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...
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
“ANYONE CAN CYCLE FAST, BUT FEW KNOW HOW TO AVOID SPILLING YOUR BOWL OF WAGAMAMA SOUP”
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
“COURIERING WAS A CAREER OPTION FOR PEOPLE WHO DIDN’T FIT IN THE 9- TO- 5 TICK- BOX”
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 greenworkforce.co.uk 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 bespoketricycles.co.uk) or an ice- cream one (from £1,500 including freezer at cargobike.co.uk). 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.
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.
“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”
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!