Aaron Kluza was born and raised in the Detroit metro area and is currently occupies his time as co-owner and co-operator or Rock Dove Couriers, a bicycle messenger company in downtown Detroit.
Aaron is a graduate of Bishop Gallagher High School and spent many of his formative years in Detroit.
In 2000, Aaron moved to Philadelphia, PA where he attended Temple University, earning a degree in secondary education and English. Late in 2006, he returned to the land of his birth. He currently resides in Grosse Pointe Park.
Aaron will be writing about Detroit from the cyclist's perspective.
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Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.
So maybe you've been reading all of my posts. Maybe you are thinking of jumping on a bike yourself because I'm just that persuasive. Okay I know it's the gas prices, but let me have my moment. If you have been reading my posts, then you know that biking can be a rewarding activity. Starting something new can sometimes be very daunting. Here is a guide to you, the novice city commuting bicycler.
The most important thing, outside of the bike itself, is a helmet. Get one, and get used to wearing it. If you need it to, it WILL save your life. There is a good reason that a euphemism for it is the "brain bucket." Even if you don't normally ride in traffic, a helmet is a good idea because anything can happen at any time, and it usually does. Serious injury can result from even the most benign crash, so you might as well be prepared for the worst. Listen to this rider that has been hit by numerous cabs, a ford escort, and a garbage truck: wear your helmet.
The next indispensable piece of equipment that a successful rider needs is a good lock. I recommend Kryptonite's U-Lock. Stay away from thin chains and the cord locks, as they are easy targets for thieves. Unfortunate as it is, there has been an epidemic of disappearing bicycles lately and as Mama always said, an ounce of preparation is worth an ounce of cure. Additionally, if you must leave your bike outside for extended periods of time, try to change the location if you can. This way, if someone has their eye on your wheels, they won't know exactly where to find it all the time.
If you plan on riding at night, Michigan law dictates that you need proper lighting, the same as an automobile. I wear a light on my back that is both a flashing light and a reflector and am thus compliant. You will also need a headlamp, generally mounted on your handlebars. This is a good idea as the many potholes in the city streets are capable of swallowing your bike whole and they tend to disappear in the darkness of night. The lights will also alert drivers to your presence, and drivers may be the most dangerous things facing the cyclist.
Now drivers, maybe you see bikers as another obstacle to avoid among all the potholes, busses, and oblivious pedestrians. Fear not, intrepid motorist, but bikers are more afraid of you than you are of them. Please realize that bicycles have the same rights as you in your cars.
Bikers, stay off the sidewalks, they are for pedestrians. Not only is it illegal for bicycles to use the sidewalks, but also it might actually be better on the street. There is less broken glass in the street and broken glass is the bikers' archenemy. As a bicyclist, you have to realize that you are a target, although seldom on purpose, of many drivers. You need to be more cautious than the radio-fiddling, cell phone-talking, McDonald's-eating, distracted driver. Your survival depends on it.
Yes, it may seem like biking is a complicated and daunting hobby, but little kids do it all the time. So get a bike, get some exercise, rediscover your youth, and save some gas money. You won't regret it. See you out there on two wheels!
The growing bicycle culture in Detroit has spawned what might be the most fun event on two wheels. The catch is despite the amusement provided; it may also be the most dangerous. I'm referring to the alley cat race. Alley cats are popular in cities all over the country. They are unsanctioned races through cities designed to mimic a bike messenger's day at work. Races normally start at Hart Plaza, include anywhere from six to twelve checkpoints, and usually cover about ten miles. Also, racers are generally paired up or teamed in groups of four.
Here in Detroit the architect behind the alley cats is one Ron Shelton. Alley Cat Detroit usually plans all facets of the races from the racecourse to the after party. Not only is Ron the brains behind Alley Cat Detroit, but also he is also a terrific mechanic and a bicycle genius. Additionally, by no means does Ron hold a monopoly over the nuts and bolts of the Detroit race scene. You want to design or put on a race? All you have to do is ask Ron and he would let you throw one together.
Alley Cats in Detroit are like alley cats nowhere else. The atmosphere is most accepting, especially considering the potential for hip snobbery in bicycle culture found in other cities. If you were to attend a race you would find racers of all types on many different sorts of bikes. You find the courier contingent, the commuters, the professional nine to fivers, and even sometimes teens on bmx bikes. Indeed, inclusion is the strongest asset of the Detroit alley cat scene.
Now, I must implore you not to get caught up in the word "race." Yes, there is a sense of competition, but prizes for winning are usually only laminated spoke cards for the wheels of the victors (and of course, bragging rights). Alley Cat Detroit is mainly an opportunity for bikers to get out on the streets and to have a good time. Most are planned in the evening hours to ensure all can be included, even if you have a day job. The aim is more to build a bicycle community rather than to separate the men from the mice.
