berm-to-berm mass of cyclists. He or she had every reason to expect that the giant amoeba would elongate itself in such a way to permit passage. Which is what happened, the minivan gave way to the narrow berm, the peloton reluctantly elongated itself, and both safely proceeded on their respective ways. That should have been the end of it. We don’t need to make any enemies.

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