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.

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BIKES BUILD BONDS: Rock, one of the collective’s earliest members, holds a wheelie perpendicular to the ground near Rev. James Orange Park in Oakland City (clockwise from right); Rock (from left), Heyward, Kirk Frost of “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” and Bugg pose for a photo with their new custom bike T-shirts; Heyward (right) helps put a new wheel on his friend’s dirt bike before a Bike Life Sunday ride. - MAX BLAU
  • Max Blau
  • BIKES BUILD BONDS: Rock, one of the collective’s earliest members, holds a wheelie perpendicular to the ground near Rev. James Orange Park in Oakland City (clockwise from right); Rock (from left), Heyward, Kirk Frost of “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” and Bugg pose for a photo with their new custom bike T-shirts; Heyward (right) helps put a new wheel on his friend’s dirt bike before a Bike Life Sunday ride.

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.

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