I’d not heard of him and then about a month ago I couldn’t go a day without hearing his name in another story about how fast he was. Someone told me that in a time trial the guy in second place was five minutes back and that guy was quick. Then stories of him winning all the alley cats in Sydney, of being ‘other level fast’ and eventually the stories got so big and so consistently along the lines of ‘Safa is god’ that it seemed like the guy wasn’t real or if he was he’d have a massive ego and be a nightmare to talk to. I heard about him rocking up to the Wolfpack Hustle, an annual crit race in LA, with nobody knowing who he was and winning it; and that’s no alley cat with ten other pissed couriers. Then one day I read an article about guys being misogynistic at bike events while women are there trying to compete having to deal with it. Then, reading the author’s name at the top and laughing, Safa again! A few days after that I saw the video he did with Lucas Brunelle coming down a mountain into Mexico City. The third video is around ten minutes long, slashing between traffic and doing it faster for longer than I’ve ever seen. The man is a beast and the beast-man agreed to talk to me; to tell me about the good ol’ days in Sydney, CMWC’s, organising last year’s in Mexico, and what he’s doing now.
“I remember being in a lift at 84 Pitt St. and a courier got in. I was 18 and had just moved to Sydney from South Africa. I asked him what he did. In the 10 seconds we had together I figured out what job he was doing and a few names of courier companies that I should call if I wanted a job. I was on my way to a dermatologist appointment. I was 18 and had bad acne. That’s how I started as a bike messenger”
(in Mexico City)
Hey Safa, cheers for talking to me. The first thing has to be CMWC. It’s coming back to Australia for the first time in almost a decade, Sydney 2006 and now Melbourne 2015. Your first was in Sydney right?
Yeah, Sydney 2006 was my first CMWC. I was still fairly new to the idea of a big messenger world outside of working in Sydney. It opened my eyes a fair bit and some of the internationals stayed on for a time after the event. I broke my collar-bone on the way to the awards ceremony and since then I’ve had a bit of bad luck at championships. I think I’m starting to turn that around now though.
There was some confusion around my qualifying for the finals of the main race that year. I thought I hadn’t qualified and got right stuck into some rum and was not in the best shape when I was informed that I was in the finals. I qualified at the back of the pack, promptly lost my manifest after a few confused checkpoint stops, and was the first racer out of the finals. Not the most glorious start to what has now been a run of eight CMWC’s, missing only one since Sydney. It’s strange thinking about it now, the first was Sydney and I was a bit lost and the last was here in Mexico and I ran the show. I never made a decision that I wanted to go to as many CMWC’s as possible after Sydney or anything like that, it just worked out that way.
“My whole life as a messenger has just rolled along without me putting much effort in to what direction it would take. If you’re open to adventure, taking a few chances and know how to work the systems to make money, this job can take you on a pretty interesting ride.”
So, you have a potentially glorious homecoming in store this year: back to Australia winning CMWC for the first time in Melbourne?
I really want to. It’s about time I won a CMWC and to do it in Australia would be cool. I will have to come up with a cunning plan to be able to afford a ticket though. I just want to come back and see my mates and explore more of Sydney and Melbourne. I never used to ride far out of the city like I do now in Mexico City. I’d be more excited to see Sydney than Melbourne. That’s where I started as a messenger and it has always felt more like home than anywhere else I’ve lived.
Getting the winning bid and starting organising for worlds in Mexico City must still be fresh in your mind. Can you talk about putting the bid in and what happened next? I imagine having hundreds of people about to arrive from all over the world, who have spent their hard-earned money and expect an event as good as what’s come before in other cities, would be very daunting. More like terrifying actually. How did you wind up organising it?
Yeah, the stress and dread are still with me but I’m trying to forget that while keeping the parties in mind. I never wanted to organise a CMWC or be a big part of the Mexico City organisation.
My friend Joaquin wanted to put another bid in for Mexico City and I most likely would have helped him with it in Chicago. He got held up with some visa issues at the border trying to ride across from Mexico, ended up missing the championships, and then contacted me to put a bid in for him. It was all quite last-minute but I’d been to plenty of CMWC’s and Mexico as well so the Mexico City bid went ahead and not too badly. After a couple of weeks of partying in the Midwest I made my way down to Mexico and eventually to Mexico City with Joaquin. My plan was to work and play for two months, nothing definite but something like that. When I started to scope out things in DF a pretty big weight started to come down on me. Joaquin is an optimist and I don’t think he actually realised the scale of effort and logistics that organising a CMWC entails. There was no real messenger scene – hardly any messengers at all – and he was the only other person that even knew what a CMWC was.
