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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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On a Sunday evening in Oakland City, the oppressive afternoon heat has broken and dusk is settling over the rolling fields at Rev. James Orange Park. A group of basketball players is jostling for rebounds on the court, and a family is wrapping up a cookout. Clift Heyward hears the familiar sound of motors roaring in the distance.

The 22-year-old lifelong Decatur resident and his two cousins, Rock, 20, and Bugg, 23, follow the noise to the park's western edge, where nearly two-dozen A.T.V. and dirt bike riders are revving their engines, popping wheelies, and performing a medley of acrobatic stunts. They've driven nearly 15 miles to meet with fellow off-roaders from across the metro area for Bike Life Sunday, a group ride through Atlanta's residential streets, main thoroughfares, and public parks.

Heyward and his cousins quickly unload four dirt bikes from their friend's flatbed trailer onto Epworth Street, a hilly street with rows of parked cars outside one-story houses adorned with Atlanta Falcons flags. Heyward checks his brakes, puts on his gloves, grips his bike's throttle, and joins his fellow riders for a brief warm-up. Once everyone is ready, the pack rips past a small group of onlookers, turns left onto Avon Avenue, and heads west into the night.

"Nothing else matters once you're on a bike," says Heyward, who's been riding dirt bikes since he was 9 years old. "Once you're out there riding, anything in your life at the moment goes away. You're free."

About three years ago, Heyward helped found ATL Bike Life, a loose collective of local dirt bike and A.T.V. riders that has helped transform the city's riding culture from a front-yard hobby into a citywide movement. Heyward says a tight-knit community has formed among the group's riders, whose ages span at least four decades, and includes hundreds of members, most of which are African-American men.

"It's like a brotherhood or family," Heyward says. "The dudes I met through ATL Bike Life are more loyal than people I've known my whole life, even if I've only known them for three years. When we're out there riding, it's all we've got."

MOTOR AWAY: ATL Bike Life riders venture westbound on Ralph McGill Boulevard during a recent Bike Life Sunday ride. Every week, several dozen dirt bikers and A.T.V. riders travel around the city in large packs. - JORGE SIGALA
  • Jorge Sigala
  • MOTOR AWAY: ATL Bike Life riders venture westbound on Ralph McGill Boulevard during a recent Bike Life Sunday ride. Every week, several dozen dirt bikers and A.T.V. riders travel around the city in large packs.

Bugg, who started dirt biking in elementary school, says the group gave him an organized outlet for his hobby. Rock says street riding is both a stress reliever from his daily life, which includes the rigors of his job as a forklift operator, and a chance to show off his talents. Other riders say ATL Bike Life has offered an alternative to drugs and gangs, a positive thing by many accounts, even if street riding in Atlanta is, technically, illegal.

"We're breaking the law to stay out of trouble," Heyward says. "It's keeping us away from the real trouble we see every day."

But not everyone sees the city's growing dirt bike scene positively. Atlanta residents, particularly in southwest Atlanta, say they're tired of the excessive noise, damage to public property, and public safety threats. In response, city officials and other local authorities have clamped down on urban dirt bikers.

"The A.T.V.s and dirt bikes are a serious problem," says Oakland City Community Organization President Lela Randle, an Epworth Street resident since 2012. "Not only do they come out from afternoon to nightfall with the loud noise, but they race up and down the hill on Epworth [Street] endangering the safety of children and other neighbors."

ATL Bike Life's members argue that they have nowhere else to ride. They draw a parallel between dirt bikes and skateboards. In its early years, skateboarding generated controversy and, as a result, was deemed illegal. Decades later the sport became widely accepted, and cities began building public skate parks. While some dirt bike and A.T.V. riders hope something similar happens eventually, Heyward says they can't afford to stop dirt biking simply because it's illegal. He says they don't ride to chase a thrill; they ride because it's a way of life.

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