They come and go in a minute, wheels whirring, frames gleaming. It’s a balmy day in March, school just let out, and a dozen or more teens on bikes have claimed the streets near Head House Square.
The kids, who range in age between 12 and 19, circle the parking lot outside Wawa. They ride bikes like So Cal Flyers and Big Rippers, most of which are decked out in neon tape and metallic stickers.
Soon enough they’re gone, zipping over to Front Street and showing off tricks. They pop wheelies, swerve, and stand on their seats (a move called “surfing”). They also take turns leaning back and gliding their hands along the road, a very Instagram-able trick called the “dragon.” Those who have perfected the tricks teach their ways to others. When cars come, and they often do, the kids warn each other and stop traffic if they have to. Some drivers look frustrated, some look amused, and some pull out their phones to catch it all on camera.
The boys pay little attention to traffic laws or their own safety. But there’s talent, and a system, behind the unruliness. Meet the members of One Way, Philadelphia’s largest informal group of young bicyclists. Only 20 or so kids make up the official core of the group, but their influence is rampant, and they’re revolutionizing the way young people in the city view bicycling.
“Biking is freedom,” 19-year-old Amir Oliver says. “It’s a stress reliever. If I’m having a bad day, I can get on my bike and just go.”
One Way — and all the “wheelie kids” who gather in groups and do tricks in traffic — speak to a part of the city that’s rebellious, has no regard for how it’s viewed, and has no intention of changing. But this world also lends young Philadelphians a sense of pride and unity. They come into the city in full force, transforming its streets into an adaptable and endlessly navigable playground.
Corey Murray, One Way’s 15-year-old trendsetter, is quick to point out that these groups of young bicyclists don’t refer to themselves as gangs.
“We ride, and people watch us when we’re riding,” Corey says. “Some people love it and some people hate it. They just think we’re messing with cars and all that. I don’t care about them. They can say what they want, but they don’t know how it is. It’s just fun.”
No one knows exactly when One Way started, but it was at least more than a decade ago. According to Corey, the father of a guy called Prince first brought the group together. Little is said about Prince except three things: he’s a bit of a biking legend, he’s more involved with dirt bikes than pedal bikes, and he’s currently “locked up.” (A source active in the dirt bike scene confirms that “Prince” is Prince Lewis, a trick dirt biker from Point Breeze who was arrested for attempted murder in February 2015.)
Corey, now a biking legend himself, met Prince through his 26-year-old brother, Mark Murray, otherwise known as “Dirt Bike Mark.” Sometime before Prince went to jail last year, he appointed Corey leader of One Way’s pedal bikers.
One Way has two sides to it, and they often overlap: You have dirt bikes, which are essentially lightweight motorcycles designed for rough terrain, and then you have pedal bikes, which include BMX models as well as street bikes adapted for tricks. Pedal bikes are more accessible, easier to master, and more prevalent among the group’s younger members. Plus, dirt bikes are illegal, deadly and sometimes attract a criminal element. Police have been cracking down on their use citywide.
“Some people love it and some people hate it. I don’t care about them. They can say what they want, but they don’t know how it is.”
Justin G., a twentysomething who doesn’t want to use his full name because of his affiliation with dirt bike culture, says he discourages younger kids from using dirt bikes, despite the fact that some people, like himself, “are just going to do it anyway.” But pedal bikes, he says, are much safer and allow kids to join a close-knit, supportive “family” of riders.
“It used to be BMX or dirt bikes, but now all the kids are getting pedal bikes and doing wheelies and trying to join One Way,” he says.
Jordan Virden, a videographer and friend to many One Way members, frequently films the group in action. “The pedal bikes are such a big movement, especially to the kids,” Virden, 23, says.
Older bikers like Virden, Justin G. and Harry Murray, Corey’s 19-year-old cousin, say their younger peers typically look at dirt bikes as something to which they can “graduate” when they turn 17 or 18. But they all agree that ever since Corey and One Way’s popularity took off, there’s been more of a general emphasis on pedal bikes, which has led to larger and more frequent “ride outs.”
Ride outs, or planned rides that can include up to 100 participants, unite and recruit young bicyclists from all over the city. The routes may be selected in advance or decided upon spontaneously. Sometimes an entire ride might come together at the last minute because of birthdays, holidays, or agreeable weather. They usually happen when someone posts to Instagram with details on the time and place.
In fact, Instagram is the main mode of communication for many One Way members. Most boys who hold a coveted spot in the group claim handles that start with “oneway” followed by an underscore and their first name or an alias. Those without cell phones, the younger ones, access Instagram on computers, where they can message other members or friends to learn about the next ride out.
Corey Murray meets me in the Melrose Diner on Snyder Avenue, about a five-minute bike ride from his house. He has soft green eyes and pale skin, and he’s wearing baggy black pants and a black sweatshirt that hangs loose. A clunky gold chain with a set of keys dangles from his neck.
