I grew up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard where there is not a single stoplight and the livestock outnumber the human inhabitants. The super rich, DC socialites, and NY masters of the universe flew in for three months of the year. So there I was with strange but loving islanders and then the bizarre crowd that summered there. It was the 80s and I never really fit in and often rode my BMX bike to meet up with friends to play hooky. I was constantly in trouble in grade school and sent home almost every week for juvenile pranks and generally psychotic behavior. I sucked at school and hated all of the classes except for gym. I suffered from dyslexia – a condition that only exacerbated my inborn distaste for authority, rules, and structure – but I would not be diagnosed with it until I was a teenager. No one knew what to do with me. I hung out and rode with Michael Ward and Chuck Wright – both of whom would later become the most notorious armed robbers on the island and laugh about it all the way to prison. I was living the kind of childhood that produces psychopaths and career criminals, but something would help turn that energy towards more noble pursuits.
Riding my bike with my Black Labrador puppy was the best thing in the world (not to mention a strange attraction for daughters of those super rich summer dinks). My group of friends and I continued to ride our BMX bikes and raise as much shit as possible: vandalizing everything in our paths and fighting people because we had the unlimited energy of youth and couldn’t be constrained school or social contracts. The BMX bike became a symbol of troubled youth on our small island and no parents would permit their kids to ride or hang out with us. Because we spent so much time in the detention room we ground up Vivarin pills, snorted them, and rode our BMX bikes very fast and bloodied our knees and elbows. I barely finished grade school and went to high school which sucked even worse. I had nothing to contribute and it hurt. Freshman year 1986 I hung out with my friends who were trouble but offered more solidarity and loyalty than I saw in anyone else.
That first year of high school my behavior was so bad (between lighting fires in the bathroom, pulling the fire alarm if I had an exam, fighting with students and teachers, racing my bike down the hallways, and redecorating with graffiti) that I was finally sent to Bournewood psychiatric hospital for an evaluation. It was the worst day of my life, being taken to this strange place and watching my parents walk away. I had no idea what was going to happen, and for the first time in my life I was intensely afraid. I felt hurt and angry, and betrayed by the people who had sent me here. I was used to the idyllic environment of Martha’s Vineyard, and here I was being thrown into an institution. When I was told that I was being sent somewhere for an “evaluation” I assumed it would be, well, nicer. Like a normal hospital. While I did finally receive a diagnosis for my learning disorders (dyslexia and severe ADHD), I realized after three or four days that I was going to be stuck there for a while.
Since this experience I have been to every type of lockup stateside and international that you can think of, but I have never seen anything like the behavior exhibited at this psychiatric hospital. The meals were great, staff was nice, the doctors tried, but the fucking patients were insane. I constantly got into fights, either because I was angry or to protect myself, or sometimes just to convince the staff to shoot us both up with Thorazine (man I loved the -zine family). I got into so many fights that I became addicted to drawing blood any way that I could. I kept getting warned that they would send me to “male”. All of the houses in Bournewood had cute names like Emerson, Dodge, etc. but then there was “male”. This was the big white house that served as the maximum security unit if you really fucked up. The official name was “Stedman” but no one called it that once you were inside. One day I was working in the arts and crafts building where most patients were there simply to sniff magic markers and glue. This bully started talking about shit that happened to me in the past. We started fighting and I picked up this huge tile ash tray and threw it at him, splitting his head open. There was blood everywhere. They shot me with lots of Thorazine and brought me up to “male”.
I woke in a padded room to a very attentive inquisitive doctor who released me into the general population of “male” after a litany of questions. This unit was fucked up. People fought just to have fun. My roommate woke up every morning and pissed and shit in the corner of our room on the floor. Every racist slur was blurted repeatedly, staff with huge rings of keys and meds roamed the halls trying to keep some semblance of order which just looked funny. Innovation was amazing, an electric shaving razor was turned into a tattoo machine, apple seeds were used to get high, and plastic ware was melted and forged to make weapons. My very favorite though was how patients would mix Folgers Crystals coffee directly with water and mega-dose on caffeine. Fueled up, these patients would run up and down the hallways screaming and racing each other. I did this and more and convinced myself I was crazy just to not go insane – and to avoid getting hurt. At night I would stare into the parking lot, after a week in “male” I had a trick of the brain ( I don’t know if you’d call it a hallucination or just wishful thinking). I kept on seeing my parents’ car pulling into the parking lot to come get me. I kept calling them collect to come get me.
After ten days in “male” I returned to Emerson which felt like a palace with its normal bedding, carpets, and relatively sane patients. Even though I knew what would happen, I kept getting into fights and returned briefly to “male”. Finally, after spending a month in that hell-hole, my father came and checked me out against all doctors orders. I was the happiest I’d ever been, but it wouldn’t last. My problems hadn’t been resolved, as the doctors had rightly pointed out, so I returned home and kept getting into trouble. It wasn’t long before I was shipped off to a boarding school.
