It’s a bright summer day in central London and a swarm of tourists are snapping selfies overlooking the River Thames. Out of nowhere, hundreds of teenage boys on bikes flood onto London Bridge from the south.
Spreading out across all lanes, they block traffic and throw their front wheels defiantly up to the sky. A few riders break away from the group, jumping the barrier between lanes before wheelieing their way down the wrong side of the road, swerving at the last moment to avoid oncoming vehicles.
This is Bikestormz: a free ride-out drawing nearly 3,000 cyclists in their teens and early twenties from across the country. The crew’s energy is wild, captivating passers–by, but it’s just a brief glimpse of the Bikelife movement that’s blowing up from South London estates to the Welsh Valleys.
At the head of the cascade, it’s impossible to miss Kizzy, with his chestnut-tipped afro tied in knots that resemble giant bunny ears. He’s flanked by Jake and Kizzy’s cousin Mac, who co-founded Bikestormz in 2014.
“It’s an amazing feeling being surrounded by hundreds of people who share the same passion as you,” says Jake, reflecting on what they’ve pulled off. “I never thought something like this could happen here. All you can see is a storm of positivity.”
London projects itself as a prosperous, progressive city but beneath that facade it’s riven with inequality and violence. Nearly 40 per cent of young people grow up in poverty here – the highest level in the country, a figure that doubles if you’re not white. Knife crime has climbed to a four-year high and youth services have been slashed by local authority cuts, leaving few opportunities for kids without wealthy parents.
In a capital that offers less and less to its young people, riders have had to come up with an outlet of their own. #Bikelife, the wider movement that Bikestormz belongs to, emerged from the grittier neighbourhoods of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Motorbike riders would post videos of themselves either holding their machines completely vertical – ‘12 O’Clock’, as it’s known – or being chased by police.
A copycat scene sprang up in the UK with scooters, motorbikes and quads, generating headlines framed by police chases and accidents. But because it’s easier and cheaper to get your hands on a pushbike, Bikelife has taken off among younger cyclists.
It’s largely under the radar, but once you spot a crew wheelieing through traffic, you start noticing them everywhere. This is a community where talent, inventiveness and taking the biggest risks not only earn you respect but, just as importantly, social media hype.
Riders come from all areas and backgrounds but, for many, the identity and sense of belonging found in Bikelife is what’s steered them away from more dangerous paths. Yet in the eyes of the media, police and much of the public, these guys are portrayed as a menace: marauding gangs of ‘feral youth’ on bikes. Ride with them, however, and you’ll find a different story.
It’s a grey spring morning and a dozen cyclists calling themselves London City Killers have assembled in the graffiti-covered Leake Street tunnel. Like other crews across the UK, they come together at least once a week, challenging each other as they film clips of death-defying acrobatics.
LCK comprises some of the UK’s most talented riders: between them, they have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram – an online presence already drawing lucrative opportunities, from sponsorship to music videos. Jake, Soups, Kizzy, Harry and the others push out into Central London, blitzing past red lights into packed junctions.
They wheelie for minutes at a time: slipping through tiny gaps between cars and buses, taunting drivers by stroking passing vehicles with a gloved hand. Just riding along in their wake feels exhilarating. “Taking those risks is what keeps me feeling alive,” says Jake. “It makes me hungry to take things further every day.”
Most of the time, they can narrow the margin for error and get away with it. But as Jake wheelies at high speed into Hyde Park Corner – one of the biggest and most dreaded junctions for cyclists in the city – his foot gets caught, sending him into a somersault. Jake’s handlebars break in two as he crashes to the ground… just as three lanes of traffic start hurtling towards him.
This time, he’s fine. But so far Jake has fractured two ribs, had internal bleeding, broken three teeth and needed 14 stitches for a head injury. Not long after we meet, he will snap his collarbone and put himself out of action for a month. Wouldn’t most people have considered stopping by this point? “I don’t care; I just see it as another story to tell,” he says, flashing a cheeky smile.
