Counterpoint: Cambridge Bicycle Posse

by Sarah Ligon
December 2001

Captain’s Log, Star Date 11.03.01 mark 11 hours. Having found myself in uncharted territory, I latched on to a passing band of marauders who allowed me to accompany them on their own mission into the Cambridge System. Halfway into the mission, the group’s leader, Fleet Commander Skunk, set a course for the Kendall Constellation. The other ships followed quickly behind, and soon the entire wing was in orbit around an erupting planet. While in flight, many of the pilots removed their space suits. The Kendall Constellation had many full moons tonight. I did not know what to make of these strange customs nor of my guides for the evening, this band that calls themselves SCUL.

The Subversive Choppers Urban Legion (or SCUL, as the ever present skull insignia suggests) is a response to the city’s over-reliance on more traditional modes of transportation, or “The counterculture to America’s love for the automobile.” Though their name suggests a motorcycle gang something akin to the Hell’s Angels. SCUL is a group of hard-core bicycle lovers. But you won’t find any pansy-ass ten-speeds among SCUL’s fleet of over one hundred bikes. These bikes, “choppers” as they are called,  are all handmade, mostly using pieces scavenged by the group’s members. SCUL’s philosophy: “Most engineering goes on the axiom that form follows function. This is not the case with the bicycle chopper. We let form prevail, and make the function happen forcefully. If we tried to create efficient, easy-to-pilot machines, the result would be a normal bike.” This aesthetic ideal manifests itself in some pretty incredible inventions: double-riders, low riders, tall bikes, bikes with raised back wheels and lowered front wheels and vice versa, even a double-decker bike in which the rider, sitting on the uppermost bike, pedals backwards, setting in motion a sequence of wheel and gear rotations that causes the lower bike to push the whole contraption forward.

You may recognize the group as the band of hoodlums that rides through Boston, Cambridge, and surrounding areas on weekend nights from April through November. I crossed paths with SCUL several times last summer and have been in awe of their artistry and obvious sense of irony ever since. After months of sending out feelers for an “in” to the group, I finally tracked them down through feature articles on the internet. As it turns out, SCUL is one of the more famous chopper gangs in the biking world. They’ve appeared in the Boston Globe, the Phoenix, and on Channel 5. And recently they turned down a spotlight with “The Outdoor Life Network, the cable station that ignorantly wanted to lump the group in with “recumbent” cyclists. ( As one SCUL member explained, “[Choppers] are as far from recumbents as recumbents are from normal bikes.”) Yet attention and notoriety have not gone to the members’ heads. They graciously agreed to let the fledgling Counterpoint reporter accompany them on their last ride of the season. So, on a recent Saturday night, while many of my classmates were filing off the Senate Bus for the social scenes at Harvard, MIT, and BU, I borrowed a friend’s K-Mart special and pedaled off, map in hand, to find SCUL”s center of operations.

The SCUL mothership, “Fort Berkeley”, is a green Somerville Duplex that seemed intentionally remote and hard to find. After stopping several confused strangers for directions, I finally arrived, out of breath, on the address on my map, only to find the place apparently deserted. A lone and very unpleasant looking canine greeted me at the gate. My email instructions said that upon reaching the house I should “pet the dog” as the dog is remarkably friendly.” Assuming this was some sort of code for admittance, I held out my hand. It began to bark. “Beast!” a voice from behind the gate, “it’s okay.” It was NoWay, a long-time SCUL member and one of the few with whom I had exchanged emails. NoWay escorted me through the gate into a backyard redecorated as a shrine to the bicycle. Spoked wheels lined the walkways like picket fences and broken gears, handlebars, and bicycle chains were fashioned into sculptures at every turn. On the back porch a dozen twenty- and thirty-somethings sat around drinking beers and offered me one. No sooner had NoWay introduced me to some of the other members–Moose, Sparky, Mad Dog, Mucus, and DeadByDawn–than the dog began licking my hand. I felt like one of the initiated.

For the evening’s festivities, I was awarded the name “Maggot1.” All SCUL members ride under a pseudonym (though some of them, like WalTor, are none too concealing). You must complete an entire ride with the group, however, before you can choose your handle. (At least I got to be Number One, though. The other two first-timers had to go by Maggot2 and Maggot3.) For a mere five-dollar donation, I was allowed to ride one of SCUL’s own choppers as well. But selecting a chopper turned out to be more complicated than choosing a flavor of Ben and Gerry’s at Super Stop and Shop. Each machine is a complex combination of creativity and humor: Suicide is a bicycle seat perched atop two twenty-foot stilts, at the bottom of which are attached two very tiny wheels; Insanity is a normal sized bike, tilted back a bit with with a six-inch front wheel extended five feet in front of the back one (and waving a tiny American flag in front); TrippleNipple is a reverse tricycle. And that’s just to name a few. Aided by NoWay’s expertise, I strolled down the row upon row of choppers liking the basement of Fort Berkeley. Many of the bikes were too large for my five foot, four inch frame; others afforded too little steering control (I needed one hand to take pictures with during the ride); and still others had sustained too much damage during recent God Fight Derbies to be taken out on a mission (more on derbies later). I settled on Circus Peanut, a short, extended-front-wheel chopper given its moniker probably because of its rainbow paint job, glittery banana seat, wide handlebars, horn and streamers make it look something a circus clown might ride. It suited me perfectly.

