“Any other questions?” he asked.
The man speaking was Mamoun Skalli, the Take Eat Easy city manager and the guy who was charismatically running the first réunion d’information for the preliminary recruitment of livreurs à vélo (bicycle delivery guys) in Bordeaux.
I raised my hand. “Can we run red lights?”
Mamoun answered expertly, as if he’d been primed by a lawyer; as far as they were concerned we could ride however we liked, as long as we were courteous at all times with the public and delivered the food on time.
He reminded us once again to always smile and be cool. And that was that. We were prepped as bicycle couriers.
We were given isothermic Blahol backpacks, Wiko telehones and branded green jerseys. Then we took a team photo and were sent out, eager to get started.
As time went by we’d learn the hard way all there was to know about running red lights. But let me start at the beginning.
It was an exciting time. Take Eat Easy (or TEE as I’ll refer to it hereafter) had just arrived in Bordeaux and the company was launching ahead of its major competitor, Deliveroo.
The first few days were used as a trial period, intended to ensure us livreurs and the restaurants had the logistics down and to give us the chance to get familiar with the app. We delivered mostly to Mamoun’s friends.
After that, it was the press-launch week. We had to be on top form and wear our biggest grins, because at this time, we were delivering to the city’s elite: its journalists and bloggers.
The smiling must have worked, because soon everyone was talking about us and TEE was all over the news.
We even made it onto TV when French broadcaster M6 had a spot on its documentary programme Capital that discussed the phenomenon.
But, among the media furor, one slightly controversial point was raised: the way we were hired, or weren’t, as the case may be. Instead of being permanently employed, Take Eat Easy required its couriers to register as auto-entrepreneurs to be able to work ‘with’ the company. This meant TEE didn’t have to pay employment contributions, which are high in France (around 50% of wages), and we wouldn’t receive any of the benefits generally associated with being employed, such as health insurance, paid holiday, set hours, a contract… rights!
“It is disgusting,” declared a little old woman one evening while I was lingering in a vacant parking space waiting for the next order to come through.
“…just disgusting,” she repeated, as I looked back over my shoulder to check she was talking to me.
All too soon it was obvious that she was.
She’d approached me and was suddenly touching my arm.
“I find it disgusting the way Take Eat Easy make you become auto-entrepreneurs. Plus, they make you wait around outside. And if you have an accident they can just wash their hands of you. I don’t stop giving them shit about it on Twitter,” she proclaimed.
Then she asked if I knew a good Korean restaurant nearby.
Luckily my phone started ringing and I was off on my next delivery. (Shame I didn’t get her Twitter handle though.)
As far as I was concerned, the unusual set up didn’t bother me. Being self-employed and working ‘with’ TEE, rather than ‘for’ them, meant I could work as much or as little as I wanted. If I felt like a holiday I could just take it. It wouldn’t be paid, but I could just work twice as much the following week if needed. As for insurance, I cycled safely, I wore a helmet. I’d take my chances.
There was a great sense of freedom to it all. We didn’t really have a boss. You’d just turn on the work phone at the start of the shift and start pedalling. The application that sent us on our deliveries was the closest thing to a manager. Sometimes it felt just like me, my bike and the road. Plus, we were getting paid a good amount for couple of hours cycling, so at the end of the day, it was not hard to smile.
How it works
There is an online portal with a calendar where you sign up for shifts over the coming month. There are three types of shifts available each day.
Once signed up you can unsubscribe up until 48 hours before the start of that shift. If you unsubscribe on the day, fail to turn up, or commit anything else deemed a misdemeanor by the company, then you receive a certain number of strikes. Three strikes and you’re out. Terminated. Just like that. No long legal process. The company no longer wants to work with you.
Once on shift you have to accept and deliver all the orders you receive. This is all done through the TEE app, which includes maps to both the restaurant and the delivery recipient’s house.
You are paid €6 per delivery as the standard rate. €7.50 if it rains.
You will always be paid for a minimum amount of deliveries no matter how many you actually do. This amount depends on the type of shift you’ve signed up for:
Four for a lunch shift
Five for a short evening shift
Seven for a long evening shift
You supply your own bike.
