The diary of a bicycle club hopeful
A weathered black vest, black pants and a bandana is a combination usually reserved for motorcycle gangs sitting atop thundering engine-powered choppers. So it is something of a revelation when the members of the Black Label Bicycle Club (BLBC), wearing the same dark, tough-guy armor, silently scoot by on their own pedal-power.
Those who were able to snag a seat at the packed Slamdance Film Festival theater for the premiere of the documentary "B.I.K.E." this weekend, however, now know better: the motorless gang has earned their hard, street image.
Told through the perspective of co-director Anthony Howard, who aspires to become a member of Black Label, "B.I.K.E." chronicles the subculture created by the BLBC Brooklyn chapter — a group largely comprised of New York artists who weld their own "tallbikes," bikes made from multiple found or donated bikes stacked one frame on top of another, and cook group vegan meals together made, in part, from leftovers found in garbage cans.
Ryan Doyle, who attended the premiere with a handful of fellow BLBC Brooklyn, members, explains that while the black gear is just "part of the joke," the message of the group is quite serious.
"We reuse bikes we find on the street or bikes people give up on and we live off the excesses of society in most ways," Doyle says. "I don’t believe in participating in a culture of waste, which is what this Hollywood culture is all about."
Besides, he adds, "you can pretty much get anywhere faster on a bike. You don’t have to stop at stoplights."
Getting into the club has a lot to do with how a person lives, the reason being that once a BLBC member, always a BLBC member. The idea is that members will ride alongside each other for life.
Oh, and one other thing. Initiation involves "jousting." Every member of Black Label survived an event in which they challenge another member to a dual while riding tallbikes. Armed with long posts with padded endings at a dark corner rendezvous, the object is to knock competitors off their seat. The obstacle has been known to result in more than a scratch, and in the movie, one woman gets rushed to the hospital. "It’s not something that every member agrees with," admits Doyle, considering the danger involved in jousting. "But you’d be surprised how much your body can take."
Of the 13 club commandments (which Doyle says are not permitted to be printed) agreeing is certainly not one of them. As a matter of fact, of the country’s six Black Label chapters, only one the Brooklyn chapter agreed to the film.
According to "B.I.K.E." co-director and producer Jacob Septimus, many of the older Minnesota-based members of Black Label, the chapter that began the club 15 years ago, were "not thrilled" to meet their art-school counterparts and "see them show up in a Land Rover and a Benz" to the national meeting, not to mention the accompaniment of a film crew.
In the film, despite older members prohibiting cameras from the national meeting, Howard and Septimus attempt, in vain, to sneak a shot or two between the backs of the group huddled in a circle.
Also unlike their founding fathers and senior members at the meeting, the Black Label Brooklyn chapter is more of a political organization. They agree to ride monthly in the streets of New York together for "Critical Mass" to promote a biker’s right to be in traffic and to demonstrate the possibility of a less car-clogged city. The film, shot primarily in 2004, shows BLBC joining in the protest against the Republican National Convention, during which more than 250 cyclists were arrested.
Part of being in a large group means having differences in opinions, according to Doyle. It took some time before he and the rest of Brooklyn’s Black Label members agreed to be documented, he notes.
"We had been approached by MTV and other media about making a film, but we chose to work with Tony because we appreciate his artwork," he explained.
Howard is a lanky, volatile Brooklyn-based performance artist who is often featured in his own films.
During the film, Howard rides his own tallbike, hangs out at Black Label events and jousts, and even watches his best friend, who he introduced to the club, become a member. But he does not appear to be able to convince the BLBC Brooklyn chapter to accept him as a member. Some of those interviewed in the film suggest that it is because of his tendency to pick fights.
He decides to form his own bicycle club, and continues to be its only member, he says.
The film was a collaborative effort. While Howard provided the drama of his own life and creative input on the style of the film, Septimus says he was responsible for the majority of the editing. Septimus also put up a large sum of his own money to fund the film. A music video director, film producer and writer, he confesses that "at this point, I’ve completely depleted my bank account [to make ‘B.I.K.E.’]"
Though Septimus has twice produced films for the Sundance Film Festival — one three years ago called "Quattro Noza," the other, two years ago, titled "Streets of Legend," this is his first time coming to Park City as a director and at Slamdance.
He enjoys Slamdance for its rough edges and community feeling, he says.
"Slamdance feels like home cooking," he observes. "It tastes better."
The Black Label Bicycle Club finds their tall, double-decker street bikes, accustomed to flat New York pavement, may have a tough time winding up the snow-smashed streets of Park City, but they will ride down.
Saturday night, with the assistance of a truck as a chairlift, club members arrived on time to the premiere of "B.I.K.E." They stacked their bikes at the entrance to the Treasure Mountain Inn and afterward retrieved them for the journey back to their rented units.
"I hope people get some fun out of the film or maybe take away a message from it that they don’t have to believe what the media tells them," Doyle says. "Or at least stop and think about not doing what others tell them to do."
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