Rocket Men

The Street Soldierz feel the need for speed.

They rode north on I-25. Two dozen riders lined up in pairs, rolling side by side, bent low -- very low -- over engines hissing high-pitched whines.

One of the riders was 27-year-old Rashad "Rumble" Mims. They were all headed for I-70, and when Rumble saw a fellow rider veer off for an earlier exit, then rip back into his lane, he knew there would be trouble. The rider sped up, cutting between Rumble and the start of a concrete barrier. With riders to the rear, to the left and ahead, Rumble got boxed in -- at sixty miles an hour.

"I didn't have any choice," he remembers. "It was a quick thing, and before I knew it, both tires were locked up and I was going down on my side. You just try to keep conscious."

Super men return: Kevin Butler and Mack Humphrey 
outside Mile High Super Bikes.
Jim J. Narcy
Super men return: Kevin Butler and Mack Humphrey outside Mile High Super Bikes.
Motor city: The bike customized by Mack draws the 
crowds at a local drive-in.
Jim J. Narcy
Motor city: The bike customized by Mack draws the crowds at a local drive-in.

Rumble was wearing a helmet but no leathers. As he felt his right arm scrape the street, he pushed his bike away and tried to slow his momentum. He tumbled three or four times as cars whizzed past him. He remembers their lights.

When he finally came to a stop, Rumble was still on the highway but close to the median, and covered in road rash. His arm was missing a big chunk of flesh, and pain had taken its place. He stood up, took off his helmet and started looking for his 2003 Suzuki Hayabusa.

He'd just bought the 'busa six hours earlier for about $7,500.

Until recently, the 1300-cc 'busa was the biggest and fastest sportbike coming off the production line, able to reach 200 mph straight out of the factory. But Kawasaki's new 1400 may challenge that title.

Mack Humphrey can tell you everything you need to know about the 'busa -- and just about every other sportbike out there. The night of Rumble's accident, Mack (aka "K9") was getting ready to close up Mile High Super Bikes, his new shop in Greenwood Village. He was putting the finishing touches on a Honda getting souped up for speed. At midnight, a friend stopped by and told Mack that a bike had gone down.

Then the phone rang: The bike that had gone down belonged to a Street Soldier.

Mack decided to keep his shop open.

Officially, the style of motorcycle that Rumble was riding is a sportbike. Riders usually refer to them by their model names when they're talking to fellow riders. With outsiders, they may call them "rockets," a play on the hated term tossed around by Harley riders: "crotch rockets." The "crotch" part refers to the rider's position -- bent forward over the gas tank rather than sitting up, cruiser-style -- and the "rocket" to the bike's high speeds.

One term you almost never hear is "rice burner," a reference to the origins of sportbikes. Back in the '70s, a couple of Japanese companies began producing faster bikes with aerodynamic front ends and short windscreens above the gauges. The design first appeared on the tracks. Kawasaki had one in limited production available to the public in 1978 or 1979, remembers Mike DiSabatino, president of the 2,500-member Sportbike Riders Association, which he founded in 1997.

"It's a performance machine, and they're performance-motorcycle enthusiasts," says DiSabatino of rocket riders. "They were race fans, and they wanted to emulate their racing heroes, so when the bikes became available, the fans bought them. It's a circle that wraps around itself: Take away the sponsors, the racers or the fans, and the whole thing collapses."

The Japanese monopolized the sportbike market from the start. Kawasaki, Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki sell the majority of sportbikes in the United States. Italy's Ducati sells a fair number, and the German BMW also makes them. In 1993, Harley-Davidson even got in the act, developing the Buell -- a crotch rocket. Sportbikes generally attract younger buyers, since they're cheaper, faster and lighter than cruisers. And a new generation of freestyle riders now work their sportbikes as if they were BMX models. Today, about a quarter of the motorcycles sold in this country are rockets.

Mack Humphrey got his first ride on a sportbike in 1988, when he was eighteen and living in California. A friend had just bought a Kawasaki Ninja, and another friend dared Mack to get on. He did, stalled a few times, then got the hang of it.

Although he didn't buy a bike until later, Mack rode while attending college in Montana and California on football scholarships (at one point, he tried out for the San Diego Chargers) and kept riding when he got into the mortgage business, landing in Colorado in 1999.

In 2003, Mack was riding his two-month-old 'busa with some friends when he tried to do a wheelie for the first time. He wrecked and was knocked unconscious. At the hospital, he didn't even know his own name. "This doesn't look familiar," Mack told his friends when they brought him home. He didn't recognize his girlfriend, and his mind was cloudy for two months.

But Mack didn't give up on riding. In fact, he became treasurer of a new crew of sportbikers in 2004. The group disbanded when Mack moved to Texas later that year, but six months later, he was back in Denver, ready to dedicate all his time to sportbikes. In Texas, he'd hung around a small shop that customized rockets, and he liked both the atmosphere and the work. While baby boomers with bucks have long customized their Harleys, the younger generation that rides rockets is just now making some extra money to play with. Mack developed an eye for how low he could drop a bike, how far he could stretch its rear end, which parts should be chromed and how fat of a tire to slap on the back.

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