The truth about De­liv­eroo

Be­ing paid to ride for a liv­ing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean be­ing a racer. De­liv­eroo rider Rob Ains­ley looks at the grow­ing world of the free­lance cy­clist...

Urban Cyclist - - Front Page - WORDS ROB AINS­LEY IM­AGES JESSE WILD

Seven days in the life of a ‘pro­fes­sional cy­clist’

Choose a job you love, and you’ll never do a day’s work in your life, as Con­fu­cius never said. So how about cy­cling for a liv­ing? Pro­fes­sional rac­ing is the pre­serve of the ded­i­cated few, but there are a lot of other ways you can get paid to do some­thing you en­joy. Po­lice of­fi­cers or paramedics on bikes are a fa­mil­iar sight these days. As well as cy­clists de­liv­er­ing take­aways, cargo bikes de­liv­er­ing to town cen­tre busi­nesses, tour guides... per­haps even Covent Gar­den rick­shaws in­fu­ri­at­ing the taxi driv­ers. There’s also a hid­den cult of peo­ple who do their main work from the sad­dle: gar­den­ers, builders, florists, for­est rangers, pi­ano-tuners... even (though none would be in­ter­viewed) pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Well, that last one fig­ures: we know that to many peo­ple we’re not seen on a bike – un­til we go through a red light. As for me, I’m a de­liv­ery cy­clist for De­liv­eroo, which right now is bring­ing some restau­rant food to a house near you. I work part-time, four evenings a week in York, one of 30- odd cy­clists and half- a- dozen mo­tor­cy­clists.

Some like it hot

We’re all ‘pro­fes­sional cy­clists’, but of course I wouldn’t equate us with Peter Sa­gan, Mark Cavendish or Laura Trott. No. We’re much bet­ter than them. Any­one can cy­cle fast, but few know how to avoid spilling your bowl of Waga­mama soup on Foss­gate’s cob­bles. Google Maps? Pah! We pos­sess the lo­cal knowl­edge, the un­mapped short­cuts that avoid traf­fic lights and rush-hour traf­fic so that your tikka masala ar­rives hot and tasty.

So what’s it like, be­ing a pro cy­clist, even if only the sort that trans­ports fish and chips? Well, I like ex­plor­ing York by bike, I en­joy route find­ing and I get paid for do­ing it. There’s no han­dling of money, de­ci­sion-mak­ing or mul­ti­task­ing, and there’s cer­tainly no of­fice pol­i­tics. ( There’s no of­fice.) An app on your smart­phone tells you what to do and where to go: restau­rant, cus­tomer, restau­rant, cus­tomer... but oth­er­wise you’re on your own, on the bike, your own boss. I love it. The bike gets plenty of ham­mer, par­tic­u­larly on those rather bru­tal cob­bles. Brakepads last a few weeks in­stead of a few months. In the pud­dled streets, things quickly clog up, jam and loosen. Which re­minds me, I must get the den­tist to check my fill­ings. For work I use my town bike, a bat­tered but well-main­tained Spe­cial­ized Cross­roads hy­brid. To de­ter thieves it looks old, cheap and tatty, but in fact is re­li­able, smooth and ef­fi­cient. It weighs a ton, es­pe­cially with ’guards, rack and dou­ble-leg kick­stand, toe­clips, and heavy- duty wheels. Tyres are chunky 38mm stabproof Spe­cial­ized Ar­madil­los: a punc­ture on a cold rainy night would not only be a pain to fix, but some­one’s burger would get very cold. It has a bell, too, a tra­di­tional loud jan­gly one, that nev­er­the­less seems in­audi­ble to iPod lis­ten­ers and pub- crawlers. My ma­chine’s un­usual. Most of the ’ Roos ride mid-range road bikes, fix­ies or sin­gle­speeds, cleats and all, and haul their loads in a back­pack; I pre­fer a rack-mounted box.

’ Roo goes there?

De­liv­eroo op­er­ates in 34 towns and cities in the UK, em­ploy­ing 3,500


cy­clists; the Euro­pean and Asian to­tals are 65 and 5,000. ( De­liv­eroo isn’t in the US yet but has plans to be.) It also has mo­tor­bike, scooter and car driv­ers, but 60% of its work­force are cy­clists. If York’s any­thing to go by, quite a few ’ Roos are stu­dents, earn­ing a few quid while they fin­ish their de­gree or PhD. There are sev­eral uni­ver­sity- of-life grad­u­ates, who don’t want suit- and-tie roles. Our back­grounds in­clude cater­ing, law, li­braries, drama, me­dia, the forces and wood­work. The age range is mostly 20s to 30s, with the old­est 55; the male-to-fe­male ra­tio is about 80:20. We’re self- em­ployed, which means we shoul­der all the risk (no sick pay or paid hol­i­day), but at least bike ex­penses are tax- de­ductible. So be smart and, like bil­lion­aire oli­garchs, you can avoid pay­ing any tax, for op­po­site rea­sons. Many of us are keen cy­clists out­side of work. There’s even a Face­book group through which we or­gan­ise longdis­tance leisure rides. There’s plenty of bike and other ban­ter be­tween de­liv­er­ies – and if some­one’s ma­chine needs tweak­ing on the hoof, there’s al­ways some­one with tools and spares. Un­like most work­places, the more hec­tic busi­ness is, the less time we spend to­gether, so per­son­al­ity clashes are never a prob­lem. Even­ing shifts can be hec­tic, and there’s al­ways pres­sure to do more, quicker. But that goes for all gige­con­omy jobs these days. I’d rather be on a bike, con­trol­ling my own workspace, than in a fran­tic bar-restau­rant, noisy fac­tory or un­vis­ited re­tail store.

