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On the Road with the Wheelie Kings of Cleveland

Smoke and tires

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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.

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