“I like the scars. I can’t lie: it just makes me want to go faster.” At 18, Jake’s still shedding those last bits of teenage awkwardness: catch him out of his comfort zone and he can come across a bit shy or uneasy. But when he’s on his bike or around friends, he projects a remarkable air of authority. Jake is from Wanstead: a place which, unlike the multicultural areas it borders, remains a white, working-class suburb on London’s eastern fringe.
“I’ll be honest: I haven’t had it hard growing up,” he explains. “But there are so many negative things going on all around you. It’s easy to be influenced by it, and you can get drawn in.” He left college at 16 to work as a mechanic at Paradise Cycles, an independent bike shop in Bethnal Green, East London, but is now hoping to land a sponsorship deal that will allow him to ride full-time.
With one of the most-followed Bikelife Instagram accounts in the UK, as well as his own YouTube channel, he’s primed to capitalise on the attention that both he and Mac believe Bikelife deserves. “It’s not like BMX or mountain biking where you need expensive gear to join in,” Jake says. “You can wheelie on any bike, so there’s no limit to how big it can get.”
The following weekend, Jake extends an invitation to a Bikelife mecca: Cycle Pitstop. Crammed into Hackney’s Well Street, its decaying wooden frontage, covered in spray paint, is one of the last places to resist a tide of gentrification. “The shop is ghetto,” Jake says. “I mostly go in there to chill and listen to music.”
Pitstop has fought a long-running battle with the council, who shut it down for three months over the rowdiness of some of its ‘clientele’. But it provides more value to the community than any of the trendy pubs or cafés that have sprung up nearby. Since 2010, Jusus – a cheery guy from Grenada in a grubby hi-vis jacket – has run it as an open shop where local kids can fix their bikes.
The chaotic workshop functions like a makeshift youth centre, with tools everywhere and a wall covered in slogans such as ‘Knives down, bikes up’ and ‘Don’t take a life, save a life.’ Piles of wheels and rusting frames are strewn across the back garden, where anyone who can assemble a bike from the wreckage is welcome to keep it.
“It’s a labour of love, for sure,” says Jusus, with a strong Caribbean accent. “They’ve slapped an anti-social behaviour order on us, but we just call it socialising, you know? [The authorities] can’t see the positive, but these kids feel a sense of belonging. There’s not a lot of places where you can find that in this modern world.”
Passing the time with some of the younger riders here is Mac, who organised the first Bikestormz with Jake in 2014. He became something of an unofficial godfather to the movement by acting as an early talent spotter: editing riders’ videos and posting them online.
Mac is tall, slender and, at 32, could easily pass for someone in their late teens. He has an ease of connecting with others, imparting advice without ever sounding patronising – and the respect he extends to everyone is clearly reciprocated. When he uses a pair of pliers to bend 10p pieces, creating ‘lucky coins’ for younger riders, you can see the kick he gets from keeping them in awe.
Like many others who’ve embraced Bikelife, Mac grew up in a world of gangs, drugs and postcode wars. Understanding the pull that such a life can have has helped him bond with some of the hardest-to-reach kids before they get in too deep.
“When I was their age, I didn’t think I would survive,” he says, gesturing to the group of teenagers around him. “I’ve gone through everything in my life: I’ve dealt drugs, I’ve stolen, I’ve hurt people. But now I’m here to listen to anything they have to tell me… and I’ll put myself in harm’s way to ensure they make it to 25.”
From a distance, Bikestormz could be mistaken for Critical Mass, the protest ride that emerged from San Francisco in 1992. But these aren’t anti-car hippies pushing for more bike lanes.
If there’s a political message under the surface, it’s simply: ‘We exist in this city too.’ And the fact that each event has transpired incident-free, Mac says, proves that it’s a worthwhile way of keeping kids on the right path.
“Growing up, I was always judged,” he says. “I understand that I am black; I understand that I can throw my hoodie up and get thuggish, but that’s not how I wanted to be. Everybody says these kids are bad – and, for sure, I can introduce you to riders whose best friends carry shotguns – but there’s no way my generation could have come together for a Bikestormz without people getting hurt.”
