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Hells Angel Sonny Barger's guide to motorcycling

He spreads the gospel of two wheels in his sixth book, 'Let's Ride'

July 06, 2010|By Susan Carpenter | Los Angeles Times
  • FIT AT 71: Three-hour daily workouts help to keep Barger ready to ride.
FIT AT 71: Three-hour daily workouts help to keep Barger ready to ride. (Susan Carpenter / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Phoenix — — Sonny Barger is not a religious man. But riding motorcycles is "as good a religion as any and probably better than most," says the Hells Angels icon. Meditative and transcendent, motorcycling focuses the mind, he says, and requires devotion.

At 71, Barger has spent six decades riding bikes and 53 years as a member of the country's best-known outlaw motorcycle club. Now he's spreading the gospel of two wheels with his sixth book, "Let's Ride: Sonny Barger's Guide to Motorcycling, How to Ride the Right Way — for Life," co-written with Darwin Holmstrom.

Having logged more than a million miles and suffered only one serious accident, Barger is the rare rider who could write such a book with authority. In fact, "Let's Ride" is just the latest example of how he has used a marginalized form of transportation to elevate himself from troublemaker to an author who has sold hundreds of thousands of books worldwide. Leading a controversial life in his youth is clearly paying off in old age.

"I'm making a better living today than I ever have," says Barger, who was running a motorcycle shop when, a decade ago, he decided to trade on his checkered past in the bestselling memoir "Hell's Angel."

In the years since, he says, he's paid half a million dollars in taxes "all off of books." He complains that "the government will take my money, but I can't vote or own a gun" because he was a felon.

While it may seem ironic for an ex-con to brag about paying The Man, it's just the latest in a long list of dichotomies for Barger, who helped form the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957 and is one of the club's two eldest members.

Born in Northern California and now living here, Barger is the quintessential bad boy. An array of criminal charges were made against him over the years and he served two stretches totaling 13 years in maximum-security prisons. One of his books lists convictions for assault with intent to commit murder, conspiracy and other offenses.

But he's also a legend, riding made-in-the-USA bikes and endorsing a live-and-let-live mentality that, when violated, can provoke an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice.

Barger's heavily tattooed body is a testament to his storied life. There's a dagger on his chest, a cross on his arm, a "death head" skull on his back and a right-shoulder inscription that reads "Hell's Angels Oakland."

While the tats have faded, the body is still fit, the result of three-hour daily workouts and protein shakes that give him strength to keep doing what he likes to do best: ride.

Say what you will about the Angels, but one thing is not in dispute: their skill and devotion to motorcycling. That was clear on the recent Sunday morning I spent in a six-pack of bikers who met at the acre-plus ranch on the outskirts of this city where Barger lives with his 51-year-old fourth wife, Zorana — whom he married five years ago after her parole for a conspiracy conviction ended — and their three horses.

As he does every morning, Barger woke at 4:30, fed his animals and worked out. By 8 he was ready to roll.

After half a century riding Harley-Davidsons, Barger — an Army veteran who was raised during World War II and taught to buy American — now straddles a bike from a different U.S. manufacturer: A 2008 Victory Vision he purchased for $1 from legendary custom builder Arlen Ness.

He's swapped out the Victory badges for Hells Angels medallions that glow when the ignition switch is flipped and otherwise modified the bike with a Corbin seat and other parts from big names he knows. Barger's status as the baddest man on two wheels translates into a lot of free stuff, including the extra-thick blue jeans and sleeveless denim "cuts" he received for participating in a San Francisco clothing company's photo shoot items so new they have the perverse effect of making Barger look like a poseur.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his age, Barger still logs almost 25,000 miles annually — half as much as he used to ride but far more than many riders put on their bikes in a lifetime. His secret for keeping the shiny side up is luck. "No matter how good you are," says Barger, "you can be sitting at a stoplight when a truck comes up behind you and runs you over. It's all luck."

Luck, though, has a lot to do with preparation, which is why Barger felt compelled to write a rider's guide. "Everybody wants to be a motorcycle rider today, and they're getting killed," he says, noting that motorcycle fatalities increased for 11 straight years through 2008. "We wanted to write a book on what not to do."

"Let's Ride" is full of nots: not riding when angry, not riding while drunk or on drugs, not believing other drivers' turn signals, not riding a difficult-to-see black motorcycle, not learning to ride from a friend. Some of this he's learned the hard way, by doing it himself.

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