The races are built upon a theme. Last January saw the running of the arctic alley cat, where racers bundled up and raced through the snow and ice. Before that was the devil's night alley cat, where some showed up dressed in Halloween costumes. Last summer, a race was constructed where riders had to not only hit each of the checkpoints, but also had to hop off of bikes in order to compete in games such as wiffle ball, basketball, poker, craps, and others that counted toward the outcome of the race.
Truly, racing around downtown Detroit is the way to spend your summer. Not only can you find the lowdown on the Alley Cat Detroit web page, but also on flyers that can be found in many places downtown locations. Keep your eyes peeled and you will find the races. Grab a bike and come down to Hart Plaza, you won't regret it!
If one needs proof of the burgeoning bicycle culture in Detroit, one needs only to take a look around. You can see it happening on the surface by simply looking out of the car window. Yet sometimes one needs to look a little deeper into the nooks and crannies to discover little deposits of gold. Well, I suppose I am offering the insider's perspective, but isn't that what it takes sometimes?
The most promising sign emerging in this relatively novel concept of downtown Detroit cycling is Back Alley Bikes and The Hub. Back Alley Bikes offers youth education in bicycle mechanics and repair. They conduct workshops in an effort to proliferate bicycle culture and to provide alternatives. The Hub is a non-profit retail shop at 3611 Cass north of Martin Luther King (MLK) Blvd. This shop exists as a fundraising operation in order to keep Back Alley running. Truly, if this is not a cause to espouse (at least as a biker) then you should turn in your philanthropy care and start trying to wreck the planet.
Let me for a minute slip into 'sensational reporter mode.' I want to relate a short anecdote about one of my favorite stories emerging from The Hub and Back Alley Bikes. Permit me to tell you about a city kid named "Ricky" (not his real name). I don't know much about this kid save for a few crucial details. He attends MLK High and he rides his bike everywhere, I know because I see him all the time. 'Ricky' showed up at Back Alley three years ago and became a mechanic in training. At present, he is described as "a very skilled mechanic" and is a staple at The Hub according to co-founder Ben Chodoroff. Not only is "Ricky" an adept mechanic, but also he is a very skilled rider capable of doing things experienced couriers (i.e. me) cannot. Okay, so what's the significance?
I know it's only one kid, one success story, but isn't that enough? Am I not tugging at your heartstrings? Hyperbole aside, at least it's a start. Who knows the things that 'Ricky' could or would get into if he didn't have Back Alley and The Hub. Who knows what kind of escape The Hub provides; and as I have said, I know very little of his background. Back Alley and The Hub offer, if nothing else, a bike riding family for him. Please, I'm not trying to canonize a bike shop, but at least it's a start, and an encouraging one at that.
The Hub is just starting out and needs the support of the local biking community, which seems to be already happening. Allow me to take a moment to recognize the fin folks responsible for The Hub. Ben Chodoroff (also my partner in Rock Dove Couriers), Jack VanDyke, Joey Rodriguez-Tanner, Bec Young, James Stevenson, and Chelsea Haggerson, would you all please step forward and take a bow?
Patrons of The Hub represent a cross section of the downtown bicycle-riding contingency. According to Chodoroff, regulars at The Hub represent a diverse economic background, but all are welcome. The current clientele consists mostly of city people who commute to work on their bicycles. Chodoroff is encouraged by the progress that The Hub has made since opening and adds an optimistic "word is spreading." Indeed it is.
I am not addressing The Hub here for any reason other than the fact that it is a really good idea and aids a good cause. Supporting them is simple enough as buying your replacement tubes there, taking your bike there for repairs or a tune-up, or even discovering an old cruiser for sale that you might only take out for a ride on Sunday. The Hub is staffed by competent bike people who only have interest in sparking a bicycle revolution in the Motor City. They have zero pretension and are damn good at what they do. Make The Hub your Detroit destination for all of your bicycling needs, I know I have.
If you are anything like me, you remember American television in the 1980s and the phrase “I'm not only the president, I'm also a client.” Sy Sperling's fifteen minutes may be over, but his words resonate when considering my identity and the bicycle culture within the city of Detroit. My employment as a bike messenger has enriched my view of our fine city.
Taking a trip down memory lane, I tend to think in terms of various rites of passage. I grew up in Roseville, an eastside suburb. I can remember the first time I learned to ride a bike, as well as the bicycles I rode prior to age sixteen. My first was a sparkling purple Schwinn with a banana seat that I wish still had. I had other bikes as I progressed into early adolescence, but the closer I got to age sixteen, the more my interest in cycling waned. I wanted my driver's license and the freedom of an automobile. Once that happened, my bike was put in the garage and forgotten.
