Forty-some motorcycles clog the tiny parking lot of a Subway in Akron. There are no Harleys here -- just small sport bikes with garish paint jobs, fast enough to zip from Akron to Cleveland in under a half-hour. A Harley couldn't keep up.
Tony Pines -- a.k.a. Chubb Fresh -- is in an agitated state. He tears off his helmet and bounces from rider to rider, clasping hands and pulling people into his belly for bear hugs. Tattoos encircle his arms and legs. His scalp is shaved, and he's grinning maniacally.
Tugging at the crotch of his sagging shorts, he exhorts: "We're fully ghetto. We don't even fucking care." Translation: There are few rules today, no recognition of authority. Lives will be risked. If you can't hang, don't ride.
Two college-aged men with identical Gap shirts emerge from Subway. This raucous throng wasn't here 20 minutes ago, when they parked their Acura. Now, their car is hemmed in by motorcycles. The Gap boys wait patiently for the bikers to notice. They dare not ask anyone to move. But the bikers are oblivious to their plight. Finally -- after a half-hour -- one rider notices the men and arranges a path. The Acura chugs off.
The intimidation is unintentional. After all, this isn't a gang occupying the Subway parking lot. This is Riders for Life, a group of Cleveland motorcyclists who insist they're a kinder, gentler band of bikers. Their intent is not to menace, yet they can't even park their cycles without inducing panic. Wait till they hit the freeway.
They may be Cleveland bikers, but many learned their tricks in Akron, where a stunt-riding culture took root in the mid-1990s. The Subway became a gathering place because, as one rider puts it, "They don't bitch." Bikers take forbearance where they can find it.
But they get far less of it from the cops. An Akron Police cruiser has already made three passes by the Subway, just to let the riders know they're being monitored.
Chubb is planning a trip to Derby Downs, where Akron holds its All-American Soap Box Derby. The parking lot there is big, vacant, remote -- perfect for performing stunts. Yet the cruiser circling Subway has Chubb concerned. He doesn't want this day's event marred by a police chase.
"Guys, we're going to ride out to Derby Downs," he announces. "Let's try to keep the speed down around 60. We've already had cops passing. We'll do the tricks when we get there."
The motorcycles roar from the Subway lot like jets off an aircraft carrier. The ride is about nine miles -- south on State Route 8, then east on I-76 -- but not even two minutes pass before one biker launches his front tire into the air, doing a wheelie at 70 mph alongside a minivan. The van's driver gestures furiously and bangs her hands on the steering wheel. The helmeted biker stares back through a mirrored visor. Another rider zooms past at 100 mph.
The Riders for Life stunt team, consisting of Jay Majors, Shannon Sayre, and, when the mood strikes him, Larry "Love" Bostick, surges to the front of the pack to pop wheelies.
The trip takes the bikers along a side road. Jay puts one foot on his seat, then the other. Slowly, he lets go of the handlebars and stands, arms outstretched at 45 mph. It's called the "Christ" maneuver. He holds it for a block, then climbs safely down.
Asked why he does it, Jay just shrugs. "It's a rush."
Akron Police Sergeant Fred Beitzel has a different explanation. "They're idiots!" he says. "Everything they do is against the law."
Perhaps so. But Riders for Life realize that idiocy sells -- for $25 a videotape, to be exact. And when the group's video is completed, Chubb & Co. expect to fully capitalize on the burgeoning industry of thrill riding, where speeding, stunting, and general lunacy can lead not only to tape sales, but to clothing lines, cult-hero status, and celebrity appearances for $10,000 a pop. Possessing a death wish, after all, can be very profitable these days.
Riders for Life, the aspiring corporation, has arrived at Derby Downs.
The bikers take turns speeding across the parking lot. Some do wheelies. Others do "stoppies," which involve accelerating to 80, then slamming on the brakes so the bike's back tire lifts high off the ground. Burnouts are also popular: Riders accelerate and brake at the same time, forcing back tires to spin wildly in place. The air fills with smoke and the pungent scent of burned rubber.
