Seattle bike messenger Craig Etheridge may very well be the nicest guy to ever sit atop a bicycle. He’ll also tear your legs off in a race while simultaneously encouraging you to ride harder and laughing with heckling spectators. Craig is the reigning Cycle Messenger World Champion, made a run at the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championship podium, and routinely tears it up at local cyclocross and mountain bike races. I sat down with Craig in his basement bike shop (inexplicably named Tommy’s bike shop) to talk about the world championships, career messengering, and the growth of single speed cyclocross.
You’re officially the number one messenger in the world. Tell me about your experience in Guatemala.
Going to worlds was pretty eye opening. I’d never been to Guatemala or Central America and I’d never been to a world championship before. From what I’ve heard about other world championships, this one was pretty unique. At other worlds events people tended to just do their own thing while they were in town. But, in Panajachal there isn’t actually a messenger company, so everyone was more involved in pulling off the event and putting in a little work to make it their experience. It was cool to have more involvement in the event beyond just racing and cool to have that closer bond with other racers.
To tell the truth though, I also got bored at times. We were kind of stuck in this little town. At the end of the week I really wish I’d been able to get out and see more of the area. But, there were enough events and activities going on [for worlds] that I didn’t want to miss a whole day and it takes the entire day to get out of town and back. Traveling anywhere throughout was actually really difficult because of the infrastructure. Ultimately [the boredom] didn’t matter too much in the end, but I still wish I’d seen more.
What was the best takeaway from Worlds (other than being the champion, of course)?
I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but something happened that I’m really proud of, actually. During the qualifying race they’d given us a map of the course, so everyone was studying it and practicing. But, five minutes before the main event, the race officials surprised us and announced that they were using a new course and would provide at new map at the start of the race. They wanted people to race on a level field to see who’s the best at thinking on their feet. But, the new map leaked out from a checkpoint worker and minutes before the race started there was a flurry of racers trying to look at the map and cram the new information.
The organizers got kind of pissed because they wanted it to be a surprise. During the commotion this dude next to me stood up took a little stand. He said, “you know what, this isn’t what the organizers wanted. You guys can do what you want, but I’m going to race the way they wanted us to.” I heard what he said, and I was like “damn it … yeah you’re right. Let’s race honest.” Of course, I was also thinking at the same time “fuck, I’m really shooting myself in the foot” because nobody else stopped looking at the map.
So, I went into the race blind, and it took me at least the first manifest (of four) to get the hang of the course. I was doing that goofy riding and looking at the map every couple of seconds.
After the race that same guy came up to me, not realizing I had won, and said, “hey man, I really appreciate you standing up with me earlier.” Then he found out I had won and he was totally floored. It made me feel a lot better, it made me feel like I rode honest and even if no one else did, it was something that the two of us shared. It was a great experience.
How’d you become a messenger in the first place?
The day I got moved to Seattle I wanted to find something to do and found out the bike messenger world championships were happening that night. I went and volunteered at a checkpoint. I met a bunch of messengers and thought it seemed like an awesome job.
After that, I was working at a coffee shop a block away from ABC Legal, one of the bigger legal messenger services in Seattle. Someone had told me you needed to go to the company and ask all the time in order to get a messenger job. So I did. I stopped by so often that I had four or five applications on file and the woman behind the desk would just shake her head no at me as I came in. One day, I was walking down the street after getting rejected again and an ABC guy came running after and offered me a job. I think they got so sick of having me ask for a job that they finally just hired me.
I spent about a year riding for ABC Legal, then I got hired at my current company, KNR. October 24 was my five year anniversary at KNR.
You’ve been a messenger for six years, you’re the current world champion, are you going to keep going? Is there still a career to be had?
Yeah, I’m going to keep going! It’s awesome! And I think there’s still a career to be had. It’s not that there’s no need for messengers as much as our clients are suffering because of the economy. But when the economy is doing better, there’s still stuff that needs to be delivered like bank statements, plans and architecture rolls, pieces of media that need to go from the dub room to the audio room to the mixers to the media people. Those things still need to go back and forth and its still easiest to do by bike. There’s still good business to be done delivering, it’s just not there right now.
I’m still in it for a while. I talk about quitting sometimes, but if I really wanted to get out, I’d have already left. In the end I’m still riding, even if I’m not riding a lot. I get to do the one thing that everyone in the bike industry wants to do: ride their bike.
I know you really had your heart set on winning another unofficial world championship, the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championship held here in Seattle two weeks ago. What happened out there? Why didn’t you win?
It took me about a week after the race to figure out what went wrong at SSCXWC. A week after worlds, I happened to have one of my best races ever. I think a huge part of it was that I didn’t care about the race at all. I’m already out of contention for over all standings in the MFG series, the world championships were over, and I wasn’t putting any pressure on myself.
But at worlds I really wanted to win and I ended up putting a lot of pressure on myself. I ended up over thinking the race and it effected me negatively.
To be fair, you did have a flat at worlds.
Yeah, but maybe it was one of those things where I needed to mechanical out of the race to realize I need to just let go sometimes. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t. And then when you’re not expecting it, it happens and you do well like last Saturday. I wasn’t expecting to do well, showed up late, didn’t warm up or pre-ride and then had my best race of my whole year. I ended up beating my biggest competitor by almost three minutes.
This is a separate issue, but another problem is that SSCXWC isn’t as legitimate race as it could be.
What do you mean?
Everyone wants the same things from a legit race. They want qualifiers and they want them to mean something. We had qualifiers this year, but at the start line the people who were there to actually race were lumped in the same giant group with the people there to drink beer and have a party. I don’t care that people are there to drink and party on the course, but I just wanted the opportunity to legitimately race on the front with the other handful of people there to actually race, and that didn’t happen because some people got mixed into the group. It’s not an excuse for not winning, I screwed up, but it’s still a bummer.
Nonetheless, I’m really glad the organizers put on the event, I appreciate all the hard work that went into it, I just wish it was a more legitimate race.
As someone who only races singlespeed, how do you feel about folks like (three-time SSCXWC champion) Drew MacKenzie and Wendy Simms jumping in and winning worlds when they normally race geared elite (or Pro in the case of Simms)?
I don’t know for a fact if Drew MacKenzie races single speed all year long, but I don’t think he does. There are hundreds of pro racers out there that could slap on a chain tensioner and win SSCXWC, but they choose not to because they know it’s not their thing. Of course Drew races worlds on a single speed, but does he do it all the time? Is he a single speeder? I want to lose to someone who supports the cause, someone who races single speed day in and day out. I don’t think Drew does that. If he does, I take it back, and I guess he’s just the best and he somehow keeps winning, which is amazing. But I can’t really get behind a non-single speeder winning.
It seems like single speed cyclocross is already pretty well accepted as a legitimate discipline. It gets its own category in most cross series and around here the single speed races are at least as big as the Cat 3s and always bigger than the elites. Do you think there’s room for single speed cross to grow?
I think it’s going to follow mountain biking and eventually there will be an elite single speed cross category. I’m sure people will complain, just like in mountain biking where people said having two single speed categories was missing the point, but it’s just part of adapting to single speed’s growth.
Where do you think it tops out? I can’t really picture companies handing out pro contracts for single speed riders.
This is good stuff to think about. I’m not sure where it will top out. SSCXWC is going into its fifth year, it’s moving to San Francisco, maybe it’ll go international after that. Regardless of where it tops out, single speed cross is definitely going to continue to grow.