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Filling the Need for Speed

A new breed of bikers is tearing up the roads on machines that easily top 100 mph--and leave police in their dust.

June 05, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mike Kelly thunders from one freeway to another on his racing motorcycle, splitting lanes and dodging traffic on his way to work. No, he's not running late--he's trying to beat his best time.

On weekends, he really gets wild. Pitching and rolling through the curvy roads of the Santa Monica Mountains, he feels as if he's taking flight.

Kelly has been banged up and bruised, tossed over his handlebars, and left unconscious at the bottom of a ravine. But even his worst brush with death hasn't slowed him down.

"At 120 mph, that's when everything comes alive," he said.

From the bluffs of Mulholland Drive to the canyons of Orange County and San Diego, sport bikers are shaking up the Southern California motorcycle scene, injecting an element of high-speed thrill-seeking that has led to conflict with police, motorists and an older, more laid-back generation of bikers.

They ride a new breed of lightweight, super-fast motorcycles and sport flashy leather jumpsuits that give them the look of futuristic comic book heroes. The daredevils among them play chicken with slower traffic, perform circus-like stunts and often leave motorcycle cops eating their dust.

For years, the biking world was dominated by the Harley-Davidson crowd, most of them older riders who prize the freedom and camaraderie of the road.

Many of the younger bikers are in it for something else--the speed and sense of danger. Motorists complain about being run off the road by their risky stunts. Police admit they are outmatched by the powerful machines.

"Those bikes are incredibly fast. They're difficult to chase," said California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Miles, who patrols the Ortega Highway in Orange County, a favorite biker route. "Usually they try to outrun us. They know they can."

Today's sport motorcycles are half as heavy and nearly twice as fast as those produced a decade ago. Frames are made of aluminum and plastic rather than steel.

But the biggest change is in the engines. Many bikes can reach nearly 200 mph, and some are faster out of the box than a NASCAR race car.

A standard motorcycle license is all that is needed to ride them. And with many of the bikes selling for less than $10,000--half the price of Harleys--they appeal to riders of all ages.

Sales of sport bikes in California have doubled in the last few years, according to industry estimates.

The view among many speed riders is that you haven't lived until you've survived a spectacular crash. Some carry two-way radios to alert one another to police patrols, and cell phones so they can summon friends to help them if they wipe out. "Ambulance rides are really expensive," said Dave Vernick, 32, a sport biker from San Diego. "And if the cops come, they give you tickets for crashing."

*

Kelly has half a dozen sport bikes in the garage of his Culver City home. Splashed with reds, greens, yellows and other bright colors, Kelly's collection, worth about $35,000, includes many of the models that have become the thrill toys of choice for younger riders.

"Death with keys," Kelly calls them.

He's been a motorcycle fanatic since he was a kid, when he swapped his BB gun and $30 for his first bike, a red Honda cruiser. He graduated to faster, more nimble machines as they hit the showrooms. Now, he says, he's addicted to the adrenaline rush. When he's not racing through town, he's on a racetrack trying to boost his speed.

Like many in his crowd, Kelly, 32, leads a surprisingly conventional life when not in the saddle. He owns a home and works for a Pasadena engineering company.

But on these bikes, even the most conservative riders can't make any promises. "As soon as you twist the throttle," Kelly said, "it's like putting drugs in your veins."

He clocks his commute to work and is constantly trying to improve his time. A speeding ticket last year slowed him down for a little while. But soon he was at it again.

On a whim, he went to a Ducati motorcycle dealership during a lunch break to test-drive a new Italian model.

He and a salesman were blazing on separate bikes at 100 mph when they blew past a cop. They raced back to the dealership, changed out of their leathers and dashed inside. By the time the police cruiser pulled up, they were sitting at the salesman's desk as if they had been innocently discussing business all along.

For Kelly and other rocket riders, the real fun begins on weekends. That's when they hit the scenic hillsides to test their skills on two-lane roads that dip, dive and roll. A favorite destination for Kelly and his biking buddies is the Santa Monica Mountains.

For protection, they wear thick, skintight leather jumpsuits and aerodynamic helmets.

Kelly's shiny outfit, speckled with white, black and chrome, cost him $1,500 and is considered top of the line. Under this shell are layers of Kevlar, plastic and high-density foam at the knees, elbows and other vulnerable spots.

Kelly knows he can look silly in this skin, but it has saved his life. His closest call was two years ago.

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