I got invited to a biker party and imagined characters from the Clint Eastwood movies that I grew up watching -- fat bellies, black widow tattoos, facial hair.As I approached the party in Imperial Beach, motorcycles buzzed by as if they were bumble bees gathering around a hive.
Most of the crowd was African-American. I saw two bikers who had the look I imagined, except the tattoos were of a skull and a bottle of whiskey.
Though it was intimidating to see the various group names stitched to their leather vests -- Four Horsemen, Hawg Riders, Wicked, Total Chaos, Flaming Knights, and Wolf Pack -- the bikers had their families at the party and welcoming smiles on their faces.
A few guys remained seated on their bikes in the street. I asked one about motorcycles in the African-American culture. "Man, we've always been into bikes. You've seen too many movies. And you only hear about blacks on bikes when they crash. Wesley Snipes had that accident years ago, and Kellen Winslow Jr. [the NFL player from Scripps Ranch] when he got hurt on one..."
I talked to Lloyd "Napsta" Austin, the president of the Twisted Motorcycle Club and chairman of the Southern California Motorcycle Association's San Diego chapter. "We're diverse. We are made up of males, females, Marines, doctors, lawyers, and various races. People think we're thugs and gangsters, but we're not. We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the biker image."
I asked him about his crew. "Twisted MC started in early 2003 by a group that met in Popeye's parking lot on Euclid and Federal for Sunday rides."
Other groups have been around longer. Black Sabbath (not the band) has been in San Diego for 30 years. There's also an all-women bike club called Hurricane Biker Girls that someone told me has been around for a while.
There were bikers at the party from Los Angeles and Riverside and two groups (Coast 2 Coast and Goodtymes) from Oceanside.
I saw one guy speeding down the street and then riding with his front wheel in the air. I asked Austin about safety. "Bikes can be extremely dangerous. Got to keep it real. Some people in cars jerk the steering wheel toward me and start laughing. People also try to squeeze you out and keep you from passing. They're mad because they're stuck in that parking lot we call the freeway. They need to keep in mind that when you pick your ride, you choose your stride. I choose to go without a roof, wind protection, radio, comfortable seats, cell phones, and climate control. And I don't have to sit through traffic. Those on four wheels should chill."
Austin admitted that sometimes it's the biker's fault. Many don't take classes, or they may have bought a bike that's too advanced for their riding skills.
I listened as bikers told their horror stories about cars that didn't see them. Austin tells me that sometimes bikers get too focused on a wall or guardrail and then they end up making mistakes. "Recently I was going 94 east to 15 south and an inexperienced rider ran straight into a guardrail, body rolling into traffic and hitting another on a motorcycle. Others tried to avoid the 'dancing bike.' Everyone was okay."
Austin told me that when he was in the military, he hit a curb on base and ended up in the bushes.
I ask him about his bike and his nickname. "I've been into motorcycles for six years. I have a Honda CBR 1000 RR with Repsol paint scheme. 'Napsta' is one who has a condition characterized by frequent and brief bouts of napping. I work and go to school full-time, so I have been known to nap, even at loud parties."
Several bikes had custom paint jobs, such as flames or skulls on the gas tank. One guy said, "I'm going to be pissed if this bike is ever stolen. I put way too much time and money into it." I mentioned to him that I had heard a newscaster on KUSI complaining about his Harley being stolen. "Yeah, bikes get stolen. People steal Harleys for the parts, which can be expensive."
I asked Napsta if he had ever had a bike stolen, and he laughed. "I've had three bikes stolen. I think the crotch rockets [sport bikes] are easy pickings. Harleys weigh over 700 pounds. Sport bikes weigh 400 pounds, and a few guys pick up a bike and throw it in a van or truck and drive off. Sometimes it's done in broad daylight. I had one bike stolen at San Diego City College. The police said it was the third bike stolen from that lot in the three weeks since school started."
When one guy rolled up on a Harley, I asked him why they were so loud. "This isn't loud," he said. "Did it sound any louder to you than the other bikes?" He didn't seem friendly, so I didn't ask him further questions on the subject. I went back to Austin, who told me, "When a motorcycle is stock, it's quiet. Even Harleys. A lot of riders change out the exhaust pipes for more power, a better sound, and to be heard. When some car hits or cuts you off, they say they didn't see you. Colorful vests don't provide the answer. Drivers are sometimes startled by the noise, but sometimes it helps them hear you. Some bikes are over 130 decibels, which is way too loud [a jet is 120 dB during take-off]."
One couple walked in holding hands. Both wore biker vests. They told me that they have more in common than just motorcycles. "But we do enjoy riding together."
I asked if the cops hassle them, and the guy said, "Not unless you are doing something stupid."
I asked the couple what they think of the helmet law, and they disagree. She thinks it's a good idea, and he said, "Nobody should be telling you what to wear when you ride, whether that's a seat belt in a car or a helmet on a motorcycle."