Although this was not Bournewood it was still horrible. I would get woken to Guns n’ Roses with staff ransacking our room and telling us to clean it before breakfast and class. I cried constantly and wanted to go home. This place had kids with real problems much worse than mine and didn’t let me get away with anything. Worst of all, I was missing summer on Martha’s Vineyard. I never contemplated suicide, but that year I could see why people do it. Eventually I hit rock bottom and there was nowhere to go but up. I built friendships based on helping each other through tough times. Staff understood and were there always. Then as a reward for good behavior one of the staff let me use her ten speed bicycle. I rode that bike regularly around the yard. Nobody could believe how fast I could ride in such confined space with so many obstacles – I finally found something I was good at. Relations with staff and other students deepened. Staff would take us out on the town and we would raise hell because we had time away from the institution. We’d wrestle each other, yell, scream, whatever. It was all good and followed with comments like “who gives a fuck what they think”, “they’re not paying your rent”, and more. This is where I truly learned to not give a fuck what people thought of me or said.
My year was up and I went back to society ready to conquer the world. Reform school combined with the can-do attitude of those on Martha’s Vineyard enabled me to do anything. I promptly started my own landscaping business at age 16 and rode bike as much as I could. I bought my first bike from Cycle Works which was a Centurion racing bike with a Miami Vice color scheme. The bike rode so fast I couldn’t believe it. I hung out at the bike shop on rainy days and ran into a couple racers who invited me to come with them to the Plymouth Rock Criterium. Seeing this race changed everything for me – the speeds, corners, tactics, aggression, and rain all added up to my destiny. I started to train and ride with other racers and then won my first citizens race. From there I got my racing license and kept winning Category 4 races. I became a “Cat 3” racer and still won. Then I met Frank Jennings who saw my potential and coached me to win more and larger races. I won dozens of races and got lots of sponsors. By now I was a high school Junior and felt invincible.
Things were not all good however, the feds indicted my coach Frank Jennings for cocaine dealing and the police were investigating several break ins that occurred at houses with jewelry and electronics. Truth is by night I was a cat burglar sometimes for hire for insurance scams. I still won races and did well even while charges were brought against me for break ins some of which I didn’t even do but got ratted on by desperate convicts. In rebellion to all of this trouble I started to drive the same way I rode my bike which often initiated a police chase. My trademark was to have police chase me into the high school parking lot and get arrested in front of the entire high school. This was the highlight of my time in high school. Because of mounting trouble and negative press sponsors started to pull out. This downward tailspin continued until the fall of 1990 when I was sentenced to two years suspended with one month to serve which was a killer deal considering 18 felonies plus numerous other serious offenses. At this time all of my friends were going off to collage but hey, I would never serve jury duty or vote again. My coach Jennings got 18 months for cocaine distribution. I spent my jail time wisely catching up on sleep, reading, and learning other criminal activities. I also spent Thanksgiving there where prisoners made the most amazing turkey dinner but I really missed my family.
When I got out, I promptly applied to a number of colleges, eventually heading out to Western Massachusetts to attend UMass Amherst. I raced collegiate for UMass and won them some victories. College was amazing, the stuff I learned was actually relevant and the students were worldly. In 1996 after five years I graduated Summa Cum Laude and tried to get a job on Wall Street. As a convict I got some “interesting” job offers but really wanted to stay out of prison so I started my own business providing computer services and couriering. I rode and raced but nothing like I used to, it was like the passion was gone. I did well by taking risks and being aggressive. I often rode tight courses like I was on a BMX bike and dropped riders that were much faster than I was – but for what? Amateur racing is filled with catty dickbag riders who think they’re better than you even if you win the fucking race. I was stuck racing Cat 2 trying to decide what to do. I kept couriering and fixing peoples computers. I went on Critical Mass rides for comic relief and it was in 2001 that I met my friend John McLean who sported a shoulder camera. Bikes had helped me get out of a self destructive cycle, but it wasn’t until I saw this footage that I finally understood my calling in life.
The Helmet Cam
The first time I saw video footage from a bicycle was in 2001, when my friend John McLean fastened a shoulder camera to himself and taped a Boston Critical Mass event. I saw the footage and my mind immediately jumped to the races I’d participated in. I imagined what it might be like to have footage from the heart of an alleycat, to share that tactical speed and those moves with people who’ve never raced before.
I spent a long time experimenting with different ways to film from my bike before coming up with my helmet camera system. My first attempt used a lot of gaffers tape and some tupperware lids to keep the camera level on my head. While I got some decent film with this cobbled together approach, I knew I could do better.
