Bull Horns and Modern Love: the Tragedy of the Bicycle Messenger

Hi folks, it has been some time since I last posted. It has not been out of lack of cool things going on the shop. This is in fact my 100th blog post, and I wanted to do something special to commemorate it, which has taken a little longer to put together as planned. Thanks to everyone who has followed my blog over the last few years. Much like my framebuilding, it’s more about the act of creating than seeking out an audience and I am never really expecting anyone to take notice. That said, it does put a big smile on my face when people tell me that they enjoyed something they either saw or read on my blog, so, thank you. For those of you wanting to see what I have been doing in the shop, check back soon as I will drop a lot of the recent build pics in the next few days, or you can follow Gallus on facebook.com/galluscycles or on Instagram @gallusdude. Ok, enjoy the story.


I am sure I had to read Old Man and the Sea back in High School. I don’t have a very strong recollection of it as it came after the required reading of Camus’ The Stranger, which only served to bolden my teenage apathy and the dismissal of anything that was presented to me thereafter by anyone over the age of 35. It wasn’t till I accidently discovered To Have and Have Not, only because the British Punk/Folk singer-songwriter Billy Bragg had named a song after it, that I realized Hemingway was a total bad ass.

Last September, when I picked up a used paper back copy of The Sun Also Rises I was hoping for the same kind of suspense and action. The description on the back cover pinned it as a story about a group of ex-pats in 1920’s Paris, a romance between the protagonist Jake Barnes(Hemingway) and Lady Brett Ashely, and the disintegration of the group during their stay at a week long bullfighting festival in Spain.

The book begins simply enough. It follows the group as they go from one late night cafe to another, staying out drinking till the wee hours of the morning. Luckily most of them were writers, and as long as they typed out a few words every now and then, hangovers had few consequences and bills still got paid. From their first encounters, it is obvious that the “romance” between Jake and Lady Brett was not that of archetypal love story. Firstly, she is in the process of going through a divorce, shortly there after has a string of affairs and by the second half of the book she is engaged to someone else. Apparently she is the kind of woman that any man she encounters falls hopelessly in love with her. Personally, I did not see the appeal. Her dialouge was extremely drab, and she obviously had commitment issues, nor much consideration for anybody other than herself. Maybe the men liked that she could keep up with them on their boozey late nights and binges, or maybe they were enticed by  her free-spirited energy . Though Hemingway never gives much a physical description of her, though I must assume that she had to have been very beautiful to garner such attention. A glance or a smile from a beautiful woman has surely made me think I had found true love on countless occasions.

Occasionally Hemingway gets fed up with the endless line of suitors chasing after Lady Brett, but for the most part he seems to be preoccupied with drinking, fishing, drinking, bull fighting and a lot more drinking. Though they rarely are able to spend any time alone with one another, their connection and love for each other is undeniable. They understood and deeply cared for each other, they also both understood why they could never be together. They were not troubled by this, but simply accepted the situation and each other. This love of theirs was clearly ahead of its’ time, and inconceivable by their peers or most anyone of that era. The other men that were infatuated with Brett  did not understand her as a person. They would first be attracted to her sense of freedom, but would then try to put her in a more domesticated role. Obviously, this would not bode well with Lady Brett, and  she would promptly end the affair(s) and then men would disintegrate into a deep heart broken despair.

Luckily the very unsteamy love story in the first chapters of the book read quickly, and I did not abandon the book before things got good, and a little more pertinent to this here bicycle blog. Jake and his friend Bill left Paris for Spain, first to go  fishing in the Basque region and later were met by Brett and the rest of the gang in Pamplona for the San Fermin Bullfighting Festival. Images from the Vuelta a Espana, that coincedently was running while I was reading the book,  painted a mental backdrop of the dusty mountain roads that Hemingway and Co. were crossing in the Pyrenees.

When they arrive in Pamplona, Jake and Bill checked in to the Hotel Montoya. This hotel was exclusive to only the real aficionados of bullfighting. Hemingway explains that the term “aficionado” comes from the root word aficion which means passion. After glazing over the first half of the book, this description made me stop and I re-read it several times. Unlike its’ French and Italian counterparts of connoisseur and cognoscente, which equates more of having an extensive or elite knowledge of a subject, aficionado was more of an emotional understanding. A deep understanding that could only be felt and could hardly be explained or even expressed with words.

Maybe its the European heritage of cycling, especially the deep Latin roots, but cyclists — more so than any other group of people with the exception of committed cultists — understand and are fueled by passion. It’s why we ride endless miles, through all sorts of weather and terrain. It’s why we wake up early in the morning to  commute to work, pack our panniers and go bicycle tours, or tackle the highest mountain roads. It is why so many of my friends and acquaintances are bike messengers, mechanics, have opened their own bike shops or even become framebuilders. It is not because it was the easy path to take, and it’s certainly not for the money.

