Dressed in a white football jersey and Adidas trackies ‘Birdie’ stands on an esky and lays down the rules for the first ‘alley cat’ of the weekend. The other cyclists, about 25 of them, stand around him talking, occasionally pausing to listen. They’ve all done it before. Their bikes are scattered around them on the grass of Sydney’s Hyde Park, up the northern end under the watchful sandstone gaze of St Mary’s Cathedral.

The alley cat, a fast-paced solo cycle race through the Sydney CBD and surrounding suburbs, is designed to find the City’s fastest bike messenger, who can cut any corner and run any light to achieve victory.

‘Birdie’ tells the group, many of whom have had a drink or smoke in preparation, they will find a ‘manifest’ tucked in their spokes, with a list of about a dozen public phone boxes, they each need to get to in a high-speed version of orienteering. The race simulates the working conditions of the City’s bike messengers, who get a different job instruction from the race organiser at each phone booth, then, dash to the location, record a new phone number and speed off to the finish at Observatory Hill.

“You can’t be serious,” exclaims a messenger and mimes having to hit people with his elbows at pay phones to make the first call.

The format, which was a secret until now, changes every race, and there will be two more alley cats before the end of the Easter weekend. The formal-sounding title of the Australasian Cycle Messenger Championships (ACMC) belies its nature, which is essential an unsanctioned street race — one that has taken place in different Australian cities for over 20 years.

The last was in Hobart in 2019, but the race has been on sabbatical since the COVID pandemic threatened to kill off the entire industry.

Now, with the office workers exodus from the city for the public holiday the roads have opened up, making it safer for the couriers to weave through the lighter CBD traffic, and with fewer jaywalkers to pose unexpected challenges. They are ready to put it all on the line once again, this cast of international characters, primed to drink, party and race. 

I was pepper-sprayed while shoulder charging my way through Proud Boys to deliver a pizza.

Sydney’s bike messengers make their living delivering clothes, documents, jewels and other valuables around the CBD and beyond on push bikes. Decades ago about 100 bike messengers plied their trade in central Sydney, with depots dotted around, but the advent of fax and email saw numbers shrink and the pandemic, which shut down the city, further cut them back. 

Today about 20 bike couriers make a fulltime living doing the job, a mix of veterans and a few younger recruits in their early 20s. While a handful of women work in the trade, the industry is dominated by men. But as a form of moving goods quickly around the City, they remain a vital part of the functioning of the business district. Those left congregate at a depot in a multi-storey car park in Goulburn Street. 

The riders in this weekend’s races come from all over the world, vying to be named the best at their trade.

One visitor, known as ‘New Jersey Nick’ tells me about delivering goods in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, during the storming of the US Capitol building.

“I was pepper-sprayed while shoulder charging my way through Proud Boys to deliver a pizza,” he says. 

The start of the race weekend began on Thursday night with the messengers gathering in a park in the CBD for an official welcome and drink. Different accents mixed with the Australians: Mexican, American, Swiss, Columbian, Chilean. They’ve grown up everywhere from Tijuana to Paddington, and come together to share a beer and/or a joint as they do most afternoons, discussing life and women.

The messengers from around Australia or ‘out-of-towners’ as the locals call them, add to the transient atmosphere. Many are reuniting with old buddies they have not seen since last year’s Cycle Messenger World Championships in Yokohama, Japan. They revel in a love of their occupation, the freedom and excitement it brings them, and the characters it attracts. 


A messenger from Brisbane (left) and a Messenger from New Jersey USA (right), met at the worlds in Japan last year and reunited at ACMC. Photo: Hugh Phillips

Now, late on Friday afternoon, they are talking about the morning’s hangovers and the race ahead. Warming up their lungs with knock-off Marlboro’s and their cheap European Lexus beers ($40 a case), the cheapest they can find. This is the first of the weekend’s three alley cats. The main race to decide the champion will be on Sunday.

There seems to be no official start to the race. Instead a couple of riders just decide to go and within a few seconds everyone is dashing to their bikes.

