A group of dirt bikes and four-wheelers drive through Times Square in New York City on October 25, 2020.
A group of dirt bikes and four wheelers drive through Times Square in New York City on October 25, 2020. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann / Sipa USA via AP Images)

The War on Urban Dirt Biking

Cities around the country have cracked down on dirt biking. But the riders, mostly people of color, have nowhere else to go.
November 8, 2021, 2:35pm

Nobody can stop Sam Kelly from riding dirt bikes. Not his family, not the cops in his hometown of Rochester, New York, and not the state trooper he says chased him in late August while he was out doing wheelies with friends—even though he veered off the road and was hit by a car. 

Locally, Kelly said he’s considered the “GOAT” at dirt biking, a sport that’s hugely popular in urban areas but increasingly punished under the law. Over the past year, cities around the country have determined that the vehicles and the riders who illegally drive them—mostly people of color—are a dangerous and annoying problem that needs to be stopped. Police departments have announced crackdowns, politicians have scrambled to pass new restrictions, and at least two cities have publicly crushed dirt bikes and ATVs in an apparent show of force.

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Those affected are people like Kelly, part of a growing crowd of enthusiasts who have for years cherished the thriving, tight-knit culture known as the “bike life” community. Without a legal alternative to riding on city streets, dirt bikers find themselves continuing their passion—just with greater consequences, like fines, the seizure of their bikes, and even arrests. 

“My mother hates me riding, and I still ride,” Kelly said. “If my mom can’t stop me from doing it, nobody is going to be able to stop me from doing it.” 

The riders may love the bike life, but city officials tend to argue that dirt bikes and ATVs contribute to crime and result in injury or death. They also complain dirt biking has brought an onslaught of quality-of-life issues, including noise and blocked traffic. Rochester’s city council president, for example, described the vehicles as a “menace” in an April meeting devoted to the topic, convened less than a month after a 9-year-old boy accidentally died on the back of his father’s dirt bike. This year, riders have also died in Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida.

“If my mom can’t stop me from doing it, nobody is going to be able to stop me from doing it.”

The vehicles have struck other people, too: A bicyclist in Boston collided with a dirt biker in a May accident that left him bloodied, and, in July, a dirt bike struck a 4-year-old boy in Queens, New York, critically injuring him. But riders argue that they do take safety measures and that cops chasing them only leads to more reckless driving. The bike life community, they say, is unfairly treated as one heedless monolith without anyone trying to understand the more positive aspects of the culture.

“Those who are raising concerns about the ATVs and dirt bikes have some legitimate concerns about some of the activity that is illegal that could impact a resident or constituent; someone who is disabled, someone who is a senior,” said Philadelphia councilmember Derek Green, who was a part of his city’s recent legislative effort to define dirt bikes and dune buggies as illegal for street use. “There’s misconceptions, I think, on both sides.” 

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Yet the war on dirt bikes keeps advancing. Across the nation, local officials have described dirt biking as “chaos,” “havoc,” “irresponsible,” and a “top complaint.” In Columbus, Ohio, a dirt bike task force dubbed “Operation 52” made arrests, seized weapons, and nabbed bikes during a crackdown this summer. The Massachusetts city of Chicopee even recently considered banning gas stations from selling fuel to riders. 

And in New York City, a smiling Mayor Bill de Blasio watched as bulldozers crushed a handful of illegal bikes and ATVs during a September press event in Staten Island, as he alleged a high correlation between dirt bikes and crime. 

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“We want to send a message here today that these dirt bikes do not belong in New York City. It’s against the law. Period,” he said at the time. (Over a three-month period this year, the NYPD also confiscated more than 500 dirt bikes and ATVs and offered $100 for tips about the illegal vehicles.) Eric Adams, the city’s incoming mayor and a former cop, also said during his campaign that dirt bikes and ATVs eroded public safety and he’d go after them more aggressively if elected.

But riders say a dedicated space, like a park or a track, could remedy many of the problems people are complaining about. For years, in city after city, they’ve pleaded for one, saying they can’t simply be criminalized out of existence and that a designated space would make people safer since riders wouldn’t be constantly looking over their shoulders for police. While some officials have considered the idea of a legal place to ride, none have followed through yet. 

In an ideal world, Kelly said, Rochester would set aside a track and green space where bikers could practice wheelies, hang out, and sit around picnic tables. (The bike life “family” has a lot of barbecues.) Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott said in an email to VICE News that she supported the concept, although it would be a challenge. 

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Riders and activists in Philadelphia have also floated the idea of a park. Green said he’s looking into it, and officials there have spoken to people in the dirt biking community.

Cleveland once almost created a dirt bike park on the city’s East Side after officials approved a $2.3 million plan in 2017. But efforts fizzled out. 

“We have to give people who ride bikes and four-wheelers alternatives, particularly if we’re enhancing penalties and enhancing enforcement,” Mayor Frank Jackson told CityLab at the time. (The mayor’s grandson was recently shot and found dead near a dirt bike, and punishing riders more harshly was a factor in the city’s recent mayoral race.)

“When people look at dirt bike riders, you’ve only heard one side, which is often told by white people in media. When you fear something, you demonize it. When you don’t understand it, you demonize it,” said Brittany Young, the founder of the Baltimore organization B-360, which advocates for safe spaces for dirt bikes, hosts a diversion program to keep people out of jail, and uses the sport’s culture to provide STEM education. 

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“What I always ask people is: What is the one thing you use to relieve your stress? For people like riders, it’s riding their dirt bike,” she added. “People on dirt bikes are regular people that have jobs. They’re fathers, they’re mothers, their grandmothers, they’re police officers.”

