Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Sunday, July 24, 2016 | 2 a.m.
• RUB: Rich urban biker
• Rockers: Arc-shaped patches on vests or jackets. The "top rocker" generally identifies the wearer's club, while the "bottom rocker" lists the club's territory.
• CUT: Motorcycle vest. So named because early vests were made by cutting sleeves off of denim jackets.
• SQUID: Combination of “squirrely kid” and an acronym meaning stupidly quick, underdressed, imminently dead. Refers to an inexperienced, reckless motorcyclist.
There was a time in Nevada when wearing a leather vest, riding a Harley-Davidson and having long hair could brand you a danger to society.
That’s not hyperbole. The time was 50 years ago, when Clark County Sheriff Ralph Lamb greeted dozens of Hells Angels who’d ridden in from California by arresting them, cutting their hair and dismantling their motorcycles.
Today, the biker universe is much less black-and-white. That leathered-up Harley rider who looks like he might enjoy breaking a pool cue on your teeth may be a suburban empty-nester who’s about as wild and dangerous as Mitt Romney. The biker look has gone mainstream.
There are still criminal biker organizations, however, known by law enforcement as OMGs — outlaw motorcycle gangs. Those groups, some of which operate in Las Vegas, are involved in such crimes as drug manufacturing and distribution, prostitution and illicit gun sales. They fight over turf just like street gangs.
But the criminal element is a tiny fraction of the people who ride, from churchgoers (Bikers for Christ) to public-safety officers (Red Knights and Brothers Keepers) to fraternal organizations (American Legion Riders).
Here’s a guide to the modern way of the motorcycle.
Types of clubs
There are thousands of groups, including clubs for members of various ethnicities, the LGBT community, women, elderly riders and more. Why so many? Partly because the number of motorcycles registered in the U.S. has exploded. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that it grew from 1.3 million in 1965 to 8.4 million in 2014.
• Riders clubs have relatively few rules about membership and few requirements to maintain membership. nExample: Harley Owners Group, a marketing program that includes a magazine subscription, social media connections and roadside assistance.
• In motorcycle clubs, much higher commitment is required, including attendance at meetings and a minimum number of rides per year, and incoming members are “prospected,” a form of indoctrination that can range from taking part in a public-service project to committing crime. Examples: The Patriot Guard, which supports families at military funerals, and Bikers Against Child Abuse, which accompanies children to testify in court.
Local club: Las Vegas Eagle Riders
Adam Sternberger wears a do-rag, fingerless gloves, skull rings and a bracelet made of motorcycle chain. But he’s not an outlaw biker. He’s a businessman, operating two Las Vegas freelance photography enterprises. He has a sense of humor about the look that he and fellow members of the Eagle Riders adopt on the road.
“When people approach us, we always joke, ‘Should we tell them about the prostitutes we run? About the drugs we sell?’ ” he said.
The Eagle Riders do neither. The club, an offshoot of a local motorcycle-rental company, has about 20 active members, including a trucking company owner and a retired Army major. They get together about 100 times a year for social rides.
“You get to know people on a level where they become family,” Sternberg said, adding that members routinely help each other with household projects or with meals and support in times of need. And they don’t tolerate excessive drinking or reckless behavior on bikes.
The look versus the criminal life
Las Vegas Metro Police Capt. John McGrath, who oversees the organized crime unit, says police are aware of criminal biker gangs, but street gangs make up a far greater percentage of the gang world and have more of a tendency toward spillover violence.
However, McGrath says Metro officers exchange information with departments in other cities to track the activities of biker gangs, and watch them carefully on local streets to see if they commit traffic violations. A traffic stop can lead to an arrest, as it allows officers to check for outstanding warrants, probation or parole violations, see if the rider has been drinking, etc.
McGrath said the vast majority of motorcyclists pose no threat. He said police recognized outlaw gangs from those who simply dress like them.
The evolution of biker culture
All the while, most riders are law-abiding citizens. A quote attributed to the American Motorcycle Association saying that 99 percent of motorcyclists are upstanding people prompts outlaw clubs to begin referring to themselves as “1 percenters,” a term still used today.
The most familiar type of club — whose members wear the biker uniform of leather, boots, chains, etc. — evolved after World War II. They were largely formed by restless veterans having trouble readjusting to civilian life.
• 1940s: Bikes are inexpensive, especially Harley-Davidsons and Indians sold as surplus after being used during World War II. To make them lighter and faster, bikers strip them of fenders, crash bars, brackets for saddlebags, etc.
• 1947: Bikers who’ve gathered for a race in Hollister, Calif., get drunk and act up — racing in the streets, breaking windows and getting in fistfights. The media sensationalizes the incident, which inspires the movie “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando as a disillusioned gang leader. The renegade bike gang is born.
• 1960s: The chopper emerges, as bikers customize their rides by extending the forks and altering the frames. The result is a longer wheelbase and a reclined riding position, making for a less bumpy ride and more comfort on long highway trips.
• 1960s-70s: With the counterculture tone established, biker gangs begin attracting people from the fringes, including criminals. And by the 1960s and ’70s, the Hells Angels become violent terrors, notably involved in a killing at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, Calif.
• 2000s: The road cruiser is perfected, with such creature comforts as GPS displays, sound systems, adjustable windscreens and suspension, heated grips, helmet intercom systems, anti-lock brakes and plug-ins for heated jackets, pants and boots. Comfort costs money: The Harley Road Glide Ultra starts at $25,699.