Riding out with the Wheelie Boys

Notes on the #bikelife scene

[Kid looking at my fixie bike] “Are you riding with us?”

[Me meekly] “Yeah…if that’s cool?”

[Kid] “….” *smiles*

If you live in London or New York you’ve probably noticed something becoming more conspicuous over the last couple of years: kids wheelie-ing on bicycles precariously through traffic.

I didn’t realise it was a coherent thing until a friend pointed out the distinctive and growing social media activity centred around #bikelife. After getting an initial grip on what was going on through Instagram, I decided to participate in a mass ‘rideout’ to see for myself. Joining thousands of riders near Tower Bridge and setting out an extended tour of central London, I was amazed at the vitality and community of the scene. For the first time in ages I felt like I encountered something genuinely fresh and interesting.

As a subculture #bikelife is relatively young. An offshoot of BMXing on the one hand and motorcross / quad-biking on the other, the heroes of the scene have built up their reputations over the last 10 years, or less. Social media posts from 2012 are often reposted as ancient history, with a hint of nostalgia.

The assembly of such a rich culture over just a few years has been accelerated by platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. The personalities, the skills and the emergent norms are shared instantly, ratified or rejected by the community, and integrated into the shared understanding of what #bikelife is. This happens at breakneck speed.

It also creates a relatively meritocratic and open culture. The lack of deep heritage means that participants still have the opportunity to define what is in and out. The vitality and freshness of the contributions means that rules are constantly being remade.

So what is #bikelife exactly? One way to understand it is to look at it through the lens of the community’s shared vernacular. Social media is a useful way in. The following four hashtags reveal important aspects of the movement and demonstrate why I believe it is both original and important.

1. #wheelup

The iconic trick of the movement, the wheelie has special significance in the #bikelife scene. The act of wheelieing has several dimensions that make it a unifying symbol.

First, it’s a skill that’s difficult to acquire. This creates a barrier to entry for most cyclists. Only those boys (and it’s nearly entirely boys) that have the perseverance and motivation to learn the wheelie can make claim to be part of #bikelife. It’s the minimum requirement.

It’s also a conspicuous public act. A wheelie draws attention to the rider. It says clearly to the world “looks at me, I’m here.” Particularly when conducted whilst weaving aggressively between traffic on busy roads. This outward stance is reminiscent of other subversive acts which alter the public space, like graffiti. Conducted in this way the wheelie becomes a public act of rebellion.

There is undoubtedly something masculine about the wheelie gesture. The proud elevation and display of the front wheel has obvious phallic qualities. And not all wheelies are judged equal. Both the stamina of the elevation and, importantly, the angle are both significant points of pride. Those who can last the longest in the most erect angle are bestowed with followers and prizes.

With the wheelie as the foundation, there are countless other tricks that riders use to differentiate themselves. The speed with which these new moves spread is rapid, with Instagram and other social media making the pace of innovation constant and the leaders of the scene battle it out for likes. But, significantly, the wheelie remains the foundation of any of these moves.

2. #work

The ongoing endeavour to improve and innovate — and the stream of social media postings that chronicle these efforts — are tagged as #work. Work in this context has a number of meanings. First it reveals the mundane reality of improvements; the need for constant practice. Hours of trial and error until the new trick is nailed. Being a valued member of the scene requires work.

In another sense #work is used to convey the opposite meaning — a playing down of the obvious skill on display and feigning effortlessness, something that is easy to contrive on a curated social stream. This sentiment is often signalled by the sleeping emoji, with the rider suggesting “I can do this work in my sleep”.

Framing bike tricks as #work also affords it a certain dignity. It casts #bikelife as a positive, worthwhile endeavour as opposed to a rudderless, hedonistic one. Riders seem to want to claim that they are making some form of productive contribution to the world, a culturally meaningful one. #work is partly about claiming legitimacy.

3. #liveyourlifestyle

One of the regular refrains across social media is #liveyourlifestyle, usually accompanied by a highly stylised selfie of the rider posing (preferably mid wheelie). The hashtag is interesting because it is at once both a defensive and offensive pose. In encouraging one another to ‘live their lifestyle’ the community reveals a subtext: that this is a lifestyle which some may lack confidence to express.

Of course there is a literal reading of this — wheelieing precariously through busy traffic is dangerous and therefore frowned upon by society at large. But there could be a deeper dynamic at play too. One that centres on class and marginalisation. The sense that the rest of the world doesn’t understand and appreciate people like us.

This deeper tension is perhaps surfaced in the ‘swerve’ — a daring trick in which a rider in the midst of a wheelie directs their bike aggressively at a moving vehicle or pedestrian before swerving at the last second to avoid contact. The quality of the swerve is measured by proximity achieved to the target, with the critical moment often slowed down in videos to showcase the skill and courage of the rider. But the swerve is more than a mere trick; the act is a direct confrontation with the wider world. The fact that police cars are often targeted reveals the political dimension of the swerve.

In this sense the swerve, and the wheelie more widely, becomes a medium to publicise a lifestyle and community that the wider public are otherwise oblivious too.

4. #bikesupknifesdown

The rideout I participated in was organised by #bikestormz — an entrepreneurial group within the scene who put on paid events. The rideout finished at Peckham BMX track on Brockwell park, which became the stage for a series of wheelie competitions.

But the organisers don’t just see the scene as an opportunity to make a quick buck. Interestingly the message #wheelsupknifedown was prominent at the event, and was also mirrored online.

A number of social entrepreneurs have seen the opportunity to shape #bikelife to be a vehicle for positive change. Taking their cues from boxing, and other sports that have successfully directed the energy of young men in productive ways, the hope is that the movement can be a force for good.

While it is difficult to know how successful their social mission has been, it is undoubtedly at odds with the perception of people who view the wheelie phenomenon as a public nuisance. And this is perhaps a paradox that won’t be resolved. The reason why young men find the scene attractive in the first place is that it feels counter-cultural and challenging to the established order. Wheelieing through traffic, confronting people with your skills and your lifestyle; this is precisely the point of doing it.

It is difficult to know how big #bikelife will get. The counter-cultural edge combined with growing social media presence suggests expansion feels inevitable in the short term. If it does grow further then we can expect a public backlash. Traffic accidents are inevitable and this will put a spotlight on the scene; negative press and greater police attention.

Perhaps attention is what the community wants. Collectively they have created a distinctive and exciting lifestyle that people are proud to be part of. #bikelife has provided a framework for kids looking for a purpose and searching for greater recognition. It’s lack of deep history means that it’s relatively open, and participants have the agency to define what it is. This sets it apart from other more established activities.

Either way it’s interest as a new movement is undeniable. #bikelife feels fresh and vital — a grassroots cultural innovation that has few peers.