“This is to dirt bike culture what the Grammys are to hip hop,” beamed veteran rider Albert “Al Capone” Elkerson as he took to the stage of a swanky historic theatre in Manhattan for the second annual Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards.
It was a family-friendly event, packed with young fans ogling their role models. Smartphones broadcast to millions of followers while Oscars-style trophy girls handed out accolades for best swag, best swerve and longest no-hander.
Standing between two mounted dirt bikes frozen into wheelies, Elkerson sported a white T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Don’t Chase” – a reference to riders’ run-ins with police and a clue to the sport’s origins.
- The Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards: (clockwise) dancers on stage; a young girl poses on the red carpet; fans at the awards show; New York City police keep watch
In cities from New York to Paris, Philadelphia to its spiritual home in Baltimore, urban dirt bike riding is considered by many a crime and a dangerous public nuisance.
The same skill and bravado that might now earn them lucrative sponsorship deals frequently lands riders with arrest warrants and bike seizures when performed on the city streets.
- Teenagers in Argenteuil, Paris, watch a dirt bike rider pull a wheelie.
Urban dirt bike riding has its roots in predominantly African American, low-income neighbourhoods of US cities with few recreation facilities.
“There was no place for us to go ride,” says Shea Evans, founder of the Motocross Freestyle Streetriders Association (MxSFA), who formed the Go Hard Boyz in 1999 while growing up in Harlem. “There was no place to release our stress. To ride bikes for four hours, not killing each other – that was the premise. There was no arguments, no gang violence …”
“Living in the hood was crazy,” adds veteran rider Steve Honda of Baltimore’s WildOut Wheelie Boyz. “Everything was negative … junkies, drugs, killing, shooting. It was nothing positive. You could easily not care. Dirt bikes saved my life, and gave me a reason to want to live and go on.”
- Baltimore police supervise the road. Many riders challenge the notion that clashing with cops is an end in itself.
Riders acknowledge a rebellious element – magnified by already-fraught relations between minorities and police in inner-city communities – but many challenge the claim that clashing with cops is an end itself.
Police crackdowns, though, are the most common response in cities around the world. In Washington, DC, authorities released photos of 245 wanted dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle – or quad bike – riders, while New Haven, Connecticut upped the ante by hitting riders with fines and reckless endangerment charges. A year-long hunt saw more than 1,000 bikes seized in New York City, and in Britain Merseyside police released video of hundreds of seized dirt bikes and ATVs being crushed.
Baltimore’s Dirt Bike Task Force – which former police commissioner Kevin Davis launched in 2016 calling riders “gun-toting criminals” – has seized more than 400 dirt bikes. It has also found eight handguns and dished out in excess of 50 arrests and warrants.
- A Sunday ride in Baltimore, which sometimes consists of hundreds of bikes, swarming through traffic.
On weekends, dirt bikes can still be counted on buzzing down the streets of Baltimore like a swarm of bees. It’s been going on as long as Jacqueline Caldwell – president of Baltimore’s Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council, which advocates for some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods – can remember.
The riders drive her crazy, but she’d like to see designated bike parks or closed-off roads. “Running up on the sidewalk, scaring old people and running into traffic, it’s very disrespectful,” she says. “It’s like a blatant slap in the face to police officers. Terrorising neighbourhoods is not the way … but I think there is a way it can be done that’s a win-win for everyone.”
- A young Baltimore rider at a wheel deal. Dirt bike riders are heroes to many kids in the city.
City councillor Leon Pinkett’s West Baltimore district – which encompasses the area where unrest broke out in 2015 – has “more dirt bikes per capita” than anywhere else in the city.
He says he is seeing – and hearing – less of them since the latest police crackdown, but believes zapping the scene is not the answer: “If we are going to aggressively [outlaw] dirt bike riding on the street, we have to take an alternative option for individuals who, if they could, would ride legally.”
- Masked to protect his identity, a WildOut Wheelie Boy waits for the pack to arrive.
In New York, “Al Capone” has floated the idea of a designated bike park. Cleveland has come closest to giving it a try, earmarking $2.3m for a dirt bike track with an eye to getting riders off the streets – but it is struggling to find a venue.
While Baltimore has unsuccessfully put itself forward to host Amazon’s headquarters, embraced Elon Musk’s levitating high-speed transport system, Hyperloop, and offered generous development deals to Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, the idea of a dirt bike park is yet to gain traction. Dawayne “Wheelie Wayne” Davis’s efforts to get a feasibility study for a bike park funded in Baltimore lost steam after he agreed to community service for running a “chop shop” full of stolen vehicles parts out of his basement (he claims he had titles to all but one of them).
