Marlon Prather watched and read about the Tour de France with more empathy for Lance Armstrong than the average viewer or reader could have. Like Armstrong, Prather has been a world champion cyclist. And he, too, can tell harrowing tales of cheating death and of overcoming obstacles on the way to the title.
Overcoming obstacles, in fact, is literally what got Prather a championship.
He's the world record holder in the bunny hop, also called the reverse limbo. In lay terms, that's a high jump event for bicyclists, in which a rider and his mount vault over a bar, unaided by any ramp or incline. Prather started jumping on his bike for fun and to scare his folks while growing up in Gaithersburg. He refined his elevating skills when he took a job as a bicycle courier after high school. It's the only job he's ever stuck with.
"I see something, I try to get over it with my bike," he says. "I've always been that way."
The training paid off in 1998, when he won the gold medal at the Cycle Messenger World Championships, an annual courier olympiad. Since debuting in Berlin in 1993, the games have grown from an underground conceit into an international happening and now rank as one of the largest nonrunning athletic competitions on the planet. D.C. served as host city the year that Prather won.
He took home a new Cannondale bike for the win, but he had little use for a full-size ride and got rid of it. Prather is the only courier in town (and one of the few couriers in the world) who plies the trade on a BMX, a downsized cycle much better suited for off-road pursuits. That's why he's known as Racer X in D.C.'s tightknit courier community.
But when the competitors went back to where they came from, Prather wasn't burdened by the broader fame or the sort of spoils rightfully showered on Armstrong. Other than the Cannondale, some parts discounts at local bike shops, and kudos from his peers around Dupont Circle, Prather got nothing. Which is about what he has now.
"I'm a little low on funds," Prather, 24, tells me, from the Real World-size group home in Mount Pleasant that's taken in the world-record-holder and allowed him to ride a couch each night.
Being low on funds is a perpetual state for most bike couriers. But these days, even by the standards of his chosen profession, Prather is really low on funds. He currently has no source of income, in fact. He doesn't even have a bike. His beloved BMX was stolen three weeks ago while locked up on 15th Street NW. Things got worse for Prather last week, when, while on a borrowed ride, he was hit by a Mazda as he made a delivery. Just as rock beats scissors, four wheels trump two. The impact sent Prather flying through the air toward a parked station wagon. Though he'd been bumped by cars plenty of times in his years on the road, Prather had never been thrown like this before. He doesn't remember much about the accident, other than the screams of the woman behind the wheel of the wagon as he hurtled right at her.
"I could tell she thought this was going to be serious," he says. "So did I."
In the end, it only looked serious. Prather hit some sort of sweet spot on the station wagon's windshield, shattering it without too much of a thud. He was able to pull himself off the hood with only minor cuts on one arm and a sprained ankle. (Like essentially every other courier in town, Prather has no insurance to cover injuries, had he received any.) Nobody inside either of the cars involved was hurt, either.
Some bad news came Prather's way after the accident, though. A policeman charged him on the scene with attempting an illegal pass and gave him a traffic ticket. Then, when he got back to the shop, his employer fired him for causing the wreck.
Despite the negative fallout, Prather speaks of the near-death incident not as a tragedy, but as an epiphany.
"I got hit by a car, I hit another car, and still, here I am, walking around talking about it," he says. "To be honest, the wreck really excited me. The way I look at it, something good happened out there. It opened my eyes."
Opened his eyes, he says, to some realities about couriering. Realities that to Prather's family and every nonmessenger in the world seem painfully obvious: like, say, that the occupation poses such hazards that it may not be worth it.
"To tell you the truth, I've never really wanted anything, as long as my bike was working," Prather says. "I've always just been happy if I could ride. When I ride, I really don't ever think about things like having to find a 'real' job, or that maybe this is a [dangerous] job. I just feel good. But this accident--well, I'm starting to think that I've been playing too much with my luck. Being a courier is really all I know. But maybe it's time to move on."
Messengers typically don't come to think that way unless they suffer a serious accident, says Shawn Bega, president of the D.C. Bicycle Courier Association and owner of D.C. Courier, a messenger service.
"I'd say most people who last through one winter in this job don't want to do anything else," says Bega. "There are things about it that are fantastic: freedom, being outdoors, getting to ride your bike. And though there are some brutal things about this business, like having no insurance and no benefits and not much money, once it gets in your blood, you don't want to give it up for anything. Most of the people that I've known who got out of being a courier only got out because they were injured in an accident and couldn't do it any more."
Prather's ankle is healed, and though he's looking for nonriding work, he may take some courier jobs until the end of the summer. He needs the money, for sure, but there's another reason he's getting back on his bike so soon after the crackup: He's going to be a world champion again.
Because of a lack of fiscal fitness, Prather was unable to defend his bunny hop title at the 1999 Cycle Messenger World Championships, which were held in Zurich, Switzerland. There's no travel subsidy for competitors, even record holders. He paid attention to the competition, however, and took particular pride in the fact that the winner, a European rider, fell 3 centimeters short of his 104-centimeter record.
This year's event will be hosted by Philadelphia in September. Prather intends to borrow a BMX and bum a ride to Rocky Balboa's hometown to restake his claim as the best there is.
"After that, I'm only going to ride my bike for fun," he says. "Not for work, not anymore. But I'll always ride my bike." --Dave McKenna