Within five minutes, someone casually remarks, "Cops."
An Akron Police cruiser pulls up, bulbs lit. The riders exchange wry smiles. Chubb and Larry Love lean against the cruiser's doors.
"Is there a problem?"
The cop's jaw is clenched. He doesn't look at them.
"You're doing tricks," he says. "Look at those marks."
"We didn't do that today," says Larry Love. "Those have been there for years."
The cop is silent, staring grimly ahead. Another cruiser is approaching. "Just go," he says. "Just go."
It's not the first time they've been ousted. Chubb turns to the riders, who are sitting on their bikes, looking bored: "Guys, we're rolling to Cleveland."
The stunts are not original -- a fact Riders for Life freely admit. Everything they do has been done before by the Starboyz, an Akron quartet that gets credit -- and blame -- for mass-marketing stunt riding in the United States.
With bikes coated in fake fur, the band began doing freeway tricks in 1996. When they committed their stunts to videotape, they had an instant hit. "People saw it, and they were blown away," says Starboy Scott Caraboolad. "We only meant to give it to friends, but in the first week, we sold 1,000 tapes."
Back then, Akron officers who saw someone doing wheelies at 120 mph actually turned on their sirens. Before long, the cops learned the Starboyz could comfortably reach 170 or 180 on the freeway, while their cruisers topped out at 130.
This gave police a Wile E. Coyote role in the videos. The Starboyz even taunt them with the initials FTP ("Fuck the Police"), which appear on every piece of Starboyz gear.
The group's flamboyance attracted an underground following among motorcyclists, who bought the tapes and followed along on rides. It was enough to forge lucrative careers for the Starboyz, now a trio that tours North America and Europe, performing on closed tracks. A weekend show brings in $10,000 apiece.
"What sets the Starboyz apart is that they were the first to really make a living out of stunt riding," says Mike Seate, a Pittsburgh journalist whose upcoming book, Street Extreme, details the sport's growth.
The founders of Riders for Life were among the legion of young Northeast Ohio bikers who rode with the Starboyz, witnessing their rise to celebrity. The notion of riding motorcycles for a living captivated them.
"The Starboyz are our friends," says Chubb, "and our idols."
He admits that he gets ready for a big ride by watching their videotapes, which he's seen a thousand times. He loves the part where a Starboy rides a wheelie between two school buses in adjoining freeway lanes.
When the Boyz toured the U.S., Chubb and Larry Love manned a booth selling clothing and videos. They watched merchandise fly off racks. Bismark (a.k.a. Biz) Sleibi helped design a website, which generated more sales.
To the three of them, it looked as if there were more buyers of biker merchandise than sellers. So they decided to form their own group. Steve "Big Man" Murad, their fourth partner, coined the name "Riders for Life." At first glance, it conjures images of bikers against abortion. In truth, it was inspired by the NWA rap anthem "Niggaz 4 Life."
Biz established a website, R4Lgear.com. Larry Love, a salesman at State 8, a giant motorcycle showroom in Akron, worked contacts in the retail industry. Chubb brought in the two primary stunt riders, Jay and Shannon, whom he bills as Cleveland's best. And all four began to market T-shirts to bike shops and at cycle shows.
With overhead costs covered by credit cards, Riders for Life registered as a corporation in July. They aren't breaking even yet, Chubb confesses. But with the video scheduled to arrive by Christmas, and Riders for Life jeans and footwear to follow, it's only a matter of time before they become a commercial force. Or at least that's the dream.
After all, if the Starboyz are a stunt-riding group with a clothing line, Riders for Life is a clothing line with a stunt-riding group. And that, says Big Man, could make them "the FUBU of the motorcycle industry."
Tossed from Derby Downs, Riders for Life are Cleveland-bound. On the freeway, the bikers gather around the sleek black torpedo form of Kevin Wolverton's '99 Camaro SS.