The week after the press launch the sun was still shining and we began delivering to the general public. For the first few days things were slow; orders were few and far between. Luckily the minimums were in place and some days I got paid for doing next to nothing. I cruised around, circling the restaurants like a hammerhead, but the orders never came.
To pass the time, myself and the other recruits installed a walkie-talkie app on our work phones and went on little ‘tours’ of the town pretending to be real cycle messengers. Or we waited around together at Place Fernand Lafargue, talking about the merits of one another’s bikes and learning what everyone was doing aside from this. Most were students doing it to earn a bit of pocket money while studying, others were using it to supplement other professional projects while some were planning on doing it full-time.
Then the cycling caps arrived. We were all delighted.
This brings me to my next point.
Cycle couriers are known for being trendy. Trend setters even. So I was interested to see how my colleagues would dress, and whether or not they’d be able to uphold the cool stereotype while simultaneously having to wear a uniform (the TEE jersey is obligatory).
One thing that imediately struck me was how everyone looked different despite the ‘uniform’. I’m not saying everyone looked cool, but none of us dressed alike.
I think what must define courier fashion is the fundamental practicality of the clothing combined with the sheer amount of interchangeable elements (ie. the additional accessories: helmet, carabiners etc.). This vast variety adds to each courier’s personal ideas of practicality and ensures originality to some degree.
Jeans, joggers or lycra. Balaclavas, bandanas, buffs or beards. Everyone eventually chooses the get-up that suits them best.
It took me a bit of experimenting to define a strong winter look/combination of gear, but now I have, it has become my standard kit, which I wear every shift (helping to proudly uphold the other courier stereotype: that we all smell of sweat!)
The DIY bespoke Decathlon €1.50 gloves are what I’d recommend the most. I cut off three of the finger tips to allow grip and easy use of mobile phones.
Here is me posing like an honest-to-god tosspot in full kit:
Finally, for extra points, when mounting your bike it should be done as follows:
And when dismounting – where possible – you should use Kevin Bacon’s technique from his 1986 film Quicksilver:
But, back to TEE’s development. Posters went up and flyers were handed out offering €10 reductions on first orders. Soon enough we were rushing around rather than waiting around, as the orders flooded in. It became clear that this was a concept that was going to work very well in Bordeaux. I was going everywhere now. All over the city. Learning not only its geography (major axis and useful backroads) but also its ways, its timings and its fluctuations.
Saturday and Sunday mornings I realised I had to keep an extra eye out for shards of glass, as broken bottles from parties the night before were often scattered across the roads.
I learnt at which restaurants I could get chew bars, beer, prawn crackers, coffees or marshmallows, and which had the cutest waitresses.
Any evening over the weekend I’d have to avoid certain streets due to the explosion in the quantity of pedestrians.
Here in Bordeaux, they seem to dislike pavements, but just love walking around like absolute self-assured cockwads, four abreast in the middle of the road:
The thing that shocks me the most is just how little attention so many people pay to what is going on around them.
Being a bicycle courier requires you to be fully alert at all times. You want to be aware of everything (including sounds, maybe even smells). You need to be judging the speed everything is moving at. You need to anticipate everything. You need to be looking ahead, looking to your sides and looking over your shoulder. It is this awareness that keeps you – and others around you – safe. And being fully tuned into your senses is what keeps the job exciting.
I also decided my route based on the weather.
After the rain I’d also steer clear of Rue St. Catherine, because when wet, it’s more slippery than a greased pig on a waterslide.
Being almost 100% flat, Bordeaux is generally perfect for cycling, it does however have a lot of cobbled streets. Les pavés! These were another obstacle to avoid like hell on a Sunday, unless you fancied a bit of Paris-Roubaix action and were certain you weren’t transporting a soup in your backpack.
During my cycling jaunts, I’ve also got to know the city a lot more intimately, including its people.
I’ve seen the widest most frivolous entrance halls and stairways I possibly ever have.
