Lithuanian bikers born to be mild

  • 2002-05-16
  • Tony Pappa
While motorcycling enthusiasts may have a bad rep in the West, their Lithuanian counterparts are more into fun than guns. Tony Pappa reports on the wholesome happenings at the recent opening of biker season in Vilnius.

Two recent events involving bikers reveal that men rather than machines set the tone.

On April 27, four people were killed in gang-related violence at a big biker rally in the town of Laughlin, Nevada. Just a week later, on May 4 in Vilnius, hundreds of bikers wove through the church-laden streets in a peaceful motorcade celebrating Biker Day, the official start of motorcycle season.

The chrome shimmered in the same light. The tattoos and leather looked the same. And although the sounds of snarling engines were distinctly similar, something about this event was different from any of its murky stateside counterparts.

Considering the stereotypes about the most notorious band of bikers, the Hell's Angels, the concept of a biker "culture" might seem a bit redundant. In fact, the mere mention of the word culture to such a gang might result in a brawl.

Rebellion has long been the mantra of this counter-culture since before the times of James Dean and Marlon Brando. But the recent rally in Lithuania was truly without a cause beyond a display of pride, self and bike.

The engines revved while the onlookers reveled in the showmanship. Street stunts and wheelies were pulled with ease, and the only signs of a rumble came from the bikes speeding by. Fathers and sons donned helmets, while backseat babes wore anything tight-fitting and black.

"I love it, it's great here!" said Wayne Levonitis, an independent biker and member of the Berlin rock group Sub Masters, one of the four bands that performed at the culminating event of Biker Day at Zalgiris Stadium in Vilnius. "Have you seen any fights here? Any guns?"

Levonitis grew up in the hardcore biker brotherhood of Texas.

"If you mixed a Hell's Angel with a Bandido or a Mongol, there was going to be a fight. It was not going to be a friendly gathering," he said.

As he talks, a young biker approaches and offers to buy him a beer.

"You see what I mean? This is just about having a good time, and I'm glad to be part of it. But in America it's about dealing drugs, women and hot bikes," said Levonitis.

Facts seem to indicate that he is exaggerating slightly. Rough estimates in the States put the number of bikers involved in gang violence at a mere 1 percent. Still, this small group gets most of the press surrounding motorcycle activity.

Levonitis points out that another aspect distinguishing the Vilnius scene is the type of bikes seen.

"In the States, if you don't have a respectable bike, like a Harley Davidson, BSA or a Triumph, you'd be laughed out of here or even worse," he said. "I can't even count the number of Japanese bikes I've seen land on top of a bonfire."

Baby bikers

The major difference between Lithuania and the U.S.A. is that biker culture in the Baltics is very young, and bikes like the Harley Davidson are too expensive for most people. The result is that it matters much less what you are riding, only that you ride.

Jonas Litinskas is a free rider in Vilnius. He built his own Honda here and also safely toured America on a rented one before ending up in Daytona to take part in possibly America's biggest biker gathering. His Japanese bike made it safely.

"Renting a Harley would have been too expensive and I had no problems riding the Honda. A lot of the people I met were just like the bikers here in Lithuania. Like the people here today," said Litinskas.

The profile of the bikers on hand at this event read like a chamber of commerce meeting rather than a criminal rap sheet.

"This is my passion," declared Ricardas Kasparavicius, who rides a Harley Heritage Softtail Classic. "I try to get out on weekends, but I have a family."

He also has a lot of business to attend to as the chairman of the Baltpark hotel group.

The main reason people like Kasparavicius and others are involved in this clique is to build friendships with like-minded people, not gain notoriety.

"One of the most important things for us is that we've met a lot new friends, people who are thinking the same way," said Elona Svilaite, a woman who shares a bike with a friend.

"You mean like crazy!" added her companion, Valdas Petkevincius.

Valdas started in motocross at an early age and was a champion racer until 22 years ago when he says he lost the youthful urge to take risks. But when the weather is nice, he can be spotted cruising about the Old Town on his Suzuki.

"I am a family man now. No more racing for me. But when the sun shines, I ride." he said.

The consensus among bikers in Lithuania is that this is simply a hobby like any other. They're merely doing something they love.

"If you have some spare money, this is a great way to spend it. It doesn't matter what country you are in. Biking is all about feeling free," said Svilaite.

Freedom is a common theme among bikers around the globe, and Lithuanian bikers have a real living hero to inspire them. He is Antanas Ilgauskas, at 95 the oldest biker in Lithuania. He was seen last year at the Kaunas rally, driving his old Harley, complete with sidecar.

"He's had the bike since before World War II," recalled Svilaite. "When the Germans invaded he buried it in the ground until 1945."

Rita Sakus is a Lithuanian-Canadian who was inspired to get her motorcycle license by the people she met in Vilnius. She said her favorite aspect of biking was being on the open road, sensing the natural surroundings.

"These guys take it really easy and make it so enjoyable. I watched and learned their rituals. How to turn on the bike. How to act when you are on it. And where to drive it," she said.

Juxtapose the comments of this group against the remarks of Wayne from Texas, and it's striking how different the perspectives seem. However, whether it's a hobby or a lifestyle, there is a seemingly devout attachment between biker and bike.