It resembles enough of a start to make it official, not that anyone seems too bothered by sticking with rules. With the sun setting they hit the streets, immediately launching into a battle of red lights, cars and the desperation of an evening in the city.

One of the favorites, ‘Smokin’ Joe’ takes his time, loitering calmly while the others race off. He smokes a cigarette and studys his manifest. A messenger for over 20 years Smokin’ Joe rides a cargo bike, the working favorite for the messengers of Sydney, who are forced to battle hills daily, unlike colleagues in London or New York, who can get through on ‘fixies’ – bikes with neither gears nor brakes that are designed for flat urban landscapes.

The cargo bikes have an extended wheelbase, allowing for more ‘jobs’ to be stored and are indicative of the changing nature of the work. Gone are the days of letters and cheques from one office building to the next. These days, they work larger jobs, multiple bouquets of flowers, and PR baskets sent to influencers living in Paddington and Elizabeth Bay. Event organiser Sam says “COVID pushed the last of the paper jobs out of the CBD” when office workers were forced to stay home.

Within minutes of the race starting the messengers have begun arriving at the pay phones. Those with the local knowledge make calls as logically as possible, going in one efficient loop through the CBD, Pyrmont, Forest Lodge, Woollahra and Elizabeth Bay, then back to the city to finish. Some of the Melbourne messengers try to follow the locals, others get lucky with a run of green lights that smoothes their path through busy intersections they would otherwise have to weave around cross traffic.

Claudio, a Swiss messenger with a long dyed-blonde mullet, cuts lines down one way streets and into oncoming traffic in a way that is more like a disappearing act than cycling. He proudly tells me he can get between a jeweller on George Street and an anxious bride in a retailer in Paddington in just 20 minutes there and back. To do this he holds onto cars on the way up Oxford Street, which he calls ‘skitching’ and cuts past them on the way down. A car might be able to do it in 30 minutes before even thinking about parking. For a trip like this Claudio could make $70 each way. 


A patch from last year’s worlds in Yokohama, Japan stitched onto a messenger bag. Photo: Hugh Phillips

The underground and hidden nature of the alley cats isn’t too different from the messengers lives — on and off the bike. One describes delivering up to “$150,000 worth of gold at a time” and getting a “Christmas bonus of cocaine from clients”.

Some are tortured poets, others happy with a job that can be done under the influence.

Tonight’s race is hidden in plain sight without any police or members of the public seemingly aware anything unusual is happening. Other than an occasional panicked cyclist, covered in tattoos, frantically pulling up to a pay phone it is like any other night in the city. 

Hollywood has tried to capture the subculture before in the 1986 Kevin Bacon film Quicksilver and 2012’s Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Bacon called it “the absolute lowest point of my career.”

Messengers say the films are “cringe” but seem to enjoy the notoriety they infer, even if some of the bad boy image has been lost.

One bemoans that women used to see him as a “cool urban outlaw” but now when he mentions being a delivery rider they ask: “Do you mean you do Uber eats?”

None of the messengers would be seen dead on electric bikes, despite the city now being full of them. The choice is both cultural and practical, with messengers able to hit up to 60kmph — far faster than the ‘foodies’ lugging around pizzas and groceries.


Winner of Friday’s ‘alley cat’ Smokin’ Joe at the finish line on Observatory Hill.

As the final pay phone before the finish looms, a few stressed messengers begin arriving, but they have missed points on the route and it’s too late to correct their errors, so they concede.

At 7.07pm veteran Smokin’ Joe reaches the last pay phone, an hour and-a-half after the race began, and a few minutes later is rolling across an imaginary finishing line on Observatory Hill to take the win.

The weekend of drinking, parties and races will continue until Sunday, when the riders break up and go their respective ways. No more than a degree of separation away, surfing couches from Brisbane to Baltimore, they will come together again in Sydney in a year’s time for the Worlds.

Photos by Hugh Phillips.