A day in the life of a bike rickshaw rider

I have been undercover, making new confidences, to bring you a story. You may have seen bicycle rickshaws in your first-world city, and maybe even have taken a ride. If you’re the kind of person who goes home around nine or ten after a restaurant meal and a civilised drink, you could be forgiven for thinking rickshaw riders do nothing but tout for the occasional waterside tour. You have not seen what these riders will be doing at one in the morning. The handful of joyrides they get before 10, are only to pay for their lease fees. It is between 10pm, and 2 in the morning, that they go to work.

To understand riders of bicycle rickshaws (or “pedicab pilots”, as they can be known), you need to appreciate, these are the oxen of professional cycling. The Schleck brothers are your thoroughbred stallions, with fast cadences and special diets. The graceful pedal actions of riders like Andy or Frank, are all very well on featherweight bikes that go forward if you breathe on the pedals. On a rickshaw laden with passengers, that might literally weigh half a tonne, cadence means nothing. To the pedals of bikes such as these, one must apply newtons. Which of course is why so many pedicab pilots have to stop after their first couple of weeks, with injured knees. Those who keep on, settle into patterns of late night carb binges at all-nighter food joints, and sleeping to midday, before going out and doing it all over again.

One pedicab pilot I have befriended boasts of having sex with an average of 4 different girls/customers every week. He’s a reasonably good looking young guy. Three quarters of his conquests would have to consider themselves very lucky. Another rider, a girl, on some nights makes less than her lease fee. On others, she can make twice that with one generous tip, from a single drunk dude who sat back admiring her legs. Most pilots though, are more like sheep shearers, competing to ride further and faster and make the most money, enjoying the city’s good vibes, and letting the bad vibes wash over.

Where bicycle messengers learn to read traffic, pedicab pilots learn to read the effect of alcohol on the night. From 6 until 10 the city has a nice air of relief that the work day is over, but inhibitions remain. That is why pedicab pilots tout, or wear funny wigs, to break the ice during these hours. From 10 until midnight, the city is tipsy. Groups of punters are agreeing on where to drink next, based on theories as to where the good lookers might be. Everyone is happy and more than willing to pile on board a rickshaw for double the cost of a taxi. Riders know they’re the life of the party.

Newcastle’s Star Hotel Riots. These are the parents of todays generation of revellers.

From midnight until 1am, the city is staggering, swearing, falling from blouses, squatting or standing to piss in the shrubs, breaking glass, and yelling abuse—not least to the rickshaw riders, for not giving them whatever they want. “Give me a ride!” they demand, even though riders may already be carrying other passengers. The punters are upset now that yet another night spending money has not brought them someone to breed with. But the pilots press on during this most miserable hour, knowing the occasional good fare or good tip will make it worth being out here.

Perhaps the worst that can happen to a pilot at this time, is to have an egg or paper cup filled with ice, thrown at them from a passing car. Taxi drivers harass them in every imaginable and criminal way, seeing bike rickshaws as eroding their livelihoods. However, by 1am in the morning, the riders are so filled with endorphins, that horn honking from taxis is the least of their worries. The greatest risk, actually, are the many inexperienced young drivers on the road at this time, with their drunken friends beside and behind them; if your pedicab pilot seems to be looking behind every second, it is to keep you out these drivers’ paths.

By 1am, riders who have kept up their fluids, will now need a wee. Those who haven’t, might only be feeling a little bit dizzy: tomorrow’s headache will teach them to carry a bottle. Regardless of physical fitness, all riders will be wondering during their last hour at work, if their legs can possibly get them up this next hill, with three bodybuilders in the back seat.

Then, before the rider could foresee this moment arriving, some punters who can’t bear to queue for a regular taxi, will be offering a fortune to take them to a house or a pub out of town. This will be the rider’s last fare for the night, from which they will limp back to the depot, amazed by what their own bodies can do and ready to spend half what they earned on fast-food. The female rider I mentioned (with the nice legs) doesn’t join them. She is being picked up by her mum in a car. Neither does our Casanova have time to eat burgers. He has made arrangements to meet a girl he’s just met.

As for your narrator, I’m just glad my anthropological studies have brought me no harm. I have had food scraps and abuse hurled at me from cars. I have had altercations with taxi drivers. There are some sketchy folk out there at night, some of whom I have had to ride fast to escape. On the bright side, the strength training has been unbeatable: each shift has been like eight hours up hill in the big gear. I’m certainly glad to have had this experience. Did I mention the coin?

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