My first encounter with a biker gang was in the mid 80‘s, when I was a kid. It was summertime and I was sitting in the back seat of my friend Tom Costell’s parents’ station wagon, driving north from Chicago to their family cabin in Wisconsin. I felt the low, steady rumble even before I heard it. As I looked out the rear window of the car, I could see in the distance a large group of people on motorcycles spread out across the entire width of the highway. They were approaching fast and soon the muffled growl of their engines turned into a terrifying roar.
I had just seen The Road Warrior and I was sure they were coming for us. I could see the nervous look in Mr. Costell’s eyes as he monitored the bikers progress in his rear view mirror, but no one said a word. Within minutes the gang had completely surrounded the car; we could clearly see the Hell’s Angels patches sewn on the backs of their vests they wore over their full-sleeve tatted arms, and their long hair and long bushy beards rippled menacingly in the wind.
I’d heard all about the Hell’s Angels from another friend’s dad, who was a cop. He explained to us that Hell’s Angels killed, raped, stole, and sold drugs and that we should stay away from them at all costs. This was all I could think about as I sat in the back of the station wagon. I stared out the window, mesmerized and frightened all at the same time. Right as I was about to turn away, I noticed one of the members looking back at me. I froze, scared shitless. He then gestured to me with a kind nod and sped off. Within a minute it was over and they were gone.
My first thought was how fucking cool that I not only survived eye contact with a Hell’s Angel, but that he had acknowledged me as well. I romanticized about leaving behind my suburban Irish Catholic middle class upbringing to join the rebel gang and cruise around the country on a Harley. While I never did join a biker gang, I did cause a fair amount of trouble as a kid. I swiped candy bars from the White Hen and Clark Station from time to time. And, once when I was 11, I stole a pair of leather high top Puma’s from Marshall’s. I even sold weed for a month in college. I could throw in the other random acts of vandalism and debauchery throughout my youth, but that’s about as outlaw as I ever got. Until now.
This past March I moved to Venice, CA. My first night out I met up with my friend, Jesse, and a couple of his buddies. His friend, Chad, said that he was going to a moped race in the desert that was being thrown by a biker gang called the Latebirds. He explained that the Latebirds were part of the larger organization called the Moped Army, who’s motto is to “Swarm and Destroy.” Chad looked right at me and said twice–to make sure I understood, “Total hipster. Total hipster.” Of course, I had to go.
I was greeted at the entrance to the desert race by a couple members of the Latebirds, friendly guys without guns, switchblades, or tattoos that boasted of how many people they had killed. The parking lot looked like it could have been the lot at a Whole Foods: Scion wagons, Hondas, a few Priuses, the occasional Audi, a couple of VW’s, and a few pick-ups with trailers to haul the mopeds. Nothing I would expect a member of a biker gang to be driving. People were camping out for the two-day event, and there were tents set up everywhere. I saw a flag from a rival gang that read “Daggers” waving outside a tent parked next to a Volvo. There were a few fixies scattered about and inexplicably, a lone girl on roller skates dead center of the gravel. I definitely didn’t hear the grumbling engines that represent the hogs of traditional biker gangs. However, I did start to notice the cool, modified vintage European 1970‘s and 80‘s mopeds from brands like Puch and Tomos.
Up until this point, if I could sum up in one word what I thought of mopeds it would have to be “emasculating,” but my view soon started to change. I watched the Moped Army members tinker with their bikes with careful precision and evident pride. One guy explained to me that most mopeds top out at about 35-40 mph, but with modifications, they can go as fast as 70 mph–definitely not breaking any speed records, but I thought it was respectable, especially for racing on what appeared to be a pretty technical go-cart track with lots of winds and turns.
I watched the riders taking practice laps and casually racing one another before the official races took place the following day. It was comical to see so many of them dressed in full-body protective leather gear. Many of the get-ups looked retro and most of the racers were definitely looking to gain style points with them. One guy even sported a Evil Knievel red, white and blue leather body suit. Once the races were underway though, any remaining scorn left my mind. It definitely took skill, coordination, and strategy to win. Even though it wasn’t super-serious, most of the racers (which were mostly dudes with the exception of two gutsy chicks) really wanted to do well.
When Chad first told me about the Latebirds and the race, I assumed that the idea of a moped gang is a paradox, almost an oxymoron. To add to this innocent charade, everything at the event was a cliche, from the PBR’s, to the connoisseur mustaches, to the regurgitated classic styles of the past 50 years, to the snarky attitudes of the fans. The reality is that people have been customizing and modify their motorcycles for as long as they’ve been around. There was nothing about this event that was an original idea in any way shape or form. Of course, this was no secret and everyone seemed to understand the irony within everything that took place, but it never needed to be mentioned. Let’s also be clear, I really shouldn’t be one to talk.
All of us–from the Hell’s Angels to the Moped Army–are searching for something bigger than ourselves to be apart of. From my vantage point, the Latebirds somehow find meaning within the meaningless. If you’re looking for all the attraction of being in a biker gang–the camaraderie, the adventure, the shared purpose, the open road–minus all the criminal activity and the long and brutal initiation process, look up your local Moped Army branch and become a part of its ever-expanding revolutionary movement.
Filmmaker and photographer Jim Mangan grew up in La Grange, Illinois, but headed west to Colorado to attend college and to pursue his passion for snowboarding and the mountains. His first two films, City. Park City.(2006) and I Ride Park City (2008), both featured the best snowboarders on the planet, and were official selections of the X-Dance Film Festival, where they were nominated for multiple awards, including “Best Emerging Filmmaker” and “Best Soundtrack.” City. Park. City. opens with legendary rider Shaun White in a James Bond parody sequence that has gained considerable buzz and accolades. Mangan’s films were featured at the Milk Gallery in New York and premiered in Park City, Utah, and Zurich, Switzerland, before continuing onto worldwide distribution.
In December of 2009 Mangan left the snowboarding business to focus his attention on a series of fine art projects. With the career move came a geographic one; after 16 years in the mountains of Utah and Colorado, Mangan now calls Los Angeles home. His photography was first published in Vice magazine in June of 2010 and Vice’s 2010 Photo Annual. His forthcoming book, Winter’s Children, is published by powerHouse Books and will be released January 11, 2011. An exhibition of the project and book launch will be held a Milk Gallery, New York, New York on January 4, 2011. In addition, the european book launch will be held at Colette, Paris, France (TBD) . Winter’s Children is Mangan’s first fine art and photography project.