HUMBOLDT PARK — A crew of underground punks have become known around Chicago for their very above-ground bicycles.
For decades, members of local bike club Rat Patrol have caught stares on city streets for their “freak bikes,” one-of-a-kind rideable art pieces handmade from scrap metal and alley trash.
The crew’s signature “tall bikes” tower above traffic. Which begs the obvious question: How do you get up there?
“You got to run with the bike, take some steps to gain momentum, and then climb it while it’s moving,” said a Rat Patrol member who goes by Yly Coyote. “There’s no manual. You make your own bike and figure that s— out.”
The bike makes Coyote more than 11 feet tall, “which I know because I have to tuck my neck a little bit under bridges,” they said.
“It’s empowering. At first scary, a little bit dangerous. But then you feel like you’re flying,” Coyote said. “I like to ride it late at night when I go dumpster diving and get my groceries for the week.”
Coyote and fellow Rats have a “do-it-yourself” mentality, constructing trikes, choppers with extended handlebars, swing bikes, bucking broncos, kids bikes stacked on top each other known as “small-talls,” tall bikes and “anything you can think to put on wheels to push you forward,” said Justin Grembowski, a member of Rat Patrol.
On Saturday, the Rats rolled up near the Humboldt Park Boathouse to celebrate Coyote and two other members — Zyzzy Ballubah and Hannahbal — for their Virgo birthdays.
As night fell, Coyote served shrimp off a bike with a grill welded onto it.
They blew candles off a cake that read “Trash rules everything around us.”
“Rat Patrol changed my life,” Coyote said. “I was in high school when I found out I could hang with a bunch of anarchists who live for free and have the time of their lives making things out of garbage. They’re super punk rock. And it’s a community.”
Biking through Chicago’s gritty alleys has long been an act of defiance for young people, said Alex Wilson, an early Rat Patrol member. The crew started in the late ’90s when roommates Matt “The Rat” Bergstrom and Nathan Tolzmann would night bike in alleys, “challenging each other for who can spot the most rats,” Wilson said.
Bergstrom and Tolzmann started plastering “Rat Patrol” stickers around the city and handing them out at critical mass rides, when thousands of bikers take over city streets, Wilson said.
Word spread and the bikes got taller.
The crew scrounged up scrap metal in dumpsters and tinkered with “freak bikes,” welding bike frames together with a machine owned by member Josh Deth, who was using it at home for his then-upstart Revolution Brewery.
The “loose collection of friends” emerged from the dumpsters and the alleyways and signed up for a spot in Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and South Side Irish Parade in the early 2000’s, Wilson said.
“It was festive and little disruptive,” Wilson said. “We were throwing monkey wrenches and poking the bear.”
The ride reached peak notoriety years later when an influential member named Johnny Payphone invited bike crews from all over the Midwest to join the Rats down Chicago’s parade streets, Wilson said.
The group no longer bikes in the official parades, but they now celebrate St. Ratricks Day in March — the unofficial holiday of the Rat Patrol, Wilson said.
Rat Patrol member Lucas Tomaszewski said he “earned his colors” at a recent St. Ratricks Day.
“I got my first Rat Patrol patch in the piñata we bust up at the end of the ride,” Tomaszewski said. “It’s full of condoms, chicken nuggets, literal trash, and there was the patch that had been made for me.”
Anyone is welcome to join Rat Patrol, and the community is “welcoming, with queer and alternative punks who don’t judge anyone,” said supporter Comet O’Keefe. Group rides happen sporadically, usually starting at the Logan Square Monument or in Humboldt Park, member Erin Schie said.
Rat Patrol colors are earned by first showing up to rides — and then having the guts to build your own freak bike, Schie said.
“The bike must be unique to you,” Schie said. “On mine today I was very sparkly and had my dance music really loud, all the way up on the Northwest Side with all the normies. I didn’t even care I looked like a Burning Man freak.”
Rat Patrol is well-connected to the city’s bike scene and members have often stopped in to weld at West Town Bikes, 2459 W. Division St., a nonprofit center Wilson started to teach kids how to build and fix up bikes, he said.
West Town Bikes dropped off 25 freak bikes around the Humboldt Park neighborhood for kids to pick up during the Fiesta Boricua de Bandera a Bandera, said Grembowski, who now manages the fabrication center at the shop.
The freak bikes made famous by Rat Patrol are “kinetic sculptures,” never made to be replicated or resold, Grembowski said.
“It pushes you to build something yourself because you just wanted it so bad. That’s step one,” Grembowski said. “Step two is let’s crash through some alleys, go dumpster diving and have a party.”
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