FLYING on my bicycle down the dotted line between lanes on Park Avenue, I had a decision to make. I could follow Dave Jordan as he rode
between rows of slow-moving traffic. That would mean bobbing and ducking
around rearview mirrors that jutted out from vans like reflective
baseball gloves to catch any passing helmeted head. Or I could slow down
and go with the flow of traffic.
It is the kind of decision confronted less often by the city’s riders in today’s bike-lane era, where green swaths of cyclist-only pavement
knit neighborhoods together for even the most cautious of two-wheeled
Riding in the city is still far from safe, to be sure, but it generally does not require help from a lifelong racer and cycling
trainer like Mr. Jordan. I had asked him for a lesson in tangling with
traffic so I could get a feel for the coaching he had given to Hollywood
actors last summer for their roles in “Premium Rush,” a film about New York bike messengers that is to be released in early 2012.
Mr. Jordan, 41, had to take the film’s star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a handful of other actors whose bike experience consisted mostly of
beachside jaunts in Malibu, he said, and teach them how to ride the New
York streets like a messenger.
His first bit of advice: “Be the fish in the coral.” The city is like a reef, he said, and the cyclist has to navigate through the “schools”
of pedestrians and the occasional shark — a tractor trailer. For
everyone on the street — pedestrians and drivers as well as cyclists —
“all the paint on the road, the crosswalks, the lanes are merely
suggestions in New York City,” he said. Even with guidance from Mr.
Jordan, the actors and some of the stunt doubles suffered injuries,
including broken bones and lacerations.
“Cool” is how Mr. Gordon-Levitt described his bloody arm in a YouTube clip posted after he collided with the back of a taxi during filming. (That crash scars are cool appears to be part of the mythos about messengers.)
“Premium Rush” is only the latest big-budget Hollywood film to focus on the cult of the courier. There was “Quicksilver,” from 1986, starring Kevin Bacon in the redemptive tale of a
Wall-Street-trader-turned-track-bike-riding-deliveryman. Outside the big
studios, there have been small productions, documentaries and YouTube
videos focused on street riding, like “Empire” (2011), a documentary
that follows riders around the city, and those shown at the 10-year-old Bicycle Film Festival.
As for “Premium Rush,” the plot details remain a secret guarded by Sony Pictures, but the broad contours are known: a group of messengers
comes into possession of a highly-sought-after and valuable package from
Columbia University that they must deliver. They are pursued by a dirty
cop and a cavalcade of other treasure-seekers. “Every party that hears
about it wants a piece,” Mr. Jordan said. “I don’t want to say it’s a
Western, but. …”
In fact, there has long been a kind of John Wayne style to the messenger image: independent, rugged, righteous. “I think that the
messenger job gets romanticized,” said Michael Green, a former messenger
and the writer of BikeBlogNYC.
And like the cowboy, the messenger now exists mostly as a symbol. The
actual number of New York couriers has declined since their heyday in
Besides Mr. Jordan, who lives on the Upper West Side and directs a bike-racing team with a graffiti artist, Zephyr, as his silent partner, other fixtures in the local bike scene took part
in the film’s production. They included two well-known messengers,
Austin Horse, who rode as a stunt double for Mr. Gordon-Levitt, and
Kevin Bolger, who is known as Squid, who acted as a consultant. Affinity
Cycles in Williamsburg built the custom fixed-gear bikes used on the
My own lesson with Mr. Jordan lasted about two hours and consisted of traffic riding and some skills that, as a regular bike commuter, I
should have been better at. But who regularly performs track stands —
holding the bicycle stationary — on their way to work, or finds the need
to bend over and pick up a water bottle at speed?
As for that gantlet of narrowly spaced cars on Park Avenue, I passed through, no problem. Riding in this city, you learn to navigate in a way
that feels safe and doesn’t leave behind a trail of disgruntled
pedestrians or drivers.
“I’d rather be in the traffic than in a bike lane, quite honestly,” Mr. Jordan said, “because I’m going the same speed.”
After we said goodbye, I returned to the comfortable green swath.