Stand on a block in Harlem and wait for a loud buzz—building to a roar, interrupted by pops. Eventually one will rip past, its rider howling—a dirt bike speeding and diving through city traffic. The bike wheelies further down the street and slides out the tail. The rider’s wearing athletic shoulder pads, a mesh chest guard, and underneath his helmet, flying behind like a flag of independence, a black do-rag.
Harlem has become home to a booming dirt bike scene—from renegades on illegal bikes to stunt jockeys who practice in abandoned lots. The bikes come in more colors than an iPod: classic red, hunter green, combinations like blue and yellow, checkered variations, and straight jet-black. Some bikes aren’t registered, and the police try to impound them and ticket the drivers. Residents either applaud their efforts or say despite city ordinances and police enforcement, they’re here to stay.
McKilo Williams, 33, known better by his alias “Ki-Lo The Dread,” helped start the dirt bike trend in Harlem a decade ago, when he starred as lead rider in hip-hop artist DMX’s video for the classic rap song “The Ruff Ryders Anthem.” As DMX raps, hundreds of dirt bikers, ATV and motorcycle riders swarm him—some in block-long wheelies, others burning-out their back tires into smoke clouds. Together, they became a bike team—the “Ruff Ryders.” Their influence in the hip-hop scene remains strong; dirt bikers still idolize them for their speed and their beat-up, ride-anywhere style.
Williams stands over 6 feet tall, has a lean but muscular frame and wears long shaggy dreadlocks. He turned dirt biking through Harlem’s streets into a profession. “I met another guy, Wink1100, while I was riding down the street practicing tricks. He eventually asked me to be in the hip-hop videos,” he said, hanging out on 134th Street with his family, who looked on pridefully. “But I take care of my family with this,” he added. “I went to Miami, South Carolina—all on tour with the Ruff Ryders.”
Russell Houston, 28, standing on the corner of 135th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, said he sees urban dirt biking only gaining popularity. “My friends, basically everybody, is getting a bike. I decided I should try and get one myself and start a bike club.”
So Houston has been saving. “I gotta do my research,” he said. “If you want a used bike it will probably be like eight hundred dollars. A new bike is closer to fifteen hundred, two thousand.”
Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 135th Street is a hub for riders and their fans. “When you see a crowd, they’ll be out,” said Darnell Jackson, sitting on a ledge on the 135th Street block corner, beside the public housing apartments towering behind him. From here, bikes cruise up and down Frederick Douglass, or move cross-town, over to First Avenue and back.
And the bikes are quick.
“They can get up to 75, 80, 90,” said Blue Rico, a casual rider in baggy jeans reluctant to supply his name for fear of the police. “We’ll ride Frederick Douglass, Lenox—all over.”
They travel in teams—entire packs flying down Frederick Douglass Boulevard, bike after bike up pointed skyward in a wheelie. “40 of us—maybe. 50 on a good day—all riding,” said Elliot Brown, who rides a brown KLR 650. Some bikes have busted license plates dangling from the rear; others riders go without registration or helmets at all. Often, nubby tires are worn almost past the rubber from spending too many miles on asphalt street instead of on the soft dirt tracks they’re designed for. Stickers plaster the bikes like murals devoted to everything popular in dirt biking, fashion, music, and any other decals that can stylize them.
A dirt biker’s arch nemesis is a police cruiser.
Police in the 32nd Precinct, however, say that they can try to pull over dirt bikers, but they cannot chase. “We can’t catch them because they’ll take the sidewalk,” said Officer Keith Lee, visibly angered, “We can’t pursue.” Another officer, standing beside him but declining to be named, added, “They all disappear. If we continue to chase it’s even more of a hazard to pedestrians.”
At the 32nd Precinct, disagreement reigned over such basic facts as dirt bike-pedestrian collisions. Some officers said they had heard about several pedestrian injuries in the last few months—none as a result of police pursuit—while other officers hadn’t heard of any. Currently, the department has no strategies for curbing the rise in illegal dirt biking or for catching fleeing riders, said officers at the 32nd Precinct. A Police Department Press Spokesman would not respond to phone calls and emails.
When issuing out tickets, police look for bikers not meeting the legal requirements for owning any motorcycle: periodic exhaust inspections from the Department of Motor Vehicles, and registration for the bike, considered a motorcycle. The rider must also have a motorcycle license, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Yet Williams says the police’s unfriendliness towards dirt bikers is unfounded. “They stop us and they give us lots of tickets and they try to take your bike,” he said. “I even have cop friends that ride them, and they’ll still try to stop us, looking for anything that can give us a ticket.”
At Cycle Therapy—Harlem’s largest motorcycle shop—salesman Tomar Sho said sales of dirt bikes have skyrocketed—“easily doubling”—in recent years, and that he sees as many legal as illegal bikes on the street. But, he added, once a bike is sold, he can’t control how a customer will use it—that’s on the police.
Eyal Deep, another Cycle Therapy salesman, noted that mini-dirt bikes—for riders up to four feet tall—have become a particularly hot seller, with kids from the same apartment building sometimes pooling money to buy one.
But Sho added that while dirt bike sales have risen, they still only account for 1 percent of motorcycle sales and cause their share of headaches. Riders rarely bring bikes in for maintenance, preferring a beat-up style—a major revenue loss.
A few months ago, Deep said he heard some dirt bikes down the street and assumed they were coming to buy parts. Instead, the pack of riders, mostly in their early 20s, hopped the steps leading to the shop, roared through the door and started hiding their bikes from pursuing police officers among the showroom bikes and gear.
Residents have mixed opinions. Bea Harris, who has lived in Harlem since 1954, wants to see the dirt bike trend end. “They’re loud and they’re in the wrong place,” she said, walking along Frederick Douglass Boulevard shortly after some bikes passed, “The riders don’t use them the way they should. They’re not careful. They’re just reckless.”
But Malik Cupid, another lifelong resident, considered the police and biker urban cat-and-mouse games a permanent Harlem culture fixture. “They’re kind of fun to watch,” he said, looking around the neighborhood. “It’s not going anywhere. So just give it up,” he laughed.
A promotional video for the Harlem Legendz motorcycle club, features narration from a rider named “Buster,” who explains that illegal bikes are a popular emblem of street life. “All the rappers, all the movie stars—they emulate the streets. They emulate us. They emulate Harlem.”