The Dead Baby Bike Club (DBBC) Clubhouse in Georgetown is listed as a place of worship on Google Maps. Inside the squat building festooned with welded innovations, the Dead Babies, an exclusive club of punk cyclists, meet. They hold monthly bike rides, they weld freak bikes, they stick together. The commandments in this house of worship are simple: don’t be an asshole, and ride bikes.
For my latest exploration into Seattle subcultures, I joined the Dead Babies on their 27th annual Dead Baby Downhill Race, an unsanctioned race from the top of a Seattle hill to the finish line, which is not always but usually the Dead Baby Clubhouse in Georgetown. At the bottom, riders partake in holy communion: bottomless beer drunk out of cycling water bottles and a whole lot of bike-based debauchery.
This year, the race started at the top of West Seattle at the Admiral Pub. My race day started hours before the starting fireworks were lit, down at the finish line at the DBBC Clubhouse.
The first thing I saw when I rounded the corner to the clubhouse was a mountain of bikes blocking Lucile Street in Georgetown. There were bikes of all colors and all sizes—bikes double the height of a normal bike, bikes so small you’d think they were for (alive) babies, bikes with one giant wheel and one normal-sized wheel, bikes with those big, dramatic sloping motorcycle handlebars. These were the freak bikes, a creative right of passage in the Dead Baby community.
Lucile Street bustled with denim-vested Dead Babies running in and out of their clubhouse. Other Dead Babies lugged plywood over to the home-made BMX course. A different crew had their heads down, focused intently on making a mini-velodrome for track cycling on tiny bikes.
I needed to do interviews to figure out what the fuck this race was all about before I hopped on the bike I’d purchased from Facebook Marketplace two days prior and joined. Unfortunately, everyone was busy.
“Do you know Sarah?” I asked multiple groups, timidly searching for Sarah Kerr, a teacher and DBBC’s president. At the velodrome, one man said Sarah was “over there” and “the one with the mohawk.” When I looked “over there” I saw multiple spiky-haired femmes, all in patch-smattered denim.
“Backpack, go take her to Sarah,” the man said to another man, presumably named Backpack.
Backpack dropped me off with Kerr, who was in the middle of coordinating a million things ahead of the race.
An Unsanctioned Race Downhill
According to Kerr, the Downhill takes around four months to plan. She spoke to me while unpacking merchandise.
The main criteria for the race is to have a big hill and to “bomb down it” as the Dead Babies say, embracing the thing newbie cyclists here love to groan about—hills. The race has been all over Seattle: Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, West Seattle, the Central District, even Burien. There are no rules and there’s no route—just get to the bottom.
“It’s fair game to go any way you want,” Mike Montanti, an arborist and Dead Baby officer, said as he popped into the club house. “And just because people are going a certain way doesn’t mean they have a clue where they’re going.”
He went on to describe a time when the race started in the Central District and ended in Georgetown. He rode all the way into Rainier Valley instead of getting off of 23rd Avenue E toward the International District. He and the group he’d followed had to hike up and over Colgate Hill.
“Even if they’ve got a vest on, it doesn’t mean they know where they’re fucking going,” Montanti reiterated. “When you’ve got a bunch of people and everyone is all excited and having a fucking blast, it’s easy to overlook some shit.”
Since it’s not an officially sanctioned event from the city, the Downhill relies on “corkers” to block intersections, Montanti explained. These are people, usually on bikes, who stand in cars’ ways.
“Stopping cars is not just a talent,” Kerr said, “it’s a passion.”
The Dead Baby Chosen Family
Part of the joy of hosting the event comes from bringing together former group members and members from the Portland and Vancouver, B.C. chapters.
“This is a labor of love,” Kerr said. “This event is our family reunion.”
Every Dead Baby I talked to described their clubmates as their “chosen family.”
Shea Byfield, DBBC’s sergeant-at-arms, joined the group 16 years ago after his brother coerced him into doing the Downhill race. The race on Saturday was the exact same route as his first Downhill.
“I’d do anything for these people,” Byfield said.
For Lindsey Lachner, a veterinary supplies purchaser and one of the newer Dead Babies, this group is her family because “we all look out for each other and we have fun together,” she said.
When Byfield took his uncle for a ride on the banana seat in the back of his tall bike, Bernice, his uncle called him a “joy merchant.”
The crazy bikes they ride disrupt the status quo and always make people smile, Lachner explained.
“When you have fun with people, a lot of the time they just become your family,” Lachner said. “I love these fuckers.”
The Dead Babies love each other almost as much as they love bikes.
How to Become a Dead Baby
Kerr first happened upon the DBBC in 2010 when she worked as a bike messenger and played bike polo around Seattle.
“I’ve been riding bikes my whole life,” she said. “Bikes are freedom.”
Bikes are the fastest way to get around the city, she said. You can go anywhere on them and—after you buy one, or make your own—they cost nothing to use. “Plus,” Kerr added, “all the coolest people ride bikes.”
An influx of Dead Babies swarmed around Kerr in the clubhouse. Swamped, she passed me off to Israel “Izzy” Hernandez, the club’s 17-year-old next door neighbor.
Hernandez, who’s about to be a senior in high school, dropped in on the Babies about a year ago with his little sister. They offered him root beer.
“Then they hooked me and my sister up with some bikes, and they had us work on them and fix them up,” Hernandez said.
Before knowing the Dead Babies, Hernandez knew nothing about bikes. “I just knew bikes went here and there, and if you have a puncture you might as well get a new bike,” he said. “Now if there’s a problem with a bike I definitely know how to probably fix it.”
