All under control with Mark Giacomini

An ex-courier with 25 years on the road and a pushbike controller for the last 12, Mark Giacomini has made a name for himself on the streets of London. A widespread opinion amongst couriers is that Mark could possibly be the best pushbike controller in London which ultimately makes it in the whole of the UK.

Mark Giacomini, London's ex courier and pushbike controller

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the glory and making the name for yourself”, Mark.

Son to Italian parents Mark has inherited a serious passion for cycling. Back in Bergamo Mark’s father was a semi professional rider and best mates with renown Luigi Malabrocca– an Italian cyclocross champion also recognised for winning Giro d’Italia’s black jersey.  It is only natural that at the age of 17, September 1986, Mark hopped on his bike in a bid to boost up his earnings.

FIRST PUSHBIKE DELIVERIES

I think a first pushbike courier was Hugo. He worked for a truck company going among travel companies. He’s been doing it for a few years. And then Robin started his courier firm doing all the clerks and barristers chambers.  Even back then in the traffic they saw that pushbikes were quicker around town.  As long as they know where they are going { laughing }. We used to say it’s not how fast you go, it’s how quickly you get there and “ turning wheel is an earning wheel’ ..that’s another one. And that’s what a lot of riders forget. When there is not a lot of work sometimes you gotta to run to get a job but at least you are earning money. I remember the days.



NIGHTMARE

I had a bit of reputation, back in those days, I’ d do anything, My jobs were going to Heathrow, Chiswick etc. I had calls: “Cash job to Croydon pays 40 quid do you wanna do it?”  Yeah, of course. Eight jobs later I get: Crystal Palace, Sydenham, Croydon… fucking nightmare.

Sydenham

Sydenham

I’ve got Sydenham one day for 32 pounds cash and the woman didn’t want it, so I had to take it back. Got 64 quid. For half an hour ride there and half an hour back – I was over the moon. You know, it’s fantastic.

Count Freddy got a Heathrow once. He got pulled over on the hard shoulder going off the M4. Fucking lunatic.

Back then you could do that [spread the work out of the city] because there was so much more work. You knew you would be earning the money, you probably would come back empty. Probably would take you 40 minutes to ride back in somewhere sensible but you’d made 60-70 quid.  These jobs paid good money. On the contrary, it was the minimum rates that paid very little.

CALL SIGN

The first call sign was Velo City because we started a bike shop at Fulham and we called it Velo City. And when I came back Ian said it was ridiculous- we shared a call sign between the three of us and we all worked part time.

Second call sign was Bada Bing – which is a strip club that Tony Soprano.

So I used to call and say Bing all the time. Like “ Bing bing bing” [laughs].

I WAS SO COMPETITIVE

The way I used to work: I’d do 14 jobs by two pm and 35 by the end of the day. And I always used to time it by three [average pay per docket]. I would stay out till seven in the evening and then go home. But I would always try to do at least 35 jobs.  And yeah, I wouldn’t talk to anyone I was there to work. And oOnce I’ve got a pay-sheet when I have done 83 jobs in one day.

UNDERSTANDING THE GAME

I was empty once at Old Marylebone Road and I got a pick up at Camden Road. Control explained that I was the closest to the job in W1. I went and did it. But I understood he wasn’t going to give me just that one job because when I had it – I had got plenty on top of it. It’s like playing a game.

MARYLEBONE

A lot of riders don’t  see and don’t understand it.

When I was on the road – the jobs I wanted – the jobs that nobody else was getting. If I come up empty in the city I wouldn’t want another EC2 to EC2.  Because I knew there were another four /five riders doing the same sort of thing. The first thing I wanted was EC2 to SW7 or EC2 to W8.  Because I trusted the controller. I knew- any job EC2 to whatever – to Mayfair, I would get it. And I knew that would be my job. a) it ’s either he has more or b) he is hoping more job will come in. As soon as you understand the game this is the job you want to be getting first. 

Of course, sometimes it didn’t happen.

