They’re a familiar sight, the young men and women on (usually) race bikes zooming across the busiest Maastricht streets at Giro speed. Their full backpacks are emblazoned with the name of their employer: bicycle courier company Demarrage. It’s a carefully chosen business name. ‘Demarrage’ is the Dutch word for an escape in road bicycle racing: picking up the pace to break away from one’s competitors. But the breakneck speed isn’t a must, says owner Sven Bams when asked about it. It’s probably just in the couriers’ nature.
We’re shadowing third-year bachelor’s student Audrey Bams, the owner’s sister. She stopped working at the company a few weeks ago. Bams is currently doing a full-time internship at the university’s biochemical department, so she has no time for a side job. As she worked as a bicycle courier for almost two years, we’re making an exception. She has arranged a short Tuesday evening shift for this article.
Our starting location is Pharmacy America in Wittevrouwenveld. Just before closing time, Bams picks up the packages of medication to be delivered to eight different addresses in the area.
This is today’s second batch of packages. Every morning, the first batch is collected from various pharmacies and distributed throughout the city. Sometimes the backpack is filled to the brim with twenty or thirty packages. Today, it contains ‘only’ eight packages. “No Itteren, fortunately”, laughs Bams. “That’s such a boring route.” She uses her phone to tick off the work she has done, so the people at the office know the packages have been delivered. Incidentally, the couriers don’t just deliver medication; they also work for individual customers or businesses. “Companies hire us to empty their post office boxes every day, for example.”
An hour earlier, the Observant journalist was deliberating which bicycle to ride: race bike or regular city bike? She went with the latter option; she’d just have to power through if Bams started speeding through the streets like Primož Roglič. As it turns out, Bams herself has opted for an inconspicuous black bicycle with straight handlebars. “I don’t use a race bike in the city, it suffers too much damage too quickly.”
She’s a member of the triathlon club, so she’s well trained. Still, she maintains a good ‘amateur’ pace. Preoccupied with the conversation, she almost skips an address. “Whoops, let’s head back through Groene Loper, a right turn and then a left turn.” Most customers have difficulty walking or can’t go to the pharmacy for other reasons. The courier service exists for them. Bams: “Bicycle couriers are much faster than motorists in busy neighbourhoods, especially the ones with many one-way streets and traffic lights.” She thinks it’s “a nice job, very flexible”. When the weather is good, it’s quite enjoyable. And if it rains, well, it rains. “You’ll get dry again.”
She rings the doorbell of a house in the ‘Mayors’ and ‘Ships’ neighbourhood in Wittevrouwenveld. “After doing this job for a while, you can tell by the street name where you have to be.” The door doesn’t open. She tries again. The pavement is littered with a round road sign, a bin bag, some violets in flower pots, a plastic garden bench, a barbecue, children’s bicycles and even a one-person trampoline. From the other side of the street, children yell at Bams to “knock”. Bingo. The door opens a few centimetres. “Pharmacy delivery! Here you go”, says Bams as she hands over the package. The door immediately closes again.
Has anyone ever invited her in for a cup of coffee? Or are there any other interesting encounters she can tell us about? “Most people are very nice, give me sweets or make a joke: ‘Gosh, girl, all the way from America!’ (The pharmacy is called America). But almost no one invites me in. And that’s fine, there’s no time for that”, she laughs. She has encountered grumpy customers as well. “A man got really angry once. He didn’t want the package to be delivered before six thirty – I didn’t know that – but I was five or ten minutes earlier. He started swearing like crazy. It was horrible.”
As Bams finishes her route through Amby, Wittevrouwenveld and Nazareth within an hour, her brother Sven is on his way to Margraten, about fifteen kilometres away. “Those kinds of deliveries are often deliveries to a single address, but you do get paid a lot for that one package”, she chuckles.