‘Urban dirt bikes saved my life’ – a photo essay

“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.

Dancers on stage at the Motocross Freestyle Streetriders awards

A girl poses for a picture on the red carpet

New York City police keep watch over the event

Fans at the awards show

  • 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 the Parisian suburb of Argenteuil watch a dirt bike rider pull a wheelie

  • 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

  • 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.

The Sunday pack rolling through Baltimore. It sometimes consists of hundreds of bikes, moving en masse, with a team of chase cars filled with photographers and fans

  • A Sunday ride in Baltimore, which sometimes consists of hundreds of bikes, swarming through traffic.

Loud, fast and unpredictable, the pack swarms through traffic on a Sunday ride out in Baltimore

A rider manages traffic on a Sunday in Baltimore. Different riders take turns holding traffic for the rest of the pack

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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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.

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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

  • 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?”

Algerian dirt bike fans pose in Argenteuil, where bikers gather in a field in the shadow of massive public housing complexes

A woman looks on as Mous whips past

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

  • 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 successful urban dirt biker in the world – pulling a vertical wheelie

  • 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

Baltimore’s Lil Steve holds up his award for best swerve and his True Religion gift bag. The awards show had a number of sponsors

  • 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.”

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Homeless deserve a royal wedding invite | Letters

In response to the Conservative leader of Windsor council’s demand that the police clear Windsor of homeless people for the royal wedding (Report, 4 January), could I just add that as a frequent visitor over many years, from childhood to my pension days, I have never been subjected to aggressive and intimidating begging. What I have been subjected to more and more are the appalling and highly visible consequences of the social policies of this government and its Conservative-led predecessor. I see more and more homeless people in Windsor as everywhere. In Windsor I see more and more women out in all weathers selling the Big Issue and responding to the support and interest of passersby with warmth and appreciation.

Windsor has a history of accepting people through hard times. My mother and her family were among the many Jewish people who fled the terrible bombing they experienced in the East End of London and made a temporary home and community in Windsor, where they were welcomed and escaped the horrors of the blitz. That’s one of the reasons why we have spent so much time in Windsor, first with her, then with our daughters and then with our grandchildren.

There is a problem that needs dealing with here, but it is not of the people victimised by savage cuts in housing, welfare benefits and social care. It is the problem of a government that refuses to act as though it had a responsibility to all its citizens not just a coterie of well-heeled supporters and funders.
Peter Beresford
Professor of citizen participation, University of Essex

Rather than sweep all homeless people off the streets lest they be seen by visitors to the town coming for the wedding of Prince Harry, how much better it would be if Harry were to provide a celebratory meal, a royal luncheon, for these homeless people on that day. Something I believe done in past times by kings and princes celebrating a royal wedding.
Anne Rogers

A more proactive way for the royal borough to “clear” the rough-sleeping problem would be to set up a Crisis at Christmas-style shelter for the wedding weekend with professionals and volunteers available to help solve the problems of the borough’s homeless.

And why not make it a country-wide celebration of the wedding? After all, the couple who are getting married have a home funded by the state.

Charitable donations to make this happen would of course be welcome. Harry and Meghan could start the ball rolling by auctioning their wedding presents.
Lynn Fotheringham
Over Kellet, Lancashire

It is almost certain that some of the rough sleepers in Windsor, as elsewhere, are ex-military personnel. Perhaps council leader Simon Dudley should consult Prince Harry about the proposal to clear the streets for his wedding?
Pam Lunn
Kenilworth, Warwickshire

What a snowflake the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead is, wanting the homeless cleared from the streets before the royal wedding! Stout-hearted Tories used to just step over them on their way to the opera.
John O’Dwyer
Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire

These people might like to join in the celebrations, along with thousands of others, some of whom may also arrive in advance, with their sleeping bags, to bag their places along the route.
Christine Moorcroft
Fourstones, Northumberland

The demand from the leader of Windsor that the streets should be cleansed of the poor and homeless brings to mind the way in which this was done for Louis XIV on the rare occasions he left Versailles to visit Paris.
David Parker
Holmfirth, West Yorkshire

