Ridin’ with the (Jersey) Devils

Saksa goes full gonzo on this assignment — riding along with the Jersey Devils, a bicycle club that shares a look with the outlaw motorcycle gangs.

Listen 3:27
Members of the the Jersey Devils Bicycle Club stood outside of Tattooed Mom's on South Street Sunday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Members of the the Jersey Devils Bicycle Club stood outside of Tattooed Mom's on South Street Sunday. (Brad Larrison for WHYY)

Reporter Jim Saksa went full gonzo journalist on this assignment, riding along with the Jersey Devils, a bicycle club that shares a look with the outlaw motorcycle gangs… not unlike how Hunter S. Thompson once followed the Hell’s Angels.

The Delaware Valley, a Sunday in September … early, with the sun still low in the cloudless sky, law-abiding bicyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levi’s roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Cherry Hill, Asbury Park, Audubon and Easton, heading for the Liberty Bell, north of Independence Hall … The Happiness is loose again, the Jersey Devils, the hundred-carat headline, running slow and quiet on the mid-afternoon bike path, low in the saddle, everybody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ten miles an hour down the center, missing by inches … like gregarious khans on a steel horse; show the squares some class, give them a whiff of those kick stands they’ll never know… Ah these righteous dudes, they love to screw it on … Bull, Tools, Spin, Big Cam, Jester, Oil, Speedy, Crash, Chips, and at least a dozen more … relaxed for easy rides, long hair in the breeze, beards and bandanas flapping, earrings, armpits, chain whips and spruced-up schwins flashing chrome as traffic on Pine Street waits behind, nervous, to let the formation pass like a burst of dirty whisper …

We’re no one percenters — we’re like the 99 percent here. — A Jersey Devil speaking for the permanent record.

… the “WTF” ride was on, “outlaws” from all over the tri-state area drove to a parking lot near Independence Mall and then gathered a few blocks away for a 10-mile ride through Fairmount Park. The not quite hard-core, law-abiding commoners, were the Jersey Devils … wearing the Tillie-inspired devil’s head on the back of their sleeveless jackets and packing away spare inner tubes on big “one-offs.” They rode with a fine, unwashed modesty, secure in their reputation as the nicest bicycle gang in the whole history of the Delaware Valley.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

You’ve heard of the Hells Angels, the Pagans, Warlocks, Irons … infamous motorcycle clubs known as much for senseless violence and criminal impulses as for riding stripped-down Harleys. The Jersey Devils … this ain’t that. This is a group of custom bike freaks, (mostly) dudes and (a few) chicks that trick out their non-motorized rides for style and comfort, not speed. It’s about a look and a lifestyle … start out slow and then ease up.

Incorporated a little over a decade ago, after asking permission from the NHL to use the Jersey Devils name, and the OK of the area’s “one-percenter” motorcycle gangs … the baddest one percent of the population, the guys who don’t feel constrained by laws or societal norms … So they can wear “cuts” — the denim jackets with the club’s logo on the back, the hallmark of the motorcycle club look — without stoking any unwanted fights. When they’re in Philly, or anywhere else, they frequent dive bars: Tattooed Moms, El Bar and Locust Bar are favorites. A vodka & club in hand, Michael “Spin” Spinelli, an “OG,” looks the part of outlaw hellion with a motorcycle death wish — cut-off sleeves expose bulging arms covered in tattoos, a trim white goatee sits under sunglasses and a bald head covered by a chrome stahlhelm … but the closest Spin, the club “prez,” ever gets to beating the living piss out of some establishment prick is a joke.

“We’d maybe have to stomp ya out there, maybe smack you around to get you right with the club, y’know what I’m saying?” the 56-year-old says to me … I asked if I could be a “prospect” in the B.C. — that’s bicycle club, not motorcycle club, the distinction matters! I ride a stock road bike, no “mods” … it’s not good enough. To join the Jersey Devils, you only need to have a modified bike of some sort, something that says “this is mine, me, unique, special, different from the rest” and to spend a year getting to know the club as a prospect. At the end, you can put the full patch on your cut, fly the club’s colors … Unless you get into trouble with the law, that is, or piss someone off, or don’t show up to enough rides … It’s all about the “cruizin’” — that’s why there’s a club. To promote the custom bike culture and go for rides.