Mac’s working to build momentum for Bikestormz V in June while transforming the Cycle Pitstop into a fitting home for the movement – complete with an editing suite, spray room and gym. But the bigger picture involves fighting the stigma around Bikelife, winning respect and sponsorship for riders much like skateboarders and BMXers achieved in the past.
“I hate hearing people say things like, ‘Look how dangerous it is. Why don’t they go ride their bikes in a park?’” Mac says, exasperated. “Rebelling against those attitudes is what Bikestormz is built on: this is our city, we’re free to ride our bikes! Why are you denying our talent?”
But the tide of negativity that Mac is swimming against goes far beyond safety concerns. Mainstream media stories on Bikelife often carry racist undertones, their sensationalist headlines stoking fear of black kids in hoodies from council estates.
“It frustrates me when people are negative about what we do,” says Kizzy. “In London, adults are scared of kids. People don’t understand that there’s honestly not much for us to do. They don’t see it as a talent, just us being little shits.”
Kizzy was raised in Peckham, South East London: an area that’s rapidly gentrifying but still has its fair share of roughness. “If you know about growing up in Peckham, you’ll know you’re not surrounded by positive people,” he says. “I used to get myself in things that shouldn’t have concerned me, like drugs, knives and getting arrested for stupid shit.”
“[When I was younger,] mans couldn’t go nowhere without problems. Things always kicked off between kids from different areas. My friend LK was from the other side of Ruskin Park. If I ever went there with friends from my area, there would be big problems… shootings, stabbings, this, that and the other. [Then people from] his area came and did the same things in mine.”
At 17, Kizzy was lucky enough to move across South London to Charlton with his family, which he credits with giving him a fresh start. “Everything changed for the better,” he says. “My best friend from back then just came out of jail and, honestly, I think I would have been in jail too if I’d stayed.”
When we meet at his house early on a Saturday morning, Kizzy is getting ready to cycle out to meet Jake and the others. The whitewashed blocks of his hilltop estate look down over the Thames and a small playground on a central patch of greenery. Inside, the 20-year-old proudly shows off the RC racing car trophies displayed in his living room.
“I’m all about anything with wheels,” he says with a smile, throwing his arms back for emphasis, before slipping into a more reflective frame of mind. “Bikestormz has changed my life in a mad way. People used to complain, but when they realised why I ride – to stay off the roads [away from petty crime] – now they support me.”
Kizzy admits he’s not as skilful as many of the other riders, and isn’t hoping to make a career from it, but he’s earned a rep for his aggressive style of dicing with oncoming traffic. He’s currently recovering from keyhole surgery on his knee after smashing into the back of a lorry on a friend’s motorbike.
But that didn’t stop him scraping up his trainers the previous night, escaping from police who tried to collar him for wheelieing, leaving Kizzy fearful that there might be active warrants out for him. As we’re leaving the estate, an old lady spots him.
“I saw you doing wheelies,” she says, jokingly wagging her finger. “You carry on like that, you’re gonna bust your other fucking leg.” Kizzy leads us through South London, linking up with Jake along the way. The pair egg each other on, playing ‘chicken’ with motorists and taking the game as far as they can.
Eventually they link up with Mac and another group of riders in Peckham’s Bird in Bush Park. They’ve come together to showcase their skills at the dirt track, rip into one another and light a few spliffs before a ride-out towards central London.
As they hit the A2 motorway en masse, the horns of irate drivers can’t impinge on the feeling of cruising as a pack – one assembled from all corners of the city.
Without Bikelife, most of these guys would never have met (or if they had, may have even fought) but now they roll through London’s streets as one jumbled, autonomous community.
“No one can come in and just tell us to do this or that,” says Kizzy. “We can jump on our bikes and go anywhere. Even if I don’t know you, bring your bike and we can ride together. We ride as a family; we’re all one.”