Reading the story about the council’s attitude to the homeless in Windsor and the royal wedding I was irresistibly reminded of the old nursery rhyme: Hark, hark, the dogs do bark/ the beggars are coming to town/ some in rags, some in jags/ and some in velvet gowns.
Tim Rossiter
Crickhowell, Powys

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The Guardian view on Windsor’s homelessness: a parable of modern Britain | Editorial

Forcibly removing rough sleepers from the streets is one way to maintain an illusion of affluence, but not one that politicians with a conscience should countenance. That such a device looks cruel is obvious even to one who advocates it: Simon Dudley, the Conservative leader of Windsor and Maidenhead borough council, describes homelessness as “completely unacceptable in a caring, compassionate community” in a letter to Thames Valley police, while urging action to remove the evidence from public view.

Mr Dudley focuses his displeasure on a sub-category of the homeless whom he accuses of “aggressive begging and intimidation” and whose plight he sees as “a voluntary choice”. This distinction between deserving and undeserving poor is as old as it is bogus. It is probably true that some of Windsor’s homeless offend the council leader’s sense of propriety and make choices other than the ones he would recommend. But genuine compassion reaches beyond such narrow parameters.

It is also true that extreme poverty changes the character of a town that attracts millions of tourists and will be a focus of international attention when Prince Harry marries Meghan Markle in Windsor Castle in May. A local politician’s interest in removing social decay from the scene is obvious. It needn’t even be a despicable ambition if the royal wedding were set as the deadline for genuine action to address destitute people’s needs with resources allocated accordingly.

But that would indicate different priorities, a different moral outlook. It would require seeing homelessness as a source of collective national shame and not a quasi-criminal act best referred to the police. This obtuseness reaches the top of the Tory party. Theresa May has said she disagrees with Mr Dudley’s approach but she shows no willingness to accept that, under her government, homelessness is becoming an emergency. In one prime minister’s questions session last month, Mrs May asserted that “statutory homelessness peaked under the Labour government and is down by 50% since then”. The statistical lens deployed there was so warped as to present a reversal of reality. The peak that Mrs May described was in 2003, reflecting the persistence of a problem that had become entrenched under the Tory government that lost office in 1997. Labour got to grips with the issue and numbers fell until 2010, when Downing Street was recaptured by the Conservatives. Progress then went into reverse.

Government statistics put the number of homeless households in the third quarter of 2017 at 15,290 (up from 14,930 at the equivalent point in 2016). But the “statutory” definition is narrow and misleading, covering those getting help from local authorities. Many who sleep rough or drift in and out of precarious private accommodation fall below statistical radars. And the evidence of an acute problem is visible to anyone with their eyes open to it.

Homelessness, the big failure caused by a series of lesser ones, is often the visible symbol of social policy under stress. The Tories can only obfuscate for so long before majority opinion recoils in horror at a government that treats abject destitution as a tolerable side-effect of its economic policies. Mrs May is on this trajectory. She might reject the terms used by the leader of Windsor council, but she seems to share his instinct for seeing extreme poverty more as a source of political embarrassment than a spur to action. Her dodgy statistics are a subtler device than police intervention, but both testify to the false belief that a social calamity can simply be swept aside.

Arsenal’s link with young homeless gets results on and off the pitch

It’s apparent, very quickly, that I have made a calamitous footwear error. Standing on the edges of an artificial-turf indoor football pitch at Arsenal’s stadium complex in north London, I vainly attempt to kick a ball at the assembled huddle of Centrepoint residents, all wearing sensible kit and studded boots, while I’ve plumped for knee-high suede boots. The ball veers away wildly and one of the 24 young people jogs to retrieve it.

The group are here, a few days before Christmas, for their final session of a scheme that melds employability and confidence training with sport and exercise. Once a week, for two months, the young women and men come to Arsenal in the kit provided, spending half the session in a small room, discussing interview techniques, tactics for searching for work, application skills, and building confidence. Craig, one of three trainers working with the group, says: “You can look at a benchpress and say I’m going to lift 200kg, but you’ve got to start somewhere.” Confidence is particularly important: many Centrepoint residents have been through traumatic periods, often repeatedly, and treated with disdain and even violence. Even if their personal circumstances weren’t already confidence destroying, the stigma around homelessness is endemic and can become self-defeating.

