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Rocket Men

A rider shows his stuff outside Mile High Super Bikes.
Jim J. Narcy

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."

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.

Using a severance package from the mortgage industry, Mack gave Mile High Super Bikes a kick-start, opening in March at 6899 South Emporia Street.

Mack's Hayabusa is his best advertisement: blue paint job, spikes on the front, custom grips and a light package that throws down dozens of combinations of eighteen colors. Mack did the design, then contracted out the chroming and painting. The $13,000 model has been lavished with more than $20,000 worth of work, and Mack says it's only about 40 percent done.

The smallest custom jobs cost only a few hundred bucks. So far, Mile High's biggest custom job has been a $25,000 design for the "world's strongest man," Scot Mendelson, who weighs about 350 and benched 1,008 pounds in February, according to Muscle & Fitness magazine. Mack's plan calls for chroming the bike, widening the back tire, adding nitrous tanks -- and strengthening the suspension to better suit a big guy.

Mendelson lives in California and was referred to Mile High Super Bikes by a cousin of Mack's. Mack says he can do the work cheaper than the Cali shops -- and he's counting on getting some publicity for his shop when Mendelson's reality show debuts this fall. Although other shops around town will rev up rockets for more power, more torque, more speed, Mile High is the only one that specializes in customizing them, too, "making them look hot," Mack says. Customizing rockets is popular on the coasts, and he's optimistic that it will soon be popular here, too.

Mack loves making a bike look beautiful, but he loves its speed more. His 'busa does 90 miles per hour in first gear. "I'll be at 120 and not even know it," he says. On the track or a wide-open road, Mack likes to shoot for 160 or 170.

Mile High Super Bikes serves as the home base for a local crew founded last November, the Street Soldierz.

Most of the Soldierz are black. Some were gangsters back in the day -- Crips, Bloods -- but now they're brothers. They're also bankers, IT guys, construction workers. The youngest Soldier is fresh out of high school; others have been out of college for a decade. Some have been in jail, some in the military. A few are women, and a couple are couples. All of them ride rockets.

Street Soldierz membership took off fast, and the crew is already rolling deep at about fifty riders. They keep a close eye on each other. Two who joined for the wrong reasons were asked to surrender their Soldier vests to Fred "St. Louis" Balton, the club enforcer.

St. Louis was looking for family when he joined the Street Soldierz. And Mile High is that family's home away from home.

One afternoon, St. Louis -- a handyman who also provides private security -- rolls in to work on his bike. He could've done the repair at home, but here he can visit with his Soldier brothers. St. Louis is wearing a skullcap and Jordan sneakers with a sweatband around the toes so that he doesn't scuff them shifting gears. Mack is wearing Dickies pants, black Converse Chucks, a backwards ballcap, a dog chain for a necklace and a bike chain for a bracelet. He and St. Louis eat some Kentucky Fried Chicken, drink a Bud and swap stories about the cops.

"I was just doing the speed limit. I saw him sitting up there, and dude came up behind me, and once he came up behind me with his blue and red lights on, I was gone," St. Louis says, adding that he shot up to 150 in second gear. "I could see it if I was doing something wrong, speeding or something, but I wasn't doing anything, and I was like, 'Okay, you want to be an asshole and hit your lights on me, I'm gonna be an asshole and hit my gears on you.' I wasn't doing nothing, shit, and it was cold, too. I was just trying to get to the crib."

 


On a hot Friday night, a few dozen bikers in their teens, twenties and early thirties gather at a Shell station on Colfax Avenue. Two girls hop on a sportbike and roll into the street -- and then the girl in front hits the brakes when she sees a couple of kids. The girl on the back crashes into her. Rookies.

A more seasoned rider pops his bike up on its rear tire, then rides in ten-foot circles. A couple of girls in a Jeep have promised to get naked if he can pull off this stunt; he's looking forward to meeting up with them later.

