The Boston Phoenix October 19 - 26, 2000


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

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 buick.

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.

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 time.

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 going."

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 diving.

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 The annual SCUL Halloween ride will take place October 28. For more information, see