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Bikes on Film

Flaming machines crawl through the twilight while crowds cheer and rage, police charge and maim, a ruthless dictator addresses a nation at war. Is this Airstrip One or Neo Tokyo? Blade Runner or the Warriors? It is New York City in 2004 where the Critical Mass demonstration becomes a centerpiece of protests against the Republican National Convention. A party for a party who drove our nation into a manifestly selfish and self-destructive war for oil, a resource coveted by internal combustion regimes worldwide, yet to human physical existence virtually useless.

It is in this environment that B.I.K.E. opens, a film by Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard about the New York chapter of the Black Label Bike Club and the attempts of one of the filmmakers, Tony Howard, to join. From their founding in Minneapolis originally as The Hard Times Bike Club in 1994, the Black Label Bike Club has been a subculture within a subculture. The club has prided themselves on being tight knit, secretive and exclusive. Their denim vests, piercings and tattoos depict an aesthetic style of Mad Max meets the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Their resourcefulness is manifested in the ingenious fabrication of choppers, trick bikes, recumbents and most symbolically tall-bikes. Their drunken derring-do is unrivaled. Their initiation is the tall-bike joust, in which combatants are toppled off eight-foot bikes by giant pole-arms.
The club, however, faces the challenges and pitfalls of any group: uniformity, hierarchy, conformity and fame. Fame, which despite themselves this formerly tight-knit group of rust-belt punks have attracted. The New York chapter finds their ranks swelling and with that, the notoriety and celebrity that only the Big Apple can bring. This tension becomes palpable when the New York club and the filmmakers are met with the enmity of the founders in Minneapolis who threaten to make Howard “eat his own face.” The club’s attempts to stay underground seem at odds with Howard’s attempt to join which may be a narcissistic stunt for an artist seeking personal recognition. Howard’s drug-fueled unraveling and consistent denial by both his girlfriend and the club leads him to form a rival gang “The Happy Clown Fuck Club” to challenge Black Label to a showdown at “Bike Kill.” “Bike Kill” is their premier event, to be a full-blown anarchist street party complete with unicycles, jousting and piss-soaked mattresses, to be held simultaneously with the city’s transformation into Republican occupied territory. Add to this dramatic tension a subplot about one member, Doyle, and his attempts to build a rocket bike for the event, which could likely kill him.

B.I.K.E. is a film with many facets, a documentary about bike culture projected as a post-apocalyptic narrative. Although the film is superficially about Howard’s attempts to join the club he refers to as “a punk rock Hell’s Angels,” the film resonates more as an exploration of subcultures and group mentality. It is a film about the dialectics of conformity versus individuality, inclusiveness versus exclusivity. Although the film’s moniker translates to Bike Inclusively Kill Exclusivity, it is this exclusivity that is vital to the subject. Exclusivity is how the club injects meaning into its existence and how they differentiate themselves from any other sub-cultural identities, which, according to them, can be bought and sold on the shelves of fashion. To them, their existence is an attempt to create a fragile pearl of truth and genius within the crushing doldrums of the Bush era and have some unruly drunken fun while they are at it. Although the group’s sanctimoniousness as self-proclaimed artists and individuals can be quite grating, as if one can only be an artist or individual through their acceptance, there can be little denying that what Black Label does looks pretty fucking cool. From its onset cyclists have formed competitive clubs and teams, whether they be local advocacy groups, regional clubs, corporate teams or urban gangs. Black Label Bike Club merely carries on this tradition. They are a group of riders driven by fun, pain and ingenuity to create undiluted non-commercial urban culture in the bowels of society.