Fast forward six years and thousands of dollars spent on gasoline, insurance, and auto repairs. I was moving to Philadelphia and for the first time in my adult life an automobile would not be my primary mode of transportation. I quickly tired of walking and the shortcomings of the subway and bus services in Philly. Like the prodigal son, I returned to the bicycle and it changed my life. Riding a bike is one of life's simple pleasures, and I was reacquainted with my youth. Now, I am back in Detroit after seven years on the east coast. I do own a car now, but it spends the majority of time in my garage while my bicycles get the majority of my attention.
To me, Detroit is a new city now that I view it daily through the eyes of a cyclist. Downtown's gems sparkle more when one is not confined to the sterile and reclusive boundaries of an automobile. How many times have you heard people complain about parking downtown? This isn't a problem I have. Traffic? I go around it. I can see a burgeoning bicycle culture in downtown Detroit.
The weather is changing both literally and figuratively. As spring comes in like a lion and exits like a lamb, cyclists are coming out of the woodwork. Head over to the Urban Bean Company at Grand River and Griswold where more times that not one can find a bike locked up outside or at least inside one of the doors. Check in with the fine folks at Foran's Irish Pub at Congress and Woodward and notice a few bicycles located not far from their front door. Parking is nearly impossible at either of these spots, unless one is on a bike. Grab a bike and head down to the RiverWalk stretching from Belle Isle to Joe Louis Arena. It's a safe alternative for those who aren't necessarily interested in weaving through traffic as I am. Regardless of your intentions or destinations, I guarantee that Detroit on a bicycle will alter your perception.
Yes, I am a bike messenger and my occupation necessitates riding a bicycle. Consider again the Sy Sperling quote. I not only ride a bike because it's my job, I also ride for recreation. My conception of Detroit has improved exponentially since encountering it on two wheels. I'm not claiming to have all the answers, but sometimes when you change your perspective, things tend to look somewhat rosier.
So it's finally here, the dreaded four-dollar gallon of gas. Lucky for me, I fill my tank maybe once a month. How do I manage such gas efficiency? Lucky for you, I'm going to tell you.
I spend my days downtown on a bicycle. You may have seen me speeding up Cass, loitering in the Guardian Building, or relaxing with a book in Campus Martius. I am one of the few Detroit bicycle messengers. I work for a company called Rock Dove Couriers.
Rock Dove operates as a collective, meaning all of the employees also have an owning interest in the operation. As a worker-owned cooperative, each of us has a vested interest in getting the job done correctly and on time. At Rock Dove, we believe that a sign of a thriving economic community is a thriving messenger community. We find that many firms don't have access to a variety of delivery options, and we offer an alternative. We also know bike messengers are the fastest way to get a physical object from one side of the city to another. That being said, there are only four messengers on the streets of Detroit these days.
Life as a messenger can be both exciting and frustrating. On one hand, I spend my days basking in the sun while many others are cooped up in an office. Conversely, the past winter was brutal and riding in the snow can be dangerous. I also have no need for a gym membership as I exercise for a living, but the time I spend on the street leaves me filthy as a Frenchman from the unavoidable grime and constant sweating. I am my own boss, but one misjudgment near a DDOT bus could prove fatal. Regardless, I love what I do and I feel that it's rare to be able to express that sentiment about a job.
I know my profession is a new idea in Detroit. I field questions daily as I rush in and out of buildings, up and down elevators, and through the doors of many offices. Let me offer a sampling:
Q: Are you a bike courier?
Q: Like in New York?
A: Yes, and Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, and a host of other big cities throughout the world.
Q: What happens when it rains?
A: I get wet.
Q: So you ride a bike everywhere?
Q: I didn't know there were messengers in Detroit.
A: That's not a question.
This is only a small selection of the queries I get, proving to me that there is a formidable amount of curiosity surrounding my daily loops around downtown, and I certainly wish the interest transpired into more business.
Not to say that I'm all doom and gloom in my assessment of Detroit. I have experience in Philadelphia as a messenger, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I could make a living doing the same thing in Detroit. I have hopes that Rock Dove is helping the onset of another rebirth in the downtown area. My megalomania aside, I am neither amassing some sort of Trump-like fortune, nor will Rock Dove be publicly traded on the stock market in the foreseeable future.
So what's the big deal about Rock Dove? Mainly, we are offering exposure to something new, and we're offering our clients and prospective clients a chance to be a part of it. We serve all sizes and shapes of businesses - from large firms like Plunkett Cooney to smaller offices like Miller Cohen. Additionally, as residents of the city or the metro area; we are all concerned with the conditions of Detroit. Yes, we are trying to make a buck for ourselves, but we are also looking to make the city better for both residents of the city and the surrounding metro area.