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Ottawa bike messenger says job has taken on new meaning in last year

Jeff Valiquette has been a bike messenger for nearly 20 years, delivering everything from legal writs to late-night snacks.

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds," reads the American Postal Service creed.

Most people see Jeff Valiquette riding outside in a snowstorm and think, “I'm glad I'm not him.”

What most people don't realize is that Valiquette sees other people working inside office buildings and thinks, “I'm glad I'm not them."

Valiquette is a professional bike messenger and has been one for 19 years. He's tried office work, factory jobs, driving for a living, but he doesn't like cramped quarters. He likes to be outside.

He's one of the dozen or so full-time bicycle messengers working in Ottawa today. During the business week, you'll find him on his bicycle, running deliveries for Speedy Messenger Services. He clocks between 40-80 kilometres on his bike, often working 12 hours a day, in all weather.

“It just brings out the best in me,” the 42-year-old says. “I tried working indoors but it wasn't for me. I'd get migraines and backaches. With this job, I'm in the best shape of my life.”

“Basically, I'll never need a gym membership,” he adds. “I get paid to exercise all day. That's what I love about it.”

The ancient art of bike messenging has been unchanged since the invention of the bicycle. That is, until the business pivoted dramatically with the pandemic. Before COVID, Valiquette's primary assignment was delivering documents from government offices and law firms.

Those jobs evaporated virtually overnight when government offices emptied and public servants began working from home.

The business held its own. Instead of delivering manilla envelopes to government offices, Valiquette now began delivering groceries, medicines, gifts to people's homes.

“Most of my deliveries today are for people are afraid to go outside,” Valiquette says. “I'm something of a lifeline for so many people now. It's a good feeling to know I'm providing a necessary service to people who need it the most. I've even become friends with a few regulars.”

Later, because he freelances as an independent deliverer for Uber Eats, he's back in the saddle, delivering fast food.

Uber Eats and similar food delivery services are getting alot of attention these days. With restaurants on lockdown, it seems to have become for many the preferred way to order a meal in.

For example, in 2017, Uber Eats was a niche service, globally booking $3-billion USD of business with 9-million customers. In the midst of the pandemic, it was booking $30-billion USD from 66-million customers.

“Most people order McDonald's, Harvey's and Subway because it's cheaper,” he explains. “Occasionally you'll get an order for a nice restaurant like the East Indian Company, but that's an $80 meal when you include the delivery charges. Not something you want to do everyday.”

He gets between $4-$8 a delivery, but the runs are short, usually less than 10 blocks. It adds up, but Valiquette says it's not a job you necessarily do to make lots of money.

The job can be dangerous. After 19 years as one of Ottawa's regular road warriors, Valiquette has the battle scars to show for it. Crime is almost non-existent, but traffic is his nemesis. He's been hit by cars at least 40 times (nothing too serious or disabling, he says). Professional bike messengers are skilled at avoiding accidents - nevertheless, he prepares for the worst.

Last year, a driver on Montreal Road cut him off while making a last-minute right hand turn. Valiquette flipped over his handlebars and ate some bumper, knocking a couple teeth out in the process. Ironically, the driver accused Valiquette of causing the accident and cosmetic damage to his car. The driver later recanted, but still, left Valiquette standing in the middle of the road.

“That's why I need a GoPro camera,” he says, pointing to the lens on his shoulder. “I've been cut off so many times, I can't count them all. Accidents are part of the job.”

And still Valiquette rolls on, insisting on doing the job he loves, providing an essential service during uncertain times.

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