Spit and pol­ish

Bad weather is usu­ally the only chal­lenge. But week­end nights can be a bit of a zoo in York, with stag and hen par­ties, and rowdy drinkers. Most heck­ling is good-na­tured, but oc­ca­sion­ally things be­come rather nasty. I’ve been spat on, shav­ing-foamed, and had to dodge drunken kicks and lunges. At least the cus­tomers are al­ways pleased to see us, and cu­ri­ous and mildly im­pressed, too. ( Though rarely im­pressed enough to tip.) The archetype of cy­clists-for-hire used to be typ­i­fied by Lon­don couri­ers: feisty free spir­its, lav­ishly tat­tooed, in caps with up­turned peaks, ar­row­ing through traf­fic and over pave­ments. But things have changed since the 1980s, when you could earn £200 a day fer­ry­ing doc­u­ments. As email and PDFs came in, the cy­cle- courier in­dus­try de­clined. Couri­ers still make £200 – but that’s in a week! Some ‘em­ploy­ees’, who now re­ceive less than min­i­mum wage thanks to the pay­ment-per- drop sys­tem, re­cently went on strike. Cy­cle- couri­er­ing was one of the clas­sic ca­reer op­tions for peo­ple who didn’t fit in to the 9-to-5 tick- box. There was a gen­tler al­ter­na­tive: be­ing a postie. But that all ended in 2014, when Royal Mail phased out the last post bikes. ( It was un­clear on what grounds – safety? Ef­fi­ciency? Fash­ion? Ide­ol­ogy?) There are some lo­cal bike- based mail de­liv­ery ser­vices ( Velo­post in Bris­tol and Ed­in­burgh, or Cam­bridge’s Uni­ver­sity Mail bikes, for in­stance) but they’re tiny op­er­a­tions.

Brave new world

De­liv­eroo’s model could be herald­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for free­lance cy­clists, not re­stricted to take­away food. Ama­zon among many oth­ers is ex­pand­ing the range of what it de­liv­ers, and with traf­fic con­ges­tion and air pol­lu­tion in­creas­ingly im­por­tant is­sues in town cen­tres, it wouldn’t sur­prise


me to see more bike-fer­ry­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties ap­pear­ing. ‘ Last-mile’ – the con­cept of bikes do­ing that fi­nal leg of a town- cen­tre drop quicker than a motor ve­hi­cle can – will be­come more com­mon. In sci­ence- and bike- city Cam­bridge, they’re push­ing the en­ve­lope. Or rather, de­liv­er­ing it by bike, through the town’s dense streets. Out­spo­ken has been do­ing this for years, us­ing cargo and other bikes. “Most of our cy­cling is dif­fer­ent to the im­age of a Lon­don cy­cle courier,” says Out­spo­ken courier Peter Ford. “The ma­jor­ity of our work is last-mile de­liv­er­ies for na­tional couri­ers like TNT; it de­liv­ers hun­dreds of parcels to our de­pot in the morn­ing, and we take them by cargo bike or trike into cen­tral Cam­bridge. Most of the re­main­der is same- day de­liv­ery work be­tween Cam­bridge busi­nesses, car­ry­ing cakes, print­ing (menus, the­ses, posters), bi­o­log­i­cal reagents, frozen mice...!” Cy­cling work isn’t limited to de­liv­er­ing frosted ro­dents. Bikes can add a sur­pris­ing di­men­sion to a stan­dard job. Karen Har­ri­son, a cy­cling po­lice of­fi­cer with the Lon­don Met, points out that they can some­times be hid­den in plain sight, thanks to the num­bers of hi-vis com­muters on the cap­i­tal’s Cy­cle Su­per­high­ways (CSs). “Cy­cling of­fi­cers are vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble on the CSs, and it en­ables us to reach traf­fic in­ci­dents be­fore those in­volved re­alise we’re there,” she says, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to ap­pre­hend wrong­do­ers – some­times cy­clists, of­ten driv­ers – be­fore they have a chance to scarper. Cy­cling of­fi­cers can also weave their way into places motor ve­hi­cles can’t, such as Lon­don’s war­rens of al­leys, walk­ways and foot­paths through hous­ing es­tates and de­vel­op­ments. Lon­don also has many cy­cling fire of­fi­cers – not re­spond­ing to 999 calls, but pa­trolling ar­eas such as canal tow­paths and walk­ways on the look­out for po­ten­tial haz­ards such as piles of flammable rub­bish. ‘Am­bu­lance bikes’ (Cy­cle Re­sponse Units) are com­mon in city cen­tres: they’re reg­u­lar paramedics putting in a stint on two wheels, and they carry pretty much all the first- aid kit of a mo­torised am­bu­lance (ex­cept for bulky and heavy gas cylin­ders). Com­mon call­outs in York’s tourist cen­tre in­clude asthma and heart at­tacks, falls, and the odd booze-re­lated prob­lem.

