The World of Bicycle Gangs: more than just a sustainable version of the Hells Angels

Bicycle Gangs can take the form of a community of convinced environmental activists travelling across Europe for a few months, others call themselves a „worldwide drinking club with a bicycle problem” (Chopadeiros). One thing the Ecotopia biketour , which is conquering Europe regularly since 1989, and not only the Chopadeiros but also their Russian associates RASTA Bike (Russian Association of Self-made Transport Appliances) have in common is the extremely sustainable way they cruise around. Another thing is fun, naturally.

Yet, the Ecotopia biketour is a “eco-mobile do-it-yourself activist community”, whose way of living together comes closest to a commune. RASTA Bike is one of many bicycle clubs whose structure and activities resembles an outlaw motorcycle club including club jackets; whereby defining themselves as outlaw the club describes itself as a one-percenter subculture. The differences are illustrated best describing both bicycle gangs in action.

Ecotopia Biketour

Starting in Northern Yorkshire (England), the Ecotopia biketour crossed the British island and after innumerable adventures landed in Le Havre, northern France, to support Camp Action Climat, went on through Belgium and the Netherlands and finally reached Cologne instantly joining a small Critical Mass (a demonstration – on bikes) there.

A very rainy day in August: a participant of the biketour, who shall be called Kim here, but bears another name in reality, cycles with three others towards a small organic goat farm located near the Belgian town Oostende. Drawing symbols with a clinker on his way he indicates the road to some dozen other cyclists. The rest of the group would independently follow Kim and his companions to the goat farm where they would spend two nights. Skipping food for the common dinner at supermarket dumps they would find on their way, everybody on the Biketour would go in their individual rhythm in groups of varying size on cycling paths and roads. Occasionally the different groups would join each other on the way, mix, be happy to exchange the latest news and continue chatting in all imaginable languages. Kim speaks Dutch, his native tongue, with some Dutch people who joined the tour in Belgium, he uses his French when talking to the French participants and he speaks English when meeting the others at the evening circle for dinner. Germans, Portuguese, Ukrainians and global citizens had joined the Biketour, too on it´s way from country to country. The route varies every year.

When Kim and his companions arrive at the organic goat farm, he realizes that had enlisted himself on the piece of cardboard the cyclists use for managing their daily tasks. Today, he will prepare dinner. He and others start to collect dry branches to feed their ecological rocket stove, on which they prepare dinner. The cyclists decide upon a fire place and put logs in a circle around it. Everyone sets up their tents under some apple trees chatting and snacking little noshes.

By the time Kim and his co-chefs finally manage to prepare the meal, which is vegan and made of “recycled” and/or organic food as it is more often than not, it is getting dark and everybody gathers around the fire.

After dinner has been eaten and the cleaning team has done its job the community stays assembled to “have a circle”. This is when the route is discussed, activities are planned, the participants voluntarily take over tasks and people describe how they feel if they want to. All decisions made in the circle are based on the principles of direct democracy; every person is directly influencing the future actions taken by the group, who are only performed when a consensus was reached in the circle.

This evening the circle is mostly about the action planned for the following day at the beach of Oostende, where the Ecotopia biketour is planning to support an event organized by the local Friends of the Earth network. Kim takes a glance at the night sky and decides that it would be warm enough to sleep on the straw in the farmer´s barn this night.

At the Ecotopia biketour all participants have a common budget, towards which everyone contributes as much as they can or want to pay for food, materials and accommodation (in case the biketour does, for once, not stop at a squat or house project). RASTA Bike is more of a leisure club, and less of a living project.

RASTA Bike

They make amazing bikes by themselves, they rent a garage together for storing them and having parties. They meet up for conquering the dangerous streets of Moscow that are completely lacking cycling paths. Many people call them crazy just because of the fact that they are brave enough to go by bike through central Moscow, where traffic rules seem to be something unheard of by most drivers. If the word crazy is used in an adoringly positive way, it is to say, that there are other reasons to call the members of RASTA Bike crazy, too.

One of them is the KGB. Kustom Groove Bike is organized by RASTA Bike every year. The little festival where extremely exotic self-made bikes are presented is a sensation every time. 2010 it was held on the grounds of Winzavod, a former wine factory in Moscow that turned into an Art Center. The day after the festival the RASTA Bike showed Ralf from Amsterdam around in their city. Obviously, by bike. Ralf, a member of the Chopadeiros, an outlaw bicycle club with many international connections, had come to Russia to strengthen the Amsterdam-Moscow connection between both bicycle gangs, who, despite the distance, are representatives of the same subculture.

Naturally, when cycling around the city the RASTA bikers attract everyone´s attention with the beauties they were riding: each of them is made with love, singular in the world and technically perfect. The fact that, what started as a small group of friends attracted more than 40 dedicated members during the few years of its existence, gives hope.

Members of RASTA Bike joke a lot when being asked about their missions and ambitions. „Some people might think our mission is to scare kids off the street or to get drunk and drive back home on our bikes. Generally this is not true.” – Igor explains, a RASTA Biker dressed in military trousers and a jacket with the red and yellow RASTA Bike symbol on the back – “If we show how much fun we have building bikes, riding them on week-ends and organizing festivals and conventions, maybe more Muscovites will realize how much better it would be to exchange the smelly car for such a wonderful thing as a bike.” Igor´s words gain another dimension when taking into account that traffic jams in Moscow can last up to six hours. Also between 7am and 10am as well as between 4pm and 7pm one has to plan about twice as much time for their itinerary as they normally would need to. Stress level in the whole of the city center is rising during these rush hours. Drivers, mostly alone in their car, are congesting all main streets. They are tooting loudly and angrily at each other, not being able to move the tightest bit. Nobody is turning off their engines and so they stand, all at the end of their ropes, for hours. The sudden appearance of a happy Bicycle Gang can be extremely educative at that moment. Naturally, the RASTA Bikers are perceived as another exotic subculture when elegantly skittering through the busy streets. Yet they transport a message. Without any doubts, big cities and our atmosphere would be much more enjoyable if more people joined this family. And as a matter of fact: there are many different ways of doing it.

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