Rise of 'mutant bike' culture

In New York, youths joust on 6-foot-tall bikes in the latest urban recreation fad.

On a graffiti-scarred wharf on the East River, the sound of metal on metal is followed by the roar of an approving crowd. Spectators ranging from suave hipsters to modern primitives with facial tattoos and body piercings have turned out to watch a jousting match where bicycles have been converted into warhorses.

A diminutive woman wearing combat boots and cut-off jeans rides a 6-foot-high monster bike made of two welded bicycle frames. With footmen steadying her bike, she climbs to the saddle, fits a 10-foot length of white PVC pipe under her arm, and lowers her head. She charges, pedaling furiously, and drops her opponent with a well-aimed lance blow; but she, too, loses her balance. The match is declared a draw.

Bike jousting is not just another extreme sport. While these self-described "mutant bikers" are a breed apart, they share a common cause with more mainstream cycling groups, such as the National Center for Biking and Walking, which works to promote cyclists' rights against the undisputed ruler of the road: the car. The difference is that bike lobbyists promote the two-wheeled way inside corridors of power while mutant bikers take their case to the streets.

"It's part of the same movement, but it's different people," says Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the National Center for Biking and Walking, of mutant bikers and their ilk. "You're going to get a spectrum of people bringing about change - from revolutionaries to evolutionaries."

Lobbyists like Mr. Wilkinson may push for $6 billion in bike lanes and other enhancements in the 2004 transportation bill, but mutant bikers are turning to guerrilla tactics to secure a piece of the open road. They hold jousting tournaments on homemade "tallbikes" or use a "flying v" formations to seize control of city streets. Tallbikes are also a fixture at "critical mass rides" - a separate movement, where cyclists take to the streets with the cry: "We're not stopping traffic; we are traffic."

The mutant bike movement started about six years ago in Portland, Ore., according to Megulon-5, the 30-year-old founder of Portland's Chunk 666 bike club. He and some friends made their first mounts out of discarded junk bikes. But tallbike happenings soon took on a life of their own. "We're not anticar," says Megulon-5. "We're not even just probike. We're into pro-livable cities."

Mikey, a bike messenger who belongs to Brooklyn's Black Label bike club and prefers to keep his identity secret, says there are similar groups in San Francisco; New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Portland, Ore; Reno, Nev.; and Minneapolis. Inevitable injury might be considered a drawback; but Mikey insists that jousting is "good, clean fun," resulting in nothing worse than scraped knees - usually.

Mutant bikers may represent the lunatic fringe of the advocacy movement. After all, bike lanes are created in the interest of safety, while risk and creativity seem to be the appeal that brings mutant bikers together. Built from raw materials found in dumps, mutant bikes come in all shapes and sizes. Craftsmanship counts, and an ethos of one-upmanship has taken mutant-bike technology to dizzying heights. Paul B., a Black Label biker, has plans to build a tall bike eight frames high.

"That would be a world record," says Paul, who lives with fellow bikers in a Brooklyn apartment so small that their fire escape serves as their workshop.

"We're bringing the celebration back to the streets," says Megulon-5. "We are constantly creating new bikes or mutating old ones as we think of new ways of doing things, that's my favorite kind of technology."

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