The Future of Street Bike Freestyle
Tony Levesque (foreground) and Sean Parrish pull double stoppies for the crowd during Biketoberfest.
Two years ago, the street bike stunting scene appeared on the verge of going big. Stunting was not just becoming mainstream, it was becoming corporate. Major manufacturers like BMW and Kawasaki were officially sponsoring stunt riders, using big names like Christian Pfeiffer and Kane Friesen to market their products to a younger, more performance-oriented crowd. Wheelie-popping, tire-sliding sportbike riders kept the fans entertained at large public events, performing in front of crowds of thousands. Competitions were being organized to make the activity safer and more legitimate, giving stunters a way to stay out of jail and make a living at the same time. Street bike stunting’s future looked as bright as the ground-off side of a well-used wheelie bar.
But life in the stunting world is tough and it’s been a long two years since street bike freestyle was balanced, like a perfect stoppie, on the edge of becoming motorcycling’s next big thing. Florida is a hotbed of sportbike activity and I thought Biketoberfest would be the perfect place to see where the scene had gotten to. I expected to take my pick from a host of stunt shows that would be performed during the four days of festivities. I could find only one.
The Daytona Flea Market is the site of a Biketoberfest swap meet. Behind the rows of tents selling take-off chrome, helmet stickers and OEM Harley mufflers, a section of the concrete parking lot had been roped off with yellow caution tape. Inside, the stunt riders were warming up for their first performance of the day.
Front axle sliders and freestyle cages protect stunt bikes from their inevitable encounters with the asphalt.
At the center of the action is Tony Levesque, a high strung twenty-something with the smile of a mischievous prankster. His ’08 ZX-6R is clean and fresh-looking, its red fairings emblazoned with Monster Energy logos, the mark of big time sponsorship. Levesque has traveled the world to show off his riding skills, this summer alone working events from the Ferrari World owners show in China to the Indy MotoGP round. He is a member of a handful of professional, strictly off-the-street stunt riders.
“Most people’s image of a stunter is the guy who rips by them on the highway doing a wheelie at 100 miles per hour,” he said. “But things are changing. Stunting is developing a good name. The professionals are breaking away from the amateurs.”
Like most stunt riders, Levesque admits that the competitive side of street bike freestyle is not catching on. Even with a national series like the XDL Sportbike Freestyle Championship, competitions are still too few and far between and purses too small for riders to make a living off of them. It’s public performances, like the daily swap meet show, and not prize money, that pay the bills for professional stunters.
But none of the other riders at Friday’s exhibition have shared in Tony L’s success. Although they match the pros trick for trick, the stunting world they live in is a much different one. They talk about police harassment, being unable to find a place to practice and getting their legitimate off-the-street shows shut down by the authorities. Publicity, it seems, is creating a back lash. Just prior to Biketoberfest, House Bill 137 went into effect. The new Florida statute makes lofting the wheel of a motorcycle while on the street punishable with a $1,000 fine, arrest and confiscation of your bike. This means that amateur freestyle street bikers have more to lose than just the skin off their elbows if they practice their skills in public.
Frank Geremia understands both sides of the equation. He’s both a stunt rider and a Daytona Beach police officer.
“I tell my friends, if you get in trouble I can’t help you,” he said of the dichotomy of his career paths. “I tell them don’t run. Be a man and take the ticket. Mentioning my name won’t get you anywhere.”
But Geremia has figured out a unique way to reconcile the lawless reputation of street bike freestyle with the goals of law enforcement. He developed a program that uses stunt riders to give grade school children an anti-drug and anti-violence message. Dubbed “The Xtreme Show,” the program has been accepted by the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) organization.
“The hardest hurdle that we’ve had to overcome [in having the show officially sanctioned by D.A.R.E.] is the stigma attached to stunters,” Geremia said. “Stunting is like any profession. There are always a few bad apples. It’s the same in law enforcement.”
Geremia, along with Levesque, recently performed at the National D.A.R.E. Conference in San Antonio, Texas and is booking shows throughout Florida and around the country.
