Outlaw cyclist Lucas Brunelle on receiving end of vigilante justice

Lucas Brunelle
Cyclist, cinematographer, alley-cat race legend Lucas Brunelle in Guatemala; photo by Benny Zenga/courtesy Lucas Brunelle

Friday night at about 6 p.m., Lucas Brunelle was on a group ride in downtown Boston when he pedaled through a red light and hit a pedestrian.

Near an area popular with tourists and locals alike, the Boston Common, Brunelle flagged down a cab for help.

He didn't get it.

The cabbie who stopped for him was Sam Chandler, 45, who weighs about 300 pounds—more than 135 pounds heavier than the very tall (6'3"), but "Triplets of Belleville"–skinny, Brunelle.

According to a witness quoted in The Boston Globe, when Brunelle asked Chandler for help, Chandler became angry and punched Brunelle in the face, knocking Brunelle to the ground. With Brunelle on the tarmac, Chandler "continued the assault," according to the police report.

lucas brunelle japan
Lucas Brunelle on a midnight ride through Tokyo to Yoyogi, Japan. Photo by Jerome Abramovitch/courtesy Lucas Brunelle

Bystanders formed a critical mass to pull Chandler off of Brunelle. When the cab driver attempted to leave, Brunelle stood in front of the vehicle and called 911. Chandler didn't like them apples: He rammed into Brunelle, fled the scene, and was picked up later when an officer spotted the cab.

Chandler was arraigned yesterday Monday at Boston Municipal Court and held on $1,000 bail, which Brunelle told reporters "is just a joke. I'm disgusted by that."

According to early reports, Brunelle is not expected to face criminal charges. Information on the pedestrian is thin; she's reported to have received head injuries and is "expected to survive."

As the story broke, many believed Brunelle had finally received a karmic comeuppance.

Brunelle is one of the most polarizing figures in the cycling world because he was one of the first to film outlaw bike races, where riders compete on open, urban streets. Many racers show flagrant disregard for traffic laws and pedestrians, regularly blowing red lights at 20-plus mph, putting many in harm's way. (The video below is one of Brunelle’s earlier pieces, featuring an alley-cat race in Manhattan. The craziness begins at about 1:15 and features a smattering of profanity, so be forewarned.)

Bicycling magazine called the traffic scofflaw an "outlaw" when they interviewed him and asked, "Is he ruining cycling's image for everyone—or just trying to save us?"

The answer is both. One only has to go to a town/city meeting about bike lanes or cruise over to any story about cyclists' rights to see that cycling's image is set for most, regardless of which side of the bike lane you ride on. Typically, no amount of data or impassioned pleas can move one from his or her beliefs.

And the rabble-rouser is the product of this polarization. He enjoys getting peoples' panties in a proverbial pucker, whether it's through reckless riding or pedaling on highways.

Trying to save us? That's hugely ambitious, obviously, but getting people out of their comfort zone is never easy. And that seems to be Brunelle's goal: to get people to live a little and take risks. Filming more than 200 alley-cats across the world, he sure has. More-recent films include the real-world risks of travel into dangerous areas like the Darién Gap, a secluded jungle between Colombia and Panama, where the Pan-American Highway ends.

Some of what he does is ugly. It's tough to defend his actions when you think about the pedestrian he hit. But Brunelle is a real-life outlaw and, like other outlaws, there's usually some rough bits accompanying that lifestyle, whether it's the bloodbath that followed Bonnie & Clyde or the criminal world of Biggie Smalls.

I rode with Brunelle more than a decade ago through rush-hour traffic in Boston. A former bike messenger in New York and Boston, it was all I could do to keep within eyeshot of the former semi-pro racer (he once raced as a Cat. 2). He took a lot of risks, but they were crazy calculated—the difference between a pro snowboarder launching off a cliff and a weekend warrior with limited skills doing the same.

He just had a different skillset.

And he lived almost exclusively in the area where a car's door can open, known as the "door zone." He felt differently about this place pedalers are discouraged from inhabiting. He called it the "Lucas lane." Although it was one of the first spring days of the year after a long winter and there was a veritable parade of flesh for the first time in a long time, he kept his eyes on the road. Later, he would tell me it was because his life depended on it.

Brunelle was far from the "adrenaline addict" he's often portrayed as. He spoke about traffic with thoughtfulness and understanding, like a scientist breaking down chaos physics. So although I don't love everything he does, I'm sure as hell glad he exists. Because like alley-cat organizer (legal and otherwise) Don Ward says, "He's nuts, but also very mensch."

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