Reading about cycling on the internet, knowing who-won-what-race, learning all of the tech data for full lines of components might make you an expert, but it doesn’t make you more of a cyclist. Only being out there riding gives you an understanding of cycling. It’s a feeling. It creates an empathy and camaraderie  among  us, and helps us slightly grasp the near immortal performances of the pros we watch every July in the Le Tour. Maybe it’s the degree of suffering synomonous to cycling that creates such passion as the gap between pain and elation is so vast. There are easier, less trying things we could do with our time, but we are chasing that buzz, that feeling, only cycling provides.

As I read further, Hemingway then went into a very indepth and at times brutal, description of bullfighting. My vegetarian sensibilites aside, I was entralled by this insight to a world I had no previous knowledge of. I also began to see more and more parrallels between bullfighting and cycling. After the pagentry of the festival with the running of the bulls, and the staging and viewing of the bulls in the arena, Hemingway explained the difference between a good matador and a great one.  A good one would survive and not lay victim to the bull’s horns. But to do so, they might have selected to go against a bull with shorter horns. A great matador would go against any bull, and they would have the finesse to draw the bull in as close as possible, and then their practiced technique, form and reflexes to remain unscathed.

The matadors weren’t only competing against the bulls, but they were also competing for the crowds’ adoration. In such a passionate setting, death of a matador would be the most unthinkable outcome, to point that even coming close to death was described as being “tragic”. The closer the matador got to the bull’s horns the more tragic it was, and thus, the more the crowd loved him. I was intrigued by this choice of  words, as this death defying performance somehow surpassed suspense, and entered the realm of pure tragedy.

I could visualize this tragedy going down. The split second as the bull would pass would appear in slow motion. The matador would not simply step out of the way or back down to the approaching bull, instead  he would stand firm if not even moving closer to the bull, and then would bend his torso around the bull’s horns, escaping their grasp by mere millimeters.  Professional athletes combine technique, reflexes, and physical strength to master their given sport, and provide us spectators with entertainment. We are mesmerized not by the end result of the game, match, or race, but by the graceful movement that the athletes’ years of training has created. In essence, they are the human embodiment of “form and function”, having good form makes the athlete more efficient and thus perform better with less energy. Not only is it more efficient, but it also is more captivating to the eye. As a spectator, to witness such fluidity of movement is to experience a sight of beauty.

Maybe I day dream too much. Maybe I see everything through rose-tinted glasses that enables me to relate so much of life to cycling, and vice versa, but when I started reading about the matadors I began thinking about all of the bicycle messengers I have known and ridden with. I remembered the grace that the experienced messengers I rode with back in Glasgow would have when cutting through traffic or how the guys in Denver float over sheets of ice during a cold winter’s rush hour grid lock. It looks simple enough, as it appears to just be someone riding their bike through traffic but too see a good messenger handle his bike is to witness the same finesse that a professional athlete exhibits. Their technique and form was developed from years on the bike and the job. It’s not the same as seeing some kid hammering around town, recklessly, on a fixed gear bike. The messenger operates out of efficiency. Their route, cadence, and the line they take through traffic is done so in order to get their delivery done quickly and with as little energy used as possible.

Like the matador, the messenger dances with danger with both refined grace and strength. They face up against possible tragedy everyday, all day long.  But this is were the comparison stops. The matador is matched against a bull. Though the bull appears wild and is equipped with sharp horns, and there is the possibility of severe injury and death, the matador actually has very good odds. The bull’s movements are predictable, if not dictated by the matador. The bicycle messenger is pitted against cars, trucks and buses, along with scores of absent minded pedestrians glued to their smart phones jumping out in the street whenever they feel like it. Though the vehicles appear to be a civilized man-made creation, absent of sharp horns(unless you are in Texas), they are operated by people, who by nature, are very unpredictable at best, reckless and even aggressive at worst . The matador is also competing for the adoration of the crowd, whereas the messenger is better off riding as anonymously as possible. It is more efficient to glide through traffic relatively unseen then dealing with the unpredictable reactions of the many unskilled and careless drivers that clog our city streets.

The bullfighter’s theater of tragedy would earn them glamour, popularity and a hefty income. The bicycle messenger’s theater are the city streets, and his stage has even more danger than the bullring. The streets are not lined with hordes of spectators cheering for them. They are here simply to do a job. And as far as jobs go, they are not paid nearly as much as their effort and constant risks should garner. If it is not for the pay or for the glamour, why do they do it? Is it because they are attracted to the sense of freedom being outside on the bike all day provides? Are they addicted to the buzz that riding through city creates? Or is it being part of the strong camaraderie that is shared among the messenger community?  The reasons might be different from person to person, but one thing is shared between all of them, and that is aficion.


One thought on “Bull Horns and Modern Love: the Tragedy of the Bicycle Messenger

  1. Check out the brains on you.Good read and analysis,when did you stop being burger dude,dude?Flow still runs like juice here,just a couple of red stripes here aligns the planets,soon in Independant State of America for Tea 😊

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