Urban Dirt Bikers Prowl Harlem’s Streets

By Sam Petulla on Oct 14th, 2009

Harlem dirt bike riders "Free" and Elliot Brown cruise Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. (Photo by Sam Petulla)

Harlem dirt bike riders "Free" and Elliot Brown cruise Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. (Photo by Sam Petulla)

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.

Dirt biker "Free" rides a wheelie down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. (Photo by Sam Petulla)

Dirt biker "Free" rides a wheelie down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. (Photo by Sam Petulla)

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.”

19 Responses for “Urban Dirt Bikers Prowl Harlem’s Streets”

  1. Takebackharlem says:

    These should be illegal. If the cops don’t want to stop them then the public should.

  2. Patricia Puterbaugh says:

    Go Sam. Geez, what about mothers wanting to walk their kids on the sidewalks? What about playing in the streets! What a concept.? Harlem is a different world. These guys would loose it in the real dirt bike world though, in the boonies!

  3. [...] Noisy Illegal Dirt Bikes Speed All Over Harlem Streets (Uptowner) [...]

  4. Liam says:

    This has been an ongoing public safety issue in Baltimore as well. It leads to laws that allow police to immediately impound any dirt bike left on the street or in alleys or parking lots so that they don’t have to try to pursue them.

    I look forward to a month-long crackdown when these are cleaned up off the streets and people are safer in general because of it.

  5. [...] Manhattan: Dirt Bike Riders Tear Through Harlem; Cops at a Loss (Uptowner) [...]

  6. Harlemite says:

    Why does Uptowner actually think anyone enjoys this crime. These are illegal bikes, with illegal people riding them. Just today I called 911 on one that took to the sidewalk and nearly mowed down a woman pushing a baby carriage. NYC needs to pass a no tolerance law on these and confiscate and jail any individual riding these dangerous bikes.

    You can help by dialing 911 anytime you see one.

  7. Born N Raised In Harlem says:

    People have been riding these bikes in Harlem for yeaaaaarrrrrrsssss! As many people that don’t like what they see, the same amount Loves it. I agree, riding on the side walks is stepping over the line, and really putting people lives in danger. There’s no excuse for that. There are always going to be a few assholes in every bunch, but for the most part these riders are just doing something they really love to do. Those who are out of line are out of line, but those who are doing what they love and are doing it without hurting or wanting to hurt anyone, should be left alone.

  8. timdawg says:

    i just peeped the video again, the dmx one, that’s mentioned, and there is not one dirtbike in that video, they’re all atvs and road bikes, mostly rice rockets, i don’t understand when the dirtbikes hit harlem and baltimore, now wasn’t b-more first with this urban dirt bike craze? just like they invented the Air Force One (i’m from nyc but b-more impresses me sometimes)

  9. la la la says:

    I have to start by admitting that I am a bike fan. I have always loved them. However, of the past couple of years, they really have gotten out of control.
    I live on the corner of a very common bike route. When the bikes come down my street and sidewalk, they block off the intersection so that they can run the light. All the cars honk and drivers scream at them to no avail. The two or so bikes that do the blocking, burn rubber, and by the time the bikes have gone through, my apartment is filled with exhaust and burning rubber fumes. As an asthmatic, this has become a major issue for me.
    As well, it scares the shit out of my cats. I’l be sitting watching tv with my cat on my lap and when the bikes start to roar, the cats flip out, clawing the crap out of my legs.
    My 90 year old neighbor downstairs gets startled by them and my neighbor with 2 small children is at wits end because her babies keep waking up screaming when the bikes go by.
    As I said, I love bikes but riding on the sidewalks, the noise, the exhaust, the blocking traffic – is kind of turning me off.