I almost pulled the plug on the whole event twice; there had not been enough thought that had gone into it before the bid. It left me in a difficult situation because after Chicago I was the face of the team when all I had wanted to do was be the messenger for the bid. Eventually it was too late to pull out and let New York take over, so I committed to it and hounded everyone for a year and a half. It wasn’t just deciding to be in charge of the event; Joaquin and I had to start a whole new life in Mexico City. He had been living in the south of Mexico, I didn’t speak the language, and we had to get a place to rent, start our own messenger company to try to make a living, stuff like that. It was tough. We had a core team of about six people, myself included, when you really need at least ten. What we pulled off, being where we were and how small our team was, was something of a miracle.
“The messenger world and family has been my whole life since I left home at eighteen. I really didn’t want to mess up the most important event of the year for everyone. A lot of the time I just wanted to drop off the radar and go live in the desert in Namibia where my parents live. I’m happy it all worked out really well, it was a great CMWC. It was a massive relief. Just writing about it now brought up a whole bunch of emotions. Thank fuck it is over and thanks again to everyone who helped us.”
I wish I could have gone eh. All the guys from Sydney came back talking about how great it was and how epic the group-ride from Guadalajara was. Do you want to talk about your early days in Sydney? I remember before coming to Australia not sure if it was a city with bike messengers and eventually hearing that it was a tiny scene and it might be hard to get work. But there were hundreds here in the 90’s right? What was it like when you started?
When I started a lot fewer people said ‘hello’ when you rolled up to 1 Martin. Some guys wouldn’t even answer you if you said ‘hi’ to them. That’s pretty lame. I understand that there is a high turnover rate but I always at least said ‘hi’ and gave the new guy two minutes to prove if he was an idiot or not. These days it doesn’t really matter what kind of rider you are; back then you had to be good to make a good living, that was the best part of being a messenger. It was a game. You started out with zero knowledge and low skills and you quickly had to build yourself up or keep earning shit pay. Shit pay then was about what average pay is now though. When you started to get the hang of things there was nothing like it. All the paths between addresses started connecting like sparks in your brain. Everyday I used to look over my runsheets and see how much money I was making, ensuring I was getting better and better. We used a radio/pager/runsheet combo when I started. I stuck around because I had always really loved riding a bike and the money was easy. I was eighteen years old making six hundred bucks a week not really knowing what the hell I was doing. I lived in Haymarket in what I suppose you could call a slum. It was on the corner of Eliz and Foster, above the Golden Sun Supermarket. I had a room between a man who hardly spoke any English and a two-bit drug dealer. It was cheap and I was happy. 682 Big Rob, aka the Tongan Princess, and Jason (who passed away a few years ago) were the two experienced guys who took me in and were friendly from the start. Rob was super strong and fast and always smoked me whenever we rode together; it had to turn in to a race, if only between two lights. Jase was the smartest guy out there and I really looked up to him. He just spun on his skinny tyre’d mtb and always looked to be going pretty slow but he’d win alleycats and make more money than almost anyone else. He was definitely the best messenger in my mind.
(looking like a new guy)
After a while it was ok with pretty much everyone that I was chilling with on the sacred steps of 1 Martin. There were still people who grumbled about everything like grumpy granddads. There was a lot more ego back then because we were all competing for money. Whenever the Mailcall cheques came in Rob and I would meet at Farrer Place and compare them and give whoever made less a hard time. Then usually the richer one would buy the other something from the coffee stand. Everyone knew who the top earners were. I rose up the ranks pretty quickly but after a certain point you just can’t climb any higher, the old guard were always going to make more money than you. They had been working with the same manager and dispatcher for years.
When every messenger starts they always hear stories about the good ‘ol days. I’m talking about them now and when I started people would talk about how much better it was a few years before. I really believe I caught the last few good years though. I know there were many better years before I started but at least the first years of my career there was always a hustle. You made money by working almost non-stop.
“There was always something on the boards. When you get in to that frame of mind you just don’t want to stop, a big run clears up and there is just one job to Glebe, yeah you’ll take it. Hit it out and be back in the city in 20 minutes and take the next red. The dispatchers loved that, I just wanted to go.”
Some days I would hardly eat, I was too busy, a pastry or two as I ran out of a building, nothing more. I was learning what my body could do. I was really surprised at how I could just keep going, how a body could just keep pushing. At the end of the day I would sit down and for the first time think ‘Shit, what did I just do?’. Sixty jobs in a day was good but people weren’t falling over about it. The most I did in a normal day (not Valentines or xmas) was ninety jobs. I know Paddy has gone over a hundred more than once. It may not have been the golden years of the 80’s and 90’s but there was certainly some sheen left in the early 2000’s. I woke just wanting to work, I really loved it.
You’ve worked in a lot of different cities now, in Europe and North America and all over Australia. The only other city for me so far has been London, which was a very different experience to Sydney. What was working in London like for you?
There are always messengers coming from abroad to work in Sydney, it’s a cool thing. I got to hear of what was happening in other cities. One of those messengers was Ian Davis, he was from London and taught me a lot about drinking and breaking rules. The first trip I took abroad was to London for the pre-event to the CMWC in Dublin. Ian hooked me up with a place to stay and after CMWC I started working in London. I can’t remember why I wanted to move city, I know I had been talking about it for a while. I was probably a little bored and the prospect of adventures in a new city got a hold of me. Of the seven cities I’ve worked in, London is definitely the most challenging to navigate. It’s huge and has so many small streets spaghetti’d over it. I worked for Cyclone and we used radio only; I had a really tough time with my dispatcher’s accent and he had an equally tough time with mine. I stuck to the main roads mostly and ducked in to the pick-up at the last moment. I found it was more efficient because traffic moved faster on the main streets and I wasn’t getting slowed down, lost in the maze of winding lanes. After a days work I found I was always tired, not so much physically as mentally. I really had to focus whenever I was riding. Navigating and remembering where streets were was a challenge in London. The streets were always damp too, so you had to be cautious of that when cornering. Also, the streets are so narrow that on the busy ones people tended to pop off the pavement onto the road, just too many people to fit. Combined with the buses that made it quite dangerous. I really had to concentrate. London would also be the city where I got the most punctures, at least one a week, normally more.
I also visited Glasgow a few times. The half-mad James Tait lived there. We were a force of menace when together. I remember being barred from his four favourite pubs before 2pm one day. I shared a room with James and covered some of his shifts when he couldn’t be bothered working. Glasgow is a dark and gritty city, not much to look at but I had a great time there. It was dangerous, outrageous and fun. On Fridays James and I would pack our sleeping bags in our messenger bags so we could sleep wherever we hit the floor during the weekend. We got into numerous bizarre altercations and woke up in strange places every week. I remember riding over the freeway bridge naked in the rain at midnight, chasing a sheep down the beach with a huge knife and using our messenger bags to carry fencing poles to a cave to use as firewood. Eventually I decided to leave Glasgow and went back to London; I loved it but it was going to kill me.
It’s coming up to the Christmas rush and courier Christmas. Any festive stories for the children?
It was the night before the annual courier Christmas party, the one where we all go to Bronte Beach, drink heavily, eat too much, and then race up that evil hill. I was in Central Station with Jess and Ness. We were on the way home but Jess needed the bathroom. While we were waiting for her, bored and happily drunk, Ness dared me to ride my bicycle into the Christmas tree for twenty dollars. The tree was about 10 metres high and had a white picket fence around it. I accepted. In my mind the front wheel of my bicycle would hit the fence and I would soar like an angel to the top of the tree. It was missing an angel.
The front wheel hitting the fence was the only part of the plan that went to plan. I was left see-sawing, stomach on fence. A few concerned citizens rushed over to help as Jess was coming out of the bathroom, I was fine but we had to go. We laughed our way out before security came.
I woke up late the next day and felt substantially less than race ready but I hurried to get going to make it on time. The sun was so harsh it felt like it was giving me two black eyes as I opened the door to go outside. The real blow however, came as I rode off the curb, I landed on my head and knee. A graceful start. I checked the road; my front wheel must have landed in one of the small holes there, there was no other explanation.