I guess before I continue I should expand on SCUL’s detailed hierarchy and nomenclature. SCUL members are known as “pilots,” and their choppers are known as “ships” (or, more specifically, “fighters”). A group of ships is called a “wing,” and each wing has its own “commander.” All of the ships in SCUL are part of the “fleet.” Non-SCUL vehicles include “bogies” (unidentified bicycles) and “trandports” (cars and trucks). Pedestrians are known as “civilians.” When SCUL members go out for a ride, they call it a “mission.” Possible destinations include the Allston System, the Somerville System, and the Cambridge System. Missions are usually restricted to the MA (Massachusetts) Galaxy, except for the Annual Century Ride when members ride the one hundred miles from Massachusetts to Maine. A dictionary of terms can be found on SCUL’s web page, and familiarity with some of the more common phrases is essential on order to ride the gang. If this is all beginning to sound like the lingo from the latest Star Wars episode. SCUL’s creator, Skunk, was inspired by other themed chopper gangs he had heard of and went with the idea of a space marine gang because he was a big fan of sci-fi series. But SCUL’s origin is  little more opaque.

According to WalTor, “Skunk just woke up one morning and decided to become a gang.” If you’ve met Skunk, this doesn’t seem so implausible. Sparky describes him as “always having some project going. he guy is just never still. He never sleeps, which is good because he gets things done–building choppers and stuff.” The night before I met Skunk, he had not slept, but when I walked up to him and introduced myself at the pre-ride meeting, he seemed to be functioning at top speed. Apparently, he had needed to stay up all night finishing the Annual Cog Awards, miniature statues made of welded bicycle parts that are awarded to the outstanding SCUL members of the year. Skunk’s frenzied welding and the flaming tattoos licking up his forearms reminded me of Vulcan hammering lightening bolts for Zeus in the pits of Hades.

According to Skunk (whose own mother even refers to him as Skunk now), the process of starting SCUL was a little more gradual, “When I moved to the city, I realized it’s really impractical to have  a car. And them my brother gave me a Cruiser and it is definitely the best bike I have ever had, even though it was just one single-speed coaster bike, and I was like ‘This thing works!’ as opposed to a ten-speed that you buy in a department store.” For Skunk, his brother’s gift started a new love affair with bikes: “He showed me how much fun you can have on a bike and not take it too seriously at all.” After seeing his brother make a chopper bike, Skunk said, “I want to do that.”

That was in 1995. Now SCUL has over ninety members, a nation wide reputation, and a soon-to-be-released series of trading cards, and yet the organization is much less centralized than when Skunk founded it. He still leads missions and organizes events, but only when other members don’t take the lead. Fort Berkeley is currently below Skunk’s house, but that may change soon, too. The evening of our ride, Skunk received notice from his landlady that SCUL could no longer meet at Fort Berkeley. Apparently, there had been too many complaints from the neighbors. So during the off-season this winter, SCUL will begin looking for a new base of operations. According to Skunk, the gang will be back in full force as usual next April. “SCUL is much bigger now than just the bikes,” he said in the one brief sound bite he afforded me. “It’s become more about the people. So that makes me think we will be around.” The group seems to have forged some strong connections. Members often see each other outside the regular rides, meeting to watch movies at a member’s house or even for Sunday brunch. During the awards ceremony, Skunk became so emotional describing the achievements of the Iron Cog recipient, Vomit (winner of SCUL’s highest honor), that he had to leave the room and asked WalTor to take over the presentation. WalTor, poking fun at the group’s intimacy, later said, “I was unemployed and repulsive to people until I became a SCUL member, and now look at me.” As another member jokingly put it, “If it wasn’t for SCUL, I would be hanging out in Harvard Square like a loser every Saturday night.”

