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Pedal Pushers

Detroit’s zaniest bicyclists zip through the city in large numbers

Michelle D. Anderson
Pedal Pushers

A cacophony of high-pitched shrieks, car horns and bass-heavy hip hop punctuate the air while multicolored lights illuminate the dark space.

Midnight nears and a swarm of cyclists cruise toward a triangle-shaped landscape downtown known as Harmonie Park for a night of fellowship and fun.

Some call them Bike Nation, a collective of riders from several bike clubs who frequently meet downtown, along the city’s Riverfront, in Belle Isle, and at the Renaissance Bowling Alley, among other spots where they often blow whistles upon arrival.

The group represents Detroit’s growing cycling community as the city becomes more eco-friendly with its new bike lanes and amenities such as the Dequindre Cut Greenway pedestrian trail. Its members cite leisure, health, convenience and sky-high gas prices for riding.

“Once we all get together it’s like one big family. It’s a hell of an experience to see 100, 200, 300 bikes from all different parts of the city,” says Lamont “Strawberry” McBride, a member of the Downriver Highriders, who have assembled on this balmy, summer night. “We come together to discuss bikes; some people discuss family matters.”

 

The Beginning

Bike Nation members, who also go by the Southwest Riders, say it all started with a group of veteran cyclists—such as the 45-year-old McBride. Then, a few years ago, new bike clubs emerged.

"I ain't never seen this many bikes. It used to be a little patch of us. Now it's from one end of Chene Park to the other end, and it's steadily growing,” says Detroiter Silvester “Vest” Patterson, another Highrider.

Patterson estimates that gas prices boosted the popularity of the clubs.

“It’s a recession out here and this is what we result to, these bicycles,” Patterson says. On this day, the 45-year-old sports red suspenders, sunglasses and the same wide and furry purple sombrero he wears in Kid Rock’s 2008 music video, “Roll On.” Patterson and his Southwest peers named themselves the Downriver Highriders after filming the video with the city’s famed rock star.

Members say they found inspiration from a group of older, neighborhood peers. “We were like, ‘We gon’ do the same thang. We gon’ keep the tradition going,’” Patterson says.

McBride says the group began riding to a park close to home, but later ventured downtown as members’ stamina improved.

Riding through the city, Patterson says he often hears bystanders commenting on the bikes and how riders pass traffic with ease. “That’s what I look for, the reaction,” Patterson says.

 

Visual Masterpieces

The Southwest Riders are known for riding single-speed bikes with 144-spoke tires known as beach cruisers, which they decorate with lights and car horns. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what Bike Nation cyclists visually offer.

The Eastside Riders, a newer group founded in summer 2008, customizes three-wheelers, two-seat tandems, mountain bikes and beach cruisers.

Yabba Hawkins, 36, is one of the few women members of the group and of Bike Nation. Her bike, made of a baby blue and white frame, pays homage to cartoon characters from The Smurfs. Stuffed puppets hang from the bike and decals with her nickname, “Mz Lil’ Bit,” cover its body. Women and children members of the group ride similarly decorated cycles, with Tweety Bird and Winnie the Pooh.

The decal letters are one of the perks Eastside Riders earn after showing dedication to the group, says Dywayne “King Wayne” Neeley, the 43-year-old founder and president of who often dons flip flops, socks and a conical, Fulani straw hat when riding.

Andre McLean, a husky 37-year-old member, says he knew he wanted to join the group the first time he learned about the club.

“I had to be a part of it. I knew there would be a movement,” says McLean, who wears four pigtails atop his head. After joining the club 2 ½ years ago, he began collecting, fixing and selling bikes. Today, he rides a mountain bike with blue and orange LED lights, a speakers and 26-inch rims. White alligator tail covers its chrome fender, seat, spare tire and handle bars.

McLean, like most of the bike group’s members, customized his cycle on a budget. Silver fins—made of duct tape and spray paint—adorn the bike’s spokes.

“These bikes don’t cost no money,” Neeley says. He gets free tires and other parts in exchange for volunteering at The Hub of Detroit Bike Shop.

 

Members often secure donated bikes and abandoned cycles to overhaul. Aside from volunteering for The Hub, they participate in 20-mile Critical Mass bike rides, gardening projects and distribute literature for The City Airport Renaissance Association, which encourages property upkeep and community awareness in Neeley’s East Side neighborhood.

Some of the club’s popular bikes have led to art show debuts and on-the-spot purchase offers.

