It’s just shy of 22:00 (or 10:00p.m. in civilian time) and Fort Tyler is humming. Pilots are running ships through pre-flight checks, the navigator and tail gunner are intently hunched over a large tactical map, and the flatscreen readout on the wall slowly ticks towards 22:15. “Launch T-Minus 00:14:30” it reads, in blocky digitized letters. But we’re not, as much as pilots would love it, in the hanger of the Death Star. We’re at the Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville, the main base of operations for the chopper bicycle gang SCUL. SCUL rides the streets of Greater Boston (or the Greater Boston Starsystem) every Saturday night without fail, on modified bikes complete with lights and sound.
SCUL’s leader, Fleet Admiral Skunk, started the gang in 1995, after he’d rode with some other Boston-based bicycle gangs. Initially he was considering the theme of the gang to be knights in shining armor. “That didn’t leave room for a lot of creativity though,” he says. “With space you can do pretty much anything if the universe you’ve created allows.” One aspect of SCUL’s universe is the pilots’ (or riders’) nicknames. Most in SCUL don’t know each other’s real names, and no one knows Skunk’s civilian identity. To everyone in the world, he’s simply Skunk.
An alarm sounds throughout Fort Tyler. The harshly lit warehouse is filled with whoops and laughter as pilots roll their ships out into space (the street), and gradually everyone assembles at the rendezvous point, a raised parking lot around the corner from the base. SCUL forms up into a long line of pilots on their ships, their lights pulsing eerily in the silence. There’s only a low murmur of conversation. Over the crest of the parking lot’s graded entrance rises a ship bigger than them all. Two bike frames high and bearing a hefty load, the USB Cloudbuster, the fleet’s flagship, comes into view. It’s carrying a gel-cell car battery, a subwoofer just below the pedals that looks like a muffler with the SCUL logo emblazoned on the side, and on top a tall mast with a two foot wide rotating disco ball.
There are no lights on yet, though. Skunk pushes Cloudbuster in front of the line of pilots and addresses his troops. “Ok pilots here’s the mission for tonight,” Skunk lays it out. It’s just after the 4th of July, so tonight’s ride is going to include some sparklers, and the night will end with a swim. Somewhere.
Skunk does a check that each pilot has taken a job for the mission. There are certain responsibilities SCUL members assume in order to preserve the structure of the group. There’s Navigator and Tailgunner, who lead and trail the fleet to keep it in check. There’s Flatbag, Toolbag and Medibag who are responsible for carrying supplies for repairs of all kinds. And of course there’s Sticker Patrol, who carries a bunch of SCUL paraphernalia to hand out to Carbon Based Units, or civilians not in SCUL.
When he’s finished sounding off the pilots with jobs, Skunk strolls to the rear of the line. Pilots all extend their left hand behind them, and Skunk moves down shaking each one and counting each pilot for the night. Tonight’s a small roster, only around 10 or 15 pilots. When he’s done, everyone does a last minute check. It’s time to go.
There’s a certain kind of emotional connection everyone is SCUL shares. Even though everyone leads a civilian life, they’re not here to talk about work or stress. A pilot named Leotard says many pilots don’t even like to hang out with each other outside of SCUL. “They’re just here to ride. That’s it,” she says. “They just want to ride.”
Leotard is a veteran pilot having ridden with SCUL for eight consecutive seasons, which last from the spring until Halloween. Skunk agrees. “A lot of times people try to compare us to community rides,” he says. “Those are fun. But what we are is something a little more, like a chosen family. That’s why we call SCUL a gang.” He adds that even though the term gang sometimes has negative connotations, it’s the most appropriate for the group.
A hush has fallen over the pilots. Skunk mounts his ship, and suddenly everything’s alive. The disco ball is on; pilots’ Sonic Disruptors (or sound systems) are on full blast. It’s funky. I mean literally it’s funk- as we round the corner the mission starts off with a bumpin’ anthem, and quickly moves into some James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire and Sly & The Family Stone.
“People used to do missions with metal and hardcore blasting,” Skunk says. There’s an inherently punk vibe to a lot of the SCUL attire and demeanor. “But the moms don’t like that so much when we cruise by and their baby explodes. Funk is a little more universal,” Skunk says.
We’re not moving at top speed. SCUL has to go at whatever pace is comfortable for Cloudbuster, along with other double-stacked tallbikes, or High Altitude Reconnaissance Vehicle, which weigh a hefty amount. Cloudbuster is around 200lbs. without a pilot, and Leotard’s H.A.R.V. “Trinity” is around 150. The cruising speed is nice, too. It contributes to the feeling of being in a team and allows everyone to keep up without working too hard. As they crawl through the streets, the Navigator and TailGunner shout orders down the line to control SCUL’s formation.
“Hard to starboard!” Navigator shouts, and pilots intermittently shout it all the way back so everyone knows what’s coming. Oncoming means a transport (car) is approaching from the front, and incoming means from the rear. Whenever SCUL continues on from an obligatory dance break at a red light, the gang lets up a jovial “Navi’ away!” shouted into the night, to signal that once again we’re moving.
We’ve covered a ton of ground at this point; Davis Square to Porter, Harvard, Inman, Kendall, Central. We’ve gone everywhere in a seemingly random order, just patrolling the city’s hotspots, collecting points. SCUL’s mission is positive to the very core, including how you get notoriety for your conduct on different missions. How do you earn points? Crushing cups and giving hi-fives. Hi-fives are accomplished by buzzing close to civilians on the sidewalk and reaching your arm out to slap as many five as you can. It’s harder than it looks.
The reaction from the spectators who look on as SCUL takes the city on is varied. Most are visibly pleased to see us, and it’s clear that we’re a familiar sight to Boston’s nightlife. Passing by bars in Davis Square, drunken cheers bellow through the night, some drivers even honk their horns. Some pedestrians simply ignore– maybe their city blinders have desensitized them to anything out of the ordinary. SCUL is pretty colorful from the outside; one pilot named AceHole reminisces on a time when a spectator asked, “Is this the gay pride parade?”
XXIII as a pilot rides a ship he built, called ReFLEX, which is two BMX dirt bikes’ back halves fused together at a pivot point in the center, making it pretty difficult to control. “It’s got reflexes, and it takes reflex,” XXIII says. XXIII has it down though, and he crushes a ton of cups and paper bags on the way. It’s almost as satisfying to watch his Transformer-like whip bounce up onto the sidewalk to take out a foam Dunkin’ Donuts cup as it is to roll over one yourself. XXIII wears skinny jeans over olive combat boots, a grey tank top and a bunch of military pouches hanging off a shoulder harness strapped to his chest. Like many members of SCUL, XXIII is technically inclined. A welder, he got involved with SCUL because he took a welding course with Skunk.
“My interest in SCUL actually began with the Artisan’s Asylum space itself,” XXIII says. He’s young, and has traveled all around the U.S. instead of a typical path to college peers his age. “I’m sort of a roving maker type. When I hit Boston, I noticed the local Cyber Punk bicycle chopper gang and figured it would be a shame not to participate.”
“This is for the record. Don’t let XXIII’s modesty fool you,” says another SCUL Pilot named Sidekick. She got started with SCUL the same way, welding with Skunk. “XXIII is without a doubt one of SCUL’s MacGyvers.” Of course, later on, more pilots tell me that Sidekick herself is an accomplished welder. I’m surrounded by a group of three or four pilots all ranting about her skills. “She and XXIII are awesome,” they agree. “Did you see the way she did the work on that one ship? It was flawless.” XXIII and Sidekick have found that the sturdy emotional bond of SCUL offers more than a fulfilling hobby but also a home.
Sidekick describes her past only a little, but makes it clear that it wasn’t so stable. “SCUL isn’t a cult,” she says. “Trust me. I grew up in one.” When Sidekick moved to Boston, it was SCUL that showed her the city. “I was really scared to be on my own for the first time. And I knew how easy it would be to fall into a group of really bad people and do sort of horrendous things to myself. I knew I wanted to find something positive to do, and then I found SCUL.”
We’ve moved down to the Arsenal Mall in Watertown, and SCUL is gunning it down this smooth hill. People are whooping and ringing bells (sorry- Sonic Disruptors), when we cruise onto a little boardwalk that runs along the Charles. We ease up, however, when we’ve passed under a bridge because Navi saw some glass on the ground.
There are specific hand signals for different types of “turbulence.” Up at the front, Navigator is pushing on ahead. The feeling of the night has taken a different turn, we have a clear objective now and it’s all about moving. We brush past the incident with the glass, but those of us up in the front hear some shouts from the back. “Ease up ease up!” And then a command I haven’t heard before. “Dismount!”
The pack has split into two groups, those who got past the glass and those who are under the bridge about 30 yards behind us. Those in the front strain to see what’s going on, until, confused, they start to backtrack. Underneath the bridge it’s silent. The music that was the funky pulse of the party is off, now we’re reduced to murmurs.
Something has gone wrong.
As I move through pilots and their ships no one can really tell me what’s happening until I reach XXIII and see. “The Cloudbuster crashed,” he says. Someone else chimes in. “Skunk’s banged up a little, but the Cloudbuster’s in bad shape.”
