Cover Story: Urban dirt biking is illegal and it’s rising in popularity

Some bikers say it keeps them away from drugs and gangs. Some local authorities and residents say it’s a menace.

On a Sunday evening in Oakland City, the oppressive afternoon heat has broken and dusk is settling over the rolling fields at Rev. James Orange Park. A group of basketball players is jostling for rebounds on the court, and a family is wrapping up a cookout. Clift Heyward hears the familiar sound of motors roaring in the distance.

The 22-year-old lifelong Decatur resident and his two cousins, Rock, 20, and Bugg, 23, follow the noise to the park’s western edge, where nearly two-dozen A.T.V. and dirt bike riders are revving their engines, popping wheelies, and performing a medley of acrobatic stunts. They’ve driven nearly 15 miles to meet with fellow off-roaders from across the metro area for Bike Life Sunday, a group ride through Atlanta’s residential streets, main thoroughfares, and public parks.

Heyward and his cousins quickly unload four dirt bikes from their friend’s flatbed trailer onto Epworth Street, a hilly street with rows of parked cars outside one-story houses adorned with Atlanta Falcons flags. Heyward checks his brakes, puts on his gloves, grips his bike’s throttle, and joins his fellow riders for a brief warm-up. Once everyone is ready, the pack rips past a small group of onlookers, turns left onto Avon Avenue, and heads west into the night.

“Nothing else matters once you’re on a bike,” says Heyward, who’s been riding dirt bikes since he was 9 years old. “Once you’re out there riding, anything in your life at the moment goes away. You’re free.”

About three years ago, Heyward helped found ATL Bike Life, a loose collective of local dirt bike and A.T.V. riders that has helped transform the city’s riding culture from a front-yard hobby into a citywide movement. Heyward says a tight-knit community has formed among the group’s riders, whose ages span at least four decades, and includes hundreds of members, most of which are African-American men.

“It’s like a brotherhood or family,” Heyward says. “The dudes I met through ATL Bike Life are more loyal than people I’ve known my whole life, even if I’ve only known them for three years. When we’re out there riding, it’s all we’ve got.”

Bugg, who started dirt biking in elementary school, says the group gave him an organized outlet for his hobby. Rock says street riding is both a stress reliever from his daily life, which includes the rigors of his job as a forklift operator, and a chance to show off his talents. Other riders say ATL Bike Life has offered an alternative to drugs and gangs, a positive thing by many accounts, even if street riding in Atlanta is, technically, illegal.

“We’re breaking the law to stay out of trouble,” Heyward says. “It’s keeping us away from the real trouble we see every day.”

But not everyone sees the city’s growing dirt bike scene positively. Atlanta residents, particularly in southwest Atlanta, say they’re tired of the excessive noise, damage to public property, and public safety threats. In response, city officials and other local authorities have clamped down on urban dirt bikers.

“The A.T.V.s and dirt bikes are a serious problem,” says Oakland City Community Organization President Lela Randle, an Epworth Street resident since 2012. “Not only do they come out from afternoon to nightfall with the loud noise, but they race up and down the hill on Epworth Street endangering the safety of children and other neighbors.”

ATL Bike Life’s members argue that they have nowhere else to ride. They draw a parallel between dirt bikes and skateboards. In its early years, skateboarding generated controversy and, as a result, was deemed illegal. Decades later the sport became widely accepted, and cities began building public skate parks. While some dirt bike and A.T.V. riders hope something similar happens eventually, Heyward says they can’t afford to stop dirt biking simply because it’s illegal. He says they don’t ride to chase a thrill; they ride because it’s a way of life.

