You hear them before you see them, the loud bursts of buzzing growing close like an angry swarm of bees heading your way — bzzzz.
And then they come into view, a pack of 20, 30, 40 young men on dirt bikes and four wheelers whizzing by, winding through curious onlookers and cars on the streets of the near-eastside, with complete indifference to traffic laws and, seemingly, their own safety.
The riders lift up their front wheels, leaning back as far as they can, cruising on rear rubber while peeking their heads out to the side to see what's coming. Wheelies, after all, reign supreme for the Mt. Pleasant Wheelie Kings.
"That feeling of being on a bike is just no fear," says 30-year-old James, known as "Smoke," a main figure in Cleveland's growing dirt bike subculture and leader of the MPWK group. "I couldn't even explain it to you unless you felt it yourself. You're on top of the world — people riding up alongside you, people got their cameras out, everybody on the street yelling, 'Throw it up.' It's just the power of the stunt. It's an unbelievable feeling. I'd think it's like flying, that flying feeling."
The MPWK crew and the rest of Cleveland's dirt bike riders prefer riding motocross-style bikes and fourwheelers over standard street motorcycles because they're better for stunts and not as expensive.
"It's a smaller machine and it's more fun," says Smoke, who mainly rides a blue YZ 125. You get a pretty good bike for $1,200, maybe $1,500, he said, but prices can fluctuate hundreds of dollars for the same type of bike depending on who's selling and who's buying.
And a lot of people are buying.
(Click for photos of Cleveland dirt bike riders in action)
Sightings of urban dirt bikers have blossomed in recent years — similar booms have occurred in Miami, Atlanta, Baltimore and other cities — and with social media displaying their tricks and stunts far and wide, more and more people have and will get a taste of the rush of "Cleveland bike life," as they call it.
With an increase in riders —Smoke guesses there are roughly 250 guys in Cleveland riding dirt bikes — comes an evolving cat-and-mouse game with Cleveland police, who are in charge of thwarting the illegal biking: Most of the bikes aren't exactly street-legal and neither is how they're being ridden. Police could shore up the city's budget with fines if they handed out as many tickets as are probably warranted, but the cops can't always get to them.
"They get really tired of chasing people around here," says one rider at an auto garage in a neighborhood off Union Avenue, where a group of 25 guys gathered one recent Sunday afternoon to tune up their bikes and hang out before a big group ride through city streets. "And even if they do chase you, all you gotta do is turn around. They see you stop on a dime — drrrrr —and whip that bitch around, they're like, 'All right, fuck it.'"
How the cops respond to the bikers depends on the day, ranging anywhere on the response spectrum from complete passivity to blasting pepper spray out the window as they ride past, to, according to the riders, ramming them off their bikes with their bumpers. Last week, MPWK's "T.J." was rushed to the hospital after police in an unmarked SUV pulled out and chased him (against department policy) and caused him to hit a car, according to the crew, who said the cops kept on driving as the biker lay splayed motionless on the ground. Things like that piss them off, naturally, but by no means does that have them considering stopping.
"You aren't gonna stop this. This urban dirt bike culture is here, it's evolving," says Smoke, who's in the tow truck business. "In the last two or three years, Cleveland's been getting into it. A few years ago, you couldn't find five people riding, now you can find 40. It's getting big and it's here to stay."
When it comes to police, there's strength in numbers for the riders, they explained. The more of them in the group, the less likely somebody's going to be pinched. But if they can single you out, separate you from the group somehow or catch you alone, chances get bumped up.
"The bikes don't really get tickets," he says. "They're mostly non-registered bikes. When you start getting tickets, that's because you made your bike street-legal and then you can get the red light tickets and all that. It's no license plate, so you don't really get tickets as far as that. But if your bike was to get impounded or something like that, they would charge you with tickets then: reckless operation and so on. Sometimes guys' bikes get impounded and they can't charge the person or whatever because they just caught the bike, so they just charge the bike with the tickets. So when you go to get your bike out of the impound, you got a certain amount of tickets on it when it was towed."
But the perception that the crew of mostly black bike riders is a roving band of criminals hellbent on terrorizing the city bothers them too. For outsiders, it's easy to ascribe motives and stereotypes that simply aren't true.
"I want people to know it's not always what they think," Smoke says. Some people on dirt bikes and quads are shitheads, sure, and he can't vouch for everybody who chooses to ride (not everybody who rides with them is affiliated with MPWK, and not everybody who rides in Cleveland is with this larger group). But simply riding with these guys doesn't implicitly make you a criminal or bad person, depending on how one views traffic laws and a few people taking an occasional hit off a joint.
"It's a brotherhood, not a gang; it's just having fun," he says, differentiating his crew from actual gangs and established motorcycle clubs with formal organizational structures and dues-paying members.
It's not hard to see what Smoke's talking about and why it pisses him off. Take, for instance, a panicky June 2013 WKYC news segment about the "growing problem" of "dirt bikers menacing the city streets." It's sensationalized local TV news fodder tailor-made for the cloistered suburban crowd when they were talking about MPWK.
