Bike to the future
Patrolling the local galaxy with the Subversive Choppers' Urban Legion
by Andrew Weiner
photos by Geoff Kula
The faded green house looks like an ordinary Somerville two-family, and on the
streets outside the only sound is the wind stirring the few fallen leaves of
early autumn. But down in the basement on this early Saturday morning, the
atmosphere buzzes with tension. Terse sentences are shouted over the loud whine
of a bench grinder:
"Where's Vice-Admiral Vomit?"
"Pass me the star map for the Allston system."
"Don't forget the doughnut molecules!"
This basement shop doubles as the headquarters for the local bicycle gang SCUL,
or Subversive Choppers' Urban Legion. What with the wall of tools and the bins
overflowing with parts, the place looks like the hide-out for a ring of bike
thieves. At one of the work stands, a man known as WalTor hammers away at the
corroded seat post of a Schwinn from the 1940s. In the center of the room
stands Fleet Admiral Skunk, SCUL's ringleader, a crew-cut man adorned with
flame tattoos. He adjusts his utility belt with his free hand as he tests a
walkie-talkie with the other.
When all the hammering and testing is complete, the assembled SCUL riders climb
through the tornado doors and into the back yard. As we prepare for departure,
someone hums the first few bars of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." The hour
has come. We ride.
SCUL photo gallery
If a SCUL ride looks weird, that's because it is. What else
can you say about people who call themselves Mucus, Gropo, Flasher, and Money
Shot? And that's just the humans. Some of the bikes are so tall that riders can
peer into passing buses. Others have been customized with car horns, stereos,
and battering rams. One experimental prototype is powered by a chain-saw motor.
The bike known as Toy is exactly that: a kid's bike with super-long handlebars
and no training wheels. A few models qualify as genuine bike art, on a level
with classic Italian road racers and the gold-plated low-rider bicycles of East
LA. USB Mjollnir, built by Skunk with scrap titanium from his job at
Watertown's Seven Cycles, won the Best Custom prize at last year's Larz
Anderson bike meet.
|LEADER OF THE PACK:
Fleet admiral skunk mounts the USB catastrophe, a "ship"
customized with a car stereo, halogen headlights, and the horn from an old
The only thing these wild rides have in common is that they're all choppers --
bikes whose forks have been extended, jacking up the front end (think of Peter
Fonda's motorcycle in Easy Rider). But unlike hot-rodding a car's
engine, which aims to maximize performance, chopping a bike totally undermines
its handling. Call it de-engineering: the longer the fork, the less the rider
can control the front end. Trying to handle the more extreme choppers recalls
the anguished flailing most kids suffer when they get on a bike for the first
Why does SCUL rely exclusively on bikes that are, as its members like to joke,
unsafe at any speed? For two reasons Ralph Nader would never understand: danger
is sexy, and form can trump function. A super-tall bike might not be as much of
a suicide machine as a motorcycle, but it's way badder than that 10-speed you
ride around town. (Plus, it's illegal: any extension of a bicycle fork is
prohibited under Massachusetts law.)
As for form, most SCUL bikes look downright post-apocalyptic. This
mutant-scavenger aesthetic is part choice and part necessity, since the
majority of the group's crafts are assembled using stray parts and orphan bikes
found in dumpsters or at yard sales. According to WalTor, this form of
recycling ensures good karma: "We believe that these bikes have soul, and we're
doing an odd metaphysical service to the bicycling world by keeping them
SCUL has been performing this odd metaphysical service since 1995, when the
group spun off from another weird-bike gang called Flying Donut, which
consisted of Skunk and a couple of friends. The group has grown through word of
mouth: today it has 78 active members, nearly half of whom are women.
As it's grown, SCUL has developed an elaborate system of lore and language.
What began by classifying bikes the way the Navy does ships has gradually
evolved into a jargon of more than 100 code words: a hill is a "G-well," a
doughnut is a "grenade," and inner tubes are "oxygen tanks." Broken bike parts
are venerated as "sacred artifacts" with names like the Scepter of Force and
the Twisted Ring of Pain. What's more, the Boston area has been remapped into a
series of star systems, asteroid belts, and constellations. So it makes sense
that members call their bikes "ships" -- what else would you ride in outer
space? Asked to explain SCUL's objective, Fleet Admiral Skunk says: "You could
say we're trying to be bicycle superheroes."