To get in, you gotta pay your dues … the year as a pleb, a pledge, a prospect, some lowly scum who can only rock an airbrushed patch on their cut. And then there’s the actual dues: $25 a year, which goes toward patches, t-shirts, a few beers, and flowers whenever a brother Devil is in the hospital.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Almost every Devil has two, three, 10, 20 custom bikes … beach cruisers, BMX bikes with tiny wheels, chopper-style low-riding beasts, mountain bikes, old Schwinns with long “ape hanger” handlebars that keep your armpits cool and dry, and banana seats like the kind you had as a kid … if it’s been a long time since you were a kid. Many use elongated forks to hold a smaller front wheel and emulate the look of a chopper, ala Easy Rider. Spin rides a heavily modified, tiki-themed old Schwinn, the kind of contraption the spandex-wearing, “on your left!” screaming weekend road warriors sprinting up and down the Schuylkill River Trail would never set their scrawny butts upon. As far as hobbies go, it’s a harmless one, not quite as expensive as motorcycles, one most the Devils’ old ladies can get behind.

I met the Devils at Tattooed Moms. It was Philly Free Streets day and I was biking up and down South Street all day, building up a fearsome thirst. I decided to quench it with a handful of Lionsheads at Moms … the bar was lousy with Jersey Devils. They took over the place and eyed their bikes parked outside … god help the poor bastard who might knock one down! They’d get the tongue lashing of a century, maybe even forced to apologize! A cocky son of a gun, I sauntered up to one of the biggest louts in the ruly gang, Chris “Big Cam” Cominetto and said hi.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, Big Cam was A-OK. Big Cam is an OG, original gangster, one of the club’s founders, vice-prez, road captain … The mutton-chopped man looks like a jean-vested version of that guy from Blues Traveler. We shook hands and he made introductions and gave me Spin’s contact information.

After a few false starts because of bad rain and out-of-town trips, I finally got to join the Devils for a bit of one of their Philly rides. I managed to catch up with them outside Moms. They were already on the go when I arrive, not waiting for some writer in tow to drag down the groove, but I managed to catch up and join them at Locust Bar.

A lowly prospect, John Haney, was trying to prove himself to the club. Five-eight and 280 lbs, Haney pedaled a custom-made, 16-inch step-over … a goddamn kids bike! It has 22-inch ape hangers so he can ride it standing, arms raised up and forward like zombie, pedaling tiny little circles … and the Devil’s did 10 miles in Fairmount Park and along Kelly Drive!  “A little hurting in the legs,” he says after … prospects can’t whine. Haney’s Pops is a full-patch member, so that crazy bastard’s a shoo-in anyway. These guys like the spectacle of it all … more than one has a penny farthing.

The Devils don’t beef with other bicycle clubs. There are no wars over turf, no stomping outsiders for wearing another club’s colors in “their” bar. This ride was organized because Dirk, a Cruzado from Germany, was in town. The Devils rock smaller “supporter” patches of other clubs … The one-percenters look upon the bicycle clubs with bemused indifference. Every year they descend upon Las Vegas for an international convention, a slow pedaling swarm of silver-haired locusts on the Strip.

In a group that draws a lot of open-mouth stares, Bull gets the most agape mugs. A massive lug of a man … he looks like he could eat you and still have room for your brother too … Patrick Rementer got his nickname in the Marines thanks to his size and his hairless dome, giving him a passing resemblance to the character on Night Court. He’s a scary looking mother, all tattoos and a Viking beard. But he’s a gentle beast who got into custom bikes when he ordered a “shopping cart bike” from Big Cam, so he could take his Schnauzers on bicycle rides. Today he’s riding the Hulk bike — an all-green machine with costume Hulk Gloves around the ends of the handle bars, a Hulk mask attached to the front fork, and flashing “truck nuts” under his seat doubling as a bike light. Comic Con is in town, Bull explains, and he thought the kids would like it. They do … Bull doles out gentle fist bumps to folks as he rides by.

After a few rounds of hot wings washed down by ice cold Buds, it’s time to mosey. The Jersey Devils are antsy, restless … they need to feel the freedom of the open road again … and get back to the parking lots before get charged the full day rate.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal