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The Two-Wheeled Path

For bike couriers, it's more than a job, it's a way of life


Bill Fehr's morning started at about 7:30am. He hopped on his bike and began his usual 10-mile commute to downtown Charlotte, where he works as a courier. He hustled onto the elevator at one of the downtown high-rises, his mind racing with the day's hectic itinerary. Also on the elevator were a nicely dressed, middle-aged man and a young boy of about 7. As Fehr checked his packages, he heard the man speak to the young boy.

"That's what you don't want to be when you grow up," the man said, not even bothering to whisper. "That's what happens when you drop out of school. You'll have to use your back and not your brain."

Fehr was stunned. "He was talking like I wasn't even there," he relates months later during lunch at a downtown diner. "He had no idea who I was or what I had been through that morning. What he said really broke my heart. I felt like taking my daughter to his office and telling her, "This is what you don't want to be when you grow up. You want to be able to see the beauty in everyday life and not go out of your way to hurt people.'"

Fehr says the incident was unusual in that it was so blatantly overt and rude, but having to deal with the occasional clueless jerk or disapproving glance, he says, is all part of being a bike courier. As is having to contend with lumbering buses and barreling trucks, angry and oblivious motorists, and an obstacle course of pedestrians, most of whom are in a hurry and preoccupied. Then there's the weather. Boiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter -- as witnessed during last week's big storm, during which many an intrepid courier pedaled right on through.

Some might say, well, that's their problem. If these people want to ride around on bikes all day and deliver packages, then let them have it. And they will, thank you very much. In fact most of them wouldn't have it any other way. No gray cubicles, dress codes or boring meetings for these guys. Their desk is their bike, and their offices are the streets and sidewalks of downtown Charlotte, where they can see, smell and hear the world instead of watching it from a window. Jammed printers or malfunctioning email seem particularly trivial when you're trying to avoid getting squashed by a bus or broadsided by some woman chatting on her cell phone and putting on make-up as she pulls out of a parking garage.

The profession of bike courier isn't your usual job, and it tends to attract unique individuals, many of whom aren't what you'd expect. Sure, they're not getting rich, and benefits are pretty much nonexistent, but there's something to be said for the exhilaration and freedom of being out in the world as opposed to, oh, I don't know, sitting down in front of a computer and writing about it.

It's A Beautiful ThingFehr, 33, is one of about a dozen bike couriers who work downtown. You've probably seen them -- at least they hope you do, especially if you're behind the wheel -- zipping their two-wheelers through traffic or hustling through lobbies with a big bag slung over their shoulders. They deliver and pick up everything from crucial legal papers and banking documents to office supplies. Compared to big cities like New York or Chicago, where couriers are often viewed as fair game, Charlotte's bike couriers have it a little easier. But then again, at least in cities like New York, motorists are used to sharing the road with cyclists. It's still a foreign concept in Charlotte.

If you've spent any time downtown, you know it can be a disorienting and dangerous maze if you're not paying attention. Fehr, who, at five-feet-six and 200 pounds, is a stout bundle of energy with impossibly developed calves, has been navigating that maze for over five years. When he's not cycling through downtown traffic, he likes to relax by mountain biking, rock climbing, and competing in grueling, 24-hour endurance races.

Fehr moved to Charlotte from Pennsylvania in 1998, leaving behind a six-year career as a logistics manager for a Sears & Roebuck tire department. "I was making $65,000 a year and managing about 60 people," he says. "But after six years I was wasted."

While en route to see an old Marine buddy in Wisconsin, Fehr was struck by the rugged beauty of Wisconsin's Boundary Waters, during which time he had an epiphany -- for the sake of his spirit and peace of mind, he had to quit his job and start over.

"I was wrestling with ethical and moral issues, and losing faith with corporate America," he says. "I felt in my core that it (the job) was wrong for me. I just didn't want to be there anymore. I pulled over to a pay phone in the freezing cold and called my wife. I said, "Baby, I want to quit my job and try something new. What do you think? She said, "I can be packed in two days.'"

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