The car, which can reach 160 mph, was used to film Starboyz videos. But for someone with 40-odd bikes swarming around him at speeds beyond 100 mph, Kevin looks exceedingly bored, leaning back in his seat and dragging on a Marlboro Menthol Light. Motorists on I-77 spot the Camaro and its escorts in their rearview mirrors and move to the right lane or pull to the shoulder.
Kevin pushes the Camaro to 140. The bikers speed past anyway. Chubb swerves across the middle lane and misses the back bumper of a Toyota Corolla by inches. Others use on-ramp merging lanes to pass cars on the right, the shoulder to pass semis.
When Kevin slows to 80, Jay and Shannon pop wheelies and hold them only five feet from the Camaro's tailpipe. Three miles and two hills later, Jay remains on the same wheelie.
Those sharing the freeway grasp steering wheels with white knuckles. One moment they have an open road; the next they're caged in on all sides by 40 motorcycles.
"They have this fear that [a biker] is going to fall, and they have a general fear when there's a group of guys on bikes around them," says Larry Love. "It scares the shit out of them. But we're trying to get away from people being afraid like that."
Yet there is something inherently threatening about a wheelie's cobra-like pose. When done at speeds of up to 100 mph, it's easy to imagine a biker sprawling across the freeway.
"It's a distraction," says Lieutenant Judy Neal, post commander of the Akron Highway Patrol unit. "If you're going down the highway at 50 mph and somebody passes right between you and the car driving next to you, it's going to frighten you, and if you make an evasive movement, you could be into the guardrail."
Riders for Life admit that's a possibility, but claim their stunts have never triggered an accident. Lieutenant Neal concedes the point, but the longer trick-riding persists, she says, the better the chance it will produce a pileup.
As the group storms up the freeway, kids stare in wide-eyed wonder. Parents curse and flip middle fingers. Some scribble down license plate numbers and slap them up against the window, as if to say, "Gotcha, asshole!" But the reactions merely provide amusement for the bikers. Many of them have fake plates anyway.
Their favorite targets are high-performance cars with drivers who think they rule the road. To outrun a muscle car is to emasculate its driver. "You know what's real cool? You'll get a guy in a fast-ass car, and he'll be doing 100 mph, and you'll do a wheelie right past him," explains Larry Love. "He just freaks out."
In Cleveland, Riders for Life's preferred hangout is the parking lot of Griffith Field, the softball park near West Seventh Street. Larry Love stands on his seat as he rides a wheelie. Jay and Shannon climb to the front of their bikes, sitting on top of the windshield, reaching back to grab the throttle. In this awkward position, they do wheelies, burnouts, and stoppies.
They also perform the hottest trick in stunt riding: the 12 o'clock wheelie, where the bike reaches an angle of almost 90 degrees to the ground. Proof of success comes when the tail end scrapes against the pavement.
Jessie, a Riders for Life groupie, joins Jay on the back of his bike. When he does the 12 o'clock, her back is inches from the asphalt. She smiles ecstatically.
A group of beer leaguers gathers in the parking lot to ooh and aah. When the show is over, they protest. One spectator climbs into his rusting Mitsubishi truck, speeds down the lot, and begins a frenzied sequence of spinouts. The riders laugh and cheer. The Mitsubishi ends up with a flat tire.
This has been a good day for Riders for Life. Not a single one fell or collided with another rider. The pack motors away triumphantly, off to the Flats for dinner.
A few stay behind to practice tricks. One attempts a stoppie, but misjudges his distance from the curb. He slides tire-first into the curb, flips up in the air, and hits a pole. Though the bike shatters in two pieces and huge gouges are left in the man's helmet, it's considered a minor wreck: "He just put a hole in his knee, and he has some fingerprint damage," reflects one rider.
The biker is taken to the hospital.