Although the Street Soldierz crew is Denver's largest, there are several more groups of sportbike fans around town -- some more organized than others. This bunch at the Shell station is definitely one of the less organized. Now a mob of ten or fifteen riders splits and heads for a Sonic drive-in on Federal. The crew cruises through a yellow light as it turns red, and a cop car follows, turning on its lights. Although the riders back at the gas station can't see what happens, they already know the rest of the story. A couple of riders probably pulled over and took a hit for the team.

On Denver streets, sportbikes rarely try to outrace the cops. Most riders pull over within a minute or two, says Colorado State Master Trooper Ron Watkins, because they realize they can't outrun a radio, no matter how fast their sportbikes can go.

Eric Wynn, a trooper with the Colorado State Patrol, has clocked guys going 100 miles per hour who've pulled over, no problem. During his six years on the force, he's seen only two bike chases. Then there's the legendary tale of the CSP's airplane pursuing a biker as he fled on I-25, then ditched his stolen bike -- and the cops -- by running into a mall.

Watkins remembers another legendary chase. A state trooper in a souped-up Camaro clocked a guy going 100 miles per hour and engaged in a pursuit that reached 160 mph on the highway. "The reason that sticks in my mind is because the kid couldn't believe he got caught," Watkins says.


The air outside Mile High Super Bikes smells like burning rubber. White smoke coming off spinning tires melts into the air. For aggressive riders, sportbike tires usually last about 4,000 miles.

But for really aggressive riders -- "aka Kevin," Mack says -- tires can go bald at 2,000.

Mack met Kevin Butler through a mutual friend who's a Street Soldier. The two bonded through bikes. Kevin has no formal training beyond a couple of online motorcycle classes, but he's never met a motorcycle problem he couldn't fix with the right tools. He's Mile High's main mechanic, and while the job isn't yet full-time, Kevin plans to quit his day job with a sheet-metal roofing crew as soon as he can get by with what he makes at the shop.

Kevin's pale hands -- which have the word "hate" tattooed on four fingers and the word "love" on four more -- are stained black. "I fixed my mom's lawnmower engine once when I was a kid," he explains. "I've been a greasy fucker ever since."

Kevin started riding dirt bikes when he was eight and living in California; by fifteen, he'd moved on to a rocket. He first came to Colorado to meet his father; now he's a father himself.

Today Kevin rides a 600, with an engine about half the size of Mack's 'busa. The bigger bikes may beat him down the straight road, but Kevin's into mountain riding. The twists and turns show on his leather pants, which are scratched on the knees.

There's no bling on Kevin's bike. "I like making other people's bikes pretty," he says. "Mine's pretty to me in my way: pretty fast."

He's not a Street Soldier, either. "I don't like to be told when, where, how," Kevin explains. "I ride where and how I want; I'm just independent like that. But somebody's got to fix their bikes."

Kevin's not the only non-Soldier who hangs out at Mile High. The new Ice Cube or some old NWA or Tupac is usually bumping in the background, and there are often a couple of fellows sitting on the couches out front drinking beer or playing video games in back. "It's like a barber shop," Mack says. "They want to be able to come over and relax and maybe learn a bit."

 

Riders from older clubs often stop by. A member of Hell's Lovers who rode over on his Harley tells Mack that some rocket riders in Colorado Springs are looking for someone to customize their stuff. A Road Warriors rider cruises by on a bike that's a hybrid of a rocket and a cruiser: It goes faster than cruisers, but it's still a sit-up bike. The Warrior wants some pointers from Mack on what pieces to chrome.

A professional-looking man stops in and tells Mack that he's driven by a few times and always meant to check out the place.

"Do you ride?" Mack asks.

"Yeah, I've got a Yamaha R-1," the man says.

"Word, an R-Wizzy," St. Louis says, breaking from another conversation to chime in. "Give it up, dawg, I've got an R-1, too."

For men, motorcycles are about bonding -- but they're also about competition. Mack wants his customers not just to be the fastest, but to look the best. "It's a guy thing," he says. "You get the testosterone going, just like racing. When you pull up to the Shell station, you want to pull up on a tight ride and make people say, 'Damn!' And that's my goal, to make people say, 'Damn, where'd you get that done?'

"For some reason, people's imaginations don't go crazy with these bikes. I think it's because for the longest time, it's been a young person's bike," Mack continues. "Those Harley riders, they got money stashed away somewhere. They've made it. We're trying to do it and make it affordable."

Mack says he'll probably start racing his bike toward the end of this season at Bandimere Speedway. Kevin plans to have it ready.

In the meantime, they promote Mile High any way they can. They tag bikes that come through the shop with a Mile High Super Bikes sticker. Mack's putting together a calendar with the "Girls of Mile High," a twelve-member team he's now recruiting, and he hopes to have the ladies make appearances alongside his bikes. He's handed out fliers around town advertising his shop. Kevin even gave one to a cop who pulled him over going more than 80 mph on an on-ramp. Kevin had a "hottie" on the back, so he says fleeing wasn't an option.


Mack and brother Soldier "Q" leave their bikes behind one Friday night in June. You can't drink and ride, they say, and tonight they'll be drinking. It's dusk as they walk up to the Heartthrob on East Hampden Avenue.

Athena Perea's smiling face pops up over the patio fence. She locks the tips of her fingers together and throws both hands, shaping an "S" in the air. She's representing, wearing a Street Soldierz vest and her black hair in two braids, with a black band across her forehead.

Athena was the first female to get down with the Soldierz. Once they get ten women in the crew, they'll be known as the Sista Soldierz. But they'll always roll with the Street Soldierz, she says.

Heads turn as Athena walks past. "I'd tap Pocahontas," says one guy drinking two beers at once.

"Dude, she's a Soldier, and she's a Soldierz girl," Mack tells him. "Show some respect."

Like several Soldierz, Athena is a second-generation biker. She's the daughter of the late Alvin Maxie, who served as president of the Suns of Darkness, Denver's oldest black biker club ("Suns Set," December 15, 2005).

"We just kind of eased them in on the set there," says William "Doobee" Vaden, who succeeded Maxie as president of the Suns. "A lot of them are sons and grandsons of ex-bikers. I've got a nephew in there and a cousin in there, too. A lot are also sons of bikers in other states. They're learning protocol and what they've got to do to get along.

"They're a younger generation, and they just want to know about protocol to fit in," he continues. "They come on our scene and they give us all respect, but they go off and do their own thing. They've all got jobs and nice motorcycles, cell phones and computers and MP3 players. They're all high-tech. They all ride around with their walkie-talkies, talking to each other. It's just a new way of biking."


Edward "Trick-E" Duncan is president of the Soldierz. He's a banker and a family man.

 

"Who's here?" Mack jokes as Trick-E rolls up to the shop in his truck. "Is that you, Trick-E? Or are you still Edward?"

Still Edward, Mack decides, when Trick-E emerges in his bank attire. "Go home," he says. "Change your clothes. Grab your vest and come back as Trick-E."

Trick-E's nickname attests to his love of stunts. He likes to do wheelies and "cowboys" -- sitting on the gas tank during a wheelie with his legs spread. But he never takes things too far, because he's got priorities. "Bike comes last," he explains. "All of that other stuff is first: religion, family, job, then club."

And the club isn't all about competition and camaraderie. The Soldierz recently organized a ride to Denver's Samaritan House, where they delivered about $1,500 worth of clothes. They attend functions hosted by other biker clubs around town and learn from the riders who've cruised before them. The Soldierz may talk a lot of shit to each other, but that's part of the bonding. Respect is the foundation of the group -- respect and brotherhood.

"This is a whole different thing than we thought," Trick-E says. "This is a brotherhood. I should be able to count on any one of them at any given time. For just anything, you should be there for one another. Denver doesn't have anything like we've got. I think that's the reason ours took off the way it has -- because we're like a family."


Rumble didn't spill all of his blood on the pavement that night. After Mack got his bike fixed, he got right back on it. "The most important thing is that you get back on," says Rumble, who's been riding since he was twelve.

But the accident also gave the bail-bond agent new respect for things that are important in this life. For his family. And for the Street Soldierz, who are always there to pick him up.


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