But it was busier back then anyway. I can remember being empty in the city at around five and I would be going west with eight to ten jobs. Now, it’s two or three if you lucky. That’s the difference. 

You have to have a complete trust in the control. it’s not like they don’t know what they are doing.

WAITING TIME

Making sure I’d do an hour a day in waiting time – that’s worth a tenner- that’s 50 quid a week for nothing. There was no way of checking what time did you arrive. Back then you couldn’t do it.

There were no computers, no [GPS] tracking to confirm that.

MArgateMArk

THE PAYDAY

You queue up at four o’clock on Friday night for your payslip. A pub was across the road and no one would stay out working so the office had had to change this to six o’clock. You would get an envelope with the list of jobs that you have done, and you would check the dockets to make sure they were what you did.  Everyone kept a list and made sure they did check.  It did happen that they would lose a docket in the office. And yeah, then you got your cash.

I always used to complain. Was never happy. I could remember going upstairs with my docket sheets, throwing them across the office: ”If you think that’s enough to fucking live on, then you fucking go out and do it”.

YOU SO FUCKED

At the end of the week you put your envelope in the sock draw, sleep all weekend, go to work. By next Friday, get the other envelope and the one from the week before is still in there. You fucked. But back then it was different- you do 50 jobs a day without even thinking about it.

RADIOS

And also you have to bear in mind there were a lot more phone boxes in the streets. When the mobiles came in it changed it again. That was 1992-1993 probably. And then from that it was XDA’s – little silver ones. Literally like phones. There was no protection on them and you’d get clients putting a dot on the  ‘i’ or something and the screen goes ‘crack’ [ Mark makes a cracking snorting sound]  “ Sorry mate”.

As long as they call the office and say they broke it, it’s fine.

In the time of radios and phone boxes you would phone up from home or from the radio. If you are at the company you would use their phone, but some wouldn’t let you, so you had to go out. And if you are in the middle of an industrial estate and there are no phone boxes “What the fuck do I do?”

I’ve been brought up with the radios the way it is  [riders can’t talk to each other] but I am not saying that it is better. That’s what I am used to. If the riders are all talking to each other, can you imagine Wayne [courier] on it ? Wayne! Every job that Wayne does there is a story. It’s just a complete…. [sighs and smiles]….how the lift was broken and he had to walk to the 20th floor and then the door was shut and he had to break his way in. Receives this little envelope which weighs a tonne… Every job!

ALL THAT BULLOCKS OF DOING ALLEYCATS

I wasn’t interested at all.

Buffalo Bill, he’s got us involved in the courier championships 1993 -1994 in Albert Docks.

All I did – I turned up for the race and went home when it finished. I didn’t stay.

I rode there in the morning. Got onto the turbo trainer to warm up a little bit and sweat out. And I was on STI that just came out. Everyone was on fixed churning big fucking gears. And everyone had all these big gears…52 x 16 or 17. 

Shimano Total integration

photo: thebicyclechain.com

But I practised around Regent park, I thought I had to start with a really small gear and move up with the STI. And I just fucking flew. Just flew completely.

It was checkpoints we had to go around, and there was a sheet and you had to get your stamps done. But to make it different not everyone got their checkpoint the same as the next one. I think it was around 200 people there racing.

As soon as it finished I went home, didn’t stay for anything, just went home. Fuck that. It was good fun.

I did a couple of other alleycats with Andy Cap, Fattie and Groove of the Hoover.

Coming down the Strand…right? …we ride up the Mall and we had to go to Soho. At the time Trafalgar Square you had to go left right next to Canada House. So we coming up, we went left. Fattie went straight the other side- right against the traffic. Straight up Charing Cross. Fuck that. It’s too dangerous I thought, too dangerous….

FATTIE HAD HIS BIKE STOLEN

Fattie had this beautiful Tommasini. Beautiful road bike. He had it stolen.…and I was at Old street, outside Argos. I had a pick up there and this guy pulled up on his bike. Sure thing it was Fattie’s bike. I chained my bike to his bike and radio’ed to Daisy and said: “I think I’ve got Fatties bike”.

