You’ve seen them on Boston’s streets, swerving in front of cars, pushing their bicycle tires so close drivers can practically smell the rubber. In “rideouts” they cruise in packs of anywhere from 10 to 100 — maybe they’ve cut you off on Commonwealth, or while weaving down Newbury Street at rush hour, their multicolored rims spinning them into oncoming traffic. But these young cyclists don’t ride to make commuters' lives easy — they ride to save their own.
“A couple of them are a little bit lost, but when it comes to Bikelife, they’re found,” says Julian “Roaming” Rivera, describing the international movement of underground riding groups. “In Bikelife, if you know how to ride it doesn’t matter how you look, there’s no discrimination or prejudice.”
Rivera, 44, founded the Roaming Dogs riding group and is older than the typical rider. He’s transformed the local Bikelife movement in the three years he’s been involved, from planning his own Roaming Dog rideouts to taking a squad to New York City for the first time. Joseph “Jojo” Sandonato, 19, and Abi Torres, 18, are combo kings of the Boston scene, known for their quick legwork and seamless tricks. Marquis “Smurf” Smith, 29, is renowned for wheelies and swerves.
To understand Bikelife, you have to understand that, to its riders, a bicycle isn’t just a frame with two oversized wheels. It’s an escape. Many Boston riders are young men of color who come from predominantly lower-income backgrounds and difficult circumstances at home, from throughout Greater Boston. Groups like theirs have been negatively conflated with motorcycle gangs, but the reality is far warmer — they share love for one another and for where their chrome- and decal-covered bicycles can take them. They’re performers, the streets their stage.
Stunts that flout traffic rules, like crossing the double yellow line into oncoming traffic only to swerve back, are inherently dangerous. But to riders those dangers seem in their control. Others aren’t.
At 16, the day after he got his first big-wheelie bike, Sandonato was shot in the neck by a stray bullet when he and some riders stopped for a bite to eat. “I almost accepted that this was my death. I really thought my parents weren’t going to have a son anymore,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the kids, or the people [in Bikelife], it’s the areas of where these kids are growing up and where they’re riding their bikes.” Rivera has seen neighborhood violence firsthand. “There’s more access to guns than healthy food,” he says. “This is an escape from all of that. We can laugh, we can smile, we can have fun.”
For Sandonato, Bikelife promises even more: to become a star athlete, someone with a platform, someone with a voice.
“Pedal bikes have made me who I am today,” he says. “It turned me into a somebody. I have kids that look up to me, and if it weren’t for the bikes I wouldn’t be in this position.”
Jakob Menendez is a multimedia journalist in Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.