Wearing smart uniforms and carrying enormous insulated rucksacks, most of the Deliveroo riders I've seen don’t look much like the typical London bike messenger. Many of them appear to be everyday cyclists. Some ride creaky mountain bikes, others woefully unsuitable shoppers. I've seen them consulting maps on their smartphones, sellotaped to the handlebars of their bicycles. Deliveroo is just one of many companies trying to crack the same-day food delivery market in London, but it's certainly the most visible. Last year Amazon experimented with using bicycle messengers in New York as part of their ‘Amazon Prime Now’ service, which aims to deliver goods within one hour of their being ordered. They recently began offering fresh food delivery too. Uber is trying to corner the food delivery market with ‘Ubereats’, run on a similar model to their taxi service, with self-employed owner-riders doing the legwork. But Deliveroo, armed with a start-up investment of half a billion dollars, has been the most aggressive recruiter so far. Riders have seen very little of that money.
Professional cycling has always been populated by cheats, and in the early years of the sport some of their methods were almost comically baroque. The winner of the 1904 Tour de France, Maurice Garin (who'd won the year before, too), was later disqualified for taking a train between stages. Several other riders were caught being towed along by cars, holding corks in their teeth attached to long wires (they could spit them out when they passed potential witnesses).
Being a bicycle courier is incredibly dangerous. In terms of days lost through injury it’s up there with farming, meat-packing and deep-sea fishing. Most couriers are classified as self-employed subcontractors for tax purposes, but many courier companies treat them as contracted employees. The freedom to chose what work you do turns out to be a mirage: turn down a job or two and you’ll quickly be asked to hand back your radio and find a new company to work for. It’s also badly paid. At CitySprint, one of London’s largest courier companies, a low-priority bicycle delivery from EC2 to SW1 pays the rider £1.25. The company defends its rates by arguing that no courier is ever asked to go on these schleps across the city with just one job in the bag: if you’re quick you can pick up several packages in one part of town and deliver them all at the other end. But what you’ll earn for the work is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago.
A couple of years ago I went to the 25th annual Cannabis World Cup in Amsterdam. The cup, organised by High Times magazine, part trade-show and part awards ceremony, has been held in Amsterdam since 1987. In a large dank hanger in an old shipyard in the east of the city, hundreds of young men gathered under a thick fug of smoke. They discussed marijuana cultivation and argued about the terroir of their favourite strains of hashish. There were ‘cooking with weed’ demonstrations and lectures on the history of cannabis. Stands sold seeds and smoking paraphernalia. One man was pushing his stealth smoking pipes disguised as asthma inhalers.
Ukip’s ‘Carnival of Colour’, which took place in a Croydon shopping centre today, never looked particularly promising. When I got there, a few supporters wearing linen suits, loud shirts and strong aftershave were handing out flyers. George Konstantinidis, the east counties regional chairman of Ukip, gave me his card. I asked him if Nigel Farage would be there. He told me, conspiratorially, that he’d be arriving in half an hour. I asked him if he thought Farage was racist. He said he wasn’t.
In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour's originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’.
Six cyclists have been killed on London’s streets in the last fortnight. On 5 November Brian Holt, a hospital porter from Aldgate, was hit by a lorry on Cycle Superhighway 2 in Mile End. On 7 November a man died after a collision with a bus in Croydon. Last week Francis Golding was hit by a coach at the corner of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. He later died in hospital. On Wednesday morning a woman was hit by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled round Bow roundabout, where two other cyclists have died this year.
At the beginning of the year a group of workers at the Curzon cinema chain joined BECTU, the media and entertainment union. Front-of-house workers at Curzon are employed on zero-hour contracts, meaning that they have no guaranteed earnings week by week. If they’re offered no work, they earn no money.
The Sunday Assembly, ‘a godless congregation for all’, is expanding. It was founded in January by two stand-up comics, Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, and sells itself as ‘all the best bits of church, but with no religion and awesome pop songs’. Alain de Botton has accused them of nicking the idea from him.