He’s not an official member yet, but he wants to be some day.
To join DBBC, Kerr explained to me, you have to “prospect” by riding in six rides with a blank vest. Once a DBBC member officially sponsors you and the rest of the group agrees, you receive your rocker patches, the top (“Dead Baby”) and bottom (“Seattle, WA”) of the official three-patch Dead Baby logo. As an official prospect, you must complete a series of tasks—whatever needs doing; building your own bike, building your own freak bike and riding it in a group ride, building a tall bike and riding it in a group ride, etc.—then the group votes on your membership. Once you’ve gone through that gauntlet, you receive the third patch, a baby doll gored by the word "bikes."
“Can you tell me what she said about becoming a Dead Baby?” Hernandez whispered to me. “I’d really like to know that information.” I relayed it.
“Is there an age limit?” I asked Kerr on Hernandez’s behalf.
“Nope,” she said.
“Oh wow,” Hernandez’s eyes lit up.
“I’m telling you,” Kerr said to him, “I already got my eye on you.”
The Downhill race, however, is mostly run by nonmembers.
The Climb Before the Hill
My Dead Baby Downhill Race started by trying to get my ass up to the top of West Seattle. I hopped on my cherry-red Facebook Marketplace bike right as a summer rain started sprinkling.
I’m not an experienced city cyclist, mostly because of the hills. Despite enjoying myself thoroughly on borrowed bikes when I’ve written articles about hotly contested thoroughfares or Bike N’ Brew events, I always put off acquiring my own. It would be too hard on the hills, I’d tell myself, I’d never ride the bike.
The Downhill was my bike baptism by fire. To go down, you have to go up first. That's just science. This uphill to West Seattle meant 500 feet of elevation gain. This was for journalism, I thought as I pedaled alongside cars speeding down 1st Avenue S.
Once I hit the West Seattle Bridge Trail’s protected bike lanes, I cruised. I pedaled past families fishing the Duwamish River off a dock I didn’t even know existed. I rode through the I-5 underbelly's ribs of concrete columns, marveling at the new perspective.
Then, I couldn’t figure out how to get over to West Seattle. Was I really supposed to cross the West Seattle Bridge? That felt like a possibly fatal mistake, so I flagged down a passing cyclist, a man in a Cascadia jersey with two bike wheels tied to his back and hands blackened by a patina of grease. His name was Kevin.
Kevin led me across the bridge. Once we reached a fork in the road, he told me my route options up to the Admiral Pub, rattling off different bike routes as if he’d been riding them his whole life. And maybe he had.
I chose to cruise along Alki Beach, sneaking peeks at the city skyline as I rode. My heart swelled, my thoughts turned saccharine. I loved this silly little city.
Confronted with the big hill of California Way SW, I stowed my pride and walked my bike. Near the top, I hopped back on the bike and rode the rest of the way to the Admiral Pub.
Race Time, Baby
Bikes covered every square inch of sidewalk outside the pub. They leaned against the walls and were lashed to every nearby drainage pipe or tree. Baby dolls adorned many. I was in the right place.
For $40, people entered the race, received a t-shirt, and grabbed a water bottle that could be used for endless beer refills at the finish line. Drinking before the race—while not mandatory, despite what the Grey’s Anatomy episode about the Dead Baby Downhill said—is encouraged. The bar was packed.
And then, 10 minutes until race time, the place cleared out. Everyone retrieved their bikes and clogged California Avenue SW. Bike bells dinged in anticipation. Kerr walked to the center of the crowd, yelled some indistinguishable words, then lit fireworks. Race time, baby.
Things were slow-going at first in the middle of the pack as hundreds of bikes smushed together, moving as one. The peloton loosened up when we turned onto SW Admiral Way. The whole westbound lane filled with bikes. Cars laid on their horns, confused about what had stripped them of their right of way. Some cars kept trying to turn onto the street only to be blocked by corkers on bikes.
One corker, legs swung over his bike, leaned around the grill of a car trying to wedge its way onto the street. He shouted directly into the driver side window, “What makes you think you’re more important than this many people?”
Soon, Admiral Way sloped down and the hill began. People whooped and hollered. The whir of gears, the rush of wind, and the crunch of tires on damp pavement filled my ears. A tandem bike of old people chugged past me. I looked to my left and saw a man in a wheelchair gunning it down the hill. He popped a wheelie.
The euphoria of the downhill swept me up. Tears pricked my eyes. Fuck, maybe bikes are freedom.
Whoever led the pack I followed led us into a rail yard. We rode over gravel and rocks. Tires popped. People fell. The parked freight train clanged to life and started moving. People picked up their bikes and jumped the tracks. I didn’t make it in time and the train blocked my path. A crowd of us waited for it to move. The conductor backed up the train and stopped it, then waved us across the tracks.
I rode the last stretch of the race next to a pedicab driver who blasted a parody of the Beach Boy’s “I Get Around” called “I Fuck Around.” I craned my neck to ask a woman riding a tall bike how the weather was up there. She said it was great.
When I pulled into the finish line, the BMX course and the velodrome were in full swing. The beer garden bloomed with people. Metal bands set up the stage for their performances. People tried out freak bikes, balancing on tall ones and figuring out how to ride ones made only of skateboard parts. Later that night, there’d be bike jousting, and the BMX would add a fire element. Everybody was sweaty and happy.
I left certain I would do this event every year and with a confidence that I can bike in this city. I am a convert to this religion.
Any ideas on which Seattle subculture I should explore next? Want me to tag along with you on your favorite hobby or pastime? Send me tips at email@example.com.