So rather than hanging out at the square that Saturday night, I rode with SCUL. The official ride began at ten-thirty (“30 mark 10 hours” in SCUL Speak). About fifteen of us left the Broadway Bicycle School, the location of the closing ceremony, and headed down Broadway through Union and Inman Squares. The first thing I noticed while riding with SCUL was how much cooler I felt riding a chopper than riding a normal bike. When I ride my ten-speed through town, no one waves to me or cheers. But when I rode a SCUL bike, surrounded by my gang, little children stopped, wide-eyed on the street; they tugged at their parents’ shirtsleeves and asked if they could have  a bike like mine. Well-dressed couples out on dates held out their hands for the whole line of us to give them high fives as we ride by. I was even more respected by other vehicles. Normally, I always have to be on guard while riding through town for the occasional aggressive Boston driver. But with SCUL, the other drivers waited while the whole posse rode through a red light.

Not everyone SCUL encounters thinks the gang demands such deference. WalTor told me how often he hears the word “loser” from the occasional onlooker. The worst, Skunk says, are the drunks who want to ride a chopper, claiming they used to own one themselves when they were children. But I didn’t encounter any of these detractors on my ride. On the contrary, as we passed Harvard Square, a group of obviously inebriated college athletes danced out into stalled traffic to tell us how “rad” we were. I knew, as I waved at my Wellesley classmates waiting in the cold for the Senate Bus, that my new mode of transportation was “rad” indeed.

Riding with SCUL is not just one long parade past an admiring crowd. The parts of the ride that most people don’t see are the numerous excursions. Our first stop was at Kendall Square. A block past the T stop, Skunk darted into Kendall Plaza. The little square (that is actually a circle) just before the Longfellow Bridge contains a steel fountain in the shape of a planet. As if on cue, the other riders, barreling down the street at a breakneck pace turned inside the circle, dragging me with them. Then, like the cars at the Indie 500, we raced around the circle in the small walkway between the fountain and the benches that line the exterior. Add to that fifteen racing bicycles all with extended front wheels and decreased steering control. After several minutes of this, a man and woman on a motorcycle drove up the square and parked to watch SCUL’s performance. One of the members, Sparky, thinking that an audience deserved to see a good show, stripped down to his silkcreened SCUL underwear and continued his flight path while smoking a cigarette. Skunk joined him in his display, and a few other members ripped off their shirts as well. Considering that it was only forty degrees outside and I needed to take photos, I left my clothes on.

Donning all clothes, we hopped back on our bikes and rode to an empty lot near MIT for our next detour–the Dog Fight Derby. I should have known, based on the title alone, that this was something a novice might not want to participate in. The objective is to stay on your chopper for as long as possible without putting your feet on the ground. The only problem is that all the other cyclists are trying to disqualify you by yanking off the piece of caution tape that is tied to your neck or by knocking you off balance. I was beginning to wish I had chosen the chopper with the steel battering ram attachment rather than my unassuming Circus Peanut. I managed to stay in the derby for nearly fifteen minutes, though, by circling the perimeter and avoiding becoming a casualty myself by not even trying to take out the other riders. However, once Skunk caught on to my strategy, I was dead meat. He rode straight at me at high speed. There was no chance to outrun him. Fortunately, he didn’t run right into me, the way some derby contestants do–he just rode so close that I was knocked off balance. He told me I should feel no shame, though; I had been taken out by one of the best. The derby continued for the better part of half an hour, and in the end only the truly competitive and blood thirsty remained. The object, of course, was not really to win, but to ride.

After the derby, I was getting tired. It was already 30 mark 1 hours and growing colder, but SCUL still had plans to ride to Bunker Hill that night. Though I desperately wanted to finish the mission and earn my new SCUL name, I took the opportunity to be escorted back to Fort Berkeley by WalTor, Diva, Mucus, and DeadByDawn who all had to rest up for work the next day. At it turns out, SCUL’s members have infiltrated every part of society. While many work in bike shops, others are public school teachers, parents, and one is a counselor at an adolescent psychiatry ward. However, the appearance of hard-core bikes is not just an image these member don for a few hours each week. For most members, biking is a life-long passion. Riding back to Fort Berkeley that night, I felt some of their passion rubbing off on me. But, just as I was beginning to get the hang of “popping wheelies” on Circus Peanut, we reached the Fort. It was an incredible letdown on the rude home to be on my old bike again. I seemed totally unremarkable to everyone on the street, and I felt even a little vulnerable without my gang surrounding my bike. So, I am looking forward to next season when I can ride with SCUL again, hopefully as something other than Maggot1.

Captian’s Log: Having said good-bye to my new friends from SCUL I set a course for home. I am sure my life in the Wellesly System will seem incredibly dull in comparison to that of a chopper fighter pilot. I am confident, however, that I have not seen the last of this species, and in the meantime, I will continue to work on my “wheelies”.

Sarah Ligon ’03, has been officially awards the name of “CrazyMaggotReport” by SCUL. Her current rank is the organization is that of Aviator First Class, thirteen points from the bottom of the roster.