Mixing jobs talk with football helps with this: as well the health benefits, even the most shy members of the group open up and shout suggestions in the complex team games on the pitch. Without teamwork and talking together their action plans to win can never be realised: being confident enough to talk to strangers is difficult for lots of young homeless people – and a job interview is precisely that, with particularly high stakes.

Talisha became homeless after a breakdown in the relationship with her mother. After six months of sleeping on friends’ sofas, she found Centrepoint, the youth homeless charity and a beneficiary of the 2017 Guardian and Observer charity appeal. After completing the Arsenal training course earlier in the year, she represented England at the Homeless World Cup in Oslo. “Last year I was sheepish, but it brought me out of my shell. Now I talk to anyone,” she says, taking a break from training. “I learn new things off them, they learn new things off me.” All participants point out one of the main things is how much people share about their experiences, and how this bolsters their confidence when speaking to new people. Craig explains that for those who go on to compete in the international competitions, there’s often a lot of press attention, which can be overwhelming – they use the opportunity to do workshops on resilience, to help them consider what they can learn from such situations, and how they can use new skills to overcome problems in later life.

While the course may only be eight weeks, the work between Centrepoint and Arsenal continues. All of those attending are looking for work, and Arsenal’s links with the local economy are huge: if people want to work in retailing, catering, event planning or anything around the stadium, the trainers know where to point them. But they’re realistic: when someone inevitably suggests they’d like to coach a Premier League team, the coaches point out there are very few coaching jobs in the country at all, and those that do exist are both unbelievably competitive, and take years of work to attain. Several want to look for jobs in security, and the football club and Centrepoint have the contacts and resources to ensure they can get the accredited badge for such work.

But, as Craig tells the group, “if you try something and don’t like it, we won’t force you to continue down that route. That’s not going to help you.” One of the women tells me she secured a few paid trial shifts in a shop, then realised she was completely unsuited to retailing. She is now looking into youth work as a possible career path, something she hadn’t considered before coming to Arsenal and observing how the trainers helped people, but also clearly enjoyed their jobs deeply.

Aidan became homeless at 20, fleeing a forced marriage. She came to Centrepoint after sofa-surfing for five months. “All the workshops have a theme: teamwork, responsibility, communication. But meeting new people is a big thing, becoming more confident. I want to go into film now,” she tells me. She is currently at college completing an animation and film-making course.

Savannah says: “My big fear at the beginning was that there were loads of boys. But I just got on with it, and worked to overcome my shyness. I usually avoid big groups, but it’s made me more confident.”

Charlie was reluctant to join the scheme at first: “The first fear for me was that I was told it was mandatory to wear an Arsenal top.” As an ardent Spurs fan, he’s overcome that barrier by wearing the rival team’s socks for the training session. “We work on team-work, communication skills, and I was pretty confident before but it definitely does improve your confidence, and it’s different. I’m talking about coaching and other work with youth groups now. I know the ins and outs of gangs, so I can use that knowledge for good.” Charlie clearly admires the coaches working with Centrepoint and Arsenal and wants to return the favour: throughout the team games, he encourages and chats to a woman who doesn’t seem keen to participate, but is fully involved by the end, with his gentle prodding.

On completion of the course, each member is individually applauded as they collect their certificate, and an A4-size portrait of themselves taken by the official Arsenal team photographer. The photos are transformative, atmospheric and really make the men and women look fantastic. Most people pretend not to be bowled over, but furtively gaze at them in awe when they think eyes are elsewhere.

But there’s one more perk: a tour of the stadium. Through the directors’ box, the changing rooms, the players’ entrance and the stands, they ask questions and take selfies and videos of themselves next to statues and team shirts. The laughter and enthusiasm is infectious: the scheme may have ended now, but they seem far happier, and have enjoyed being welcomed into places that would normally be closed to them.

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