Neeley says a Motor City Blues Festival attendee once offered $1,200 for the club's "Grill Bike,” which The Art Museum of Science & Arts College for Creative Studies featured in a 2011 art show. The bike has a grill and cooler attached to its rear. Neeley made the bike after learning how to weld at the St. Elliott Makerspace at Eastern Market. There, he makes $1 silkscreen t-shirts for his club members. 

The Heineken bike, a green and white cycle with beer bottles and a keg attached with LED lights hanging inside its containers, is another popular bike. Ironically, a stuffed spider attached to the bike, reads “No Drinking and Driving.”

“We got rules and regulations,” Neeley says. He maintains a no-drinking-and-cursing rule and fines members who break his policies. Members can’t respond to insults from bystanders. They also must participate in community service and make about four rides before becoming official members. 

The 8 Ball Rag Riders make up another newer, bike club. Its founder, Calvin “Stone” Gilmore, 40, began riding with Southwest Riders before creating his own group in summer 2010. 

"I was riding by myself for a long time before I ran into ‘Ron The Bike King’ from Southwest,” says Gilmore of Detroit, who met the veteran rider after leaving a concert at Chene Park nearly 10 years ago.

Like most bike clubs, the group’s name, pays homage to its members’ district. They hail from the West Side neighborhood known as Zone 8, represented by ZIP code 48208, Gilmore says.

Detroiter Star White, a member for two years, rides a baby pink, cruiser bicycle by Schwinn. Matching pink handkerchief bandanas hang from the handlebars, which is a customization all 8 Ball Riders must make.

“That’s our symbol to separate us from the other clubs,” White says of the rags that match the color of each member’s bike. Founder Gilmore says most of its 20 members are 30-somethings, but its riders range from eight to about 50.

 

Healthy Living

In summer 2009, Micheal “Bike Mike” Neeley, 47, helped form the Grown Men On Bikes, also known as G.M.O.B. Also a founding member of his brother’s group, the Eastside Riders, he says G.M.O.B focuses on its members’ health.

“We’re trying to step out obesity with these rides,” the older Neeley brother says. Before he began cycling, he weighed 265 pounds and struggled to start his day. Then he shed 70 pounds in two years, leading doctors to remove him from high blood pressure medication and insulin shots.

“I need to ride my bike for health reasons,” Neeley said. “I used to wake up at about 11 a.m. or noon; now I can wake up at 6 a.m.” 

Neeley says it’s “a blessing” for him to ride his GMC mountain bike, which features a red leather, snakeskin skirt covering its seat and a DVD player attached to its rear. Numerous stickers bear the names of his affiliations, including T.W.D, which stands for “Together We’re Bad.” Neeley says the acronym alludes to the unity he has with Bike Nation members.

“I’ve never seen nothing like this before that makes people from all parts of the city come together, and ain’t nobody mad at nobody. It’s crazy,” he says. “I can’t walk through the Southwest, but I can ride through Southwest.”

His brother, Dywayne, says he received doctor’s orders to lose 100 pounds from his 260-pound frame, but chose to lose about 30 pounds instead.

"I’m holding my weight at 228. You want to have a little weight on you in case you have to wrassle," Neeley says, chuckling. "One hundred and sixty pounds is too small to me.”

Christina Eyers, the coordinator of athletic training at Henry Ford Hospital, says cycling is a great cardiovascular workout that builds strength and muscle tone. Studies show it can help reduce diabetes, heart attack and stroke and an hour of steady cycling burns about 300 calories. 

 

Eyers says cycling may be more appealing to people who are prone to injury when running. Running, for instance, can make a person propel four times his or her body weight, which can lead to knee pain. Eyers attributes cycling’s popularity to its reputation and longevity.

“It’s not a fad type of exercise,” Eyers says, later referring to past trends like Tae Bo and the contemporary Zumba craze. “Not to discredit those things, but people are always going to run and ride their bikes.”

Eyers recommends that new cyclists ease into the activity and maintain proper alignment. If the handlebars are at the wrong height and riders have poor posture, riders may hurt their backs, Eyers says.

Augustus Stephenson, 68, of River Rouge, the oldest member of the Downriver Highriders, says he rode a bike as child and a Detroit News paperboy and he “just kept on going.”

"I’m not promised to wake up tomorrow, so I want to enjoy life while I can,” the Ford Motor and McLouth Steel retiree says.

At the Harmonie Park gathering, he addresses his peers, smirking.

“When I die, give me a bicycle funeral. Put my casket on a bicycle and ride me on.”