Me and the Dirt Bikers

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The bikers often wear masks as disguises. Here, some took off their masks so they could snack.

It’s springtime, so, once again, young men’s minds turn to dirt biking on the streets of New Haven.

I’m a bit of an expert on this phenomenon because I had a too-close encounter with a gang of New Haven’s dirt bikers—yet emerged relatively unscathed.

Bikers enjoy a summer day in New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood.

First, Some Background

Last fall, I was months into shooting a documentary about policing in New Haven, and it was clear that the dirt biker phenomenon should be a short episode in the film.

(Our documentary, Shift Change: The Future of Community Policing in New Haven, will premier at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival on June 4, 6:30 p.m., at the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street. Please come see it.)

In case you aren’t aware, in warm weather swarms of young men ride around New Haven’s streets on dirt bikes, scooters and quads. They pop wheelies, run red lights and force autos to the side of the road. The kids are often under age and unlicensed; their vehicles unregistered if not outright illegal for street use. Often, they wear masks so they can’t be easily identified. The scene has an outlaw look and feel.

Part of the kick of dirt biking on city streets is forcing cars off the road.

So, naturally, the police are under pressure to do something about this menace. Cops don’t chase dirt bikers—for fear of causing crashes. They try to nab the kids when they’re off their bikes in parks or gas stations.

An illegal dirt biker is nabbed in a city park.

So, whenever I got a chance, I shot video clips of groups of dirt bikers. That’s not as easy as it may sound, since you can’t predict exactly when and where they will appear.

What Happened

Frequently, I would ride my bicycle to Fair Haven, a neighborhood I was profiling in the film, to see what I could see—with hopes that I’d be able to spot bikers. One Sunday afternoon, just after I had cycled past Criscuolo Park and down River Street, I heard the unmistakable roar of dirt bikes behind me—so I circled back.

It was a dirt bike bonanza!

The bikers often wear masks as disguises. Here, some took off their masks so they could snack.

There were a dozen bikers clustered around a food truck. A dozen more were scattered up and down James Street alongside the park. I took a position near the intersection of James and River and started chatting up some of the bikers there—asking them if I could shoot them doing tricks.

Riding in the Mill River District.

I have to pause the story here for a minute to tell you how I was equipped that day. I was riding a 25-year old Cannondale hybrid bike and wearing a helmet and an orange vest—of the type that water main repairmen wear when they drop down through manholes in the street. The camcorder was on a lanyard strung around my neck. It was a sunny day, so I was wearing sunglasses rather than my regular glasses—so I could not see very well. This detail plays in what happened next.

Biker pops a wheelie on James Street.

So, I’m shooting guys popping wheelies and doing various other tricks. Then I decide to shoot the group clustered around the food truck. They are wearing Nazi helmets and most have taken off their masks to they can eat and drink unencumbered. I shoot them from afar using the zoom, and, since I’m not wearing my glasses, I fail to notice that they are waving me off, throwing me the finger, etc.

Oops

Eventually, they migrate to another section of the park, further away, and I compound my error by following to get better shots.

Suddenly, like a hive of bees poked with a stick, they jump on their bikes and take off—heading straight for me. In a moment, they surround me, revving their engines and banging up against me. It’s like a scene out of The Wild One.

They have me cornered. A kid on one side of me demands to know who I am and why I’m shooting. When I tell him I’m nobody and I just want to get them doing tricks, he says I should have asked for permission. He has a point, and I tell him so.

Meanwhile the nearest guy on the other side of me is grabbing at my camera and demanding that I turn it over to them.

This isn’t going to happen. Even though I’m one old guy surrounded by a dozen young guys, I’m not going to hand over my camera. The problem is I have the camera cradled under one arm, like a football, and the other hand is holding the bike. I would have to give up one of my favorite possessions.

The Choice

After hesitating for about one second, I let go of the bike and charge through the mass of kids and dirt bikes like Larry Csonka going up the middle in the Super Bowl in 1973. The kids grab at me, tearing my clothing a bit and scratching my arms, but I am determined to get away from them—and I do. Meanwhile, back where I left it, they trash my bike by throwing it to the pavement six or seven times. They also get into my saddle bag and toss out spare inner tubes, bike trail maps and a $20 bill, which I keep there for emergencies.

As I’m separating from the group, one of the kids surprises the crap out of me. It’s the one who told me I should have asked permission to video them. He runs after me–not to give me another smack but to return my money.

Imagine that!

The Aftermath

The rest of the story was anticlimax. I hung out among some adults for a while until the bikers roared away. A couple of older guys wheeled my bike over to me. It was not rideable, so I walked it all the way back home—aware that at any time the same group could come up on me again. But it didn’t happen.

On another day, nearby, a dirt biker lost control and ran into an undercover cop car.

It’s probably a good idea to learn lessons from situations like this. I probably should have worn my glasses so I could see what the hell was going on. I probably should have asked permission, even though it surely would have been denied. But, in the end, I’m glad I did neither. I got some fantastic shots of dirt bikers for my documentary. (Come see it!) Not much harm was done. And I got a good story to tell.

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