It's 2:00 AM in the morning on a Sunday in Boston, and I'm watching a gang of bike hackers climb a 25-foot bandsaw once used to cut lumber for sailing vessels. We're in a desolate section of the Charlestown Navy Yard, where the massive Tobin Bridge looms overhead like an approaching supercell.
For the past four hours I've been riding around with a mutant bike outfit called SCUL. Every Saturday night between April and Halloween, this colorful band of makers, artists, and all-around bike nerds embarks on a nightlong, citywide journey to the many squares and narrows of Greater Boston.
Part urban expedition, part traveling circus, SCUL is what the Merry Pranksters would look like on bicycles—minus the psychedelia and drug use (although there is certainly some of that). They dart through city streets, stalling traffic and high-fiving pedestrians, seeding the night with a cosmic bouquet of loud funk music—all aboard their bright, flashy mechanical creations.
For the most part, people love this weird parade of grown-up children. But tonight, despite the steady flow of acid rock, cycling, and hard booze, I'm struggling to keep up. And an hour from now, I'll be standing in a vacant parking lot as a phalanx of 20 SCUL members call me a maggot.
SCUL used to stand for Subversive Choppers Urban Legion, but now stands for nothing at all. It is headquartered in a 40,000 square-foot makerspace in Somerville, MA called the Artisan's Asylum. Here you can find everything from welding equipment and 3D printers to enameling classes and an 11-foot vehicular hexapod. For artists and engineers, this place is a house of worship, a veritable cornucopia of industrial goodies.
It's also where I've agreed to meet SCUL's founder and "fleet commander," a man named Skunk. Having reached out to him via email, I was instructed to leave my "civilian ship" at home and arrive at the "fort" no later than "2030 hours."
"Also," Skunk wrote, "you need to think of a call-sign. We don't use civilian names on missions." Skunk is 44 years old.
I arrive just as two twenty-somethings roll up on a pair of street bikes. I quickly learn they're with SCUL, and then begins one of the strangest meet-and-greets I've ever experienced: The girl is pretty, snacking on a bushel of parsley, and eyeing me with subdued curiosity. The man she's with, a bearded dude about the same age, is fiddling with a swing ship—a bike with a chopped frame set on a hinge that pivots the front fork and handlebars on an axis with the seat and rear wheel.
I begin to offer my name, and the two of them quickly cut me off: "No!" they exclaim. "Don't tell us your real name."
So I go with Boyle, a distant family name that I've always liked. Parsley girl goes by Zenith. Beard is Mongoose.
We head inside and I meet a man named Stogie. Stogie shows me the ropes, hooks me up with a rusty little chopper called "War." And after a tour of SCUL's 750-square foot studio space, which is plastered with bicycles in varying degrees of assembly, he takes me to the job board and tells me I'm a maggot.
SCUL has been around since the mid-1990s. Groups like this dot the country and have been around for almost as long as bicycles themselves. Aside from simply modifying bikes, SCUL has been known to partake in demolition derbies, 100-mile interstate bike rides, and even jousting competitions.
And that's just SCUL. There's also Rat Patrol, out of Chicago with chapters in D.C., Nashville, and the U.K.; Black Label, from Minneapolis with branches in New York, Austin, and Stockholm; Dead Baby, out of Seattle; and C.H.U.N.K. 666, from Portland.
Most of these groups roll with some kind of theme. SCUL is into sci-fi and space travel. The gang describes itself as "an anti-elite band of pilots testing out experimental ships, exploring the Greater Boston star systems."
Rat Patrol has a somewhat anarchist, anti-corporate bent, while Black Label is more straightforward with its mission to "drink beer, ride tall bikes, and bleed." This is also the group credited with spreading the mutant bike culture. But for Skunk, that inspiration came from Portland's C.H.U.N.K. 666.
"It was the early days of the web, when JPEGS loaded really slowly," says Skunk, who is also a metal sculptor. "I downloaded this image of a guy on a bike with really tall handlebars and a superhero cape, and as I scrolled down the bike just kept going. I immediately wanted to build one of my own."
SCUL was a bit harder back then. Members met in basements and remote warehouses. They wore leather vests and blasted hard rock music. People were intimidated, and pedestrians often regarded them with fear.
Ever since the first time I learned to ride, the rush of wind past my ears sounded like rocket thrusters
Now SCUL describes itself as an "organized battalion of funk," and that's about as accurate a description as you'll get. They blast funk and classic rock jams you'd have to be soulless not to dig. People love it, whipping out their cameras to capture the passing circus.
