A little over a decade ago, Japanese streets saw an insurgence of track bikes: fixies, with no brakes. And in contrast to conventionally colorful and tight-fitting cycling wear, these street cyclists played it cool, sporting regular casual attire as they careened through cities.

PELOTON

tokyos street bike culture

The fixie boom raged across Japan, starting with bicycle messengers, spreading into the public sphere as a new mode of street culture and spilling over into the fashion world. Things that suddenly come into fashion, however, can go out of fashion just as quickly. The abundance of track bikes in the streets led to them being viewed as problematic and raised issues of bicycle etiquette. This brought on a number of regulations. But, let’s be clear, this did not lead to the end of Japan’s street-bike movement.
tokyos street bike culture

tokyos street bike culture

On this day, six cyclists with pithy nicknames, all around their early 30s, have gathered at Fat Wrench Cycles, a bicycle shop in Tokyo’s Ikejiri-Ōhashi district. Inspired a decade ago by images of track-bike-riding messengers in magazines and other media, they now represent the current generation. They have attentively adopted the trappings of bike-messenger culture. Upon arriving inside the shop, cyclist Teo promptly changes his tires.

So, what is bike-messenger culture? The business, of course, is one of delivering things to people. But for a certain type of bike messenger, it becomes more like a way of life. As with skaters and graffiti artists, this is a culture of the street.

tokyos street bike culture

tokyos street bike culture

“That feeling of moving from street to street is a blast,” says cyclist Kay. Between picking up a package and delivering it, the cyclist has the freedom to choose how to get there and what streets to take. Even when delivering for financeand advertising-industry clients, they essentially have total freedom. And that way of working suits them.

“I don’t think of it as a job. It’s more like I get paid to continuously have fun,” boasts cyclist Bruno. The track bikes they ride, too, are like toys in the streets. As with fashion or skateboarding, their bicycles are loaded with customizations. Not necessarily expensive items, but customizations that reflect their personal aesthetics. Zooming along, delivering packages on track bikes, it’s critical for each rider to choose the optimal route: the run, the stops, the flow. Their flow through the streets is an act of self-expression.

tokyos street bike culture

Many of these bike messengers have creative hobbies and sidelines. Cyclist Hong Man is a photographer, holding exhibitions once or twice a year. Cyclist Kay is a designer at fashion house Delta Creation Studio. And there are plenty of musicians and skaters too.
On closer inspection, most of them have tattoos on their arms and legs. And this in a country that still frowns upon tattoos—readily apparent when comparing Japanese soccer players to those of other countries. And the fashion is all T-shirts, shorts and sneakers. The hair is freeform—in Kay’s case, dreadlocks. Looking at it another way, it is messenger work that accommodates this free and easy attitude. But it’s precisely because they’re often viewed with a raised eyebrow that these young messengers “carry out their work with precision, especially with respect to customers”, says Teo.
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tokyos street bike culture

“When you’ve got little time to deliver something, you rise to the occasion,” says cyclist Peco. “And they’re grateful for it. You get hooked on the adrenaline.” The job is bound by the economics of the streets. And in today’s Japan, that’s not simply a business world with a graph that keeps rising. “In the five main districts of Tokyo, I’m certain that bicycle messengers are faster than motorbike deliveries,” says Massa, who’s rumored to be the fastest cyclist in the city. “If more people realized that, there’d be more messenger jobs.” It’s not as if he is making light of the job, or the enormous effort that goes into it. Messengers would never make that mistake.

So, is this a job or a game? People say they want to enjoy their work. But people also say it’s hard to find a job doing what you like. Few manage to earn a living in the subcultures of skateboarding, surfing, music or the like. But that’s just the sort of job being a bicycle messenger is. They work in the street, and play in the street. Messengers are that rare case that combine their work with their interests. And that duality defines the culture of the bicycle messenger.

cycles frame
tokyos street bike culture

“When you’re under the gun, you pedal like crazy,” says Hong Man. “The flip side of that extreme is that you also get to hang out with your friends. It’s great ‘cause it has both sides to it. You can expect to get along with people you meet while pursuing a hobby.” That’s not always the case with people you meet at work. Track-bike riders have a sort of brotherhood. It brings a certain kind of people together. And they get along. The six riders here today are actually from three different companies. But they get together at the same shop.

The flame handed down to this generation of bicycle messengers is still a long way from being extinguished.

cyclist hong man is a photographer
tokyos street bike culture
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