When Tom Costly, a retired law enforcement officer and former chief master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, started riding motorcycles in 1958, he became a pioneer of a different sort. “There were few places [for African-Americans] to ride back in the 50s and 60s,” Costly explained.
Back then, Black motorcycle enthusiasts simply did not thunder across the country in the spirit of Easy Rider; Peter Fonda, star of that movie, was, after all, an alt-culture icon for white audiences. Decades later, the biker mystique has evolved. The rebellion of youth has been replaced by the pragmatism of age. To be sure, the youth contingent remains strong and loud. Increasingly, however, more middle-class and middle-aged men and women are taking to the steel stallion. But “the biggest difference,” Costly says, “is that there are a lot more Black riders… Now it’s opened up.”
Jason Wells, owner of Chromed Out Bikes, agrees. From his bike detail shop in Somerdale, N.J., Wells describes his clientele as “doctors, lawyers, pilots,” many of whom are in their late 20s to early 50s and most of whom are African-American. A rider himself, he can relate to the cost of custom-made bikes. “People chrome for individuality,” Wells says. Demand is so high that what started as a hobby for Wells four years ago has become a full-time business operation, with “a good network” of suppliers and “great quality at competitive prices,” he adds.
“Most chrome work is done on speed bikes,” Wells says. They certainly attract the most attention, with seemingly invincible riders weaving in and out of traffic on highways across the country. “Crotch rockets,” Costly calls the speed bikes. “[But] we respect them,” he adds.
Rarely does racism rule the road. Instead, Wells asserts, “the competition is between the kind of bike you ride, if you buy American or foreign.” To biker veteran Costly, the real concern is speed-bike riders pushing the envelope of common sense on the highways. “They go at top speed and so many get killed,” he complains.
Costly is president of the New Jersey chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, an organization with 34 chapters nationwide whose membership includes professors, judges and lawyers. The club mentors youth in communities across the United States, Costly says, “bringing awareness of the Buffalo Soldiers’ rich history and extraordinary contribution to our nation.” Education and motorcycle safety are equally important elements of the club’s philosophy. “Speed bikers and cruisers alike, we need to show concern for kids and have to be involved in the community,” he adds.
George “G-Wolf” Ellis, a member of the New York chapter of Urban Knights Motorcycle Club, also supports community outreach. His group, whose members are accountants, federal employees and electricians, supports the Lupus Foundation and participates in events such as the March of Dimes fund-raiser ride and the Toys-for-Tots ride during the Christmas season. “The networking opportunities are endless, Ellis says. “We meet people from all walks of life. You can imagine the business and professional contacts that can develop.”
Ultimately, riders revel in the thrill of the ride. “Your life could be falling apart, [but on your bike] it’s just you and the road,” Wells says. And, whatever your individual taste—the speed of a Yamaha, the classic curves of a Harley, the sophistication of a BMW, membership in any one of countless clubs—you belong to a unique family, Wolf notes.
The Black biker community is a family of men, women, blue-collar workers, professionals, young and old. “We are a family of riders,” Wolf says.
Rider at the 2002 Dinwiddie, Va., Roundup.
Biking While Black
Associations & Events
National Association of Black Bikers (NABB)
Black Urban Ryders Network (BURN)
A comprehensive list of Black motorcycle clubs in your city. Includes links to shops, resources, chat rooms and events.
National Bikers Roundup
Annual event for Black bikers. 2005 Roundup: August 5–7, North Carolina.
25th Anniversary Black Bike Week
Officially the Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bike Festival, it’s the see-and-be-seen annual party for speed-bike riders. 2005 event: May 23-30, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Black-owned Bike Shops
Contact: Jason Wells
Messages: 877-341-6686 24/7
Highway Custom Cycles