I’ve seen a building on fire just days after the attacks in Paris. Police had cordoned off the worried onlookers and fire trucks stopped all cars on Cours Victor Hugo, but myself and other livreurs shot out of the smoke and through the stand-still traffic.
I delivered to some guys in the process of opening a craft beer shop. I delivered to a beautiful girl who opened the door wearing nothing but a T-shirt. I delivered to Saint-André hospital to a man wearing nothing but a hospital gown who shuffled into the courtyard dragging his saline drip. I plotted these events in my head along with the timings of traffic lights, where there were roadworks or pot holes to navigate, and where to find the smoothest tarmac.
It was all forming into an anecdotal atlas: a personal map of the city.
The other TEE couriers were no doubt all doing the same thing and certain day-specific information was getting shared on both the official and unofficial TEE BDX Facebook groups. This is how I knew to be a good boy on Cours de Verdun.
As more and more Borderlaise ordered restaurant food to their living rooms the swelling numbers of our ranks became very noticeable. Sometime mid-January we must have caught the attention of the police, because for the weeks that followed their increased presence on the city’s main delivery arteries was unmistakeable.
One of our guys got caught jumping a red light and was made to pay €135. This was posted on the Facebook groups and some of the guys even organised a fund to help him pay the fine. Someone else commented that they’d been caught doing the same thing a few months back. The police officer had given him a €90 fine on the spot and some advice:
“To avoid this happening again you could get off your bike half a metre before the red light, push it through and get back on half a metre after. That way you cannot be sanctioned because the highway code is not applicable to pedestrians.”
When I heard that I knew I had to master the Bacon dismount.
Here it is again, in case you missed it the first time:
It was by this stage a veritable phenomenon, and whereas before I had to struggle explaining exactly what my job was and how it all worked, now Take Eat Easy was on everyone’s lips. Probably because you couldn’t walk down the street without one of us practically tapping you on the shoulder. Especially on Sunday evenings (our busiest shift due, I imagine, to supermarkets being shut and the lazy, spent feeling in the air).
On Sunday evenings the streets were ours. No traffic. Most of the general public tucked up at home. But hundreds of couriers bombing around the deserted streets; at least 70 from Take Eat Easy alone, with many more for from Deliveroo and LikeResto.
It made me wonder what the public perception must be of us. I knew we were sexualized by some. Viewed as objects, pieces of meat, male eye-candy available at the click of a button. I’d been told this firsthand by a girl I know who’d order at least once a week for this very reason. I also suspected it from some of the ‘additional instructions’ given by customers for how the order should be delivered.
The impression I got from the questions I was most often asked was that people sort of pitied us while simultaneously being slightly envious.
“You aren’t too cold?” they would inquire sympathetically.
“No, I’m OK,” I would reply. “The exercise keeps me warm.”
The clients became even more sympathetic in February when the heavy rains came. Yet their sympathy didn’t stop them ordering!
It was still OK, you just needed the right equipment. Harder work, but OK.
Yet it was obviously off-putting for some. TEE were finding it hard to get enough coursiers to work each night to cover the demand. They offered bonuses, especially for the weekends. I once got €50 because I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. I started to wonder how they were making any money.
Still they struggled to get enough of us working. They bought us shiny new racks to deliver pizzas. They increased the mimimums. They pleaded. They begged. For them the downside of having a self-employed staff must be that its hard to guarantee they’ll get the numbers they need. In the end we forced them to do the only thing they could: employ more and more people.
Now I’ve been told there are around 300 Take Eat Easy livreurs in Bordeaux and its getting increasingly difficult to get any work. These days they open up a week on the calendar for us to sign up and within five minutes the whole week is booked up. Good for them. Bad for me. I worry I’ll no longer be able to earn enough to support myself, especially as spring is arriving and the weather is improving. I can only summise that in the summer less people will order in and more people will eat out.
We will see. The concept will be forced to continue evolving and searching out its place in society.
While the future is never certain, one thing you can be sure of is that my spring/summer kit will include some offensively small turquoise swim shorts.
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