Nobody -- not even the best stunt rider -- is immune to wrecks. Bike Week, a motorcyclists' Mardi Gras in Daytona Beach, is a proving ground for young bikers. As they push the limits of their skill, accidents happen. Last year's Bike Week brought 281 crashes and 15 deaths.
Jay's worst accident occurred there.
"I was riding 130 mph in Daytona, filming [a video] on the back roads," he says. "When we came on a sharp turn, I couldn't handle it." The bike skidded out, flinging Jay from his seat. He landed 100 yards away, on grass. That and his helmet probably saved his life. Still, the wreck left him with a broken collarbone. He was riding wheelies four months later.
Shannon avoided wrecking in Daytona, but he couldn't escape police. One week netted him 10 speeding tickets. In an unfamiliar city, it's imprudent to run from the cops. "You came here on vacation," a cop told him, "and you're leaving on probation."
Like accidents, speeding tickets are inevitable. The best a rider can do is minimize both. "I put my bike down at 105, and the [other biker] who ran into me was going faster than that," Larry Love says of one accident. The fall shattered his elbow, but he walked away. Chubb doesn't do wheelies, which is why he's never fallen, but he still pushes his motorcycle past 150.
Big Huey, an Akron rider who toured the freeways with the Starboyz, wasn't so lucky. He misjudged a turn and launched his bike off a bridge. The Starboyz dedicated their first video to his memory.
Crashes are the most gruesome part of the sport, but they're also the most spectacular. "If I watch a video without a big crash, I'm disappointed," admits Chubb. The Riders for Life video now being filmed will need crashes to sell, and some of those crashes have yet to happen. They may happen on a freeway.
"We know it's wrong, yet it's fun; it makes money, and it's exciting," Chubb says. "No one wants to see somebody doing a wheelie in a parking lot. They want to see something dangerous and crazy. People buy these motorcycle videos to see crashes. They want to see people get hurt.
"We're Evel Knievel, except the shit we do is illegal."
And the shit they do is catching on. Author Mike Seate, who follows the stunt-riding world, says that, in just the last few years, sport bikers have organized in nearly every major U.S. city, and most got the idea from videos.
"These kids don't buy these tapes for enjoyment," says Seate. "They bought the tape so they could see the stunts and do them."
He predicts that, within five years, the circuit will have grown to the magnitude of the X Games. Seate also predicts, much more ominously, that injury and death will grow with it.
"They all want to be dangerous," he says. "Their attitude is 'I'm going to do this stunt, you're going to tape it, and I'm going to get noticed.'"
Then again, many sports invite injury when practiced by amateurs. Seate argues that stunt riding is "no more inherently dangerous than other thrill sports, like jet-skiing or parasailing," and it deserves recognition as a legitimate sport.
Not all motorcyclists agree. "Stunt riding represents inappropriate, irresponsible behavior and lack of respect for other drivers," says Mike Mount, spokesman for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. "We work real hard trying to distance ourselves from that."
Starboy Scott Caraboolad admits he and his trick-turning brethren are "outcasts" within the larger motorcycle industry. Chubb even claims the Hell's Angels want to kill any stunt riders they come across, because they give motorcyclists a bad name -- though he wryly notes that the Angels haven't helped the biking image, either.
There are dozens of magazines that display sport bikes, but few acknowledge the infant sport the machines have spawned. Cycle World is the biggest motorcycle magazine, and while it usually has a sport bike on its cover, it condemns anyone who actually pushes top speeds of 190 mph or attempts tricks while driving amid other motorists.
"That's really stupid," says Executive Editor Brian Catterson. "It's probably going to cause an accident, get somebody hurt."
This scenario has occurred to automobile drivers, and they have radical ideas for preventing injury to innocents.
"Why don't you go on the freeway and kill yourselves," one woman recently suggested to Chubb and Big Man when they stopped to dine at a Dunkin' Donuts.
It's a familiar refrain, and the bikers have a tough time constructing a defense.