"A group of dirt-bike bullies are terrorizing a local neighborhood," read concerned anchor Kris Pickel from the news desk. "They're being called dangerous, and in one case, violent."
Pickel kicks it to reporter Lynna Lai for a live shot in a Cleveland police parking lot.
"Good evening, Kris. Yes, Cleveland police first started seeing dirt bikes on city streets about four or five years ago, but now the problem has exploded," Lai reports, as she walks between parked police cars. "Why? Because dirt bikes are cheap, they're often stolen, they're tough to trace, and now they're becoming a dangerous trend."
A video package rolls, showing laughing children at a playground with a Lai voiceover: "They're the sights and sounds of summertime in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood, but sometimes the sweet sounds are shattered by a loud and growing problem." They cut to a cell phone video showing how loud dirt bikes can be as they ride through a neighborhood.
It cuts to then-Cleveland police captain, now commander, Dennis Hill, standing outside the Fifth District police station: "We're concerned about the safety, obviously, of the rider, and anybody the rider might encounter: other motorists, pedestrians. It's also a quality of life issue."
The reporter then goes on to imply riders are in gangs because two dirt bike riders were murdered. "Last month, two members of a Cleveland bike group were shot and killed while riding through East 173rd and Throckley. Police call it a targeted murder. So far, no arrests.
"Meanwhile, stopping these dirt bikers would be easy," she says, "if police could catch them first."
"Our policy does not allow us to pursue," Hill says.
"You know they know that too" Lai chimes in to Hill.
"It is unfortunate that they know that," Hill responds, "but we'll live to see them another day."
End of segment.
"That was us," says Smoke. "When you don't understand something, that's when you try to label it."
In all its vague and accusatory tones, the report did get something sort of correct: Many, but not all, of bikes were stolen at some point in the bike's existence. The paperwork — the bike's title registered with the Ohio BMV — isn't often included when they are bought and sold. It's tough to know which ones were parted with on legal and mutually agreed upon terms and which ones weren't.
Smoke says he's been working hard to change that, especially the perception earned in the early years when some in the MPWK crew developed a reputation for straight up stealing bikes.
"My crew, we don't steal no bikes," he says. "Now, there's been guys on hot bikes, but I've been working hard to get them legit bikes."
Smoke is well known not only within the bike community but his own neighborhood, and with that visibility — he's got 5,800 Instagram followers — comes a bit of responsibility.
"My Instagram's not private," he says. "So say somebody gets their bike took and we're riding and make a video that day. Now, I can only vouch for 10 or 12 people out there on bikes, but somebody sees a stolen bike in one of the videos, now I got all these DMs saying 'y'all stole my bike!' and this or that. It gets ugly real quick. If somebody gets something they worked hard for stolen from them, I understand, and I help guys get their bikes back. On a couple of occasions I have been successful in getting guys their bikes back. But once you get your bike took, it's kind of hard to get back."
Cortez Rucker, one of the unnamed men referenced in that WKYC story, was gunned down two years ago in a case that has yet to be solved. Simply known on the streets as "Tez," he was an instrumental figure in the early Cleveland bike scene as a member and leader of the Mt. Pleasant Wheelie Kings.
Tez and Smoke came up with the Mt. Pleasant Wheelie Kings name a few years back, and they, along with a few others — TJ, "Chauncy", "Daddyo" — essentially developed the MPWK brand through their videos, hashtags and clothing.
When Tez died, people began looking more toward Smoke to lead the way and organize things.
"He had a big name, everybody knew Tez, he had a big name," Smoke says. "And now since he got killed, everybody's kind of leaning toward me."
And he seems to be handling being in charge well. His house is one of the main meet-up points for his crew. He's the guy people call when they've got a problem with their bike or quad. When he posts on Instagram and Facebook that he's riding that day, that's when the serious numbers begin to congregate. And when they hit the street, he's the one leading the way.
The first time I met Smoke at his house, two 18-year-old guys pulled up in a Jeep with a giant "Cleveland Bike Life" decal on the back window. There was a dirt bike in back that one of the guys had been riding before it broke down on the side of the road. There was only one thing the young man could do: talk to Smoke. He took a look at the bike, but it was beyond what he could fix himself; so he called a mechanic he knew who could fix it, then negotiated a price and sent the youngsters on their way.
"Everybody calls me for everything," he explains. "Those guys are from across town, like the St. Clair-Superior area, but I'm the network guy. Everything goes through me. He couldn't have hooked up with my guy to get his bike fixed without that, so I just help them out like that."
Even though Smoke is the organizer of the crew, the guy who's most obsessive about hitting the streets is a guy who's known as Chauncy, from the Mt. Pleasant Wheelie Kings.
"Man, theeeeee most," says one rider outside of the auto garage. "The most, guaranteed."
A couple of the guys are in a circle laughing, trading stories about how Chauncy showed up at their houses before work in the morning trying to get them to come out and ride with him.
"What the fuck is wrong with you!? I got shit to do! Damn!"
His crew-given nickname, "Thirsty," points to his near-constant itch to ride.
