As if motoring in Moscow weren't already harrowing -- with high-speed cars weaving across lanes, drunken pedestrians shuffling into traffic, freelance taxis jockeying for fares and bribe-hungry police preying on law-abiding drivers -- witness the capital's latest craze: swarms of motorcyclists buzzing about hornet-like on Moscow's massive boulevards.
Motorcycling is the latest fashion to hit the city, following hard upon Rollerblading, hot dog vending and mafia shootouts. Cycle stores report a spike in sales, and bike clubs are recruiting a broad band of new members.
The Soviet Union once had urban bikers, too, but they were considered outlaws. Almost anyone riding for fun was considered a potential subversive. Riding in groups was cause for a police investigation. Bikers regarded themselves as fast-moving dissidents; they got kicks out of cruising the city late at night, running red lights and knocking nightsticks out of policemen's hands. They were notorious for brawling at rock concerts.
Today, it is the Russian establishment that is engaged in uproarious high jinks, from public drunkenness to breathtaking larceny. Bikers, by contrast, have gone legit. If anything, they think of themselves as upholders of Russian ideals.
"It was interesting before -- recklessness as a form of struggle. We had to look different, act different as a way to feel free. Now it's not necessary. What's the excitement from running red lights? Everybody's doing it," said Aleksander Zaldastanov, leader of a cycle club called the Night Wolves. Other clubs in town go by such names as the Cossacks, the Skulls and Into the Night.
Zaldastanov prefers to use his nickname, Surgeon; he's a physician. He says he was drawn to biking by contact with injured cyclists he treated in the late 1980s. Back then, bikers were called Rockers. Now the categories are more complex: Cruisers, who ride choppers with extended front forks, low exhaust pipes and raindrop-shaped gas tanks; Streetbikers, who zip around on Japanese sports models; Crossers, who are off-road enthusiasts.
Surgeon, a muscular fellow who wears a snakeskin vest, an array of alligator wrist bands, skull-shaped rings and lightning bolt tattoos, said the Night Wolves want to be the vanguard of a new, responsible Russia. His group promotes Russian-made bikes, although many of his members ride concoctions that include foreign parts.
"A great power should not only have an army, but its own motorbike," Surgeon said.
Moscow would seem an unlikely place for motorcycle riding to prosper. Winter takes a big bite out of bike time. Only from May to early November is the weather likely to be free enough of snow or rain for much open-air traveling -- and even then, the climate is unpredictable. No matter. When Muscovites take to something, they take to it big, slick streets be damned.
"We're very much attached to self-expression. And for most Russian riders, bikes aren't transportation, they're a reflection of the soul. For fun, it beats drinking," said Andrei Badaev, a slender, 21-year-old motorcycle salesman who cruises in a battered Izh, a standby brand of the Soviet era. His bike is out of commission for the moment; he took a spill the other day on a slippery, potholed street. His girlfriend resolutely refuses to ride with him.
During the late Soviet years, motorcycling for most riders was hardly recreational; it was mainly the preserve of the army, the police and farmers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, cycle production declined, as did just about every other industrial activity. Annual sales fell quickly from a peak of about 2 million at the beginning of the decade to 600,000, then a steeper slide leveled off at about 60,000 in 1997. The new rich of Russia turned to foreign brands, such as Honda and Suzuki.
With agriculture in a deep depression, farmers practically stopped buying. In the 1980s, the Uralmoto motorcycle firm, a popular Soviet manufacturer, sold about 130,000 bikes a year, many with sidecars so that state farm workers could ferry produce from field to warehouse. Last year, Uralmoto sold 7,000 and hopes to double that this year.
This spring, the factory turned out a new model, the Wolf -- black and shiny, with aerodynamic lines. "This bike is for anything but hauling potatoes," said Ilya Burlyakov, the Uralmoto sales representative in Moscow. Unsurprisingly, the ad slogan for the Wolf is "Leader of the Pack."
Salesmen say customers fit into two categories -- the office worker and the thrill seeker. The former regards the maneuverability of a bike as a way to beat Moscow's wall-to-wall rush-hour traffic and its small size as a way to overcome the city's tight parking situation. The latter seeks, in the words of young Badaev, "to pull up to a corner, have everyone admire his tan legs and think he's cool."
Sometimes, the two types converge. "You see these businessmen shedding their suits for weird black leather jackets or those jazzed-up, colorful sport bike outfits. You can tell they're not doing this just for convenience," said Faris Obaidi, an Iraqi Russian who sells American-made Harley-Davidson bikes.
Zaldastanov, a k a Surgeon, said he regards motorcycle clubs as repositories of Russia's lost communal values. "Bikes are a symbol which unites us. That's what I think people see in motorcycles today. Real bikers ride in groups. It's a counter to mindless individualism. Maybe it's just nostalgia, but people long to be together, drink vodka under a tree, be happy," he said.
To that end, Surgeon is organizing a cycle jamboree on Aug. 20. One such festival included medieval-style jousting by bike-borne contestants; a death-defying exhibition in which stunt men set themselves afire while atop motorbikes whirling inside a metal sphere; strippers; modern dancers; and demolition derbies. A commercial video of the event bore the warning, "Piracy can be harmful to your health."
"You see, there's no happy medium in Russia," Surgeon said. "We either go all the way or do nothing."