Each week, up to three dozen members get together for a ride, or "mission,"
somewhere around Boston. Members receive points based on the difficulty of the
trip and the handling characteristics of their chopper, and for any injuries,
crashes, or acts of valor that occur during a ride. These points determine a
member's rank in the SCUL hierarchy, which ranges from lowly "recruits" and
"aviators" all the way to admirals. (All points, however, are erased at the
beginning of each year.) Past rides have explored Castle Island (where riders
ended up naked) and the Ted Williams Tunnel. Each year riders compete in a
series of events -- the SCULimpics -- that test bike-handling ability. And
every October, SCUL hosts an extra-zany Halloween ride.
But going on a SCUL ride can make any day seem like Halloween. You could say
the whole spectacle looks like a cross between The Wild Ones and Mad
Max. Today, as we ride to a vacant lot in Lower Allston where the
SCULimpics will take place, the reactions we get from passersby range from
high-fives and honking horns to scratched heads and slack jaws to outright
hostility (a passing carload of Eminem wanna-bes shout "Losers!"). The funniest
sight is a group of would-be hipsters who try not to look -- or, failing that,
to pretend there's nothing unusual about what they're seeing. For SCUL riders,
just getting around can turn into a social-psychology experiment.
But the stares and shouts don't keep the riders from getting their game on for
the SCULimpics, where winners earn SCUL points . . . and bragging
rights. The games open with the skid competition, where the object is to slide
your bike as far as possible over sandy pavement. Before long the games claim
their first victim: Sprout, a slight, freckled young woman, loses control of
her chopper and takes a painful skid of her own across the asphalt. Before she
can even yell "Medic!", a crew of riders is dressing her wounds. While Sprout
limps back toward her bike, Skunk takes the gold with an impressive skid of 90
feet, four inches.
Next, contestants race to complete a short lap while eating a chocolate
doughnut, a feat that is harder than it sounds. If you've ever seen a dog fed
peanut butter, then you have a good idea how hapless the riders look as they
desperately try to swallow without any spit. Factor in a crowd packed with
hecklers, and you have an event every bit as Olympic as, say, synchronized
The third event requires riders to negotiate a slalom course aboard the Caddy
Yack, a bike whose wheels were built up around off-center hubs. It's about as
smooth-riding as a mechanical bull, and many a contestant looks seasick. And
the fourth contest, a ramp jump, does even more damage -- it ends prematurely
after a series of wrecks sends one would-be Knievel to the hospital. Following
the Ghostride and the Bike Toss, which replaces the discus with a 40-pound
Huffy, the SCUL riders return to the Somerville base to regroup.
After a quick carbo-load, everyone heads off to an empty mall parking lot for
the evening games. First off is Kickin' Claus, in which contestants ride
full-tilt towards a life-size Santa and try to punt him as far as they can.
It's a good thing no one else is around -- children could well be traumatized
to see nice-looking people cackling like pirates as Father Christmas takes
repeated boots to the head.
After a two-on-a-bike race and a wheelie competition that leaves more than one
rider ass-up in a whimpering heap of flesh and steel (choppers, it turns out,
wheelie a little too easily), the evening wraps up with the most eagerly
awaited event of all: Dogfight Derby, a freewheeling scrum that's somewhere
between tag and chicken. Each rider wears a length of ribbon; you're out if
your ribbon is torn or if your foot touches the ground. Other than that, there
are no rules.
Twenty minutes later, only one rider remains. It's Sprout, making an impressive
comeback from her wreck that afternoon. She beams as she receives her gold
medal -- a sprocket dangling from a length of old inner tube. She couldn't look
happier if she'd kicked Santa off a bridge.
Andrew Weiner brought home the bronze for Team Phoenix in the
Doughnut Event. His e-mail address is email@example.com. The annual SCUL
Halloween ride will take place October 28. For more information, see