- Fans record a non-handed wheelie in Argenteuil.
At home in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, charismatic 23-year-old Algerian-French rider Mous unloads a box of sponsor swag from ScootFast motor oil. Mous and members of the Dirty Riderz Crew have their bikes seized by police regularly – but they also recently starred alongside footballers in an Adidas commercial.
He doles out the freebies to his friends while they play video games and snack on baguettes in a dimly lit apartment: personalised caps, stickers, T-shirts and a case of engine oil that, bought in a shop, would set him back hundreds of euros.
A short while later he is perched on his bike as riders kick up chunks of grass practicing wheelies on a soccer pitch. Do they want a bike park too? “Absolument!” says Mous.
He brazenly weaves through traffic – his bravado on the streets is unquestionable – but insists he’d rather be riding elsewhere. He is eager to talk about all the “positive vibes” of urban dirt bike riding: “I see a lot of parents with kids come to car shows – why not our show? We can show them the nice part of this sport.”
- Mous toys with French police as his friends look on.
It’s not long before members of his Dirty Riderz Crew are intercepted by police at an intersection. They regularly document such interactions on their Instagram account, along with videos of trips to Baltimore and Miami, where riders who met on social media crash on each others’ sofas.
“You’re really a good French citizen, huh?” one officer asks in French. “Is this what you want people to think about the blacks and the Arabs in the banlieues?”
The resentment is mutual, and spreads well beyond dirt bikers. Like other centres of dirt bike culture, police relations are tense. Argenteuil, a low-income, predominantly North African and Arab area, erupted in weeks of violent protest after a black man accused police officers of raping him.
Mous says when his bikes are seized, it takes him three times as long as his white counterparts to get them back. He gestures at a tower block in the distance, Cité des Indes. “When police go there, the residents throw rocks,” he adds.
- Pausing briefly on the Baltimore block where he used to hustle, Jules “Beeper” Perry keeps an eye out for the police.
The rise of social media has birthed a clutch of hashtags (#bikesbringbonds #wheelsupgunsdown #bikelife). An Android game simulates riders performing “sick tricks as they mock and evade police apprehension” – unhelpful for those looking to shift perceptions of urban dirt bikers.
Recently, the best dirt bike riders have picked up sponsors such as Monster Energy drinks. Celebrity fans include Fetty Wap, who has ridden in Baltimore, and the rapper Meek Mill, who signed the well-known Baltimore rider Pachino “Chino” Braxton (765,000 Instagram followers) to his Dream Chasers record label.
In 2016, Chino survived a gunshot to the head in a drive-by shooting; a few months later his brother, who managed the murdered Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota, was himself killed. Today, Chino’s Instagram account features positive affirmations about goals and success, his Loyalty clothing line, and scenes of him riding into clubs in LA atop a gilded bike branded with logo of a clothing label.
“I never expected this bike shit to take me this far in life and I’m still dream chasing … Shit a blessing,” he commented.
- Chino – the most successf urban dirt biker in the world – pulling a vertical wheelie.
MxFSA founder Evans says the sport can’t grow its brand without finding ways for riders to do so legally. He has big plans, spending much of his time lining up sponsorships and events, and meticulously moulding a cleaner reputation for the sport (he went out of his way to apologise for “some of the profanities that were said on stage” at the Manhattan awards).
While dirt biking’s reputation may deter some would-be sponsors, others are more than happy to attach their names to street riders on the strength of their skill and growing social media influence.
Sitting front-row at the awards show was Shomari Hearn, managing vice president of Palisades Hudson Financial Group. He looks at the riders and sees “future stars”. His firm distributed gift bags including a packet labelled Top 6 Financial Tips for Street Riders and Their Families.
- Mous picks up the best international rider award in New York, while Baltimore’s Lil Steve takes home best swerve – and holds up a gift bag.
Hearn, who grew up watching dirt bikers in the Bronx, sees the early days of another street sport that made it big: Nascar, which has its origins in the prohibition-era stock cars that illegally distributed moonshine before it got the tracks, sponsors and unspeakable sums of money. “This could evolve into something along those lines over time,” he says.
Keyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty, who scooped the title of best female rider, sees the potential to earn a living regardless of whether cities embrace the sport. She has signed with a manager who gave her a dirt bike for her birthday, and has a starring role in Lost Kings, a TV pilot about Baltimore dirt bikers.
“Whether they make a park or not, bike riding is never going to stop,” the 22-year-old says. “They treat us as criminals – but a lot of people would love to pay to watch us.”