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. 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 can 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.
“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, Calif., chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957.
Born in Northern California and now living there, 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.
Skill and devotion
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 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. 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.
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 — safety gear shunned by many riders of cruiser-style motorcycles. Barger 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.
Tight and fearless
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 took the upper-left-hand position, often riding on the roadway’s center line, 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 dirt road in front of Barger’s house to the twisting, single-lane country highway that would lead us to a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast at the 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.
They also refuse to follow, as I learned when Barger tired of riding behind a slow-moving camper, 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, 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.