The UK's Teenage Moped Gangs Have a New Subculture
Hanging out with members of the British "Bikelife" scene in North London.
“Bikelife” is a very American phenomenon. Brought to the internet’s attention via the documentary 12 O’Clock in Baltimore, it basically involves young men in places like Harlem and Philadelphia ragging quad bikes and dirt scramblers through their neighbourhoods at speeds that tend to fill hospital waiting rooms and jail cells. While they're doing this, they're usually pulling wheelies that make gravity look like a prick. ASAP TyY and Meek Mill are into it – as is Chief Keef, though he’s not very good.
Much like Seinfeld, techno and tobacco, however, Bikelife is a Yank export that is now resonating over here in the UK. While the quads and dirt bikes in the US YouTube clips aren’t readily available over here, resourceful teens have made do instead by locking down their CBTs, buying up 50cc mopeds and heading to back roads and industrial estates to make their own videos.
A UK Raise It Up video shot in Brimsdown, North London
I wanted to get a better sense of the UK’s Bikelife culture, so I got in touch with Ash, founder of UK Raise It Up – a Facebook group that organises meets and ride-outs. He invited me to join him at a caff just off London's North Circular, before tagging along with a bunch of mopeds on a ride-out to an industrial estate.
The meeting place was Ace Cafe, a biker institution near Stonebridge Park tube station. It was kind of surreal, the patrons were a weird mix of TV – Sons of Anarchy on the outside, Hairy Bikers on the inside.
Mark Wilsmore, the owner of Ace, told us that while his business has long been a sanctuary for petrolheads and "proper" bikers, he's also grateful that he can offer the Bikelife kids somewhere to hang out and make noise without being hassled.
"Previous generations, such as the Teddy Boys and ton-up kids, were no different to today's kids – it's just that today they simply wear different clothes and roll on different wheels,” he said. I was surprised by how magnaminous he was; I'd assumed most old school bikers would assume all 'ped riders were Clearasil-loving fairy boys.
The problem, as Mark sees it, is that the government has an "us vs them” mentality when it comes to young people. And when that tension boils over, it's rarely the government who are going to come out on the losing side.
With the moped boys yet to arrive, Mark introduced us to Ace Cafe stalwart, Barry Cheese – a former Lib Dem Councillor for Brondesbury Park, Brent, who had to retire in February after suffering a severe heart attack.
Leaning against his deafeningly loud Honda Cub 90 moped (imagine a two-wheeled Vauxhall Nova with its muffler removed), he told me that he'd spent his youth outside the cafe, trying to break the 100mph mark down the North Circular in the days before it had a speed limit. After becoming councillor, he noticed the importance of providing sports programmes for young people, citing an immediate drop in antisocial behaviour, vandalism and petty crime in his borough. He said the Ace was offering the Bikelife crew something like that today.
Before long, a couple of the UK Raise It Up lot arrived. They weren't quite as rowdy as the Twelve O'Clock Boyz but this isn't Baltimore, it's Brent, a place where "working a package" is something people do with their wives in the carpark of the local IKEA rather than with guns on drug corners.
I'd always figured that riding a moped was just a convenient stop-gap between being legally able to lose your virginity and being legally allowed to drive a car. Turns out I had it all wrong; everyone I spoke to was devoted to their bike. Connor, for example (above centre), has spent £3,000 suping up his moped with bespoke handlebars, a chrome exhaust and a wheelie bar.
As more of the Bikelife boys began to turn up, it transpired that it didn't really matter what you were riding, so long as you did most of it on one wheel.
For whatever reason, the police seem to love it when large numbers of moped owners congregate in public spaces. And sure enough, a couple of officers quickly arrived to check out the meet, hung about for 15 minutes to make their presence felt, then headed off again, leaving the riders to it.
While the police had been chatting to Connor and his mates, Ash arrived with the rest of the UK Raise It Up crew. He told me UK Raise It Up had come about by accident; a one-off ride-out turned into a series of ride-outs, then meets, and now a community boasting a thousand Likes and hundreds of riders.
Most of the others gravitated towards him, waiting for the heads up to ride out – and some, it seemed, just to be close to the king. It was clear that Ash was one of the more talented riders, pulling near-12 o'clock wheelies and doing the kind of technical stuff to his bike I'd imagine a lot of his mates are forced to pay for.
A UK Raise It Up video
What I’d seen so far couldn’t have been further from America's Bikelife videos; unsurprisingly, it was far more Channel 5 than HBO. But that shouldn't diminish the community that's sprung up around it – a club of lost boys who realise that pulling wheelies with their mates far beats hanging around and doing fuck all on a grim Sunday afternoon.
This guy seemed gutted he couldn’t join in. That's the problem with bringing a car to a moped party, mate.
That said, screwface was the default look for the whole crew by this point.
I hadn't noticed the flowers decaying in a heap opposite the cafe until the riders moved off the pavement. It was a sobering moment amid all the bravado, and later that night Ed Morrow – Campaigns Officer for Brake, the road safety charity – reminded me how much danger the Bikelife kids were putting themselves in. “Roads are not a playground, and treating them as such could easily lead to tragedy," he told me. "It’s no coincidence that road crashes are killing young males more than any other group. Motorsports have their place, but it is not on public roads.”
Watching some of the riders narrowly avoid scraping the backs of the helmets along the ground as they wheelied past, I could understand Ed's concerns. But when the money for Barry Cheese's sports programmes is running out, wages are stagnating and youth unemployment is rife, Bikelife at least offers some sort of outlet for creative expression.
Or it's just some guys fucking about on mopeds. Either way, watching the bikes was cooler than spending the afternoon aimlessly browsing through job listings.
As the clouds rolled, they gathered at the roundabout to wait for a few more riders. All set, they took off, hoping to make it to the industrial estate before it started pissing it down.
Ash led the charge, his L-plate pack following closely behind.
These guys might not look as chic as the cast of Quadrophenia, but at least they'll never be in thrall to Sting.
And there's a certain charm and a romance to it that I think would be lost if the UK scene was a direct replica of what's going on in the States.
Watching them ride off, I understood the importance of places like Ace and the kind of communities that people like Ash have helped to create. Anywhere else in London, these guys would be labelled a public nuisance and hooked off the road with some moped-specific ASBO.
That's understandable, of course; they're fucking loud, and I can't imagine anyone would be too keen on 20 guys regularly tearing up the road outside their house. But it means more to these guys than just that. I remember getting a moped at 16 and feeling a sense of opportunity that I'd never really felt before. I could go to parties without the assistance of my parents and their Nissan Primera; I could turn up to dates with a confidence I hadn't had before, until realising my entire head smelled like helmet and my fringe was stuck to my face.
But as that year passed and I got my full license, a car and a job to pay for that car, the fun of being able to go anywhere and do anything was replaced by a feeling of creeping responsibility and a pressure to keep moving forward. Bikelife is the antithesis of that feeling. Or, as Ash put it: “Bikelife is a way of life that we know like no other. Eat, sleep, ride. Even if you take the bike off the rider, you can never take the Bikelife spirit away.”
More stuff about this kind of stuff: