By Michael Martinez and Emma Lacey-Bordeaux
(CNN) — They do daredevil stunts on the nation’s highways and byways, popping wheelies even while standing on the seat, swarmed by a vanguard of other bikers as if they’ve taken over the road.
Their motorcycles aren’t the Harleys of old. They’re called “crotch rockets,” a high-performance motorbike allowing drivers to ride on one wheel for blocks, with legs spread-eagled. It’s like the X Games meet street bikes. And their stunts are captured by cameras on their helmets, posted online with hip-hop music.
This is the world of stunt bikers, whose road conduct is at the center of a national debate after a violent, videotaped confrontation between them and a family in a Range Rover on a New York City highway. At least six motorcyclists — including an off-duty undercover officer riding with the biker club — have been charged in the September 29 attack on the SUV driver, who was dragged from his car and beaten.
Car drivers, some law authorities and critics portray this new breed of stunt bikers as reckless motorists imperiling the public. But the bikers, their families and attorneys dispute the outlaw characterizations and say the vast majority are law-abiding enthusiasts — not hellions on a hog as depicted in the TV drama “Sons of Anarchy.”
“Pop culture has driven this image” of lawlessness, said Stephen Stubbs, a Nevada attorney for 43 motorcycle clubs. “The big problem here is this: Motorcyclists are second-class citizens. That’s a fact.”
But the co-founder of an annual bikers gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, says he foresaw disaster in stunt biking years ago. He quit the theatrics, especially after his biker rally grew out of control.
The Ride of the Century began as a meeting of about 250 bikers in 2001, said Dennis Cardwell. Now 2,000 bikers show up, and police say the motorcyclists’ high-speed stunts are now a major traffic hazard, CNN affiliate KSDK reported. The bikers even blew through a police roadblock on Interstate 70 two years ago, which was captured on YouTube video, the station said. At this year’s event in August, police confiscated dozens of motorcycles and arrested several bikers, the affiliate said.
What began as bikers filming themselves to make money off their skills and doing it safely 12 years ago turned into something distressing for Cardwell, he told CNN.
“It became a monster,” he said.
He worried about younger, inexperienced riders doing stunts beyond their ability. Cardwell and friends would be “scared out of our mind about what might happen,” he said.
He feared for his own safety amid scores of cyclists he considered reckless. He also worried about car drivers near them.
“I’ve seen some scary stuff,” Cardwell said.
Sometimes riders will carry batteries in their pockets, and “if the car does something to make them mad they’ll throw them at the window,” Cardwell said.
Cardwell said the video recording pushes the stunt bikers to do death-defying tricks.
“There’s kids that want their 15 minutes of fame or that quick glory,” Cardwell said. “I guess you’ll get some bad seeds in the bunch every so often that they think cutting cars off and just basically taking up the whole highway with no regard for anyone else is the way to do that, to impress their friends.”
The 35-year-old married father of three no longer owns a street bike — just a dirt bike. He gave up street riding in 2006 about when his first child was born. He now feels stunt riding should be kept off the street.
“If you are going to do (tricks), go to a parking lot,” he said.
But current organizers of the St. Louis biker event took exception with Cardwell’s remarks and said his comments are “NOT the opinion of Ride of the Century or Streetfighterz,” the Ride group said on its Facebook page.
Streetfighterz is an affiliate of the event and “one of the original stunt groups to help launch this crazy and exciting industry,” its Facebook page said. Streetfighterz describes itself as a street-bike freestyle stunt team founded in 1999 in St. Louis, and its website sells several black T-shirts and hoodies, including one bearing the legend: “”Kill it All: Highways, Streets, Lots.”
“We are of the opinion that riders ride for their own reasons and passion, and to comment on NATIONAL TELEVISION about an incident that happened thousands of miles away is irresponsible and disrespectful to the riders and families involved,” the Ride of the Century group said in a statement. “Just wanted to make clear his lack of judgment and uneducated comments were not representative of ROC or Streetfighterz.”
The wife of one motorcyclist injured in the New York confrontation also disputed portrayals of the bikers as a lawless swarm. Dayana Mejia said her husband was trying to help the driver of the Range Rover when it ran him over, breaking his spine in two places and fracturing multiple ribs. Edwin Mieses is now paralyzed, Mejia said.
Mieses, 32, a father of two children, isn’t a member of any gang and just loved riding his motorcycles with dozens of friends, his attorney added.
“I can’t blame anyone. I can understand why he was scared,” Mejia said about the driver of the Range Rover. “But at the end of the day, my husband parked his vehicle on a kick stand to get off, to try help the situation. Told everyone to move on, let’s just go, let’s get away, let’s just move, ignore him,” referring to the driver of the SUV, she said.
Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles attorney representing Mieses, said her client wasn’t even driving his motorcycle when the Range Rover struck him. He was encouraging everyone to return to riding and move along. “He was doing everything lawfully,” she said.
Mieses was run over and crushed as his back was turned to the SUV and its driver, Alexian Lien, according to Allred.
“Whether one likes people who ride motorcycles is not the issue,” Allred said. “Are people so blinded by their fears and prejudices in this case that they cannot see that before anyone laid a hand on Mr. Lien, that Edwin Mieses was run over and left severely injured? Where is the justice in that?”
But a retired Nassau County, New York, police officer told CNN that his review of the recorded confrontation showed the driver had no option but to run people down. In the beating, Lien suffered two black eyes and cuts on his face and side, requiring stitches, a police detective’s criminal complaint said.
“In my opinion, he was in fear for his life. He had a baby in the car. I don’t think that he believes he has any other option,” said Lou Palumbo, who now runs a security business.
The real issue, he asserted, was “the volume of motorcycles.”
If car drivers ever find themselves in such a situation, he said, “Call 911, No. 1, and just basically try to yield right of way to these bikes.”
CNN’s Margaret Conley and Chris Welch contributed to this report.
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