BIKES

Back in those days bikes every one had were Italian road bikes. You know, like my Campagnolo. From there it went to the fixed wheel. It was quite a complete shift. Because what would happen you only use two or three gears. And back then you couldn’t buy a single cog, you had to buy a whole cassette of gears. Everyone was like, “Well I don’t use all those gears, so I’ll get a fixed wheel”. Everyone started getting fixed wheel.  But old ones, we all were on road bikes, Italian road bikes.  Some had muddy foxes though – mountain bikes. It was steel back then and now it is all carbon.

I rode a little bit of fixie, but didn’t really liked it. I felt you could never go as fast as on the road bike and was always worried about having an accident. Always worried about breaking. I found I could go faster on the road bike.

Throughout my riding I changed about three to four bikes. One stolen. Left it locked up overnight. Came back next morning it was gone.

Always looked after my bike. This is what I earned money on. Every night: break blocks – checked them. Tyres – checked them. Always checked cables are reliable. And the tyres were shit. We would have a puncture every day and there weren’t a lot of bike shops around.

Then I discovered Continental Kevlar and Specialized tyres. I would have one on the front and one on the rear respectively.

Break locks could wear out in one day due to the grit on the roads. Put new ones, you could be changing them by the next morning. Six quid on them – gone in one day.

WOMBAT WAS A KIVI, HE WAS A FIRST GUY TO GET A FIXED WHEEL

1990 – 1991

Me, Postman Pat and Pete, we had a cycling shop for a couple of years down in Fulham. And Wombat came in and said: “I want to get a fixed wheel and use it on the road”. So we sent out a design to the frame builder in Bristol, Argos. He said: “ This guy is mad. He’s gonna use it on the road?”. It was an original low pro. White rear triangle frame. 26 inch front wheel 700 c rear wheel, right? And he had..let me just draw it for you [ Mark draws….]

Straight forks, straight top tube, extended seat tube, pursuit bars, Shamal wheels, one break. And the guy was like 6 foot 3. He was a courier and quite into the scene I’d say. On the contrary, I kept myself away from that and just worked. Wombat loved his cycling as well but he started with his fixed wheel and the trend went on from there and then it became more about frame and custom builds.

CLOTHING

One of the biggest differences today is the clothing. We used plastic bags, newspapers that sort of stuff which they still do at Tour De France; at the top of the climb going downhill. Somebody give them a newspaper, they stuck it down their jumper, zip up and it works as a protection.

Goretex, when it first came out it was like Fssssss and was so fucking expensive. One person, I can’t remember who it was – bought a jacket, no, it was socks, and said: “You got to buy those socks”. They were like 80 quid, something like that. Fucking amazing! And then a jacket came out.

I remember in the office off Clerkenwell Road they had a tumble drier, so you go in, take off your gloves and socks, put them in, wait 20 minutes and go back on the road.

I always wore cycling shorts and leg warmers. When it stops raining they dry out very quickly. If you were buying clothes then you had to spend a lot of money and nothing was waterproof.

I always wore glasses. Always. Because of the shit that you get in your eyes. In the winter the yellow tinted ones. Once or twice made a mistake not wearing gloves – always fell over. Going along New Oxford street, a bit of oil, I dunno robbed me off…and there was glass on the road and some rough bus tarmac. Whipped me out completely all on there – on my hands.

Then riders started wearing cargo shorts because you needed to put somewhere your phones and your xdas.

We used to wear those stupid gilets things as well. Some of the clothing that the company tried to make us wear over the years was ridiculous. It was designed by people who don’t ride and it wasn’t practical. 

I can see how it evolved over times to what it is now. The style has definitely got a bit grungier in it.

Years ago we used to get a lot of companies who’d turn up and say: “ We’ve got this jacket, could we get one of your riders to wear it for a month or two and tell us what they think of it.”  That doesn’t happen anymore. Also people with bags. Say someone making a bag- they will turn up and ask if they can get one of the riders to test it. 

