updated 5/4/2005 2:38:57 PM ET 2005-05-04T18:38:57

Bicycle messengers once crowded downtown traffic to deliver court papers, business documents and blueprints. Today, only one such company and one lone courier pump along on any given workday in Maine's biggest city.

Around the country, high-speed Internet, which allows larger documents to be e-mailed quickly, is beating cyclists in the race for fast and cheap delivery of urgently needed material.

"I enjoy this. It's a lot of fun. But it's not a tenable way to make a living," said Portland courier Stephen Wagner, taking a break on a park bench. "You'd be dirt poor if you did this for a living."

Wagner, 22, splits his time working for Rapid Courier and a bike shop.

In recent years, many courier companies from New York to California have been scaling back on bicycle messengers, those daredevils on two wheels who have long been ubiquitous on city streets.

But don't count them all out. They survived the fax revolution, and riders say they'll survive broadband Internet as well.

"There's still potential there. There's still stuff that needs to be hand-delivered," said Bob Smyth, a former bicycle messenger in Boston and San Francisco who came to Portland to serve as office manager for Rapid Courier.

At the peak, around 1992, there were about 14 or 15 bicycle messengers working for four or five companies in Portland, said Percy Wheeler, a former messenger who worked for several companies and himself as Mad Dash Courier.

The cyclists earned their reputations as rebels by weaving in and out of traffic, jumping curbs and bouncing down stairs.

But business began riding downhill with fax machines and e-mail. Broadband made things worse.

Years ago, it was common for a courier to pocket more than $100 a day in Portland, Wheeler said. Now, $100 represents a rare good day.

In San Francisco, Speedway used to have 30 bicycle messengers but there are now 12, said Lori O'Rourke, one of the owners. Another company, Quicksilver, had 14 messengers five years ago and now has only two, said dispatcher Stacey Means.

In Chicago, Velocity has half as many bicycle messengers as it did in 1999, when there were about two dozen riders, said Kyle Wiberg, a co-owner.

In Seattle, Dynamex had 15 to 20 riders at the peak; now there are five or six, said Phil Matthews, senior dispatcher.

"At this rate, in five to 10 years, I don't think there'll be bicycle messengers," Matthews said.

New York is the nation's bicycle messenger capital, with about 1,000. Fax machines and computers can't deliver fabric samples to the garment district, or hand-signed legal documents, or portfolios or blueprints.

But even in New York, growth has stagnated.

The number of bicycle messengers at Breakaway Courier has dropped from 100 to 40, said Robert Kotch, the company's president. New York Minute has 15 riders, roughly half what it had a couple of years ago, said Mike Sirota, general manager.

New York's Urban Express, which has 250 bicycle messengers, reports that bicycle work has been flat while vehicle deliveries continue to grow.

Portland's Wheeler, 35, left the business after someone in a parked car threw open a door as he sped down Congress Street. The collision sent him careening to the ground, leaving him with a smashed helmet, gashed hand, numerous cuts and road rash. He hung up his bicycle messenger bag and his two-way radio and now runs a bicycle repair shop. But he misses it.

"I just miss riding my bike every day. I miss the fitness," he said. "I don't like being inside every day."

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