Riding with the Rat Patrol

By Sophia Coleman

A bike lays abandoned in one of Chicago’s desolate alleys where it remains untouched for months. Dirt, leaves and garbage collect at its wheels. A grungy-looking boy wearing a tattered denim jacket studded with spikes and bike gang insignias rides a giant tricycle with a large metal basket attached behind the seat. He picks up the bike, finagles it into the basket and rides off into the depths of the city.

To him, one person’s trash is his mode of transportation, a next meal or simply an endless source of entertainment. The city’s alleyways are gold mines for garbage, and no one respects these gifts more than Rat Patrol, one of the city’s most obscure but environmentally conscious bicycle groups.

A group of members in their late twenties sits in a circle on an assortment of plastic and wooden chairs inside a Logan Square garage. Every available space, including the ceiling, is filled with “freak bikes” made from scrap metal and found parts. They pass around a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon and reflect on their favorite pastimes: dumpster diving and bicycle building.

Crammed on the side of the garage are “tall bikes” constructed from the parts of abandoned bikes and made to look like skeletal giants. Others are “choppers,” on which the forge of the bike is extended to give it a laid-back cruising style with a wide turning radius reminiscent of the motorcycle of the same name.

“Rat Patrol is what any person who is participating in Rat Patrol says it is,” said Dan Becco, 55, an original member of the group, who is now a therapist. “People join for various reasons: to be social with people who have similar values, to have fun or be creative, or it could be an anarchist cry against capitalism and consumerism.”

The club began in 1999 with Matt Bergstrom and Nathan Tolzmann. They were bike aficionados throughout college, and after a long-distance ride from San Francisco to Chicago, the two settled in Uptown. Noticing the abundance of trash in the city’s alleys, Bergstrom went on daily treasure hunts and discovered bike parts and other fascinating pieces—including a rubber chicken head—that he used to create his first wacky bike, Abigail the Chicken.

“The founders of Rat Patrol had sustainability principles mixed in with punk-rock dumpster-diving ethos,” said Doug Haynes, 35, a friend of Rat Patrol. “They created this subculture that is all about feeding off of and using what society throws away.”

Bergstrom and Tolzmann took their creations to Critical Mass, an event in which thousands of cyclists ride down Michigan Avenue on the last Friday of every month. Rat Patrol gained enough attention with its odd-looking bikes to draw in other cyclists, soon growing to the point where “Rat Rides” through the narrow alleys became difficult. To create a sense of organization, Bergstrom created Rat-Patrol.org and wrote a tongue-in-cheek manifesto describing what the group was about: staying away from the mainstream, building trash bikes and practicing anti-consumerism.

Johnny Payphone, who would later become one of the group’s most visible members, received a copy of the Rat Patrol manifesto after a Critical Mass ride in April 2002.

“[Rat Patrol] is all about having fun for free,” Payphone said. “It’s about examining your life and asking yourself what you’re doing it for. It’s about having a personal relationship with the resources that you consume and not buying into the whole consumerism ideology.”

Payphone said he eventually became an active promoter of Rat Patrol and spent a tremendous amount of time acquiring materials at a scrap yard on the South Side. He would take his discoveries to a warehouse owned by John Edel, one of the original Rat Patrollers, where he would weld the scrap metal into monstrous bikes. He also held workshops and hosted Rat Rides during the week. Other events followed, like St. Ratrick’s Day, when Rat Patrol rode in the South Side Irish Parade, and Ratification, an induction ride for new members.

“I took the club from [being] something a couple of guys did to a group that was radically inclusive,” Payphone said.

Edel used his experiences in Rat Patrol to create the ultimate testament to repurposing and creating a greener environment. The warehouse, which served as a playground for the club, is now a sustainable manufacturing center called Bubbly Dynamics, 1048 W. 37th St. The building is constructed out of repurposed and environmentally safe materials and houses other businesses like screen printers, bike mechanics, metal casters and fabricators.

“People move on from here and take that idea and do bigger and better things,” said Haynes, who is a handy man at The Plant, a vertical farm project of Edel’s that  has found similar sustainable success. “There are [former Patrollers] that help kids build bicycle communities in the not-so-great parts of Chicago. There are others that are producing amazing artwork and projects that are centered on abandoned buildings in the city.”

Haynes said many Rat Patrol members also work at or have founded local bike shops, like Rapid Transit, 1900 W. North Ave., and West Town Bikes, 2459 W. Division St. Haynes first learned of Rat Patrol after having his bike fixed at West Town Bikes and became a fan because of  his  interest in welding and

creating contraptions.

“A lot of people look at Rat Patrol and think, ‘Look at those punks on stupid bikes,’ but it all dovetails into this bigger culture in Chicago that is all about sustainability,” Haynes said.

Freeganism, an anti-consumerist movement involving reclaiming and eating discarded food, is part of the Rat Patrol lifestyle and takes place during Rat Rides. Though the general public may be unaware of how much food is wasted by grocery stores and restaurants, Rat Patrol has done its part consuming what would otherwise rot in a landfill.

Alexis Ellers, who joined Rat Patrol in 2006, said some of her best finds were a full sheet cake, chilled bottles of champagne and hot, untouched pizzas. Yly Coyote, a Rat Patroller since 2007, said he dumpster dives around once or twice per week.

“I’ve been sustaining myself off of trash for a year-and-a-half now,” Coyote said. “With the amount of food I get, it either goes in the freezer or refrigerator, and I eat it within the next couple of days.”

Andrew Causey, associate professor in the History, Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Columbia, has also dabbled in dumpster diving, and said that groups like Rat Patrol do these activities because they want to reclaim the right to choose one’s own path in life. He said it’s a visible response to the over-mechanical, over-corporatized world where people are sick of thinking that the only food you can eat is what is produced by low-wage labor or a corporation.

“I think [these actions] will become more mainstream and less unusual,” Causey said. “That’s a good thing because we waste way too much in this day and age.”

Coyote heard about Rat Patrol after reading an article about freak bikes while he was a freshman at a city high school. He said the first time he saw a tall bike, he knew that he had to make one for himself, and eventually joined the group after attending a Critical Mass session. After he realized he could sustain himself off of building funky bikes and what he found in dumpsters, he said he knew he wanted to be a Rat Patroller.

“I idolized these people because I had been reading about them for years,” Coyote said. “I wanted to emulate them. I thought, ‘I’ll never need to buy anything ever again.’ I’ve been living that 16-year-old dream of mine ever since.”