It's not unusual for other bikers to spontaneously tag along. SCUL calls these riders "Klingons." On tonight's ride, a Klingon would tell me he followed us after hearing Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" streamed from the convoy. "I decided to follow the white rabbit," he said.
Back at the Asylum, Skunk has arrived and is fiddling with his ship, "Cloudbuster"—a tall bike equipped with mirrors, LED rope lighting, at least three bells, a disco ball, and a 2.1 stereo sound system powered by a deep cell lead-acid battery.
A clock is counting down the minutes to launch. When the timer hits zero, an alarm echoes through the building and a female robot voice rings through the speakers: "Mission commence. All ships to launch pad."
I chuckle at this, then look around and see no one else is laughing. They're too busy rolling their ships out to the pad, which is on the top floor of a parking garage just down the street. On the way there I ask Stogie what is meant by my "maggot" status.
"Actually, Boyle, you're a baby maggot," he says. "Baby maggots are pilots who've never been on a mission. Before you're welcomed into the gang—and hazed—you're a baby maggot. On your next ride you'll be a maggot."
Stogie's been with SCUL since the beginning, which puts his mission count in the hundreds. Zenith and Mongoose, meanwhile, are still in the single digits. Later tonight, however, Mongoose will be "knighted," granting him pilot status and official membership.
Before departing, Skunk gives a rundown of the mission plan. Tonight's theme is "psychedelic." We'll listen to a special mix of funk and acid rock while "getting high," which is just a pun for climbing things like statues, trees, and jungle gyms. He gives each rider a high-five, and then we're off—a vibrant convoy of weird makers blasting funk rock into a tame night.
It's tempting to look at SCUL and write it off as some sort of hipster circle jerk—what with the ironic titles and cultish formalities. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Your average member is more of a nerd than a hipster, more builder than destroyer—a structuralist, not a nihilist.
"We're not out trying to prove a point," Skunk says. "We're just trying to coexist."
In a lot of ways, SCUL exists as an alternative to the typical Saturday night routine. Even the police prefer the antics of a midnight chopper gang to the belligerence of bar crowds, which is why SCUL has maintained such a good rapport with them.
"If you're gonna go out on a Saturday night, go out and have a good time," Skunk says. "Don't center it around drinking and drugs. Do something fun and creative."
There's a strange order that snakes through SCUL like an unspoken agreement. Everyone buys into the structure Skunk has created, and responsibilities shift organically depending on the interests of the group.
The navigator, for example, must always be out front, while the tailgunner brings up the rear, keeping an eye on traffic and shouting commands like "incoming," which means a car is approaching. On each ride, SCUL employs a mission reporter (responsible for documenting the mission on SCUL's website), a recycler, medi-bag handler, tool bag handler, and… Minister of Zoobs? Some titles are less clear than others, but the overall structure is befitting of the group's cosmological theme.
"I've always loved sci-fi," Skunk says. "Ever since the first time I learned to ride, the rush of wind past my ears sounded like rocket thrusters, like I'm flying through a citywide space battle. Potholes become blaster hits, rotaries become black holes. It's more fun."
Anyone who was once a child can relate to this. When I was a kid, I used to imagine my bed floating in orbit around the earth. It was so easy to just close my eyes and see the darkness around me as the starry void of space. As I got older, and my imagination dwindled, my bed became more static, confined. And the dark of my eyelids became nothing more than a massless shape.
You find ways, as you get older, to experience bits and pieces of those long-lost creative powers, and this may be the true meaning of SCUL—this weekly promise of a return to childhood, a nostalgic yearning for adolescent chaos stitched together by a healthy strand of cosmic order.
Eventually we head to a vacant parking lot in Cambridge, where we line up for roll call and mark the end of the mission. As part of the hazing process for baby maggots, I'm told to stand before the gang and be ridiculed. For about a minute, SCUL members barrage me with light-hearted criticisms like "his shirt is too white" and "his hair is too red." Someone said, "I don't trust the media." After the hazing process, I'm told that I am no longer a baby maggot. I am now, officially, a maggot.
On the ride home we pass a crew playing badminton over a traffic guardrail and a drunk couple that takes to our gang like a toddler to a fireworks show. Severely intoxicated, the girl lunges after one of SCUL's tall bikes and nearly topples it over.
"Oh my god I want it!" she barks as her friend tries to restrain her, the rest of SCUL performing avoidance maneuvers to prevent a collision. "It's so pretty!"