The feral roar of dirt-bike engines intermingles with small talk as a dozen or so riders clad in Carhartt windbreakers and denim jackets linger in front of a juice bar on St. Nicholas Avenue. It’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon in Harlem, and the wheelie guys are out. Their eyes are fixed on the four-lane street, on which a biker known as Ty crouches over a behemoth cherry-red four-wheeler. Black varsity jacket flapping, he swerves past vans and Volvos while an audience of locals gathers to watch. As Ty passes the crowd, he leans back, popping the ATV up onto its rear wheels. Chin to the sky, one arm thrown back so it nearly caresses the pavement, he glides down the street. “Stand here,” says Benadon, a veteran biker who runs the nonprofit Bikelife Sports. He grabs my shoulders and positions me and my phone in the middle of the road, the wheelie in clear view — “Catch him in the light.”
This is what’s called “bike life”: part motorbike-and-bicycle sport, part street culture, all wheelies. As riders trade stories of police chases and bone-splintering accidents, Benadon points out a wiry teen on a Citi Bike pedaling down the block on only his rear tire. “See, the wheelie is the main focus,” Benadon tells me. “It’s not about cops. It’s not about running red lights. Riding on the sidewalks — it’s not about that. It’s about that wheelie.”
In New York City, much of what makes up bike life happens to be against the law. It’s legal to own a dirt bike or four-wheeler, but riding any off-road vehicle on a public street or highway in the state is not, and riders have been increasingly targeted in the past year, both by police and politicians. Just last month in Staten Island, Mayor Bill de Blasio unleashed a line of bulldozers to flatten dozens of impounded bikes, proclaiming, “There are some problems that are tough to overcome, but there are other problems you can smash and you can crush, and this is one of them.” In August, the City Council called for de Blasio to use his executive powers to enact a bill that would increase fines for riding a dirt bike within the five boroughs, from $500 to $750 for first offenses and from $1,000 to $1,500 for subsequent ones (de Blasio has yet to sign it). And Mayor-elect Eric Adams has promised much more: He campaigned on passing even stricter laws against dirt bikes. “You should not be driving down Fifth Avenue popping wheelies,” Adams said at a recent press conference in Inwood. On the night of November 2, before the election was called, Benadon posted on Instagram: “If Eric Adams wins, be on high alert. Shit about to get real nasty.”
As the bikers, Black men from all over the city, arrive on St. Nicholas Avenue, they swap anecdotes. At the tail end of a story about evading the police, Ty tenses his broad-shouldered body, reproducing the low, vibrating hum of a motor revving. He pulls up a video on his Instagram, where he has amassed 11,000 followers, of himself tearing down a city highway, hot-pink ATV nearly upright as it blows past the cars. Online, the wheelie acts as a form of social currency — the more impressive or dangerous the trick, the more likes it gets. Some riders have even obtained sponsorships based on their stunts; a picture of Ty sipping a Snapple while pulling a wheelie can be found on the brand’s official Instagram. But for the wheelie guys, that stuff is all incidental. Nothing, they stress, compares to the feeling of careening down the street, front wheel lifted high in the air.
Out on the avenue, a rider named DayDay is wrangling his towering four-wheeler. Taking advantage of a lag in traffic, he starts mapping figure eights on the edge of the road, eyes peeking through his black ski mask. Benadon turns to me with a smile. “Are you getting this?” he asks, gesturing to my phone. But suddenly DayDay loses his balance. Stunned, I watch as he topples off the ATV, which now lies on its side, wheels still spinning. The engine sputters a last breath before falling silent, and there is a moment of unnerving quiet before … laughter? Even DayDay is chuckling on the pavement. “Did you get that?” Benadon asks again, still grinning.
A couple of hours go by like this, as riders take turns zipping past the crowd, showing off tricks. Then, as Ty is once again weaving through traffic, front wheels high in the air, a cop car turns a corner and idles a few feet behind the bike. The men immediately tense up, but Ty doesn’t notice, and no one says a word. Benadon’s gaze follows the squad car as it sidles past Ty. I let out a breath. “Weren’t you scared?” I ask the group. “Nah,” a biker known as Cracker Jack says. “Ty can handle himself.”
Despite often riding in packs, bikers each have distinct philosophies regarding the target on their backs. Twin, a stout man with eye-contact-heavy directness, tells me he prides himself on his strict obedience of traffic laws. But as he spoke, Cracker Jack, a small, beetle-browed biker with a wide smile and darting eyes, shook his head. “It’s all about confidence,” he says, “because it’s when you stop at a light that they get you.” I ask him if this means he is more willing to break the law — to run that light. He shrugs. “All I know is if they sense you’re scared … that’s when they come for you.”
“It only really gets reckless when they start chasing us,” Twin adds. “They put everyone in danger when they do that. Even themselves.”
On paper, the law is very clear about fines and other punishments, but in practice, a ticket is the least of riders’ worries. Cracker Jack describes having been spit on by cops; once, while he was just standing next to his bike. Twin, whose 8-year-old daughter, Brielle, has her tiny arms latched around his waist, tells me about a time the police continued to pursue him even after he’d been hit by a car and broken his ribs. “It really depends on how you got caught,” Cracker Jack says.
Benadon is from an older generation of riders — his group, Risk Takerz, once reigned over city streets — but he no longer rides in the city due to his expansive biking-related record. He shows me a photo from 2012 of two officers taking his bike for a joyride. They took it from him, he says, after knocking him off it and beating him on the ground. “When we got to the precinct” — he pauses, as he often does to emphasize a point — “they were all clapping.”
Adams’s spokesperson, Evan Thies, confirmed that stricter enforcement will arrive under the new mayor, but Benadon says he would rather avoid the conflict altogether. Bikelife Sports organizes events outside the city — sometimes upstate, sometimes in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, other times as far away as Georgia. The proceeds are often donated to Harlem schools. In the past, he has advocated for building a track within the city limits, though he knows that is a tall order in a city where there’s so much distaste for dirt bikes. “I’m trying to get them off the streets,” he explains when I ask if, while watching DayDay, he is ever tempted to get back on a bike here. But he also understands why the likes of Ty, Twin, Cracker Jack, and DayDay keep bolting through city streets. “They’re doing this because they have no other alternative,” he says. “So long as they don’t have a track, they don’t have anywhere else to ride.”
And not riding is out of the question. Ty describes the wheelie high as a kind of therapy. “I could have a million things going on,” he says, arms waving. “When I’m on that bike, it all goes away.”