Over the past decade, dirt biking and A.T.V. riding has become increasingly popular throughout major East Coast cities. Long associated with motocross tracks and other suburban facilities, off-road vehicles have spread to urban neighborhoods in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., among others. In Baltimore, widely acknowledged as the mecca of urban dirt biking, riders have achieved Internet fame for dangerous stunts that are filmed, edited into mixtapes, and posted to YouTube. Popular videos can rack up millions of page views from around the world. The most infamous street riders in Baltimore, a group called the 12 O’Clock Boys, named after the street cred earned from maintaining a wheelie perpendicular to the pavement, was documented in a recent film of the same name that tracked the group’s ongoing clashes with police.

By Heyward’s estimates, several dozen people ride together on an average Bike Life Sunday, with the biggest ride approaching 300 people. Today Heyward, Bugg, and Rock are hanging out at their grandparents’ house with their friends from the east side before the weekly excursion. Their family condones dirt bike and A.T.V. riding in a way that could be compared to educating children about firearm safety at home. Rock first learned to ride at age 5 on his cousin’s Peewee 50, a miniature two-stroke dirt bike. His grandfather eventually bought him his first dirt bike. He’s ridden off-road vehicles with his brother ever since.

“I started off on a little-bitty bike,” Rock says. “It was the noise. It had this high-pitch noise. That’s what caught me.”

Almost a dozen riders take turns practicing their dirt bike maneuvers in the long, winding driveway. Heyward limps gingerly around the house. He’s recovering from ankle surgery after falling off an A.T.V. that ran out of gas during a lengthy wheelie three months ago. His injury won’t keep him from riding today. He’ll just take it slightly easier than usual. It’s getting late in the afternoon when Heyward gets the call from another rider to meet at Rev. James Orange Park. He replenishes the brake fluid for his Yamaha YZ250F, a sleek blue-and-white four-stroke dirt bike, before helping a friend buy a used tire from another rider in a nearby Family Dollar parking lot.

Once they’re ready, the riders carefully load a single A.T.V. into a pickup bed, strap down four dirt bikes on a flatbed trailer, and refuel at a nearby Shell station. Heyward, Rock, and Bugg cram into multiple cars and caravan with other riders westbound on I-20 for about 20 minutes. After arriving, they briefly scan the park. A bright red dirt bike and neon orange A.T.V. rip into sight through the middle of the Oakland City park. Another half-dozen off-road vehicles trail behind. Heyward doesn’t know all of the riders, but he greets Vet and Hot, two experienced riders whom he met through ATL Bike Life, and quickly unloads his dirt bike.

Recent rides have ventured westbound on Ralph McGill Boulevard near the Atlanta Civic Center, northbound on Hank Aaron Drive near Turner Field, and Peachtree Street “from the Underground on up,” Heyward says. One of the biggest rides took place Aug. 17 and included hundreds of riders. Some people traveled from as far as New York, loading more than a dozen off-road vehicles on a car carrier truck for the trip, to cruise through Old Fourth Ward, Midtown, Mechanicsville, Adamsville, and other Atlanta neighborhoods. After their rides, ATL Bike Life members post images and videos of their street riding heroics on Instragram using the #atlbikelife hashtag. The dirt bike trend has grown popular enough to receive Internet endorsements from minor celebrities such as Stephen Jackson, a longtime professional basketball player, and Kirk Frost, a music producer who has regularly appeared on “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta.”

“Atlanta is coming up,” says Frost, who started riding in the streets of New York three decades ago. “It’s starting to be the next city. The movement is growing. It seems to be on the way.”

ATL Bike Life has grown in popularity despite the legal risks that come with street riding. The city’s strict codes ban the use of off-road vehicles on residential streets, public parks, trails, and sidewalks. It’s illegal to ride on major thoroughfares and highways without proper state registration and tags. Atlanta law also requires riders to adhere to the city noise ordinance, wear helmets, and equip vehicles with basic safety features, including headlights and turn signals. Riders currently face fines that range from $250 to $1,000, plus up to six months in jail for breaking the law, plus a possible vehicle seizure, depending on a rider’s past offenses.

But those restrictions haven’t deterred some riders. In the past year, the city’s parks and recreations department has received reports of off-road vehicles cruising through Candler Park, Tanyard Park, and the Atlanta Beltline’s Westside trail. Capitol View resident Matt Cherry, who lives with his wife and 1-year-old child near Perkerson Park, one of Atlanta’s more popular off-road destinations, worries about the excessive noise made at all hours of the night and the public safety hazard for pedestrians. Despite regular 911 calls to the Atlanta Police Department, he says officers have insufficiently responded to the issue. Adair Park homeowner Angel Poventud expresses concerns about riders disregarding traffic laws, damaging his neighborhood’s greenspace, and showing a general disregard for the police.

“There’s a pack mentality that’s pretty dangerous,” Poventud says. “It’s a safety concern when it’s more than one or two riders. But five to 10 together ... they’re running lights and stop signs. You have a recipe for a dangerous situation.”

Atlanta Police Zone 3 Commander Major Jeffrey Glazier says the department’s strict no-chase policy prevents officers from pursuing dirt bikes and four wheelers unless they suspect a rider has committed a “serious violent felony.” Reckless riding doesn’t warrant that kind of pursuit, he says. To work around that policy, officers disperse packs of riders with their blue lights, track dirt bikes overhead in helicopters, and document their home addresses to make arrests.

During the big ride on Aug. 17, APD received dozens of reckless driving complaints about riders blocking traffic on major thoroughfares, including Peachtree Street and Boulevard. APD arrested 23-year-old Kenneth Copeland, an alleged 30 Deep street gang member who was riding in an SUV tasked with filming the riders, on an outstanding warrant.

The APD does not regard group rides such as Bike Life Sundays as gang-related activity, although members of gangs do sometimes participate in rides. Heyward says those affiliations are left behind once the bikes hit the road.

“Once you’re on a bike, it doesn’t matter,” Heyward says about gang members who partake in Bike Life Sundays. “It all goes out the window. You might be in a gang, but you don’t gang bang on a dirt bike. We just ride.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, one of the most outspoken local critics of street riding, has helped pass stricter ordinances to bolster APD’s crackdown efforts. The District 12 councilwoman — who represents Capitol View, Capitol View Manor, and Sylvan Hills — says police officers have been “locking up guys left and right” to restore order to her district with more stringent laws in place. She says she plans to continue working with city and state lawmakers to “introduce legislation that’s even tougher” on riders.

“This is an issue of noncompliance,” Sheperd says. “Kids ride by me like a bat out of hell — not just in the park, but on the street. These kids have no regard and don’t even understand the laws. They’re four deep riding on both sides of the street. Then they spin, pull up, turn out, and they’re loud. They’re coming down the street just flying. I have residents in my district who think somebody’s going to get killed out there.”

Atlanta’s urban dirt bike scene has sparked public safety concerns, but it hasn’t yet hit a boiling point like in other U.S. cities. In New Haven, Conn., one police chief compared A.T.V. riding to “urban terrorism.” Riders have been injured or killed in Baltimore and New York because of police pursuits. Illegal street riding has also triggered racial tensions with residents, officials, and pundits.

“I mean, these kids are just little bastards,” Baltimore radio personality Ed Norris, the city’s former police commissioner, said about the dirt bikers in 2010. “These aren’t nice kids. And the problem is, and I’m going to throw it out there, they’re African-American. ... I don’t care if they get hurt. Frankly, I don’t care if one of them dies.”

Norris’ on-air remarks were incendiary, but not entirely surprising. Recent national tragedies involving black males have highlighted the continued prevalence of racial profiling in the United States. Diaquan Doherty, founder of therealbikelife.com, a national website devoted to dirt bike and A.T.V. culture, says most street riding opponents misunderstand the culture surrounding urban dirt bikes and four wheelers. Public officials could embrace street riding as a deterrent to major crime in neighborhoods often disproportionately impacted by serious offenses, he says.

“Bikes bring peace with people,” Doherty says. “It will lower your crime rate. It prevents people from being hurt and killed. A lot of crime comes out of people being bored. It motivates them to stay out of trouble.”

Doherty compares street riding to other sports that are widely accepted today. He points to the way police targeted skateboarders, rollerbladers, and BMX bikers for loitering, vandalism, and damage to public property decades ago. As the popularity of extreme sports spiked, and eventually became embraced by mainstream audiences, local governments responded by building skate parks, for instance, to accommodate growing youth demand. In 2011, Atlanta officials cut ribbons on Historic Fourth Ward Skate Park more than a decade after Stratosphere Skateboards owner Thomas Taylor first proposed the concept to city officials.

“Maybe it’s like baseball early on, where kids broke windows, but then they found funding for diamonds,” Doherty says. “They ride on the street because there’s no other place to ride. Riding in authorized parks can settle these problems.”

Heyward says that most legal places to ride dirt bikes and A.T.V.s are outside the Perimeter. Many people who ride with ATL Bike Life lack the financial resources to make the trip to an official motocross track on a regular basis.

“In Atlanta, a track for us is an hour-and-a-half away,” he says. “It’s not the same. There’s a lot of whites. They look at us differently, what we’re doing, and what they’re doing. We don’t live a track life.”

Rock envisions a secluded greenspace similar to any number of parks they ride in now where they could cook out, eat, have fun, and ride.

A designated dirt bike park would probably require the city’s involvement from a financial and legal perspective. Sheperd has looked at similar dirt bike park recommendations while examining other municipal policies in cities with dirt bike scenes. But she says that kind of proposal would need to be studied further to determine whether it makes financial sense for the city.

“That is something to contemplate,” she says. “But right now, that is not on our plate, that is not on the top of the list of things to get funded. When you talk about all these different issues of things that you have in the city, is that one that rises to the top?”

Rock says the benefits of illegal street riding outweigh the potential risks of being arrested, fined, or jailed. He sees dirt biking as the lesser of two evils for kids at risk of falling into lives of more serious crime. Some riders say that police, recognizing that there are more serious threats to the public, have a tacit understanding to look the other way on Bike Life Sundays and, on select other days, let them ride in pre-designated areas. APD denies that such unspoken agreements exist. Glazier sees a legal city-sanctioned riding park as a viable option, provided that it’s safe, regulated, and away from residential neighborhoods. Until that happens, he doesn’t think that turning a blind eye to pack rides is “something you can rationalize.”

“I would say it is worth breaking the law,” Rock says. “People have to understand there’s more to it than just us riding and breaking the law. It’s really keeping us out of trouble. More riders are now being worried about getting their bikes, or riding their four wheelers, than trying to go break into somebody’s house. It’s giving them something constructive to do.”

Heyward insists that ATL Bike Life doesn’t promote running from the cops, and that it’s not about causing trouble with neighborhood residents. He says rival gang members, intrigued by Atlanta’s bike movement, have occasionally put aside their differences to ride together in the same pack. With group mottos such as “bikes bring bonds, not beefs” and “guns down, bikes up,” he says Atlanta’s dirt bike and A.T.V. scene needs to be embraced, not shut down.

“We don’t have a set goal, but our intentions are good” Heyward says. “I want riding to give kids something they can look forward to doing instead of all the rap music that’s messing with them, the things they see on TV, or whatever. I want them to do stuff with bikes. ... I want to keep them out of trouble.”

Sitting together on their living room couch, Heyward, Rock, and Bugg envision a future for ATL Bike Life. They all want to pass down riding to younger kids in the hope of making a difference. Heyward even thinks big for a moment with dreams of professional motocross riding, official sponsorships, and commercials. Rock doesn’t know where his love for dirt bikes will take him next. He’s focused on the next ride ahead.

“Without riding, what else am I going to do?” Rock says. What else is there that I want to do?”