MY FIRST TIMBUKTU

1990's Tombuk2 messenger bag

1990’s Tombuk2 messenger bag

Andy Cap moved to San Fran and every time he used to come back, he used to bring a box of these Timbuk2s [American made messenger bags]. Here they were so expensive but over there dollars per pound. When they started they didn’t have small, large or whatever sizes. It was all like in 48 bagels, 80 bagels and 160 bagels.

SHITHOLE PLACES

I can remember the first time a did a job in Great Sutton street. It was a shit hole.

Great Sutton

Not like it is now. Going up the stairs taking my bike with me. Wasn’t leaving it outside, somebody would nick it. At the top floor was some photographer’s studio. Water dripping out the pipes along the stairwell. Shithole places.

IT WAS VERY MUCH DIFFERENT THEN

Because companies were a lot smaller. You know, I am talking of Bookabikes who had 15-20 riders. The owner was Phil Booker, a Jewish guy, all his mates were all Jewish. Literally all around Marylebone, St Johns Wood and it all was either property or finance. I rarely went into the city because there were no clients there, probably as far as Clerkenwell and then just rode back towards West End. And that’s how it worked. Every little company like Harley Street Runners who just did the doctors, sort of early medical circuit, they specialised in their own sector and they didn’t encroach on our clients. There was a general understanding. Phill Booker specialised in his clients and 98% of his clients were people that he knew with an odd really big one, when someone heard through somebody that they are a good company and so on.

EMAIL CHANGED EVERYTHING

First of all it was a fax machine, then it was computer and then email has changed everything. The biggest thing so far was the camera things. Take Getty Images: going there 15-20 times a day. All that is now gone. They used to have a base in Rathbone Place. And you go in pick up just one slide-a photo and take it to a newspaper. They do whatever they have to do with it and then you take it back.

The moment all the picture houses became digital, all that work in a blink of an eye was gone. All gone. It was like tumbleweed going down Clerkenwell street and Old street. All those picture houses all digital now.

The biggest thing is keeping it going is the fact all these legal documents still need its original hardcopies. The moment that goes online…part of me thinks it won’t because somebody can hack it and change things ….it’s possible in it?

The medical sector is just one niche and, of course, the fashion sector will be there. But the rest will change. What you take and deliver will change. There might not be documents as such anymore.

GOING APP BASED

They want to go app based. Auto allocation. Get rid of controllers. The one thing that auto allocation can’t do is when you need to say to the rider, “I need you to grab that one first. Grab the first, grab the other and drop that one first and work around”. Also, you are talking to someone. Without it it would be fucking boring. And if you can’t find somewhere? Also, you never feel alone, there is that. And for instance, police stopping people- you can let the circuit know.

DB DIDN’T EXIST

[Double Rush]

Reuters had a Direct Bike and when I went to Mak1 and asked do you know about this Direct Bike service and the owner said that if the client wanted it they’d pay for it anyway as they charged the client accordingly. And the rider would get the same fee of £2.00 regardless.

When I first started with City Sprint, I am not joking, two-thirds or all the jobs were DBs.

It was a nightmare because they were giving silly guarantees.

I never used to like to get them when I was on the road. Say, you got EC2 to W8 on a double to get there in an hour, you couldn’t really get on board anything else. So I tended not to get them. I would rather they give someone one or two jobs and I get seven or eight and it’s the same money. You know, I’ d rather be kept busy.

FEMALE COURIERS

It was veeery unusual …Percentage wise no. it’s never been a lot.

Bookabikes – there weren’t any. Onyourbike- there weren’t any. I don’t think the girls really considered it. First ones …it was really unusual…really unusual, I can’t even think of.

There weren’t many role models I’d say. Also, quite a few on pushbikes were motorbike riders who’d have lost their license. They’d do it on a pushbike instead. And you’ll get odd one or two who’d stay doing it as a pushbike rider because they liked it as well. 

