He spreads the gospel of two wheels in his sixth book, 'Let's Ride'
By Susan Carpenter
July 6, 2010
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
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.
Barger taught himself to ride on a Cushman scooter he bought for $25
when he was 11. Only in the 1980s did he take a rider course from the
Motorcycle Safety Foundation. "I was the only guy that fell down,"
Barger says. "It was funny because I had more riding time than the
whole class put together."
He is unapologetic about wearing a full-face helmet a piece of
safety gear shunned by many riders of cruiser-style motorcycles.
Barger wears such a helmet because he needs wind protection; 28 years
ago, his vocal cords were removed after his three-pack-a-day
cigarette habit led to cancer of the larynx. His voice is a whisper,
despite monthly trips to a Veterans Affairs hospital and semiweekly
self-insertions of plastic tubing to widen his esophagus so he can eat.
The other Angels with whom we rode were more traditionally attired:
their burly torsos clad in leather vests, their legs sheathed in
denim. The motorcycle club is open only to men, but on this day,
there were three women: Zorana; Kelly, the wife of another Angel
named Cowboy; and me.
Leading the pack was Barger, who, as he has for years, took the
upper-left-hand position, often riding on the center line of the
roadway, as if to say, "I own this." He was flanked by Cowboy to his
right, and the rest of us followed two by two, down the potholed dirt
road in front of Barger's house and out to the twisting, single-lane
country highway that would lead us to a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast
at the appropriately named Two Wheels Diner.
The Angels ride the way they live. Moving at speeds that often exceed
the posted limit, they travel tight side by side, with little
following distance between them. It's an apt metaphor for the
close-knit club that won't let just anybody in. Few Hells Angels have
kids, including Barger; the club is their family.
They also refuse to follow, as I learned when Barger tired of riding
behind a slow-moving camper, lifted his left arm and led us over the
double yellow line into a stream of oncoming traffic. It isn't often
I ride in groups, so I didn't understand the Angels' passing system.
Being in the last row, I had to stare down the grill of a pickup
before darting back into my lane. Each time we did this and it
happened repeatedly I felt fearful.
They, however, were fearless, which shouldn't be a surprise. They're
the Hells Angels. And Sonny Barger is their spiritual leader. After
all these years, he knows what he's doing riding, writing, living free.