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IN GOOD COMPANY: Free Hawks Latvia club secretary Ansis Varsbergs (left) and Vice President Ugis Spelmanis are ready for this Saturday’s motorcycle season opening.
RIGA - It’s a scent you never forget. A combination of leather, engine oil and seared metal. I grew up where holding a 7 mm drop jaw spanner, for whatever motorbike Dad was fixing, was commonplace. Inside Free Hawks Latvia’s motorcycle workshop, however, you sense this is truly a man’s domain.
Back in Soviet times there were no motorcycle clubs or gangs in Latvia. Sure, there were bikes around, like the Eastern-produced Czech Jawa; reliable, yes, but there’s only so much a rider can do on a 250 cc two-stroke single with dual exhausts. Today the biker movement in the Baltic States may still be in its infancy, but there are already more than 20 clubs in Latvia alone.
Free Hawks Latvia secretary Ansis Varsbergs said it comes down to this: everyone knows someone who rides a bike.
“It’s a kind of culture in our country. There’s pride in riding a motorcycle in Latvia,” he says.
Clubs are formed from groups of friends, but to join it’s not a simple “you have a bike so you’re welcome.”
That’s why every coterie has contrasting eligibility requirements. With the Free Hawks, no ladies can request to join and hopefuls must be at least 25-years-old. “You come and apply, ride with the club and members watch you.” Then there’s the voting process. One helmet, a piece of paper for each affiliate casting their ballot, and a pencil. And that’s only the first election step. If successful, a candidate receives an official title: “hang around.” They have that label for a minimum one-year period during which they journey the roads and attend events with the group. After this time another poll occurs, where they aspire to be appointed as a “prospect.” Same thing again. Another year until they are eligible to become a fully-fledged, patched, member. But it’s not always a yes.
“Some people get kicked out. Not everyone stays with us,” Ansis said. One bruised apple can spoil a crate. It’s not worth the risk in this type of brotherhood to have any room for division.
Generally clubs are based on location. The Free Hawks differ because their members are from all around Latvia. They also have chapters in Lithuania and Estonia, making them one of the few crews covering all three Baltic States, as represented by their emblem, which displays each country’s flag. A club’s patch creates distinction and is worn with pride. Rivalry between them is almost non-existent. Ansis said: “I don’t feel this competition. Some are more friendly, some are less.”
Free Hawks Latvia vice president Ugis Spelmanis started riding motocross bikes in 1976, a hobby he initially hid from his parents. A competition forced him to confess about the activity because he needed their written permission to enter. From then on, two wheels has always been his preferred mode of transport.
He joined the Free Hawks because they were “one of the first with an active president and good members.”
Ansis emphasises they are not a gang pursuing lawless activities, but acknowledged that, as with any community, you’ll find people with a criminal past. “But we have no rule that says you must do some criminal activity to become a member.”
On that note, he said their relationship with Latvia’s police force has no problems. “They live separately, we live separately. If we go too fast, they catch us.” Or at least try to. There’s a lot of power between these guys’ legs - and by power I mean a six-speed, four-stroke, duel-mufflered chrome stallion measuring in at a mere 2.38 meters long and weighing a little more than 350 kilograms. These babies don’t purr down the highways; their presence is announced by that distinct engine rumble ricocheting from every unsuspecting object on their path long before they’re seen.
Ansis started riding mini-motorcycles around 40 years ago. “Sometimes I take the Yamaha R6 from my son to catch the fun of the speed. But my preference is cruisers with big engines.”
Little wonder the motorcycle season opening in Latvia leaves onlookers wide-eyed and open-mouthed. This weekend, Saturday, April 28, an estimated (up to) 3,500 motorcycles, stretching three kilometers or more, will make a circuit around and through Riga city. Founding members of the Motorcycle Club Association (MCA) of Latvia: Free Hawks Latvia, Brothers of the Wind, and Hermejs Latvia will lead the group in three columns. Following them are other motorcycle clubs, then unaffiliated riders.
Each club starts and celebrates the day differently. The Free Hawks meet on the Lielupe Bridge where they honor those riders no longer with them. A shot of vodka is knocked back and the rest of the bottle thrown over the shoulder, into the river. Then engines are gunned and the ride to Riga commences.
“We have a lot of traditions, even though we are so young. We don’t just sit around and drink. Each Saturday [during the season] there is an event. One weekend will be the birthday of the Black Angels, the next the Brothers of the Wind. We’re visiting other clubs and celebrating with them.”
“My season usually starts in February when I start to dream about riding… For me, my bike is my main transport in spring, summer and autumn. The previous summer I only drove my car 8 or 9 times,” Ansis said.
However, he said road conditions in Latvia are a continual problem for many riders and estimates each Latvian biker has at least one accident every two years, where they, or their motorcycle, suffers some decent damage. His Harley Davidson Road King still sports scars from a fall last August. Travelling at 100 kph, a bump in the road sent his back wheel airborne and snatched the steed from underneath his legs. He spun 360 degrees three times, then skidded to a stop 100 meters down the asphalt. The word “ouch” is an understatement.
In fact, data from JSC Latvian State Roads showed that in 2011, 27 percent, or 2,306 kilometers, of roads with black surface in Latvia were classified as collapsed and needed complete surface reconstruction.
With the number of motorcycle incidents happening each season, Latvia’s MCA is a vital component to the movement having an audible voice when it comes to road matters. Other goals for the association, according to their Web site, are to strengthen the bonds of friendship among motorcyclists in Latvia, promote cooperation among motor clubs for the achievement of common goals, raise the prestige and positive recognition of motor clubs among the general public, as well as provide assistance to members regarding legal, medical and other issues, if need be.
But Ansis said that although clubs “belong” to the MCA, they are still independent of the organization and “make their own life without any regulations from elsewhere.”
“The rules of every club vary. It allows every biker to find a club as close as possible to his philosophy.”
Probing why they’ve chosen this path brings an unpretentious answer: “Bikes, the thrill of biking, and biker clubs - this is our everyday life that we enjoy. This is such a big part of our lives… not just the machines, but the new friends we meet on our journey. However, we value and cherish our old, tested real life friends. I think these are the main reasons why it is worth living this exciting and breath-taking life of a biker.”
Official Web sites: www.freehawks.lv, www.mca.lv