Unless you’re a local preteen or teenager who bikes, you might not know of Corey. But the young South Philadelphian is a celebrity to many of his peers. He has more than 67,000 followers on his private Instagram account, @oneway_corey, and an irrefutable presence as a top dog in the city’s BMX and pedal bike culture.
On a bike he moves with ease, coasting down streets with one tire on the ground, one in the air, his black-gloved hand gliding along the pavement. Corey rides a navy-framed Big Ripper with gold rims and red typography, which spells out his name. He’s regarded as the best because he’s mastered and created an impressive number of tricks: He can dance and jump on the seat while he wheelies, put his legs over the handlebars while he wheelies… he can do pretty much anything imaginable while he wheelies. And when he takes to the streets, other bikes follow him.
“He’s a machine,” Oliver says. “He’s earned that position.”
“It used to be BMX or dirt bikes, but now all the kids are getting pedal bikes and doing wheelies and trying to join One Way.”
When Corey isn’t biking, he has a hard time sitting still. In his plush red booth at the diner, he fidgets, bites his nails often, and glances out the window every minute or so. A student at the Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter School at 15th and Chestnut streets — he’s between the 9th and 10th grades, he says — it’s somewhat difficult to get Corey to talk at length about anything beyond riding or, maybe, his girlfriend.
“Other than biking, there ain’t no story to me,” he says.
Most of his friends don’t even know his last name. Bring up “One Way Corey” to almost any group of kids cycling in Philly, however, and not only will they probably know whom you mean, but they’ll also tell you one of the following things: Either they want to be in One Way, they know someone who is in One Way, or, if they’re lucky, they’re one of roughly 50 members who already belong to the extended One Way family.
Corey gets about 30 direct messages a day on Instagram from friends and strangers who want to bike with him. A lot of his followers come from his favorite artist, Meek Mill, who also follows Corey. The rapper, a native Philadelphian who highlights the local dirt bike scene in many of his songs and music videos, has given Corey a “shout out” on the app.
Corey says he plans to eventually take his passion for riding to the professional level. But for now, there’s nothing he’d rather do than take to the streets with his friends and his bike.
“The only time he’s guaranteed to be somewhere is if you tell him we’re going out on the bikes,” Virden says.
Bicyclists who do tricks tend to fall. You have to fall, Oliver says, in order to learn how to wheelie. Usually it results in little more than scrapes or bruises, although Harry Murray says he sees more serious injuries, like broken bones, among his peers every two months or so. Many One Way members will say they’re experienced enough to know how to avoid crashes. But close calls happen, especially since wheelie kids must share the streets with cars.
Harry recalls being hit by a car near 23rd and South streets while pedal biking last May. When the driver called the police, an officer issued Harry a ticket, but it was later cleared in court.
“People shed a negative light on it,” Justin G. says. “They only promote the negative part of it, where there are kids causing trouble, but they won’t say how the driver tried to provoke the kids.” He added that while the pedal bikers sometimes know “what we’re doing is wrong,” drivers might swerve around them aggressively in an attempt to scare them.
“I guess it’s scary if you’re a driver of a car, but if you let [a car] pass real quick, it’s gone,” Virden says. “The problem is when cars start honking, they’ll try to swerve to scare you and some kids get rowdy and start calling them names, and people see the negative side of what happens.” Virden says it’s the younger, less experienced kids — those under 15 or 16, usually — who provoke drivers.
Biking like this has its risks, especially when the riders are young. In 2013, children under 15 accounted for 7 percent of all bicyclists killed and 11 percent of those injured in traffic crashes. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, bicyclists ages 5 to 14 were among the most vulnerable to death and injury in 2014. This age group suffered almost a fourth of all injuries involving bicycles. Another vulnerable group, those ages 15 to 19, accounted for 15.5 percent of the state’s total reported injuries involving bicycles in 2014.
But biking is also popular. A 2013 study from the Outdoor Foundation found recreational riding — that includes road biking, mountain biking and BMX — to be the most popular outdoor activity among youth in the U.S. A 2009 study in Clinical Pediatrics found that more than 70 percent of children, ages 5 to 14, ride a bicycle. According to a 2005 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, boys with peers who live close by, as is the case in cities and urban areas, are more likely to bike for transportation and recreation.
On a recent ride out, none of One Way’s members wore helmets. Of course, they legally don’t have to if they’re over the age of 12. Both Corey and Harry Murray say it’s unlikely that they, or anyone they ride with, will start.
“Maybe if I’m sponsored and someone pays me to wear a helmet,” Corey says.
Since 2010, more than 90,000 public school students in the city have gone through Safe Routes Philly, a program run by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. The point is to teach young kids lessons in bicycling and pedestrian safety.