"To a point, they're absolutely right," says Big Man. "That's the truth, and it sucks. You're out there, you're doing tricks in public, and that's why it's extreme. That's why it's rebellious and edgy. Anything can happen. A bike can wipe out, make a car go in a ditch, and kill somebody.
"But we'll still do it. I'm out to sell videos and sell clothes, to make money. I'm a businessman. This is my livelihood."
The money's in the mainstream, and that's where Riders for Life want to be. They think there's a repressed biker in everyone, and they point to their own experiences as evidence. On two wheels, they've found a reliable form of exhilaration.
"Going to bed at night, I can't wait to wake up, get dressed, shave my head, put my bandanna on, and get on my bike," says Chubb in a rare moment of earnestness. "That's all I have to look forward to. I'd rather have my bike than a wife."
"It's really a state of mind," adds Big Man. "You and your motorcycle are best buddies. It gets you away from your workload, your relationships . . . To me, it's my therapist."
Some might say Big Man and his ilk need new therapists -- the type that advise against hurling oneself down a freeway at 170 mph. And the negative perceptions do present a business dilemma: If the rest of the world thinks they're deranged, or a gang, it's going to be damn hard to get people to buy T-shirts.
"It's very contradictory," Big Man admits. "We do the extreme sport biking, yet we want to be accepted in the mainstream, and it's hard to be both."
The bikers claim to be fairly normal people who are just terribly misunderstood. They're not gangbangers. They don't lead wandering, reckless lives.
Big Man has a business degree and tested out law school. Biz started his own web design company before the Riders for Life venture. Chubb's frenzied condition might suggest a fondness for crank, but he swears off all drugs and alcohol. "I don't need them. I'm like this naturally."
Larry Love is committed to riding partly out of gratitude. When his mother died last year, droves of bikers -- some friends, some strangers -- visited him at work daily.
They're lounging on the patio at TGI Friday's in the Flats. The scene is an explosion of bandannas, tattoos, and shabby, baggy clothes. The bikers are showing a boisterous disregard for other diners. Penis size is debated. Women are ogled. "Fuck" and "shit" bounce around at high volume.
Riders for Life look monstrous.
But don't expect restaurant authority to swoop down. An assistant manager sees Starboyz regalia on the bikers' clothes and confesses to being a fan. "Can you hook us up with some free appetizers or something?" asks Chubb. Two appetizers arrive shortly.
Marissa, the waitress, is working her first day. She's assigned the tables occupied by the group and assumes the quiet, deferential demeanor of the Gap boys four hours earlier. The bikers, however, are deep into debunking a stereotype: that cycling is about picking up women.
"I mean, chicks dig it, dude," says Larry Love. "I've had some good tail in my time. The girls like riding on the back of the bike."
"It's easy to fuck girls, being who we are, riding bikes," Chubb concurs, "but that's not what it's about."
Women are merely a bonus round, they conclude. Their video will not only feature freeway stunts, but footage of members carousing in bars. It will have nudity -- Jay riding a wheelie naked, then performing tricks with a nude woman on the back. "We're going to make a video that's going to make a guy call his buddy and say, 'You're not going to believe what these fucking guys did!'" says Larry Love.
They want to be more than a trend, however. They hope 80-year-old bikers purchase their shirts out of pride. They hope kids who aspire to owning a bike buy the gear. "We want to be everybody," Biz says. For all the talk of mainstream marketing, however, the group doesn't look as though it's cultivating new fans at TGI Friday's. Other patrons do their best to avoid eye contact.
Still, while the cussing and leering is boorish, it's not mean-spirited. As a group, the bikers are even friendly. This surprising reality is their most endearing quality. The waitress has recognized it, and she's now beaming with relief. She yanks down her trousers to display that she, too, has a tattoo, high on her left cheek. Chubb offers to sign her other cheek. With a magic marker he pens "Riders for Life."