  10. JAPA says:

    At the end of the day, POLICE cause more accidents chasing illegal Bike owners by killing them or knocking them off causing serious injury. I see no difference from yellow Cabs and gypsy Cab operators cutting across 3 lanes in traffic to get a fare with, elders, women, children in passing vehicles. How many accidents has bike riding caused over the years? How many so-called traffic jams has a illegal bike owner caused? Other then “Noise” pollution, what’s the difference if the owners become legal cyclist operators and start having “HARLEY DAVIDSON’S “( which is the loudest bike I personally ever heard in my life) will this forum list then write how the hate how the urban community rides on Harley’s and they are not made for Urban people?…… My Point, Who Cares! and by the way B-More did not create the NIKE AIR FORCE 1, NEW YORK MADE THAT SHOE POPULAR Tim Dawg, which it’s also known as “The Uptown” NIKE also makes NYC AIRFORCE’s every year…Not B’More….B’more only impress the world with “THE WIRE” & Cal Ripken

  11. BigSHLONG says:

    I SEEN THEM today they where riding around ridgewood maybe like about 30 of them with dirt bikes and atvs one even was gettingchased by a police car and manged to escape them!!! THERE MAD CRAZY KEEP IT UP

  12. Ex-Cop says:

    As someone who has personally caught a lot of illegal dirt bikers back in Europe, I can say it’s easy to catch these guys with the right equipment. NYPD just has no clue what they need, and don’t seem capable of looking outside of their own bubble for answers.
    Do they think NYC is the only place in the World this has ever happened? It happened elsewhere long before this. And if I see one of these coming up the sidewalk towards me I’ll take his head off – they have no idea how to ride, except in a straight line on a dry day, an 80 year old could do better.

  13. Uponone631 says:

    Were just too fast hahaha uponone

  14. Kikakiki says:

    The answer must be develope a place they can ride and the police can block and harrass them into riding in that place. For instance central park is closed to traffic on 3/4 nights a week or portions of riverside drive is open to them during certain hours, or allow them to use park space near yankee stadium, but whereever, give them time/space and enforce traffic rules in all other areas of the city

  15. bobnewbie says:

    too dumb is more like it

  16. Freedom lover says:

    Snitches get stitches for a reason, other people that r afraid to live free h8 on people enjoying thier lives or atleast trying to because they can be loud and have no fear. So the call policeto harrasse these youngens that dropped their guns for bikes. Youngens get pissed drop the bikes pik up guns and start shootin pigs and snitches some die from each catagory they change the law to iether no tollerence kill search all colors old and young battle royal youngens or pigs win pedestrians lose. Do we really need all that cuz of loud mufflers. Do u really kno what beeef is signed ready to die r u

  17. Daniel says:

    Those bikes are so fuckin annoying. They don’t give a shit about the neighborhood or other people. I’d love to come over to the owners apartment and ring a motor in their ears while they are trying to sleep. They are fuckin losers with nothing else to do. unfortunately.

  18. Arlene M Wilcox says:

    Harlemite: “Why does Uptowner actually think anyone enjoys this crime. These are illegal bikes, with illegal people riding them,”

    What constitutes “illegal people”? Just wondering.

  19. WhiteyInHarlem says:

    So, I realize this article is mad old. But every time I see near collisions on 1st ave, or watch while some guy races along the sidewalk while school is letting out (granted, this I only saw once), or when my dog panics from the sounds of these bikes I wonder why the police don’t do anything about it? So I started cruising the internet.

    But I have to say, now I get it. If you’re saying that this is something that people love to do, then they should be able to do it. After all, it occurs all over the country in backwoods mudflats. Why not in NYC? So why not create a space/several spaces, that can accomodate this activity where bikers can go and have this kind of unregulated fun. Schedule blocked streets at certain times on certain days, shut down Randall’s a couple nights a week, put a track in VAN CORTLAND or some swath’s of abandoned portions of SoBro. BUILD AN INFRASTRUCTURE that allows these enthusiasts to embrace/display this activity by embracing some proactive change that doesn’t involve putting another group young black men in prison.

    After all, that’s what this is about, isn’t it? Sure the cat-and-mouse portion of this little story must be fun for some observers and I’m sure that’s part of the rush for the participants. But at the end of the day, young brothers don’t really want to end up in jail. Many of them have taken up this activity to avoid the kind of associations that traditionally get young urban males in trouble with the law or dead —drugs, gangs, etc. And don’t police have better things to worry about?

    I’ve been a member of the Harlem Community for 7 years. I know that’s only a small drop of time, but it’s long enough to know that most people want a better community. It’s possible to make our community a better and safer place to live AND support these boys & men on their bikes. (And by better, I don’t mean wealthier & whiter)

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