Bike Life is taking over the UK, encouraging kids to ‘Bikes Up Knives Down’
1st November 2019 by Will Stewart
“I been on this earth for a decade, and a couple years. So what’s that make me? I’m a grown ass man!”. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Bike Life in the UK started, but my first exposure to something resembling it was the 2013 documentary, 12 O’clock Boyz. Not strictly the same thing, but Lofty Nathan’s film about American dirt bike riders in inner city Baltimore put the spotlight on a sub-culture that shares many similarities. The film follows 12 year old Pug, who over the course of 3 years filming becomes more and more obsessed with a local dirt bike gang who dangerously cruise the streets on high powered vehicles, driving fast and performing wheelies and other tricks. Whilst dirt bike riding itself strictly isn’t illegal (though riding dangerously obviously is), the gang, mainly consisting of young men from underprivileged backgrounds, ride very much with a ‘Fuck the police’ mentality. Car chases in the past have resulted in accidents, so instead the police take more of a ‘watch and wait’ approach, though make their presence well known, often deploying helicopters and large fleets of patrol cars. It’s this stand-off between the gang and the police that the young men seem to thrive one. Perhaps it’s one way they’ve found they can be heard, in a system that shows increasingly it’s forgotten about them?
I caught up with Nolan back in July. He told me he met Boots, one of the main riders of the Bombsquad, completely by chance whilst shooting with the dirt bike riders of Newark, New Jersey. Nolan said, “We were shooting photos in a parking lot and there was a young kid there on a bicycle. I introduced myself and asked where he was from and when he answered “Paterson” I knew right away he was in the Bomb Squad crew. I was familiar with the crew from seeing them while driving around Paterson and had already been thinking about trying to go out and shoot photos of them. I exchanged phone numbers with Boots and met up with him later that week to shoot.” You can read my full interview with Nolan, and see some exclusive photos of the Silk City Bomb Squad here.
In Steven Masorelli’s film on the Silk City Bomb Squad one of the riders is is quoted as saying, “We like to have that adrenaline rush. I know that’s the bad part but the cops don’t see the good part, and the unity we have together.” It’s this ‘toned down attitude towards to police’ aspect of Bike Life in the US that separates it from the dirt bike riders of Baltimore, and is more in line with the UK Bike Life scene. Nolan says, “I think the bike life movement is amazing for kids to get into. It’s an outlet for them to do something outside and keeps them out of trouble. Most of them get obsessed and ride all day and night, winter or summer it doesn’t matter. They’ve become friends with kids they may have never spoken to before and getting to travel to other cities and meet kids from all over it because of bikes. Theres definitely a sense of belonging.”
Adrenaline seems to be a key part of the UK Bike Life scene too, and riding around inner city streets on the wrong side of the road doing tricks is bound land you in trouble with the police eventually. But more than that it seems to be about this sense of community and connection, run-ins with the law usually end with petty misdemeanours. In fact, in London’s worsening environment of youth knife crime, Bike Life might actually be the best deterrent yet.
The self-initiated bike gangs have a distinctly anti-establishment ethos about them, but that need not necessarily be a bad thing. The hashtag #BikesUpKnivesDown is synonymous with the UK scene, and young people see it as a way to fill in for a lack of youth services brought about by almost a decade of austerity, a way to do something positive without relying on the authorities.
If the UK scene was inspired by the US, then the most obvious reason for Bike Life making it’s way across the Atlantic is the recent rapid growth of social media. In Dan Emmerson’s film at the top of the page, one young welsh rider says, “We get love on [instagram] from people you don’t even know, and people don’t even show you love in your own city. it’s made, it should be the other way around. I reckon instagram has been a big help in making it go worldwide.”
So what’s next for Bike Life? Who can tell, but hopefully it’ll remain a positive force. Youtube seems to be the latest playground for the young stars of the UK scene, with youtubers such as LittleHarry15 and Jake100 racking up 10’s of millions of views each. The message still seems to be positive, and community remains a huge aspect. But with the more extreme and dangerous videos being the most popular, will these young riders allow themselves to be corrupted by the advertising revenue and sponsorship deals that come with higher view counts? Let’s hope not.