I picked up a six-pack before dropping down the hill to the beach, that’s when I noticed the front wheel clearance looked even tighter than it usually was. I had bent the frame during the previous night’s Christmas extravaganza. The wheel was rolling but rubbing against the downtube. At the bottom of the hill I sat down and took in the sorry state of my situation: my knee was blowing up like a balloon, my frame was bent, my head was sore and I hadn’t even gotten my twenty-dollar circus pay. I decided to skip the race, but then at the last moment thought, ‘screw my knee’. I went up to for the start, everyone was already sprinting up the hill, so I had screwed that up too. I still managed to come in third.
That was the year I fully understood Lane’s saying: It hurts like Christmas. I think that was also the year somebody fed us past use-by date kanga bangas and our minds went to sea; we got in a brawl with the local kid-thugs and Chris Zito could not be convinced that the turtle he was looking at was actually a rock.
That hill climb is actually happening today. I’d gone with a friend to try it a couple of times and really thought I was in with a shot and had starting talking shit about winning it. Then I crashed on my way home after a big night and fractured little bits of my spine so I’ll be sitting at the top waiting to see the winner instead of racing this year. Bummer.
So after working in London you started to move around from city to city around the world, it was never a plan to keep moving like that?
Yeah I don’t really make plans, this is couriering not a banking. Well, these days things are more professional, a lot of people are starting their own companies and having to pay more attention to the business side of things, myself included. It’s because the industry has shrunk and changed a lot. But when I was moving about courier jobs and money were easier to come by. At the Wolfpack race I was only known by messengers, and the big fixed crits have very little to do with messengers, so I was relatively unknown. You need to train and really commit to it if you want to be competitive at the big crits; the level is high and only getting harder. The same goes for big alleycats, there are so many non messengers racing now. I noticed that early on and wanted to stay competitive so I took racing a bit more seriously. I think the stronger competition has pushed a lot of messengers away from racing, they are just not interested in doing any more riding than work. That used to be enough but not any more.
Messenger work and racing has definitely made me one of the most skilled racers in the more pro level pelotons. I take the corners so much faster and easier than most of the other racers. If I can get to be as strong as them then they are in for a tough time.
So are you training hard now for races coming up? I don’t even know if you’re couriering anymore, are you?
I started a company with a friend here in Mexico City. I still work but Mexico City is not big on bike messengers. Work is slow here. That’s when I decided to start training; there just wasn’t enough work to keep me fit. I’m always training these days but right now there are no big races coming up so I’m not as serious as I will be next year. I’m learning how to use a road bike and trying to teach myself how to be less competitive.
(sponsored Safa, looking professional)
I’ve read most of the bits you’ve written on your blog now. I’ve never been bored reading one of them, you’re adept at keeping the narrative cruising along and pulling the reader through.
Thanks. My grammar isn’t great, I haven’t written in a long time and stopped reading also. I hope both pick up as the site goes along. I’ve always loved reading and wrote a little as well, but nothing that anyone saw. I started posting pictures of the where I’d been riding on my Tumblr.
“Whenever I’m riding, it’s often alone, I’m also writing in my head. I suppose some people call it talking to yourself but I’m always narrating, thinking in terms of writing, having more than myself for an audience.”
After completing the longest climb in California, I just wanted to sit down and write about it to add more of a story to the photographs. That got a really good response on Tumblr and after that I decided to start my website. It’s nice to get the words out of my head for a change and I think people enjoy seeing some original content.
Thanks for taking all the time dude. I hope you smash those big crits this year and make it to Sydney-Melbourne. Also, just a heads-up, there’s an up and coming Canadian guy here in Sydney you should be wary of, he looks goofy but he’s a champion in waiting.
That was Safa: legend and nice guy. I can’t believe he didn’t get the shits with me. He has a new video coming out which the trailer was just released for. I feel like if there’s a trailer for it and the One Day in Mexico videos were just released without hype then it must be something insane. I’m excited.
His blog: http://safabrian.wordpress.com
His gram: http://instagram.com/safabrian
His YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX1cKCS0LURMO1wQWLfeiUg
If you know a messenger who has had some interesting times and would be cool to see interviewed on here get in touch. We’re going to be doing rider profiles before worlds so bring on the recommendations.
Also, Sister City Cat races are coming up on the 20th. If you’re not fussed about racing remember that the winner in the city who raises the most gets a free return ticket to Sydney courtesy of SYDBMA. That’s $1500 of freeness for doing an alley cat.