"Chauncy, man, we call him Thirsty, because if it's 10 a.m., he's trying to ride, if it's 10 p.m., he's trying to ride," says Smoke. "Once he finishes what he's doing, he's trying to ride. Yesterday we pulled out for a minute and his bike had broke and he's like, 'Man, we can just go put some tape on it.' You can't put no tape on no bike! He just loves to ride."
He's been riding for about a decade, Chauncy says, but only "in the streets" for a few, having first connected with the MPWK guys on Instagram.
His wheelies are among the best in Cleveland. He can go nearly perpendicular, looking completely at ease and relaxed as he cruises down streets on a single wheel. He can turn corners doing them too. He says he's wheelied for five miles straight, uninterrupted. (On learning to do wheelies, Smoke says, "It varies. You gotta want to know how to wheelie. A lot of people tend to see it done, and then go out there and try and do it, but it's not as easy as that. You gotta know what you're doing. I would say a good summer. Scrapes and bruises, there'll be all that; you're going down.")
Chauncy's passion for riding hasn't waned a bit, despite a horrific collision with a car two years back, while being chased by police. He's still a fearless rider, except he now wears a helmet.
"I mean, I think about that shit sometimes," he says, while showing the massive scar on the back of his head. "Like when I fell, I ran into that car, and sometimes that comes into my mind when I'm going through intersections, that shit can happen."
It's still a big moment for Smoke, who remembers somebody sending him a picture on Instagram of Chauncy lying in the street with blood flowing from the back of his head.
"Somebody tagged me on Instagram and said, 'Is this your boy?'" he says, sitting at his kitchen table while his girlfriend fixes some food. "'He up here dead.' I remember like it was yesterday. She was cooking, he came over, it was raining. He said, 'You riding or you hiding?' Man, I can't ride in the rain, but I can just blame her [laughs]. Twenty minutes later I get a call, the worst call, saying, 'Man, Chauncy's laying in the middle of my house, he's dead.' It was the worst feeling because I just told him don't ride. Just told him that."
Crashes, though, are going to happen to everybody. It's impossible to learn to wheelie without taking a few bumps. And if you never fall, you're probably not riding hard enough.
"I've got a 'bike-life tattoo' for every street in Cleveland," Smoke says, referring to the scrapes and scars that come with falling. "Got 'em on so many streets." Ask any of the riders, and they'll tell you they've gone down at least a few times, but it doesn't faze them at all.
Chauncy is 27 years old, about the average age of the couple dozen regulars. A few are in their late teens, most in their 20s and early 30s. Sam, one of the white guys in the group, who rides a red four-wheeler, is the oldest of the bunch at 40. He was jokingly introduced as "Gramps" as we entered the garage.
The fenced-in garage off a side street in the Union-Miles neighborhood was the meeting place for the day, after the main guys put out the call on Instagram ("Good morning y'all know what today is #sundayfunday lets get it"). The shop — like Smoke's house, and a couple other shops and houses around the east side — is a "neutral spot."
Smoke lists his phone number in his profile and he was fielding calls and inviting people out, even if he didn't know who was calling.
Instagram connects bike enthusiasts near and far. Hashtags make geography less of a hassle; a couple of young guys from Detroit who connected with the guys from Cleveland loaded up their bikes and a trailer and drove here just to enjoy the big group ride.
To find other dirt bikers, just include the #bikelife hashtag in your caption or search. And you can get more specific: #detroitbikelife, #baltimorebikelife, #miamibikelife, #DCbikelife, #clevelandbikelife, #MPWK.
"It's actually way bigger in other cities," Smoke says. "We just went down to Miami in January for the MLK Ride." He and his Cleveland crew loaded up a rented Penske trailer with dirt bikes for the drive. They've been to other cities on the East Coast too. Now they're trying to make Cleveland a destination.
"This is my second family, right here," says 19-year-old Angel, who's from Detroit and known as Banshee Kidd because he almost always drives a four-wheeler. "They told us the weather was going to be nice, so we just had to come through."
He and his buddy had been working fervently in the shop, using a hammer and a blowtorch to try to screw on a lug nut so they could attach a motorcycle's back wheel.
Smoke and others were working on a flat tire, which initially proved difficult to do by hand, but they got the job done. Another guy's brakes had been messing up, and people were working on that. Everybody else was hanging out, as more and more people began showing up to get in on the action.
In all, roughly 25 guys came out, most on bikes, several on four-wheelers. Never ones to pass up a good photo op, and after a brief detour due to the unexpected presence of a cop car, they headed down MLK Jr. Drive, where a couple of friends had been waiting for them with their cell phone cameras ready. One by one, the experienced guys popped their trademark wheelies, striking a confident pose for the cameras as they rode by.
Next, they headed toward Gordon Park, the site of what is known as "Come Down Sundays," where people bring their souped-up cars to show off and hang out. The crew zoomed past the two cop cars at the entrance and started riding around, showing off for the onlookers who were already gathered there.
The videos and pics would inevitably end up on Instagram, where a simple hashtag might be found by a young kid. An idea planted as the buzz whirs from the video on his phone. Bzzzz.
A future member of the MPWK is getting his first taste of bike life.