The Exenger Files: Neil "Nelly" Webb
11.12.12 by Buffalo Bill
I first became aware of Neil ‘Nelly’ Webb as being part of the ‘New Skool’ of younger couriers who started on the road in the early 90s. They didn’t wear lycra, they wore baggy shorts, they rode MTBs, not road-bikes, and they were quick. Very quick. Too bloody quick.
Nelly was one of the quickest around. Not flat-out point-to-point quick, (although he was fast enough to have won the Scottish Junior Downhill Championships in 1991), clever quick. Smart quick. Did I say he was quick?
I had been riding around London for a living for a decade, and thought I knew my way around, but Nelly knew some short-cuts that I had never thought of. He also was always thinking about his kit; how to adapt his bike to make it more suitable for couriering, how trick up his bag, his lock, his keys, his folder. An innovator, always looking for an edge, for the latest thing, and trying to devise that thing, if it wasn’t available.
He initiated me into the ways of the sticker: he had 3 categories of stickers – 1 was a collection that could be given away to anyone, 1 was a collection that could be traded for desirable stickers that he didn’t already have, and the last was the ‘untouchables’, not to be gifted, traded or even looked at.
I hadn’t seen Nelly for some time, and met up with him for a short interview.
When did you become a courier, and how long did you work for?
Started January 17th 1995 and worked until sometime in 2004 or 2005.
How did you become a courier?
When I left Uni in 1994, the only job I could get was in a fish factory in Alness (Scotland). I know everything about filleting fish. I was seeing a girl who was living in London, and I would come down at the weekends.
I decided to move to London in 1994, and got a job at Cycle Surgery. The day after I moved down I got dumped! Through working at Cycle Surgery, I got to know [London couriers] Tony (Gaskin), Steve (Wilkinson) & Heather (Knott) [Wilko had been the top-placed London rider at the 1994 Cycle Messenger World Championships, and he & Heather had gone to Toronto with Moving Target for their first Alleycat], because they were in and out of the shop all the time. Becoming a courier seemed like a great idea at the time.
I was getting £225 a week doing the Kodak contract, delivering parts from the stock-room to on-site engineers. Then I moved onto circuit.
What’s your favourite memory of being a courier?
My favourite memory of being a courier is riding the wrong way down Wardour Street, no-handed, eating an ice-cream, and laughing at all the pissed off people in cars. My second favourite is when, one day, I saw a pedestrian knock off a cyclist on New Oxford Street, and then start to abuse the cyclist – I threw my bidon and caught him just right – he hadn’t a clue where the bottle had come from.
Also pulling up at the Duke of York, the notorious London courier pub on a Friday, and thinking, ‘seems like everyone is here!’ That was a nice feeling.
What was your favourite bike?
My girlfriend’s Trek hybrid – it worked really well.
Really? Your girlfriend’s bike?
Yeah, when I had really nice bikes, it didn’t make much of a difference. Another favourite is my last bike: ‘Trigger’s Broom’. That was my last bike. It’s since had 4 different owners who have changed everything – when I rode it, it had a dynamo, mudguard. It’s an On-One frame.
It was a fixie?
Yeah, I realised that fixed, I could do half the work for the same money.
What was your favourite job?
Embassy job. Can’t remember which embassy – Kazakh, Ukrainian – it was in Mayfair. I’d drop it off, and then sit in the park for 3 or 4 hours [whilst waiting for the return] and watch the world go by.
Clearing Martin Clunes house, and moving him to Dorset was pretty good as well. Spent hours going through his stuff with him. I also like those times where I’d do 6 or 7 jobs, pick them up in 10 mins, and make £12 in half an hour. And finding out that are those places that you think are a long way away really aren’t.
What was your favourite alleycat?
I still have fond memories of that little alleyway in St James’ [Crown Passage], where you had to drink a rum, and then there you had to have a tequila on Bargehouse Pier. I remember that you broke the glass! I liked organising alleycats where there was food or drink or random wierd stuff.
In my first ever alleycat, I was the only one who knew where Number 1, London was. That was pretty cool.
What was your favourite messenger event?
Going to Amsterdam [1997 European Cycle Messenger Championships] was a big realization: there was a whole big scene going on. My absolute proudest moment ever, probably, was the sense of satisfaction when everyone was clapping the Race Captain at Eastway [Nelly was Race Captain of the 2003 European Cycle Messenger Championships, held at Eastway], although I still think the Swiss guy cheated.
Why did you stop?
I found a job where I could do something I loved [freelance cycle journalism] – I could do it whilst I was still a messenger – I still got to ride and I got loads of free stuff.
Do you miss being a messenger?
No, I can ride my bike now, as part of my job. It’s a realism thing: if I could still do 3 days a week, and make enough money, I probably would still be doing it, but I can’t. It’s really nice that a lot of my friends have escaped to do things that they love as well.
Got any advice for messengers?
Pick shit up quickly. I wouldn’t finish the conversation if I was given a job, I would just get up & go and get it. Ride a low gear. I never rode a big gear. You don’t need to be fast to be quick.
What do you think of the whole fakenger thing?
The original fakenger was that guy Alex the dustman who used hang around the Palladium Steps with a fake radio made out of a card-board box.
I always thought of you as the short cut king.
Yeah, gratuitous short cuts.
What was your favourite ride then?
Waterloo Bridge. Or Conduit Street, Berkeley Square, Curzon Street, left, right, through the underpass.
And what’s your favourite ride now?
Descents in the Dolomites and Flanders; Flanders: bad concrete, cobbles, steep hills, mud… Or the descent from Santuari de Lluc to Pollença in Mallorca.
What do you think of the whole bike lane thing?
There are bike lanes? There aren’t bike lanes here. Properly designed bike lanes don’t exist here. There’s one in Shirley, on the Addington Road – that’s it.
After working for IPC’s cycling titles (MBR, Cycling Weekly, Road Sport) as a writer, and then tech editor, you are branching out into design & production with Worx Bikes.
The satisfaction is immense. Getting a box with the prototype in it, you’re shitting yourself as you come to open it… The philosophy at Worx is that there is a gap in the market for an affordable, race ready bike, a blue-collar bike. You don’t need a shiny derailleur, you want a decent frame & bearings.
You can find Worx Bikes here.