‘Bike Life isn’t a group or a gang, it’s a worldwide movement’

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MANCHESTER, NH – If you live or work in downtown Manchester, chances are you’ve seen them before – groups of young bikers whizzing down Elm Street, often popping wheelies, swerving lanes, and outraging the city’s drivers. Many of these bikers identify with Bike Life, a community of street bikers known for performing daring public stunts and sharing them on social media.

While Manchester has seen a biking revolution in recent years, including a new bike share program and expanded bike lanes, the teens and young adults connected to the Bike Life movement have become a notorious nuisance to some drivers in the community. A recent post about Bike Life on the Manchester Happenings Facebook Page has garnered nearly 400 comments posted by group members mostly complaining about clashes they have had with the Bike Life crew on city roadways.

READ ⇒NH RSA 265:144 Rules of the Road for bicycles

“When you encounter kids on bikes, stay in your cars and don’t get into an altercation,” advises Captain Todd Boucher, who heads the Manchester Community Policing unit. “To the best of my knowledge, there’s no violence associated with these kids. If I had any advice for people, it would just be to be careful.”

After Ink Link published an interview with Captain Boucher on May 10th, we were contacted by Vince Fuentes, who wanted to share his side of the story.

“I was really disappointed after I read the article,” Vince explained in his message. “The kids I hang out with are good kids. We’re not a gang, we’re not causing trouble. I would really hate to see these kids suffer because of false information shared by the community.”

Vince Fuentes says from his experience, Bike Life riders are good kids with few places to ride. Photo/Rebecca Howard

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I meet up with Vince at Jake’s Bike Shop to find out more about the Bike Life movement. As I enter the store, I’m dazzled by the colorful array of bicycles adorning the walls and windows of the showroom. Vince greets me and introduces me to store manager, Brett Kilmer, and store mascot, Butters the cat. Brett tells me that Jake’s has been in business since 1957, making it the oldest bike shop in the city. In 2016, they moved from their former location on Kelly Street to their current location on Mast Road, and Brett says the change has been great for business. Jake’s Bike Shop is the top New England seller of SE Bikes, a popular brand of bicycle in the Bike Life community

“Bike Life isn’t a group or a gang, it’s a worldwide movement. It’s popular in New York, LA, Boston, even London. It’s about getting outside with nature,” Vince explains to me. “Bike Life is about keeping kids off the streets and keeping their minds occupied.”

Vince is an avid biker who is sponsored by Jake’s Bike Shop, as well as a proud member of the Bike Life community in Manchester. He grew up in the Bronx and started biking 10 years ago as his means of transportation around New York. When he moved to Manchester in 2016, he realized there were very few bikers in the city. In his free time, he began practicing stunts at the skate park on the East Side of Manchester, and soon became a mentor for many young bikers in the community. He says the majority of the kids he bikes with are in high school, and some are still in middle school.

Adam Curtis Skate Park on the city’s East Side. Photo/City of Manchester

“Most of these kids are straight-A students, they aren’t in the streets. Parents have called me and said that ever since their kid started biking they’ve been doing so much better,” Vince explains. “I don’t want Bike Life to become a negative term. Sure, there are some kids in the city who steal bikes and cause mayhem, but that isn’t the majority of us, and I don’t want the community to group us all together.”

Vince says he’s taught a lot of the young Manchester bikers everything they know, including safety practices. He often bikes with them in the streets to make sure they follow the rules of the road. He says the biggest safety issue he deals with is helmet use.

“A local company offered to write me a big check for helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads for all the bikers,” Vince tells me. “I brought the idea to the kids, and they said they wouldn’t wear them.”

Vince tells me he has decided to start wearing a helmet in front of the younger bikers. “I’m like an older brother to these kids, and I know they look up to me. If I wear a helmet, I think they might follow.”

Vince acknowledges that there are risks to riding, and he brings me over to the tool bench, where Brett holds up a bicycle fork that is dented beyond repair. “Look at this, this is a hard hit! A car slammed into this kid at a stop sign and it was not his fault at all,” Brett says.

Fortunately, the biker in this incident was not badly injured, but Vince and Brett both emphasize the importance of driver awareness.

Brett Kilmer, left, and Vince Fuentes, defenders of Bike Life. Courtesy Photo

“These are kids we’re talking about! We have grown-ups threatening these bikers on social media, but the drivers need to share the road,” Brett says. “We don’t want to be riding in the street and almost getting hit, but this is the only route that we have.”

The route he is referring to is from the Adam Curtis Skate Park (the only skate park in the area) on the East Side of the city, to Jake’s Bike Shop and the Rail Trail on the West Side of the city. Brett and Vince point out that there is no easy way for bikers to avoid traffic while crossing the river, especially in the winter months when trails are frozen over.

“In the winter, one of the local businesses was really cool and let us ride in their parking lot,” Vince says. “But I know we can’t expect them to do that every year.”

Vince and Brett both agree that an additional skate park or biking trail would certainly help reduce the number of bikers in the streets. They also want drivers to be patient with groups of bikers, because they are safer when traveling in numbers.

“These kids like to ride as a group, and it’s safer to ride that way,” says Brett. “If there’s one kid riding in front of you, you might not see them, but if there are five kids riding in front of you, you’re definitely going to see them.”

Vince tells me he’s interested in hosting an event this summer where his Bike Life community can perform stunts for the public. He’s already talked to some of the police officers and they support the idea.

“I ride with a lot of talented bikers, and we just want to show off our skills to the community,” says Vince. “I’m hoping the city will let me host an event like this, but I’m not sure if they will.”

Vince and Brett tell me social media is an important component of the Bike Life movement. The community uses Instagram and Youtube to share videos of stunts and connect with other bikers around the globe. Vince uses his own Instagram account (@bikelife_vince) to share upcoming events in the area and connect with other bikers.

“A lot of the young kids see me on social media and that’s how they get involved,” Vince says. “And once one starts coming to the skate park, all their friends join.”

Vince and Brett both agree that the Bike Life movement is gaining momentum in the city, and more kids are riding bikes than ever before. With warm weather and school vacation fast approaching, even more young bikers will soon be riding on city streets, and drivers need to use extra precaution when driving through Manchester.

Brett isn’t too concerned about criticism of Bike Life. “At first everyone was mad because kids were sitting inside playing video games. Now kids are selling those video games to get these bikes, and people still find something to complain about.”

As Vince points out, “The more time kids spend biking, the less time they have to do bad things after school.”

As I wrap up the interview, Vince thanks me for coming to talk to him. “I know it’s a totally different story than you thought it was, huh?,” he asks me.

I have to chuckle, because he’s right. Vince and Brett have shown me not only how cool biking is, but how much potential Manchester has as a bike city. With new initiatives like the city’s bike share program, the QC Bike Collective, and Bike Manchester organization, biking has become a main form of transportation in the city. Although plans to expand bike paths and build a secondary pedestrian bridge below the Bridge Street Bridge have swirled for some time now, for the time being, the bikers, walkers, runners, drivers, and unicyclists of Manchester must learn to coexist peacefully. So the next time you see a group of Bike Life youngsters traveling in the roadways, stay calm, drive slow, and remember that they have the right to be there too.

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