I grew up on the island of Martha’s Vineyard where there is not a single stoplight and the livestock outnumber the people. It was the 80s when I discovered the bicycle. 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. I was bored with school except for gym, math, and detention.
Riding my bike with my Black Labrador puppy was the best thing in the world. My group of friends and I continued to ride our BMX bikes down the hallways of the schools and everywhere cars couldn’t go. 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. We spent more time in the detention room than actual class. 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. Freshman year 1986 I hung out with my friends who were trouble but offered more solidarity and loyalty than I saw in anyone else.
While in high school I 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, quickly made it up to “Cat 2” and kept winning races. 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.
I attended UMass Amherst for business. I raced collegiate for UMass and won them some victories. I still raced but not 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 stronger than I was – but for what? racing wasn’t really inclusive. I was stuck racing Cat 2 trying to decide what to do. 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 as a teenager, 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 race, 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 cycling 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 peripheral 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.