“Our program shows the kids that they can have fun and accomplish things without drugs or alcohol,” he said. “My guys are professionals with too much to lose to stunt on the street. Whether they’re on or off their bike they’re good role models to put in front of children.”
Kenny Kelley, head of the stunt DVD producing Adrenaline Crew, displays the tools of his trade, a video camera and a vehicle that serves as the filming platform for stunts that take place on public streets.
But not everyone sees the future of stunting as kid-friendly, mainstream entertainment. On the edge of Friday’s performance, away from the motorcycles and the spectators, Kenny Kelley was leaned up against a black Chevy Avalanche with huge chrome rims. Kelley’s Adrenaline Crew outfit had organized the show. A stunt riding entrepreneur, Kelley knows the places that sick tricks on a street bikes can take you. He’s worked in Hollywood movies, performed on the Vans Warped concert tour and produced and starred in stunt movies that have shown up everywhere from pay-per-view channels to the DVD aisles at Best Buy. A self-described “black sheep” in the professional stunting world, Kelley believes that street bike freestyle was born on the streets and the streets will always be its most profitable venue.
“No one wants to see this stuff in a parking lot,” he said of off-the-street performances and competitions.
The controversial Adrenaline Crew DVDs combine public road motorcycle antics with general lawlessness and a Jackass-style maelstrom of adolescent hi-jinks, pranks and destruction of property. Some claim they bring a bad image to stunt riding and motorcycling in general. But no one can argue with their success.
Kelley seemed far removed from the crazy, spike-haired character familiar to his fans. His close-cropped head and lack of visible piercings or tattoos along with his measured and insightful view of his business could convince you that you’re talking to a young executive and not the king of motorcycle mayhem. Kelley knows what it takes to make money in the stunting world and he knows how much he stands to lose if he places all his eggs in a basket that goes broke. The word he uses to describe the street bike freestyle scene over the past two years is “frustrating.” After early successes, the hopes of plentiful corporate sponsors and a freestyle motocross-like ascent into the X-Games and onto ESPN seem to be fading.
Stunt riders are always looking for a new twist on an old trick. C.J. Harris and Tawny Hoff show off a variation of the tandem wheelie.
“For something to break big, someone has got to take a risk,” he noted of the lack of corporations willing to bet their cash on stunt riding becoming a two-wheeled NASCAR. “You can’t blame everything on the economy, but that’s certainly part of it.”
Kelley estimates there are only 20 riders in the U.S. who are making a decent, full-time living exclusively from their stunt riding.
“My father always said, ‘People who are pioneers end up with arrows in their backs,'” he added.
“Some day they’ll make a documentary about all this and it will be about guys that spent thousands, but never made a dollar, just so that they could be the pioneers in this scene.”
Kelley is one of the few stunters who has broken ground and made money at the same time. But for the majority of street bike freestylers, their lives are an endless cycle of injury, run-ins with the law and unpaid bills.
The swap meet crowd was slim and spectators for the stunt show even sparser. The sight of smoking tires and sound of four-cylinder motorcycles hitting their rev limiters drew a few away from the boxes of used seats and racks of five for $20 t-shirts with “Biketoberfest 2008″ printed on them. They try to relate to what they’re seeing, but the gulf between them and the stunt riders is wider than the orange mesh construction fence that separates them from the action.
“One time I accidentally did a wheelie on my bike,” I overheard a middle-aged Harley-type tell his friends.
“It was crazy,” he added, shaking his head as he walked away from something that he couldn’t quite understand or appreciate.
The anonymous rider speaks for the majority of mainstream motorcyclists. Crazy tricks on sport bikes can catch their eye, but once they’re watching they don’t quite know what to make of the spectacle. Legitimate sport, valued entertainment or outlaw activity, the last chapter has yet to be written on the street bike stunt scene. In the meantime there are tricks to be learned, bikes to be crashed and bones to be broken. Achieving mainstream success, the most exclusive stunt of them all, isn’t coming easy.
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