“Any time a cyclist has no regard for traffic safety, that’s a concern,” says Megan Rosenbach, the Coalition’s director of bike education. “Whether it’s youth riding with a bunch of other youth or an adult riding on their own, there’s a concern here.”
Still, Rosenbach says she’s optimistic about groups like One Way. “Certainly I’m concerned for their safety, but I also think there’s a lot of promise in seeing that that many students are excited about biking around the city,” she says. “Being able to harness that energy is an exciting challenge.”
Before Philadelphia’s streets can get safer, she adds, people need to change the way they view cyclists. That goes especially for groups like One Way, which Rosenbach says are negatively perceived by drivers and pedestrians alike.
“I have no problem with kids wanting to ride their bicycles in the city, but it’s my opinion that they use it for disruption, like a disorderly behavior type of thing.”
In turn, that affects the way police view the kids. Captain Frank Milillo of the 3rd Police District says his officers have had their eyes on groups like One Way, and any kids who bike recklessly on the streets, for years. “It’s a safety thing,” he says. “When kids are in a group like that, they get a false sense of security, like they’re invincible.”
Groups of bicycling teens are also often associated with crime, Milillo says, whether or not they’re breaking the law. There have been many instances, especially on South Street and the Schuylkill River Trail of kids on bikes committing crimes like theft and assault. As a result, although many young cyclists keep to themselves, pedestrians may associate any teenager on a bike with these incidents. Milillo says the 3rd District, which stretches south of South Street and east of Broad Street, gets calls from residents complaining about “gangs” of kids on bikes as many as two or three times a night during warmer months.
“I have no problem with kids wanting to ride their bicycles in the city, but it’s my opinion that they use it for disruption, like a disorderly behavior type of thing,” Milillo says. “They go out and cause issues, not just to enjoy riding their bikes together as friends.”
Milillo says the police sometimes execute “stings,” in which they attempt to corral large groups of kids who are cycling recklessly. But it’s against policy to actually chase bicyclists, he adds. “We’re not going to chase a kid and have a 12- or 13-year-old get hit by a car because we’re chasing them,” he says. “We’re not here to give tickets out.”
Rosenbach says she feels as though groups like One Way are unjustly targeted and criticized. “No one was too upset when white hipsters were doing Critical Mass across the city,” she says, referring to unsanctioned group rides that cyclists, usually young adults, used to hold in Philadelphia and still organize elsewhere. “There are other bike rides… that attract a young, hip white person, and they’re not following the rules either.”
While Rosenbach says she knows of many drivers who condemn the behavior of groups like One Way, she says the “concern is a little misdirected,” seeing as drivers are more likely to collide with individual cyclists than with groups.
“Philadelphia is at this interesting moment in terms of bike culture.” she adds, “and I don’t want things to tip in this direction where we think only a certain type of person is a bicyclist.”
“No one was too upset when white hipsters were doing Critical Mass across the city.”
Meka Perez, a staff member at the Parks and Recreation Department, is working to implement free classes on bike safety, bike training and bike repair at rec centers across the city. She says she would specifically target groups like One Way.
“What’s the best way to attack this issue without seeming like we want to displace them, or we don’t want them around?” Perez says. “Kids in the city don’t have a lot of options. It’s not like we have a lot of Clark Parks they can go to.”
Perez says she wants to see more places like the Philly Pumptrack, the city’s first certified BMX park near 53rd Street and Parkside Avenue. And she thinks the talent in these groups shouldn’t be ignored. “Some of them could have scholarship opportunities… outside of the proverbial sports like basketball and football,” she says.
Amir Oliver and I meet up with a young pedal biker, Eddie Robinson, outside a Starbucks in Bala Cynwyd. Robinson, who learned how to bike from his father and hopes to eventually compete in the X Games, says little when he first arrives. But the more Oliver talks to him about biking, the more he opens up.
“Biking is a part of my life,” Robinson, 15, says. “It’s like eating or sleeping. I do it every day. I can’t help it. I just have to.”
Oliver feels a similar way. “I don’t think I’ll ever put a bike down,” he says. “Ever. As long as I can pedal.”
Oliver says many of the kids he bikes with have the skill and talent to go pro. “I don’t think enough people embrace that this means something to us,” he says. Through his brand, Wrek Havoc, Oliver wants to connect Philadelphia’s talented wheelie kids to opportunities that will allow them to shine.
The pair — one a promising young upstart, the other a veteran of the scene who wants to introduce his peers to the rest of the world — heads to the parking lot to show off some tricks. They take turns gliding up and down an empty street while a few people watch. Afterward, they stand around talking about Corey and One Way and a friend of theirs who recently broke his arm while learning to wheelie. I ask if he still rides.
“Oh yeah,” Oliver says. “He just got right back on and kept going.” ◆
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