Couriers the latest free-enterprizers on two wheels

Amy Dyer makes her living on two wheels in Toronto … unless those wheels get damaged.

“If one of my wheels on my bike decides it’s had enough … and blows up, unless you build it yourself, you have to pay the mechanic to build it … That is upwards of $200,” Dyer said.

“We buy special Gore-Tex socks so you’re not going to get wet and cold, and you’re not going to freeze and die of frost bite.”

On March 25, fully dressed in several layers of winter clothing, Dyer and five other bike couriers sat at the roundtable in downtown Toronto.

Some are members of the Toronto Bike Messenger Association (TOMBA), a non-profit organization set up for the benefit of 500 bike messengers. They’re planning an emergency fundraiser for May 1 and 2. Dyer explained the purpose of the Bike Messenger Emergency Fund.

“When we get hit, we get hit (and) we go down,” Dyer said. “The bike gets trashed. You lose a month’s pay … Then you get to fix your bike. All of a sudden you just spent two grand! That’s what the fund does. It helps you get back to work. It helps you pay the rent.”

Most couriers, 90 per cent of them, work as independent contractors. They incur the same risks that small business does. Dyer clarified that 90 per cent of messengers get paid on commission, per piece.

Courier Andrew Parker noted that Toronto bike messengers receive a standard commission of about 60 per cent of the rate charged by a courier company, but without employee benefits.

“As an independent contractor, (we’re not entitled to) benefits, unemployment insurance or sick leave pay,” Parker said.

Like small business, bike messengers pay a wide variety of indirect costs. For example, 70-year-old courier Steve Beiko says he might consume six meals on a cold winter day.

“Food is our fuel,” he said.

TOMBA spokesperson Marli Epp explained that couriers work around the clock, in good weather and bad.

“If there is a blizzard and they close schools, we’re working on our bikes,” Epp said.

“When they called in the army to plow snow, couriers were working on bikes… to deliver packages,” Parker added.

These knights on wheels cover their scars. Some may have been “doored” by passenger exiting their cars without notice. Others may have been run off the road by an angry driver, or “T-boned” at an intersection. Half a year ago, one bike messenger died in a controversial collision.

Yet along with the pain, comes the joy of riding. Beiko has worked as a courier for more than 25 years. And there’s also the pride of riding. Marli Epp brags about the speed with which she can deliver on wheels.

“I can beat the subway from Union Station to Eglinton, hands down,” she said. “(It takes) 20 to 25 minutes by subway from Adelaide to Eglinton. I can make it in 17.”

Epp said the May 1 fundraiser will start at Dufferin Grove Park and feature a variety of events: a bike tour around the city, bike polo, flatland tricks competition, cycling films, silent auction, and a benefit party. Some events will take place at Cinecycle.

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