The weight of two camcorders on my helmet put a lot of extra weight right on my neck, so I looked into alternatives to reduce the weight. I tried out a bike mounted camera once, but the bike vibrated so much that the film was unusable. Next, I experimented with using smaller “bullet” or “lipstick” cameras as a lighter, more aerodynamic alternative. It was a nightmare. Most of the time the fucking camera was NOT recording anything because something happened with the wires or multiple batteries this took. Use of these “bullet” cameras ended one day in spring of 2004 when I raced a large alleycat in NYC and disappointed everyone at the end when I found out the device was not recording because the wire got knocked loose 3 minutes into the race. I went back to mounting the entire camera onto my helmet and have never changed this method.
I now use two cameras mounted on my helmet, one facing forwards and one backwards. They’re mounted on metal brackets on the sides of my head, and the whole contraption weighs about ten pounds.
I first filmed my friend Kevin Porter riding around Boston, then moved on to a couple small alleycats. Then in 2003 four of my friends and I drove to NYC in my large ex police car for an alleycat called “Drag Race” organized by a longtime NYC race organizer Judith Max. This was an alleycat where people actually dressed up in drag to race. As I was preparing for the race and grabbing stuff out of the trunk I actually asked my friend Craig Roth if I should film this race or just compete and try to win. He said “Hell yeah – film it!”. I strapped on my helmet camera system which at the time was made with cameras fastened to tupperware and other household items. The race started and I could not believe how great these riders were. We came through Times Square very fast and the rest of the race full speed with a lot of character.
I quickly learned that the camcorder changed the way I had to ride, and started tinkering with the mounts and my own riding style. When I was riding to win, all I had to think about was following my line, whether I was tailing a single rider or finding my way through traffic. Suddenly I found myself needing to be aware of everything happening in the race: the traffic and pedestrians in front of me, the riders all around, and the city itself. Once I added the rear-facing camera, I also needed to race far ahead of the others to get them in frame behind me.
After the failures with the tiny cameras, I finally resigned myself to carrying around extra weight on my head, and started concentrating on perfecting my technique. I started doing neck exercises, and I learned how to use my perephrial vision more fully at corners and intersections, because swiveling my head with the cameras on is right out. I’ve also had to train myself to tumble and roll if I crash in such a way that I can protect the cameras (and my own body). Rolling and tumbling to protect two big Mickey Mouse ears takes skills that ironically could’ve avoided the crash.
By the end of 2004 my method of filming was perfected and I got invites from all over the world to film races everywhere. This combined with all of the BFF events I went to in various countries added up to a shitload of races and rides that I filmed every year.
Sharing my Vision
The first alleycats I filmed, we watched in the bar right afterwards. Racers and people having nothing to do with the race crowded around to watch this footage. I knew then my work was taking shape and that my mission was to show people riding footage they’d never seen before. Like riding a wave – if you’ve never done it and you see a video you connect with the experience of the surfer.
Even though I am NOT from film and I do not have a film background I learned how to edit and proceeded to spend several days with two all-nighters editing this video just how I wanted it to look. I posted this onto my website digave.com and this being 2003 posting videos was a challenge. People started to visit my website and watch and download the video. I got so many visitors that the shared server crashed out multiple times. The ISP thought I was running pornography. I then went onto a dedicated server and this crashed out too so I upgraded and finally stabilized the server. I began racing and filming every weekend and posting videos because people loved them so much. I now know that I could’ve made a business out of this but just wanted to show people riding they’d never seen before.
In the spring of 2003 I got a call from Brendt Barbur of the Bicycle Film Festival (BFF). He was very interested in showing my video at BFF and I could tell he was a great curator of films based on some of the other films he was playing. I sent the “Drag Race” footage to him and in June went to BFF to watch this on the big screen. Judith Max was there along with a lot of other racers when the film hit the screen. The room erupted, I never saw anything like it and neither has Brendt since. Everybody loved this film and were standing up and singing to Guns ‘n Roses. Judith and I hugged each other and I knew then I wanted to film alleycats and urban riding worldwide.
From 2004 to present I have traveled to the most exciting and dangerous places to capture the best riders in their element. I have done this for my audience whom I see at BFF and online. I know I have influenced a lot of people to ride, ride faster, and take calculated risks. I also know my films have taken people where they’ve never been before. Of course, it’s not all positive. Every time I do an interview with a paper that goes online, or I put up a new video, someone feels the need to yell at me for being irresponsible or giving riders a bad name. What the haters don’t realize is all their bitching just makes me want to do this more!
Most recently I rode with the pro riders and filmed Paris Roubaix via my helmet camera. I have Brendt Barbur to thank for this and many other new chapters that my helmet cameras will film.