Lori Aponte is one of those dirt biking grandmothers. The 50-year-old, who rides a quad and has eight grandchildren, has become an active part of Rochester’s bike life community since moving to the city from rural Pennsylvania nearly three years ago. She, too, supports the idea of a park in Rochester, since there’s nowhere else to go. 

“The community will never know how much love there is in this bike life stuff,” Aponte said. “If we had a place, they would see all the positive things.” 

“It’s not about breaking the law, really,” she added. “It’s freedom.”

‘Igniting wars’

The bike life phenomenon isn’t new—urban riders have long been an inspiration for mainstream rappers and filmmakers alike. But it seems to be expanding, and fast; the powersports industry experienced a surge in demand during the pandemic, according to Wells Fargo. And Kelly, who’s been riding since he was a young teen, said, “This was literally the biggest summer I’ve ever seen with bikes in Rochester.”

Despite the wave of interest in urban areas, the motorsport industry has “no people who look like me,” said Young, who’s Black. This year, she said she was the first Black person to win the American Motorcyclist Association’s Bessie Stringfield Award, which recognizes people who have promoted motorcycling to emerging markets, in its two-decade history. That’s ironic considering the honor was named for the legendary Black motorcyclist who solo-rode her Harley Davidson cross-country in the era of Jim Crow. 

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Damon Ray, 12, rides an electric dirt bike after a B360 pop-up event at the James McHenry Recreation Center on Oct. 29, 2018. Chemical engineer Brittany Young launched B360 to help kids get interested in the STEM fields through dirt bikes, which were outlawed in the Baltimore area recently. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Black riders can start to feel stereotyped when they get lumped together with gang members, violence, and drugs in cities’ schemes to curb dirt bikes. Kelly once heard a woman describe bikers as “active terrorists.” Drivers have come up beside him and flipped him off. Most of the complaints seem to come from people who live outside the city, he said. 

“People ride for different reasons. I ride to have fun, I ride when I’m sad, I ride when I’m mad. It helps me cope with a lot of feelings,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of kids out here on these bikes that could be doing a lot worse on these Rochester streets.”

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Even if someone doesn’t agree with riding in the streets—which B-360’s kids don’t do, Young said—they could at least try to hear out the frustrations of riders who’ve been sold a product that’s often illegal to own or use. And solutions exist: Young’s organization partnered with the B&O Railroad Museum this year to provide a temporary space for people to safely ride and repair dirt bikes. She credits B-360 for reducing dirt bike arrests in Baltimore and saving the city money, too. 

“What I always ask people is: What is the one thing you use to relieve your stress? For people like riders, it’s riding their dirt bike.”

“Imagine whatever you use to relieve your stress. If, publicly, someone crushed it—condemned you for using it—is that not only going to hurt your feelings but also make you want to go harder?” Young said. “Cities are unconsciously igniting wars but not wanting… a real solution.” 

If cities were interested in setting up parks, there’s already a venue for what sanctioned dirt bike spaces could look like, according to Benadon Charles, who’s known as Benmore in the bike life community. (He’s also considered a “legend,” according to Kelly.) The Harlem-based founder of Bikelife Sports rents out and hosts events at racetracks across the country, giving riders an opportunity to enjoy their passion within the confines of the law. 

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Just to ride legally at one of his all-day events, Charles said, people will pool their money together to get a trailer and gas and carpool to a faraway track. Hundreds of people—riders, families, kids, and spectators—come out each time. But after almost 10 years of advocating for a dedicated space for riders, Charles said he hasn’t been able to get anywhere. He’s had meetings with city officials in the past to discuss his ideas, to no avail.

“They have so much money to spend on the law enforcement to go after the bikes. If they just took that money and gave us a little area, something that we could work with, we’d solve the problem right there,” Charles said.

“This is not a beef we’ve got with anybody,” he added. “We’re just trying to learn how to ride some bikes, do our wheelies, go home and post our videos, and learn how to start competing and creating our own sport.” 

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Chemical engineer Brittany Young has launched B-360 to help Baltimore kids get interested in STEM fields through dirt bikes, which were outlawed in the city recently. Young uses the mechanical aspects of dirt bikes to teach children the fundamentals of engineering to steer them toward STEM careers, to increase diversity in the field. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Some officials, however, are trying to give riders a forum to say their piece. New York State Assemblymember Demond Meeks, a Rochester Democrat, hosted a “listening session” between dirt bike riders and city officials in May, which was livestreamed to Facebook. Those who participated, including Kelly, said dirt bikes gave them a sense of belonging, confidence, and practical skills in mechanics. 

Meeks asked if bikers would actually go to a designated space, and they said: Absolutely. 

“I’m looking forward to working with all of you to develop a biking center or a dirt bike location so that we can give you a safe place to go,” Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said during the meeting.

Yet to the best of Kelly’s knowledge, nothing significant came of that offer. Over a month after the community conversation, the county passed legislation “aimed at curbing the illegal use of dirt bikes and ATVs.” It allowed cops to impound all illegal off-road vehicles found on public roads, with a $500 penalty for a first-time offense and a $2,000 fine for any offenses after that. 

And there’s still no clear plan for a park. Aponte said that comes at a cost to the city: Riding dirt bikes can teach people companionship and how to work as a team, providing an alternative to those who might otherwise do something even more illegal.

“When we get together on those bikes, there's no man left behind,” Aponte said. “There’s nothing bad about it—except, yes, it’s against the law to do that.”

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