Thrill Ride

Meet the intrepid cyclists powering New York City's food-delivery obsession

It’s 12 p.m. in New York City — peak lunch hour. Traffic is raging. Your job is to safely deliver hot food from midtown to downtown Manhattan on rain-covered roads, without spilling anything. Are you up for the challenge, and can you repeat the task, over and over, for four to six hours a day?

This might sound intimidating, but pointing that out to Frankie Galdorise, who has been doing it for two years, makes him chuckle. Voyages like that are no big deal to him and other bike messengers who work days and nights delivering food to New York City residents. In fact, many love it. After all, the more risky the task, the more money they earn. Slippery roads, snow, the darkness and bustle of New York nights are not obstacles, rather, signs of a good shift to come.

Delivering food by bike for New York City restaurants is no easy feat. In addition to riding in big city traffic to get customers their food on time, messengers have to push through the physical demands of the job. We wanted to know just how much work goes into biking food across the city.

Frankie Galdorise, 25

Like many bike messengers, Frankie Galdorise works as an independent contractor, signing up for various delivery services and taking orders via the companies' apps. He agreed to wear a Microsoft Band fitness tracker to see how much energy and exercise his job demands from him. (Photo: Nick Solares)

Moses Bradley, 38

Musa (a.k.a. Moses) Bradley is also out on New York City streets every day delivering food by bike — that is, when he isn't on the road making music or mentoring children. Bradley has been delivering off and on for two years. He also agreed to wear a Microsoft Band fitness bracelet for one lunch shift, tracking heart rate, calories, distance, and stress levels. (Photo: Courtesy of Caviar)

Galdorise and Bradley tend to work about six hours each day. Lunch orders generally roll in between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m, but both men particularly look forward to the dinner rush. That's when the most orders are placed — and as a result, they make better money.

"It's a hustle," Bradley says. "A hustler will thrive in any business, but in this business, your hustle is how you interact with people, how you talk to people.” Bradley often rides wearing a vintage-style pilot's hat. He says it serves as a conversation piece, which can earn him higher tips.

How lucrative the job is depends on how much time and effort bike messengers are willing to put in. Galdorise and Bradley say they can make as much as $35 an hour: Depending on how fast they ride and on weather conditions, the messengers can complete three or four orders in two to three hours.

In this business, your hustle is how you interact with people, how you talk to people.

Making a living delivering food is possible, Galdorise and Bradley say. But it depends on the how determined they are. It's not uncommon for messengers to bounce from company to company depending on what orders are queued and how much they can make. Galdorise and Bradley both take orders from Caviar, a startup app promising fast delivery from more than 2,000 restaurants nationwide. But the riders have also used apps like Postmates, Seamless, and UberRush, one of the latest to join the delivery app scene.

That's where the voyages begin, with the apps. A lot of riders spend the entire day perusing the apps and choosing the journey with the highest reward. After taking an assignment, the adventure begins.

A bike messenger's goal is to get from point A to point B as efficiently and safely as possible. Taking the safe routes, though, can slow messengers down. Instead, many venture right in the middle of traffic, weaving around and about vehicles and zipping through intersections. Turns out, all this movement makes for decent exercise.

Knowing how the city is laid out and which routes to take is also key to a successful and efficient trip, the messengers say. The fitness bands outfitted on Galdorise and Bradley use GPS to track where they go and how fast they ride. During part of his shift, Galdorise biked 19 miles in two and half hours, going at an average speed of about nine miles an hour. Bradley went 11 miles at an average speed of four miles per hour.

Food delivery workers have a need for speed. The faster they can go, the more orders they complete. Not surprisingly, riding faster also boosts the messengers’ heart rates, according to the data from the fitness bands. During his shift, Galdorise's heart beat an average of 144 beats per minute. Bradley's average heart rate was 115 beats per minute. Most people's resting heart rate falls below 100 beats per minute. (Photo: Nick Solares)

As off-putting as riding a bike in crazy traffic seems, Galdorise says those challenges can actually help riders get through a shift, adding that delivery work helps him ease stress and anxiety. "No matter what happened to you the day before or what's been happening to you, you can't think about it when you're riding through New York City traffic." But traffic offers unique dangers and stresses, moments the body can't help but process. The Microsoft Band measured Galdorise and Bradley's Galvanic Skin Response, the body's reaction to stress and arousal, and data shows several rises in responses during Galdorise's close calls on the road. At one point during his shift, Galdorise squeezes between a truck and SUV, at which point his GSR levels register an immediate response.

The Microsoft Band in action.

Traffic is not the only challenge food couriers face. They also have to contend with weather. But while bad weather may seem like a cyclist's nightmare, many bike messengers welcome the storms. Heavy rain and thick snow means more assignments and more pay. Bradley rides with tires built for snowy conditions. It's also an adrenaline rush. "Riding in the snow is a lot of fun, actually. It's one of my favorite times to deliver," Galdorise says. "I guess it's a challenge. It's like an extreme sport. I don't know, there's something exciting about it."

"I like extreme weather," Bradley says. "When it's hot, some people order, but it's really when it's cold and raining, when you make your most." (Photo: Courtesy of Caviar)

Despite traffic, slick conditions, long distances, and the hustle and bustle of a large city, thousands of bike messengers are able to deliver food to offices and homes with the lids still secured. It's a thrilling job that many say they can do forever.

That's partially thanks to the bike messenger community: When the messengers aren't on the street, weathering storms and dodging dangerous situations, they find time to bond and support one another. Bradley spends some time in New York's Union Square, where many messengers hang out. They're like a family, he says. Not everyone can simply join these tight-knit groups; they're exclusive to messengers who see delivery work as more than a source of income.

Bradley, who is also a musician, expressed this in a song and video, or rather an ode: The song is called "Me and My Bike," which exemplifies why many bike couriers put up with the tough task of delivering food in big cities. At the end of the day, to many in the bike messenger community, it's more than a job, or even a work out — it’s a way of life.


Reporter: Vince Dixon

Video Editor: Mariya Pylayev

Editor: Erin DeJesus

Photographer: Nick Solares

Additional photos courtesy of Caviar