Robert Michalowski and the unknown driver locked eyes.
The car’s driver jammed his brakes while Michalowski, 22, smashed both brake handles on his Fuji Odessa mountain bike,
But it was too late. Michalowski slammed into the Camry’s left front side, somersaulted over its hood, landed on his chest and somehow raised his right hand in time to catch the $200 bike before it hit his head.
Forty minutes and a fixed front wheel later, Michalowski was back on his bike to deliver Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches throughout downtown Colorado Springs.
While downtown Springs traffic doesn’t compare to New York, where bicycle couriers are a lot more common, Michalowski said it’s no less dangerous. He has knocked on windows and screamed at motorists during deliveries to warn them he is riding next to them, sometimes to no avail. He said the most dangerous area to bike is the four blocks of central downtown, where drivers will whip into open parking spaces.
“I have come close many times to being broadsided or pinched into the side of another car,” Michalowski said. “Sometimes you go over the tops of cars.”
Alyssa Williams, also 22, was struck, but not hurt, by a Subaru in September as the driver left the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church. The driver blamed Williams for the accident.
“We get a lot people yelling at us a lot,” she said, “or they will not see us until the last second and flip us off like it was our fault.”
‘It is a speed thing’
The seven cycling members of Jimmy John’s downtown delivery team account for nearly 30 percent of the franchise’s revenues, said Matt Clawson, general manager. Clawson began his Jimmy John’s career as a delivery man nearly four years ago.
The downtown store, 10 South Tejon St., is the only Jimmy John’s in Colorado Springs with a cycling courier team. The franchise uses cyclists because of limited downtown parking, Clawson said.
“It is a speed thing,” he said, “It would be too hard and take too long if all my riders were looking for parking spaces all the time.”
Couriers deliver sandwiches within a mile radius of the restaurant, which includes homes, offices, Memorial Hospital and Colorado College. The busiest delivery times are the Tuesday through Friday lunch hours. But the most sandwiches delivered during a specific time usually occurs Friday and Saturday from midnight to 2:30 a.m.; more than 100 sandwiches can be ordered on each of those nights, Clawson said.
“To be able to deliver to drunk college kids helps us a lot,” he said, laughing.
Couriers start at $8 an hour, plus tips. They work rotating shifts that usually run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., depending on the day. Couriers also work shifts inside the sandwich shop, making sandwiches, baking bread, cleaning and operating the cash register.
Employees must know the ingredients in each sandwich before working behind the counter. That’s the only way to achieve Jimmy John’s “freaky fast” delivery goal, Michalowski said.
“Jimmy John’s has a goal of getting you your sandwich before you get to the soda machine,” he said, “or within 30 seconds.”
Snow, wind may riding tougher
Sometimes the frenetic pace of sandwich making carries into the streets, pitting couriers against the clock, themselves and each other.
“Jimmy John’s does not endorse it (racing). They don’t want us to ride the way we sometimes ride,” Michalowski said, “but that is how we are.”
Snow increases delivery times. Unplowed side streets can cause a cyclist to bog down, forcing them to abandon their bike. But wind is worse, Williams said. Wind adds to the winter chill. And sudden wind gusts that whip down alleys and lash around buildings can whisk couriers off their bikes. Williams was near Cascade and Colorado avenues when a December wind knocked her off the saddle.
The most dangerous delivery times are after sunset, Michalowski said. During the day, motorists tend to avoid couriers, but at night, drivers will tailgate the cyclists, squeal their tires next to them and pass within a foot, he said.
Michalowski said each of Jimmy John’s downtown deliverers has experienced a moment where death seemed to hover above their handle bars. Williams’ near-death moment came while delivering sandwiches to Smokebrush Gallery at the base of the Colorado Avenue bridge.
Williams was circling her way to the bottom of the 23-foot high span when her back brake cable snapped. The malfunction left Williams without a way to stop her bike because her front brakes were too loose to function.
“I went flying down the hill,” she said, “and I was pretty sure I was going to die.” Williams rode the bike to the bottom where she made large lopes in the parking lot until she slowed to a safe speed.
'The bike dungeon'
A section of Jimmy John’s basement called “the bike dungeon” offers a testament to the numerous crashes of couriers past and present, Williams said. Bent bike frames, worn saddles, spent gears and other bicycle parts fill the dungeon, either too damaged for future use or awaiting their turn as replacement parts.
Michalowski has two bikes. One is a Fuji Roubaix 1.0 with thin tires for summer. The other is a specialized Hardrock mountain bike with fat tires for winter. Williams rides a Next mountain bike she inherited from her grandfather. Each spent between $200 and $800 on cycling clothing last year, including their Jimmy John’s riding jersey, which they must purchase but at a discount.
The largest tip Michalowski has received for a single sandwich delivery is $10. Williams’ record tip for single sandwich delivery is $12. She also received a $50 tip for delivering a catering order, which she split with the sandwichmakers.
Both couriers have been stiffed several times, also.
“That really hurts when it’s cold outside,” Williams said.
Whipping winds, mad motorists, slippery snow and tight tippers can make for an exasperating and tiresome day of riding, the two couriers said.
So why do it?
“Sometimes, when it is dark out, and there is only the streetlights, and it’s snowing lightly,” Michalowski said, “it is like it’s surreal.”
Besides, Williams said, its one of the few jobs where she can get paid to be outside and exercise. “And I can eat anything I want, and that is really nice.”
Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.