8:25 p.m. On a summer Saturday, three bikes are in La Montañita Co-op’s rack. The grocery’s green patio furniture is empty except for a burly man with an egg-shaped piece of pink piñata taped to his helmet. The crepe-paper conehead smiles, extending a hand. “I’m Joe. Here for the poker ride?”
8:45 p.m. The rack is full. Bikes lean everywhere. There are ancient 11-speeds, carbon fiber frames, dual-suspension bikes, disc-braked mountain bikes and sleek fixed-gears ("fixies"). Joe is surrounded by 17 of his bicycle brethren.
Two riders eat cement at the tunnel’s mouth next to Gecko’s Bar and Tapas patio. Neither are hurt, but both are harassed with an eruption of cheers and jeers as they disentangle. “What, no brakes? Oh wait, it’s a fixie,” someone shouts.
Twice a month, a clan of cyclists besiege the Co-op’s horseshoe parking lot, gathering for a night ride powered by cards, laughs and cranks. This is the poker ride.
9:05 p.m. The pack congeals and rolls onto Central, turning left at Carlisle. Riders shout, “Clear!” giving those behind the go-ahead. A swarm of strobing red lights and pumping legs fills the street. Cars keep their distance.
Everyone is hanging in Hidden Park. The group has grown to 30, and it’s time to buy in. Dave Lawless, aka the “Lawless Assassin,” is one of the poker ride’s founders. He explains the guidelines: five-card stud, no wilds and five bucks to play.
A card is drawn at each stop on the ride, two personal cards and three community cards. At the last station, best hand takes the pot. Winners have hauled anywhere from 30 to 150 clams depending on how many people play.
“Whoever wins is privileged and obligated to plan the next week's ride," Lawless says. "If you copout, you pay double to buy in next time."
This rule creates a situation where nobody owns the poker ride, yet everybody owns the poker ride. If you win, you must lead.
The ride was born from a friend’s farewell. Three years ago, Lawless and some buddies sent off a friend who was moving out of state with a last-hurrah night ride. Someone suggested spicing up the excursion with a game of cards. The friend left, but the group continued meeting for Saturday night rides. Word spread, others joined, and over the years, the poker ride grew from a handful of handlebars to a mob often counting 20 heads.
“This is inclusive to all bike denominations, and we’re welcoming to new people," Lawless says, "but if you show up, be ready to ride hard."
Last week's winner, Jeremy Brown, a fellow with a hefty beard and short-brimmed cycling cap, unwraps a fresh deck of cards and calls for players. A few feet away, a group of people use bike lights to illuminate someone swapping out a flat tube. The cards are dealt, and the pot reaches a hundred bucks. This reporter holds an ace of diamonds.
10:05 p.m. Brown leads the pack down Monte Vista toward UNM, flowing left onto Richmond and left again on Central. The line in front of Imbibe, full of collared shirts and high-heels, gawks at the blinking spectacle. Tonight the cyclists don’t hug Central’s shoulder to avoid cars whipping past. They take the entire right lane with a group the size of a semi-truck.
Carl Levine burns a wheelie three blocks long before turning toward the Fixed and Free bike shop on Tulane, tonight’s first stop. A small shindig is going down behind the store, which is doubled in size by our arrival.
Joe Sandberg, with the piñata brain-shield, squats on a cinder block at a low, makeshift table. Yesterday was his daughter's ninth birthday, he explains.
“She severed the ice cream cone piñata perfectly and dared me to wear it to the poker ride,” says Sandberg, a self-described “sexy older rider,” who commutes to his job at REI every day via bicycle.
“This ride is about having fun, getting out on a community ride, taking care of people if they get flats and riding as a group,” says Sandberg. “Having traffic see us is a good thing.”
Brown yells into the crowd, “Five minutes. Poker riders, get your cards.” This reporter draws a Jack of spades and starts to like his odds.
The pack has lost a few members to the party but remains sizable as the blinking swarm huffs up Constitution. Reaching Louisiana, everyone turns onto the East-West bike path that parallels I-40 before crossing over the freeway near Winrock Mall. The overpass is tonight’s third stop.
Rain begins to drizzle as headlights rush underfoot. Some riders are still huffing from the hill as others fire up cigarettes. Two guys relieve themselves through the chain-link fence, drawing a laugh. The first community card is dealt: five of spades. Upon departing the bridge, a few more people opt out and head back toward Nob Hill.
11:43 p.m. The group is taking shelter under an awning at Los Altos Skate Park. A police car sidles up, blasting them with the spotlight. The loudspeaker booms, “Move along. Park’s closed.”
When cyclists instead of skaters emerge from the bleachers the officer is audibly confused, “Oh, are you guys just hiding from the rain? You’re all right then.”
The 5-0 pulls into the parking lot to investigate. He walks up with a puzzled expression and asks, “What are you guys doing?”
“This is the poker ride!”
Johnny Sanchez, the group ambassador and a registered EMT, steps forward to explain. The officer is also a bike cop and gets to chewing the fat about cycling. After a cop-talk session, the lawman departs and the second community card pulled is the 10 of hearts.
En route to the last stop, someone’s chain breaks. Sanchez, unwilling to leave a comrade behind, instructs the rider to grab onto his backpack and tows the guy a couple miles to the last stop. Lawless has a couple extra links, Brown produces a chain breaker, and the bike is repaired at the next stop. The poker riders roll prepared.
The final destination is Snow Park, on Indian School and Moon, which has a large cement-floored gazebo. The cement is slick; someone slides out and smashes an elbow. Missing some skin, the rider stands up with an embarrassed smile.
There have only been three serious injuries in poker ride history. One disastrous night, a guy broke both elbows, and 10 minutes later another rider compound fractured his elbow. This is why the group verbally shouts out obstacles and uses lights. Helmets are praised but not mandatory.
A hundred bucks is a hefty pot, and it’s time for the last card. Everyone huddles around Brown with a little bit of money fever. He holds up an Ace of clubs and says, “Show your cards.”
Those with a hand worth shouting about do so. Someone produces a pair of aces, with a seven of diamonds high card. This reporter, slightly astonished, holds up his pair of aces, jack of spades high. No one beats the hand, and the hundred big ones are handed over.
“You better show up in two weeks!” yells Levine.
This reporter is instantly changed from this week’s follower into the next ride’s leader, and another Burque biker becomes addicted to the poker ride.
The poker ride meets next on Saturday, Aug. 23, and every other weekend thereafter at Gecko’s Bar and Tapas in Nob Hill at 8:30 p.m.