The frame of Mike McGovern's bike is "tighter" than most bikes, almost clown-like in its shortness. McGovern, 25, looks silly making the exaggerated pumping motions necessary to power his cycle slowly down a quiet street in an Orlando neighborhood. A lot of action yields just a little motion.
And that's the point. McGovern is a member of the Yabai Bike Club and he's traveling on a machine he created himself out of recycled and scavenged parts. In traditional Japanese, yabai translates into something close to "dangerous" or "inconvenient." The term is slang for something so bad it's cool.
McGovern's bike is both dangerous and inconvenient, proving that not all bike riding is about getting from place to place safely, quickly or efficiently. Sometimes it's just about tweaking the status quo.
The Yabai club is part of a hard-core bike culture that's as much about thriving without fossil fuels as it is rejecting a society sick with overconsumption. But even for these guys, sometimes riding a funny-looking bike is just riding a funny-looking bike.
"It's weird, the haters can't stand to see bikes on the road, but they love to see the tall bikes. … It makes people happy," says 21-year-old Ryan Hutchinson, known around Yabai as "ryan fromdeland." He's riding a tall bike, a rolling monstrosity made up of two or three frames welded on top of one another.
Hutchinson, like the others in the group, loves tall bikes, freak bikes, mutant bikes, whatever is "dangerous and inconvenient." Those are the building guidelines. According to Yabai Bike Club's blog, Yabai Til Deaf (jitenshawayabaidesu.blogspot.com), the club was founded in part by dumpster-divers associated with Orlando Food Not Bombs, the activist group that provides vegan meals to the homeless in Lake Eola Park and has caused conniptions among Orlando officials who don't approve of the public feedings.
"Yabai is a loosely organized group of people — we operate in a non-hierarchical fashion the same as Food Not Bombs — several of us are a part of Food Not Bombs, but it's not required nor does everyone who participates with our club volunteer with Food Not Bombs. … There is no formal group/club association though," Hutchinson clarifies in an e-mail. And the rest is pretty simple.
"We ride Fridays to our favorite dumpsters to recover materials for bicycle monstrosities," the blog advises. "We emphasize the use of freaky, recovered/homemade bikes for this ride, but all bikes are welcome. We build on Mondays." In reality, the schedule is more like whenever they feel like it, and it usually takes a day or so of advance alerts via e-mails and text messages naming the time and place for the roundup.
The building sessions can be grueling hours of cutting, grinding and welding, or mental wrestling matches with physics. This is where science meets art, and there is a point to the process: It doesn't cost money. Almost all parts are repurposed from other bikes and throwaways bound for the landfills. There's no mass production, so each creation is unique. It's a DIY effort that reflects the owner, and the vehicles are showboats. It's impossible to be inconspicuous on a tall bike.
"Sometimes I'll forget I'm on my tall bike, then I'll pass a school and the kids are all yelling and going crazy," says Derek Gabaldon, a 19-year-old with long dreads who scrambles up a three-framer like a squirrel up a tree. "They don't even think what they're seeing is possible. It's exciting for them."
When riding next to buses, "the height puts you on the level of the seated passengers," says Yabai member Andrea Schad, 28. Schad built her own tall bike and rides it — cautiously — for fun, not transportation.
While most people wonder how to mount tall bikes, the real concern is how to get down, considering that applying the brakes has a tendency to buck the rider. On a recent evening, another Yabai member, 25-year-old Nicole Bowlen, took a topple from a tall bike and snapped her tibia. You have to have bones like rubber or love pain to keep up with this crew. (Some Yabai members do have cars at the ready just for such emergencies. They're pragmatists, not purists.)
There are wild regional build-off competitions that further stimulate the bike-builders' creativity. In early April, some of the Yabai riders attended Slaughterama, in Richmond, Va., where local bike people absorbed visitors into their own homes during the competitions. Everything is done on the cheap and in the spirit of sharing, but still wrapped in a promise of violence.
In a blog post about Slaughterama, Hutchinson writes, "There's this windy ass bridge that hangs below a super-tall overpass, the pedestrian bridge, itself about 50 ft above the water. There's an old iron factory or something that's just a roof now and that's where Slaughterama was held. Immediately, we saw shit tons of bikes, kids, vests, stuff, etc. The clubs represented this year were really diverse, from face-tattooed Black Label kids all the way to some tall-tee-wearing kids from ‘Get Loose Crew,' and all kinds of punx and college kids in between."
Some of the guys in Yabai can talk bikes for hours, their fascination all-consuming. With a little instruction about design, the distinctions start to sink in. Choppers, for example, are easy to spot by their outrageously extended forks. Swingies allow both the front and back wheels to pivot, so the rider must control both ends for forward movement, otherwise the bike kind of collapses around the rider.
And then there are the short bikes, like McGovern's. "Mike's bike is colloquially known as a ‘tight bike,'" explains Hutchinson in an e-mail. "One could, however, call it chopped or ‘sectioned.' … The front triangle of the frame has been cut off, flipped upside down, had the top tube (now the down tube) shortened, then re-welded in place to the rear triangle. The forks were run through the frame the new ‘correct' way, and likewise, the stem/handlebar/basket assembly was reinstalled. The name ‘tight bike' alludes to the ‘tightness' of the frame (i.e., the wheelbase is very short — the bike as a whole looks like it was compressed lengthwise)."
Schad hands over a DVD copy of B.I.K.E., a 2005 documentary about the Brooklyn chapter of the legendary Black Label Bike Club. "This will give you an idea of what it's all about, except for all the problems with drugs," she says.
"I'd firstly say that B.I.K.E. was really badly done and Black Label was represented somewhat badly on top of that," says Hutchinson. "It's important to distinguish the movie and the Black Label Bike Club. Here we're still a family, we romp around on hideous monstrosities of bicycles, get together to build and hang out, and on top of everything we're all friends."
f you're going to ride a bike, you gotta know how to fix it.
Just as members of Food Not Bombs cross over into Yabai, so do members of Yabai cross over into the Rusted Chain Bike Collective, a group that performs weekly tuneups at the Audubon Park Community Market (5 p.m.-7 p.m. Wednesdays in the Stardust Video & Coffee parking lot, 1842 Winter Park Road; rustedchain bikecollective.blogspot.com). For a donation, the volunteers will put your bike in top shape and bend your ear about bike safety.
Trent Taylor, 26, a relative newcomer to Orlando from Puerto Rico working at a recent Rusted Chain tuneup, says he prevented a "head tube catastrophe" with the timely application of a little mechanical knowledge. If that terminology goes over your head, try the idea of digging a spider's nest out of a bike hub, which they have also done.
The grass-roots collective is getting organized and preparing to incorporate as a legitimate nonprofit in the eyes of the state. They have also sharpened their mission statement. Per their website: "The objective of the Rusted Chain Bike Collective is to offer educational, recreational, and career-building opportunities through bicycling. We will provide access to space, tools, and experience in a safe environment free of discrimination. The Rusted Chain Bike Collective will promote interdependency through cycling, encourage movement towards environmental sustainability, and foster local unity."
Right now, the No. 1 priority for Rusted Chain is to find a permanent spot to call their own where they can house parts and tools. Posted on the Rusted Chain blog is a lengthy wish list of needed bikes, parts, tools and "other stuff." But give the guys a break if you've got stuff to donate; don't show up at the weekly market with a carload of heavy stuff. McGovern suggests contacting the group ahead of time via the website to make efficient arrangements.
esides the monster bikes coming from Yabai and the philanthropic service of Rusted Chain, there are other bike groups riding the same axis in Orlando.
For starters, the former Hellcats Bike Club of Orlando, which is morphing into a chapter of Jacksonville's Zombie Bikes (www.myspace.com/hellcatsbc), likes to race at least once a month, usually the Saturday after the Critical Mass ride. On the day of a recent sprint series called "The Quick and the Dead," the riders met at Ethos Vegan Kitchen before moving to an undisclosed location for the casual competition.
Perhaps bicycle polo is your calling. There's a place for you in the Orlando Bike Polo group (www.myspace.com/orlandobikepolo). According to their website, "Orlando Bike Polo is made up of Orlando's best bike polo players. And by Orlando's best, we mean Orlando's only." They play pickup matches at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays at Howard Middle School's basketball court. "We're just starting up, so come out and play. Make your own mallet, or just show up and use one of ours!"
The Orlando Rat Race Alley Cats, www.myspace.com/orlandoratrace, cook up scavenger runs that require racers to think ahead and plan the quickest route to a series of checkpoints. It's not about how fast you ride, or what you ride, but urban strategy.
But everyone comes together for the Orlando Critical Mass (www.orlando criticalmass.org) ride, a last-Friday-of-the-month event that leaves at 5:30 p.m. from Loch Haven Park and winds down to Stardust Video & Coffee.
"The best way to break into the bike scene in Orlando is the Critical Mass ride," says McGovern. The ride takes place in hundreds of cities around the world and has no purpose beyond meeting at a set location and riding as a group together on city streets.
Here in town, the more experienced riders help to organize the route and cork off traffic at intersections. The more people involved, the more visible biking becomes in Orlando.firstname.lastname@example.org