THREE GIRLS ON THE CHANNEL

It was a fucking nightmare. At some point there was:

Twinkle Toes, Tickety-Boo and Tweetie Pie. I was like “you got to be kidding me”. Like three of them all on the same channel at the same time. I was giving Tickety-Boo Twinkle Toes’, and Tweetie Pie  Tickerty-Boo’s  and was so confused between them.

WHAT OTHER JOB CAN YOU DO, YOU CAN’T

You see people on telly two three years later- they worked for us. We had a lot of actors before. We had one guy who had a lead role in Blood Brothers on Charing Cross Road. Can’t remember the name of the theatre but he was there for about a year. In between  jobs he would work on the road. If you work as an actor and you can’t get a role, it’s the sort of job you can come back to as well. You’ve gone off and done the film, or you gone off and done the part and you go straight back into it again. It’s a type of the job it is [couriering]…or was. People come and go. People come and work for a year and go away for a year. Go travel around the world, come back work for a couple of years and go for another year, whatever. And you could do that. It’s the only job in the world where you could go away for six months and you could walk into the office tomorrow and there you go, start now. Where else can you do that? And we know who you are, we know what you are capable of. Just go and do it.

CHARACTERS

Was a Dinky toy. He was a dustman. He’d finish work at 10 or whatever and he turn up on the steps on Great Marlborough street outside the theatre. And you know the mini cornflake box, he would have one there [on the bag strap]  coloured in black and he would have a pen put in the top.  That’s not a radio, isn’t it?  And he’ d go like: ‘What’s that, roger roger” into his self-made carton radio and he’ll go off and pretend to do a job. I am not joking, we all would think he wasn’t a real courier. In the end he did become one.

THE FATE OF COURIERING

But the way it’s happening now. It’s all too corporate, too official. It’s just a matter of time before the government get their claws into it. They go on about the hourly rate. It’s gonna change again.

Imagine the way it would work. It’s getting ugly. Now you’ve got to work harder to make the same money. You got to work harder than you did 20 – 25 years ago. 

AS A CONTROLLER – YOU GOT TO THINK ABOUT IT

In the West End you don’t get too many options with the riders. For instance, you got a W1 run -how many riders you have going to W2? [implying it’s a stretch of empty miles as not many clients are based those ways]. Riders coming to Marylebone – they will have to suck it up go out to W2 and grab it. But in the city [Square Mile] you got more options. One rider is going to be empty at Ropemaker, the other at Broadgate, and the third at Bishopsgate. In that way it’s probably more difficult. You got all that work coming out of Exchange Square who do I give the work to? One rider has got three EC4s and an SE1. The other got two Temples, two Lincoln’s inns and a Gray’s Ins. The worst thing is to give it all to one rider and the others just sit there doing nothing. You’ve got to think. What you don’t realise is that as much as you do the city channel you have to send riders to West End too. Same time if they all are in West End channel I have no fucking riders, so equally West End channel has to send the riders to the city. Otherwise, I will have no riders coming in. No one to talk to. Where is Everybody? W1, W1, W1, W2.

It also necessary to split the jobs meaning- I have two or three riders coming into the city and vice versa.

You gotta think about it.

A to Z London

West End is harder in a different way. You’ve got W2 and you’ve got Camden.  For example, the first one empty in Fitzroy gotta run and get the Camden job. I know I have to lose him to do that job. Because there is no choice. I have to.

With jobs going into W1 that’s Mayfair or Marylebone, you do tend to try and have two different riders. One does the low stuff and the other does the high stuff. Eventually one goes SW3 and the other W2. You split it up. You don’t give them Berkley and Wigmore and SW7 and you leave out W2 hanging there.

And DBs are sometimes a bit of the hindrance too.

A rider has come empty, five jobs I can give you but who else is gonna do a double. It’s nice for the riders, for embassy jobs [with waiting times], it’s all very good but I don’t know. I tend not to give them out.