Immediately it’s clear what’s happened. The navigator couldn’t see how low the bridge we’d sped under was, and the Cloudbuster’s figurehead disco ball had been sheared off. I’m worried that this is the end of the night. It’s around 1:30 a.m. But clearly I’m dead wrong.
“I’m really glad you’re here to see this,” says Sidekick. “This is when SCUL jumps into action.” I look over and see that she’s right. Skunk, XXIII, a pilot named Dugi and one named Mongoose are huddled over the cleaved beacon. Repairs on the road aren’t unusual for SCUL. Of course they have a Flat Bag to repair flat tires and a ToolBag for other mechanical issues, but the spirit of perseverance is what drives SCUL pilots and SCUL’s website proudly proclaims, “Clear the sky and let us do our job, it’s harder than it looks.” Sure enough, the handy pilots of SCUL soon have the ball back together and on it’s mast- they even have it spinning again.
After a snack we’re off and running. The next stop is our mission objective. After moving up the Mystic River, we’re ordered into Silent Running, which means no lights, no bells, and no funk. Stealth mode. Skunk gives the order and the gang quickly maneuvers to the side of the empty road, and nimbly pilots dismount their ships. They stand around for a second. A pilot named Tyrian lays out the plan.
“OK, on the count of three everyone moves into the woods,” he says. “We don’t want to be seen from the road going in there.” One. Two. Three. There’s a steady crackling sound as we move into the woods. There’s only the orange glow of streetlamps filtering through the trees. I can see silhouettes of other pilots only, their black shapes move in sync in a long rank, spread about five feet apart each, slipping through the evenly placed trees. We stop on a little peninsula jutting out into a body of water. It’s one of the Mystic Lakes, I’m assuming, and it’s clear that this is where we’ll swim.
Pilots park their ships around a tree with a very clear “No Swimming” sign on it, and get right down to business. They scramble down the steep bank to a little beach, where everyone strips down without hesitation. The water is nice after having biked for so many miles; it erases sweat and aches from the saddle. It’s pretty quiet, because Skunk has made it clear sound travels pretty easy across this water and that he’s not looking to get the gang in trouble that night.
Along the way other civilian bikers had joined up with us for portions of the journey, SCUL calls them Cling-ons. The one Cling-on who stuck with us, Tedoku, strips down to her underwear and goes in without questioning it. She wasn’t alone- some pilots choose to keep their boxers on. But when I ask her how she felt comfortable just going for it, she replied happily. “I was having a really boring summer up until about right now,” she says. “I just found something really cool.”
It’s around 3:00 a.m. and SCUL is ready to turn in. Clothed and dry, pilots hike up the steep bank to the peninsula where their ships are docked, and begin to pack up. But as with any part of the SCUL mission, there’s always a little challenge thrown in to make things interesting. “S.T.! S.T.!” Someone warns in a forceful whisper. I quickly find out that S.T. stands for Storm Troopers, SCUL’s code word for the Police. Someone points through the trees and down the shore, and sure enough, on another peninsula just like ours, there’s a cop car parked. Skunk whispers an order through the darkness.
“No sound or lights. Everyone stay low to the ground.”
Clearly our muffled laughter in the water wasn’t quite muffled enough. SCUL has only received one noise complaint from the Somerville Police Department in its recent history. Skunk remembers that the officer came by Artisan’s Asylum and asked for SCUL, saying that they’d received a complaint from a specific street. “I remember he showed up and opened the conversation by saying how much he liked the bikes and music,” Skunk says. “I figured he was sort of on our side, so I asked him what would happen if we didn’t go back to that specific street. He paused for a sec and then said, “Then I’ll tell my sergeant the case is closed!’”
Cambridge Police Public Information Officer Jeremy Warnick says that the department’s position on the group is pretty neutral. “I don’t think a lot of our officers see them out there even,” he says. “They’re not really on our radar.” Looks like SCUL is doing their job right.
The car is just close enough that we can see the light coming from it’s interior, and we can definitely see the beam of the car’s huge search light panning across the water. “That guy is looking for us,” someone says sitting next to me. The next few minutes are tense, but its clear people are having fun with this. It definitely adds some excitement. I hold my breath as we watch the cop car through the trees as it speeds down the road right where we entered the woods. After a second or two of reverie, conversation explodes out of pilots’ mouths in a collective verbal sigh of relief.
Now that it’s time to go home, I realize I just saw more of Boston in one night than I ever have. I do the SCUL secret handshake with Sidekick as a parting shot. “You can’t tell anyone how to do the secret handshake when you write about us,” Skunk yells forward to Sidekick and I. I ask why not. He laughs. “Then it wouldn’t be a secret!”