Michael Simms leans across the table with the excitement of someone talking about their favourite thing.
“Have you ever rode a banana-seat bike?” he asks. “Do you want to? It’s pretty fun. You feel like a little kid—you get a smile, even if it’s scary as fuck.”
It’s a sunny Sunday morning and Simms—six slick feet of tattoos, a mohawk hairdo, punk patches and studs on a denim vest—is sitting with a dozen or so similarly tough-looking, heavily tattooed customers at a Whyte Avenue bar table. This is Death Spoke: an Edmonton bicycle club, co-founded by Simms, that loves to bomb around the city on custom vintage rides. Picture punks, metalheads and skids on ’70s-era banana-seat and cruiser bikes tricked out with custom paint, draping handlebars and raked-out front forks.
You might have seen Death Spoke rolling. And you’d definitely remember the bikes: like Death Spoke member Dave Williams’ nearly six-foot-tall banana-seat cruiser with the stick gear shift. Locked out on the sidewalk, pedestrians stop to take pictures next to Williams’ bike—”that happens at least once a day,” Williams says, sporting a drooping handlebar moustache, a felt bowler hat, flash pinup-girl tattoos and Wrangler cutoffs showing very strong-looking legs for someone nearing retirement age.
With matching vests and black back patches, Death Spoke looks every inch like a cartoon motorcycle gang.
“Because we’ve got the back patches, right away we realized it could be confused with criminal gang activity,” Death Spoke member and local theatre artist Perry Gratton says. “So we ran it by some members of the [Hell’s Angels] and they said: ‘Here’s what your patch needs to be … it can’t be a three-piece patch, it has to be one continuous one.’ We just have no interest in rolling into the wrong bar and someone thinking we’re from a rival motorcycle club.”
But instead of motorized mayhem and rumbles, Death Spoke co-founder and co-president Aaron Petersen says the club—”we don’t like to be called a gang”—is more concerned with building a community of loveable scoundrels who try to make a positive change in Edmonton. For instance, Death Spoke is meeting for its weekly Whyte Avenue brunch before pedalling off to a picnic at the legislature grounds. And the club’s got special VIP cards to the dive bar-turned-hip arcade Denizen Hall—hardly the gangster stereotype.
“It’s about having fun,” says Petersen, a manager at Blues on Whyte, ordering a shot of Bailey’s to go with his coffee. “We want to give back to the community and show we’re not something we’re not.”
Petersen and Simms were part of a group that founded Death Spoke over beers at the Black Dog in 2010. The two are longtime friends who share a love for bicycles and the timeless fun that comes from riding.
“Before cellphones, you just rode up to your friend’s house,” Simms says. “And you’d ask: do you want to go for a bike ride?”
Tearing apart bikes and Frankenstein-ing them back together is a hobby Simms has had since his teen years. Now, his one-off creations are the unofficial Death Spoke Harley. Simms, along with fellow co-president Walter Melo, has either built or worked on nearly all of the Death Spoke bikes through their home business, ReVamped Cycle. He says it’s challenging to find parts; and when they do, they’re usually expensive. So it’s often a treasure hunt that takes them to farmer’s fields and scattered garages hunting for 40-year-old frames and forks.
So much time, effort and money goes into making these custom rides that ReVamped often sells bikes at cost—or even at a loss.
“It’s more about getting people out there, showing people that style is still there,” Simms says. “Because all you see these days are fat-tire mountain bikes or fixies all over the place.”
What started as a tight core of friends has grown to a 45-member-strong club, with a one- to three-month waitlist for potential new Death Spoke riders. Joining Death Spoke means you get a back patch and membership to a band of misfits that stands up for their own.
Recently, Death Spoke members used their connections in the local bar, music and retail industries to throw a fundraiser for Gratton’s brother Shaun, who was born legally blind. Hosted at Blues on Whyte, the fundraiser raised a healthy chunk of change for the $15 000 eSight glasses that could greatly improve Shaun’s quality of life.
Or, when one Death Spoke member knew of a young boy at the Stollery Children’s Hospital who could benefit from a piece of medical equipment that would help with his regular blood transfusions, the bike club threw a fundraiser at Denizen Hall that raised $7000 for the machine.
“Death Spoke is about people coming together,” Gratton says. “There are a lot of really good fucking people in this city, so let’s do some good things. A lot of us come from rougher backgrounds, so being able to do a show, or a silent auction, and raise some money makes it sweeter in a lot of ways.”
Indeed, the club’s membership is diverse: Petersen’s partner Kryssa Kennedy is a teacher; there are car and motorcycle mechanics; Dave “Daddy of Death Spoke” Williams works for the city; and Evan Smith (who has his Death Spoke patch sewn onto a suit vest, instead of the standard denim) works as a business analyst. There are lots of moms and dads in the mix—Petersen and Kennedy have a 10-month-old baby boy—and kids are a regular fixture at the weekly brunches and other gatherings.
So what brings them all together? The pure fun of riding bikes is a big part of it. But the community and friendship of a group of people from all walks of life is the real glue.
“There’ve been quite a few members who’ve told us that because of [Death Spoke] they feel like they have a family, people to turn to,” Petersen says. “They don’t feel alone anymore. It’s an impact. It makes a difference.”