Infiltrating downtown’s burgeoning cycling scene
Whenever I’m cycling home and I spot another cyclist, I always cycle a bit faster to catch up with them. They sense this and, without fail, pedal faster, either to avoid making eye contact with the sweaty, heavy-breathing man quickly gaining on them or they think I’m trying to start an impromptu bike race. Neither is true, of course. I just want to connect with another human being who likes to cycle. There is no Tinder or Facebook for cyclists. There is no “biker bar” for the motor-less, two-wheeled set. To find other cyclists in Las Vegas, one must dig a little deeper.
We met on the corner of Fremont and 6th streets, beneath the glow of marquees and neon lights. When I pulled up to the group, I immediately encountered the nasty looks and muttered insults regarding my “gears.”
“Fixed gears only!” someone bravely shouted at me under the cover of the growing crowd. The people in this race were all fixed-gear cyclists, and like other orthodox religions, fixed-gear riders cling tightly to their misshaped beliefs without reason: Brakes are the devil, gears are for pussies and PBR is worth drinking. “You can’t race if your bike isn’t a fixed gear.”
Whoever it was didn’t show their face, so I shouted back, “I promise I’ll donate the prize money to a worthy charity…like your mom.”
“Daaaaamn!” someone shouted in approval.
I was now “in” and marginally welcomed to the group of men and women who looked barely old enough to shave let alone discuss anything beyond Pokémon. But we weren’t here to talk. We were here to illegally race our bicycles from 7th and Fremont to Mandalay Bay. Them, with their youth and single speed, against Me, with my decrepitude and 24 gears. The prize for first place was $200 and all the glory that comes from winning an underground “Alley Cat” race in a town that abhors bicycles and bicyclists with equal passion.
After a bearded man in Capri pants shouted out the rules, we were handed a slip of paper with checkpoints carefully marked in crayon, and pushed out into traffic with a single “Go!” We proceeded to break every traffic law written, darting in and out with nary a fuck to give about the very real possibility of death.
The race organizers, Kyle and Bob (totally not their real names), had met several years ago on the website lvfixed.com. They would get together with other fixed-gear enthusiasts, chat in a random parking lot and ride en masse to a destination that was chosen at random.
“At that time we were riding in a monthly Critical Mass ride,” Kyle remembered.
Although now defunct, the Critical Mass monthly ride quickly grew from a 10-person “fun ride” down the Strip to a 300-plus crowd taking over lanes and demanding respect from motorists with pure volume, which happens to be the point of Critical Mass rides in other cities.
According to Kyle, Metro wasn’t too keen on the idea of blocking lanes and taking over the main artery of tourist travel. “Metro came in and started making life hard for the cyclists. They were writing people up for minor infractions like reflectors missing and it was just bullshit, so the whole thing came to an end.”
To be fair, even by Kyle’s own accounts of the events, the Critical Mass rides were getting more dense and chaotic month after month and it was ultimately up to Metro to step in and maintain order. What organizers and attendees saw as a “fun night out” looked more like, to Metro Police officers, a “tragedy waiting to happen.”
On a sweltering June evening, nearly 80 bicycles crowd the parking lot of the Huntridge Tavern. The crowd ranges in age from 7 (some people brought their kids) to 70. This is a very different affair from the bike race the week prior. It had all the vibe of a community bake sale…with alcohol. It’s the gathering of the Spoke Easy bike crew on its Hawaiian-themed bicycle ride. According to the group’s Facebook page, a member of the group was going to be leaving town and this ride was organized to say “aloha” and send her off in style. If anything, it was just another reason to ride.
“We started the group because we liked to ride with friends, people around the neighborhood. … Just a slow, easy ride,” Kathleen Kahr explained. “This is very different from the Blinking Man thing.” Kahr and her adult son Graham started a group ride aping the Burning Man aesthetic that they dubbed “Blinking Man.”
Kathleen explained, “There was like 60 people on the first ride and it was so much fun.” She paused, thinking about the first ride, but turned slightly melancholic at the thought of the last one. “It was just getting too big and we finally had to end it. The last one was easily 700 people. There was just too much liability involved. … It was a monster.”
Bikes, alive with various LED components, roll off from the Speakeasy liquor store on Charleston and head up 6th to visit Symphony Park after hours. Everyone came prepared with paper bags and tall cans of liquid with a proof level slightly higher than furniture polish for a quick drinking session, before stopping again and again at bars selected at random by Kathleen and Graham. (People with young kid’s cycle off from the group once we head to the bars.) Oftentimes the Kahrs ask for a suggestion, but people, for the most part, are just along for the ride.
Hammer and Cycle
The next night is the C.U.N.T. (C U Next Tuesday) ride with the Hammer and Cycle bike club. With matching club jackets and a neo-rockabilly aesthetic, the Hammer and Cycle crew seems to be every bit of a motorcycle gang, sans the motors and broken-bottle street fights. Everyone dons a nickname and the conversations range from local politics to recent personal dramas, all taken in with a healthy dose of alcohol. If David Lynch were to write in a scene for a “bike gang” it would look a lot like Hammer and Cycle.
“It was during the Memorial Day weekend of 2009,” Matso Takazumo, the founder of Hammer and Cycle, explained, “and I was sitting around, drinking beer and bullshitting, and I realized that for the past year we had been talking about getting together and riding our bikes. So I put my foot down and said, ‘We’re just going to do it!’”
They spread the word on MySpace (Facebook wasn’t as ubiquitous at that time) and on the night of the first ride 22 people showed up. “We were stoked,” said Takazumo. “We thought it would be just the five of us, but it turned out to be a whole lot more and it was a blast!”
The group rides have grown over time and the five friends have remained in the driver’s seat as “The Council.” Trying to avoid the trappings of a traditional motorcycle club with titles like president, vice president, FBI informant, etc., Hammer and Cycle operates more like a collective.
“It started with the five of us, so we’re all involved at the same level,” explained Takazumo. “We’re just punk-rockers who like to ride bikes. We also have the ‘Ghost Council’ who handles all the paperwork and stuff.”
It might seem strange for a bike club to worry about paperwork, but Hammer and Cycle uses the collective to perform a great bit of good during the year, including their well-known “Bikes for Brats” fundraiser, which raises funds to buy bicycles for underprivileged Vegas kids during the holiday season.
“The first year we did it we brought a hundred bikes down to Chet Buchanan of 98.5 during their toy drive and we made a deal with him that if we brought down 200 bikes the following year, he would play Slayer on the air. That year we crushed it and dropped off 300 bikes. So every year, since we drop off enough bikes for little kids, we get Slayer played on a hip-hop station.”
Crank and Grind
In bike-friendly cities like Portland, Denver and Seattle, it is common to find bike co-ops where one can get help repairing their bike, borrowing tools or even getting a bike on loan for a visiting friend from out of town. Las Vegas is a completely different creature. With strict business zoning laws and prohibitive startup fees along with escalating rent for commercial space, the bike co-op in Las Vegas is an underground experience. If you are not in the know you are often forced to leave your bicycle with one of the few bike shops in town, and if you’re not fortunate enough to own a car this often means walking miles in the desert heat with your broken bike or taking several busses to reach your destination. For those lucky few who are dialed into the underground bike culture of downtown, it’s only a few easy blocks to the Crank and Grind bike co-op run from the garage of Hannah Todd’s home.
“We started this a couple of years ago, more like a little over a year ago? When was that?” Todd asked her husband and business partner Carlos Vivaldo.
“Like a year and a half ago? I think. I don’t really remember exactly when,” Vivaldo, one of the bike mechanics who make up Crank and Grind, answered while changing his son’s diaper in the living room. Bicycles crowd the dining room, foyer, staircase and ceiling. In the garage things get a bit more serious with several tall bikes in mid-Frankenstein mode, with bits and pieces from several bikes welded together to create the narrow machine.
“We’re building out a lot of tall bikes right now,” continued Vivaldo. “People are starting to get into them and we have a lot of frames from people donating busted bikes.”
They give me a quick demonstration of how to ride one of these ten-foot monsters. They seem to be the perfect vehicle for someone looking for attention and a trip to the ER.
“This one doesn’t have any brakes,” laughed Daniel Pierceall, another mechanic and co-founder of Crank and Grind, high atop his tall bike. He slows it down by pushing his foot into the front wheel and jumps from the dizzying height before the bike crashes to ground.
“Has anyone died on one of these?” I asked.
“We don’t really keep tabs,” Pierceall replied.
With the amount of people stopping by to get their bicycles repaired, the trio has been forced to consider a legitimate space.
“Sometimes people get weirded out that they are coming over to our house, so we’re actually going to be moving this to a place on Main,” Todd offered as she showed me around the array of various bicycles that look like they were lifted from the Island of Misfit Toys. The new space is still fairly underground as it will be in the back of a software startup named (through some act of divine providence) Teamwork.
Teamwork is run by Graham Kahr of the Spoke Easy crew.
“Downtown is making a real bike culture happen whether Vegas is ready for it or not,” Kahr said.
Alley Cat II
I wanted to win the Alley Cat race to show that loudmouth what old man strength was all about. I pictured myself holding onto the corner of a novelty-sized check with bikini-clad models clapping and smiling as champagne was sprayed in our direction. This didn’t happen. I finished in the second pack of riders, winded and tired. I stood around for a few awkward moments, hoping to strike up a conversation with someone, but I was the outsider. I was, as Chris Rock once put it, “The old man at the club.” With a new appreciation for traffic laws, I pedaled my tired ass home.
Ernest Hemmings is a playwright, performance artist and cyclist living and working in Las Vegas. His performance art group TSTMRKT tours throughout the United States, and his random acts of cheap theatrics can be witnessed at tstmrkt.com.