By day, they ride bikes on the streets of New York City, delivering packages for competing companies. By night, these Big Apple bike messengers come together and race against each other in a high-speed velodrome.
However, street skills aren’t needed where they’re racing. In the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, 100 bikers from around the five boroughs—about half are active couriers—rode the Red Bull Mini Drome, a scaled down velodrome. The Mini Drome measures just 82 feet in length, 1/10th the size of a traditional velodrome.
These delivery experts don’t only congregate for competition, though. Corey Hilliard, who raced for Team Bikestock, says it’s more than that. “After a rough day or a rough week, all the bike messengers … all go out to the bar or to somebody’s house and have a couple drinks and hang out,” Hilliard says.
Austin Horse rides for Brooklyn Machine Works, which won the event. He and his shop helped bring the Red Bull Mini Drome to New York, along with Doug Dalrymple, who contacted all 100 riders and persuaded them to compete.
“There’s just this wonderfully creative world that has been spawned by the messenger community, and one of its products is the Red Bull Mini Drome,” Horse says. “It’s really my passion.”
Although the Red Bull Mini Drome was a competition—the winning team took home $800—it’s clear that there’s more of a bond between teams than there are rivalries. In the green room while others were racing, competitors were laughing and chatting together.
“We all know each other because we’re the only lunatics out there when it’s rainy and snowing,” Hilliard says.
Dave Rodebaugh of Team Lockfoot, which took second in the team competition, was joking with Brooklyn Machine Works’ Horse during the competition—the two ended up facing off in the finals.
“It’s just a month’s rent for me. Who cares?” Rodebaugh said. “We’re just here to have a good time.”
It was an all-night affair. Things got started at 8 p.m., and, Dalrymple says, workers were there until 5 a.m. the next day taking down the track. The team competition went until 1:30 a.m. before individual races began.
As one of the main organizers of the event, Dalrymple was especially proud. Darren Lee, who rode the Red Bull Mini Drome last year, says this year went much smoother.
“I got to throw a party and invite 100 of my friends,” Dalrymple says. “It was a total success—all my friends had a good time, so I was more than happy.”
Biking is more than a hobby for many of the riders at the event. Hilliard says that just a couple weeks ago he road to Montreal from New York—it took him 30 hours. Sometimes before he goes to work as a messenger, he’ll go out for a morning bike ride.
Horse’s teammate Darren Lee doesn’t messenger, but he’s a frame builder for Brooklyn Machine Works. When asked about his life outside of bikes, he grins and says, “That’s my life.”
After campaigning for bike co-ops in Portland, Ore., and Manhattan, Horse now has his own bike repair not-for-profit business called Bike Yard. “Like your backyard but with bikes,” he describes it. Horse had a mobile repair shop set up at the competition offering tune-ups or repairs for any of the riders who needed them.
Horse and Lee met through the bike shop. Soon after Lee was hired, Horse visited in desperate need for a new ride—a taxi had crushed his while he was working in the city.
“It crushed my bike, it ran over my legs—my legs were OK. I didn’t break them. I walk into Brooklyn Machine Works the Monday of the next week because my bike was destroyed,” Horse says. “I actually looked up to Brooklyn [Machine Works] for a long time as a kid.”
Horse had already won a couple races at the time, and Brooklyn Machine Works became his partial sponsor. He still rides the bike he got from them on that day in 2007.
“It’s just burly and awesome, and I’m still racing it tonight because it’s one of my favorite bikes,” Horse said on the night of the Mini Drome.
Lee and Horse got into bikes around the same age. Horse began riding mountain bikes in high school, while Lee was running track “around junior year” when he found the beauty of cycling.
“What you notice about bike riding versus running is while you get exercise, it’s much more of an adventure,” Lee says. “You can ride 20 miles and be like ‘Oh, this is cool,’ and just ride back home, whereas with running … run 20 miles, and you’re going to be done and not be home, you’re going to need a car ride home.”
“It feels like a cheat code for life,” Horse adds.
Horse returns to the streets for work $400 richer, splitting the winnings with his teammate. He rides events like the Mini Drome for fun, but says he prefers to ride the streets, where anything can happen.
“I like variables [more],” Horse says with a guilty chuckle before riding on a course with none. “I find them more stimulating to me as a rider, personally. I like being surprised.”
Even after getting hit multiple times, getting his bike stolen and braving the rain and snow, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
“At their heart, bikes themselves, everything about them, there’s something fundamentally about them that makes life easier, that makes life fun,” he says.