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A tip: Reward soaked riders

About 9:30 Tuesday morning, the wind that had been howling all night long finally blew in rain and freezing rain and sleet, as had been predicted, and by early afternoon it hadn’t let up.

At the Jimmy John’s downtown sandwich shop at Wayne and Calhoun streets, Nate Richman sat at a table dressed in a wet hoodie, his only protection against the weather.

It was a lousy day to be riding a bike, especially a bike like Richman’s, a single-speed courier bike. Bicycle handbrakes don’t work well in the rain, and the brake blocks on his bike, Richman admitted, were worn down and didn’t work well under the best of conditions.

But there was no complaining about the weather. The handful of guys who work at Jimmy John’s, delivering sandwiches by bicycle to West Central and downtown – and as far east as Indiana Tech – seemed to accept the wind and freezing rain as a fact of life, just like they accepted the 105-degree days last summer.

“I’m getting paid to ride my bike,” one of them said.

That’s true. At least, in the wind and rain and sleet, these guys were getting minimum wage. Amateur racers who ride hundreds of miles a week in training often get nothing for their efforts, even if they win.

So there was no sense in Richman complaining about being wet and cold. He was getting to ride his bike and getting paid for it, and hoping that he’d get some tips on the side.

Tuesday, despite the weather, business hadn’t been great. Some deliveries to Indiana Tech had resulted in no tip, but that was normal, Richman said. Students don’t tip well.

He and another rider had delivered a $130 order earlier in the day. That’s the kind of order you look forward to, but they got stiffed – no tip – even though they showed up wet on bikes in the freezing rain.

That’s life.

Then Matt Betts walked in. His pants were soaked from the heels to his waist, and his coat was soaked. I asked him if he had any weather-proof clothes on underneath. Most cyclists who ride year-round have a whole cycling wardrobe, $50 jerseys, $150 jackets, $150 tights, $25 gloves, shoe covers and so on.

“I’m a street rider,” said Betts, who used to deliver sandwiches in Chicago. “I don’t need that stuff.”

Within about four minutes Betts was on his way out the door again, stuffing a sandwich into a courier-type bag and disappearing on his bike.

Unlike Richman, Betts doesn’t have to worry about his brakes working in the freezing rain. He doesn’t have any. He rides a bike with tires less than an inch wide. If he wants to stop he just stops pedaling and uses his leg strength to make the wheels stop turning. It’s hard to do.

Within a minute or two Betts is back. “Freaky fast,” he said, quoting the Jimmy John’s delivery slogan.

By now, the lunchtime delivery shift was over. One delivery rider, Zach Lamb, was sorting out a line of wet credit card receipts on a counter in the eatery. He had particular trouble unfolding one receipt that was about the consistency of wet toilet paper.

Richman had that problem, too. He’d forgotten to bring a wallet and all his receipts ended up a wet ball of paper in his pocket. They also had to be carefully separated.

That wasn’t an issue for Betts. He kept his receipts in a pocket in his delivery bag, and they were dry. And unlike Richman, Betts had a good day with tips.

There’s luck involved. Deliver an order to the 14th or 15th floor of one of the buildings downtown, and you might get no tip, Betts said. But deliver an order to a house in West Central and they might tip you $5.

“If on days like this I could always get tips like I did today,” Betts said, “I’d want every day to be like today.”

So in their way, wind and freezing rain are a blessing.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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