In “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a headless horseman rides around on a steed, terrifying villagers with a jack-o'-lantern in his hands.
But when Matthew Dunkle is wearing his headless horseman costume around Concord, he prefers to wield a guitar and travel on a beach-cruiser bike. And his aim isn’t to scare people — it’s to entertain, to offer a fun distraction in difficult times.
For months, the 38-year-old resident has been cruising through town donning a get-up that resembles the macabre character from the centuries-old folktale. As he travels through Concord, West Concord, and Maynard, he strums his instrument — his hands rarely touching the bars — zipping past onlookers who often pull out their phones to capture the curious scene.
“I started getting some good responses from people and enjoyed doing it,” he said. “I thought it would be sensational, someone riding around without a head.”
While it may seem like a gag perfectly timed for the Halloween season, the costume is actually the latest iteration of a “passion project” five years in the making.
Dunkle, who works full time at a Concord bakery, said he started riding around in a costume in 2015, gaining a quick following and becoming something of a local celebrity, dubbed by some as the “bike riding guy."
His first costumed ride was a way to embrace and celebrate life at a time when things were particularly difficult for him. Dunkle had recently gone through a divorce, and one of his grandparents died. He also is treated for bipolar disorder.
One day in July, searching for a way to cope, he donned some red swim trunks and a Santa Claus hat. A trained musician, Dunkle grabbed his red bike and rode to Walden Pond while singing Christmas carols and waving his hands like a conductor along the way. It provided an escape, combining his love of music and cycling.
“I needed something special in my life,” said Dunkle, who graduated from Berklee College of Music. “I had a few smiles and people waved and people laughed and stuff. So that was kind of the beginning of it.”
Dunkle later began riding in earnest and became a frequent topic of discussion on local Facebook groups, yet he remained an enigma. Almost everyone had seen him pedaling through town, playing the trumpet, and carrying an exercise ball. Those who spotted him were often perplexed — but amused.
Then in October of 2017, the “mystery” of the man on the bike was solved after the local newspaper unmasked Dunkle.
Since then, Dunkle has been leaning into his local fame and trying to turn the rides into a viable entertainment business. He’s created the online identity “Musical Cyclist Slam Dunkle,” and shares videos and photographs of his escapades on Facebook and YouTube. Dunkle has even been hired to perform at birthday parades and once at a private concert.
“I’m trying to somehow turn it into a profitable enterprise,” he said, though his fame hasn’t spread too much outside of town.
Comparing himself to the bread he makes at work, he said, “I consider myself a slow-rise celebrity. It’s going to happen or it isn’t.”
Last Halloween, the project evolved when he bought the headless horseman costume. But at the last minute before hitting the streets, he decided not to wear it. Then, in April, as the pandemic raged, he dusted it off and went for a ride.
“It just feels like we are kind of in the dark right now,” he said of the decision. “We are all just running around with our heads cut off.”
He gave up playing the trumpet during his rides to avoid spreading saliva droplets. Instead, he picked up a black guitar which he strums as he pedals along. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Wild Thing," and “Smoke on the Water” are a few of his go-to tunes.
The outfit also honors — although unintentionally — a bit of history: Concord’s burial ground happens to be called Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, and this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Washington Irving classic, which was published in 1820.
Dunkle admits that the stunt isn’t for everyone. At least once during the pandemic, a person chided him for wearing the costume.
“I did have one woman within the first month saying, ‘Don’t you think you should be wearing something upbeat? That’s a little macabre,’ ” he said. “But that was one person, and I haven’t gotten any other real complaints and concerns.”
Most embrace the spectacle, all the more so nowadays.
A video of Dunkle speeding through town that was shared on Twitter by former WBZ reporter David Robichaud on Monday has been viewed nearly 3,000 times.
“In 2020,” he wrote, “this is not even on my Top 10 weird stuff I’ve seen list."
Concord Police shared Robichaud’s tweet from their own account, writing “Never think you’ve seen it all!”
And on Dunkle’s Facebook page, residents regularly thank him for bringing a bit of originality to the community.
“You bring so many smiles to people in this town,” one person wrote recently, when Dunkle posted a picture of himself in the costume before heading out for a ride.
Marc Girolimetti, who lives in Concord, said seeing Dunkle out and about has become a reprieve from the state of the world.
“He’s just a cool fixture in our community,” said Girolimetti, who was happy to spot Dunkle on Monday. “To have this level of character, he is uniquely ours — and that’s what I really enjoy.”