WHEN YOU COMING OFF THE ROAD AND SIT IN THE OFFICE
When you first start you just wanna give the work out and you panic. You can quite easily give one rider work work work, but you got to strike a balance to deliver service to the clients. And that’s a difficult thing.  The riders are there for you to use. But you need to make sure that they earn what they are capable of earning.  Give the clients what they want and the riders what they want as well – and that makes a happy balance between the two.

Believe it or not what we are very conscious of is to give the rider work that they earn money. Making sure that riders earn up to their level. Who decides the level? Well, it just done over the time, isn’t it? You realise you worth X amount of money a day, that what you should be earning because you good at what you do, but some riders are happy to earn 50-60 quid a day. They never complain. Other riders who do 120 quid come into the office complaining. That’s when you wanna see what they’re made of.

CRASHES AND ACCIDENTS

Outside the Albert Hall. Must have been oil or something, I slipped and did myself 25 stitches. On my own, yeah, outside the Albert Hall. That was tyres. Shitty Vittoria tyres. If it starts raining you would be like on a fucking skate ring- they were so shit.

I got up, put my cap on. Nothing wrong. Put my glasses on. Couldn’t see through my glasses. Like as if somebody scrubbed sandpaper on my lenses. I thought: “Shit. But you can pop the lenses out”. Put them in my back pocket. I am riding towards the underpass, feeling something warm. Coming out of the underpass I am looking down and there is blood on the handlebars and on the stem. Pulled over at Picadilly’s car park. Left up my cap to have a look and the whole thing shot across the wing-mirror of the car. I was like “Shit!”. Put my cycling cap back on. It’s quite tight, you know, it kept it all in there. So I called into Brian [controller]: “Look, I think I have to go to the hospital.”

I broke my hand on Moorgate. Was coming up towards Finsbury Square, the car was coming down the other way, turning right onto London Wall. Didn’t see me. I turned with the car, literally, and “crunch” my hand in two places broke. I banged on the car door, “what you doing?!” He just carried on driving from there. I went up to Brunswick place. By the time I got there my hand was going like that [swollen]; couldn’t ride but I carried on. The paper dockets- I had to get the receptionist to write them for me. I nearly finished that day. Got up on Saturday morning and my hand was no good. Went to hospital and they said you broke it in two places. They got this metal bar to hold it straight for 6 weeks until it heals. Next Wednesday I took it off and got one of those slings from the chemists, you know, and went to work like that. Now when it’s cold it really hurts there. Still hurts.

I got knocked out by a police car on Regent street. Fucking police car! It was right behind me. It has come out right from Hanover street and it just clipped me. I was alright though.

But the worst thing was when I was going home as a controller, on my yellow Condor.

After that I wore a helmet. I literally made a cartwheel along the edge of the rail. When I stood up I saw the railings, I just grabbed them. I knew I didn’t want to fall onto the road. The bike didn’t get a scratch on it. Nothing at all. The wheels were all true. I don’t know what happened to it at all, and I went back after when I started to ride into work again: there were no potholes, it hasn’t even been resurfaced, you know, when it has been redone or something. Nothing… nothing there, just like this….The chain must have jumped or locked up in that mili second and I just went straight over the top. That was on a free wheel. [Mark shows pictures of horrendous head injuries].

The doctor said he’s seen dead people with fewer injuries than me. Very very lucky.

Going across Vince square a spoke snapped in my back wheel, I went straight over the handlebars. Going down the road- all of this side, I am not joking- road rush. I was in toe clips and straps and obviously it’s not when you are clipless – bike goes one way and you go the other. You are strapped in, you got nowhere to go. Just slid along the road one big scab all along the way up here [indicates to his side].

Around here [Margate] you get seagulls- the don’t move; they so used to the cars, they don’t hear a bicycle coming and just don’t get off the way. They are massive. Big fuckers these seagulls. Big birds. You get one of those, you in trouble…

seagull

Photography: Mark Evans/ Alamy

Mark took an early retirement (with occasional work for City Sprint) in December 2016 and lives in Margate with his wife and two children.

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