Carry that load

Many keen cy­clists man­age to con­duct their trade on a bike. Will Mob­sby’s green­work­ is a com­pany of cy­cling builders, plumbers, elec­tri­cians and dec­o­ra­tors. He was in­spired to start it dur­ing a six-month bike tour of India,

amazed by the vast loads he saw trans­ported on two wheels. Ped­als can take other ma­chines to places cars can’t go. To com­bine cy­cling with a cash gen­er­a­tor, you might try a mo­bile cof­fee ma­chine (£1,099 for a 56kg, seven- speed trike from be­spoket­ri­cy­ or an ice- cream one (from £1,500 in­clud­ing freezer at car­go­b­ But your prob­lems here aren’t just find­ing a mar­ket, or even steer­ing some­thing that’s half wheelbarrow, half vend­ing ma­chine. It’s get­ting your li­cence to trade on pub­lic land. Michael Des­mond has spent thou­sands of pounds fit­ting up a DeRed­ding KDV cargo bike as a ped­alled flower stall. But the coun­cil in Sh­effield, where he plies his trade, has ex­as­per­ated him. “I’ve lost months, and thou­sands of pounds, wait­ing for my li­cence be­cause they can only make the sys­tem work for static pitches or for vans,” he laments. “It’s eas­ier to open a brothel!” Pedicab firms have found sim­i­lar prob­lems in Ox­ford and Ed­in­burgh. Re­jected for a ply-for-hire li­cence, they’re con­fined to pre- booked trips, with wed­dings be­ing a sta­ple. In Here­ford, Will Vaughan’s Here­ford Ped­i­cabs had more luck with a sym­pa­thetic coun­cil. He pays £300 a year per cab li­cence, the same as taxis. In Lon­don, where a le­gal quirk means they don’t need a li­cence, ped­i­cabs have a dodgy rep­u­ta­tion. Op­por­tunist mi­grant work­ers, rent­ing them for as lit­tle as £100 a day, have been in the news re­cently af­ter over­charg­ing tourists: one de­manded £206 for a 10-minute, one-mile ride. Such bad PR is frus­trat­ing for the le­git­i­mate pedicab firms such as Bug­bugs, who do things re­spon­si­bly with fixed rates and train­ing.

Pre­car­i­ous pro­le­tariat

Like all my Roo chums, I’m un­likely to make my cur­rent cy­cling job into a ca­reer. It’s zero-hours- con­tract, low-paid, pre­cariat stuff. But it’s also an easy, re­ward­ing and fun way to save a few quid be­tween other life stages. I’ve got to know York in­ti­mately, too, from the chic new-build apart­ments to the scruffy coun­cil es­tates. And it keeps you fit. While the daily dis­tances are rarely pun­ish­ing – I’ve cy­cled fur­ther round some town cen­tres look­ing for a toi­let – my track­ing apps sug­gest that I ex­pend an ex­tra 1,500-2,000 calories per shift, the equiv­a­lent of a chicken curry plus a pint or two of lager. In my desk jobs I’ve been paid bet­ter and stayed drier. But I haven’t smiled as much as I do cy­cling for a liv­ing. Or slept as well. So it’s time for a curry and lager treat, I think. I might even get it de­liv­ered. And yes, I will tip. This fea­ture first ap­peared in our sis­ter pub­li­ca­tion, ‘Cy­cling Plus’ magazine.


De­liv­eroo has its crit­ics but now em­ploys 5,000 peo­ple world­wide

De­liv­eroo col­lects food from chains like Waga­ma­mas as well as in­de­pen­dents

Left De­liv­eroo rid­ers re­quire an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of the lo­cal area Above right Enough said Right Each rider is armed with an app that im­parts the de­liv­ery and col­lec­tion info

Above Many rid­ers pre­fer back-mounted bags but our man Rob pitches for the pan­niers

Right De­liv­eroo’s now re­placed the lit­eral kan­ga­roo de­sign with some­thing more ab­stract

Right Rid­ers can ex­pend 2,000 calories… de­liv­er­ing food packed with 2,000 calories!

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