LONG POND, Penn. — It’s hard to enjoy yourself when your passion is a crime almost everywhere you go.
So Benjamin Charles, a Harlem dirt biker, rented out an entire racetrack here in Pennsylvania.
Riding a dirt bike is illegal in most cities, and on most public roads, because the bikes don’t have standard safety equipment like headlights and turn signals. On top of that, neighbors complain that the noisy bikes are a dangerous nuisance.
That makes legal rides like the one Mr. Charles hosted on a recent Sunday at Pocono Raceway one of the few moments enthusiasts can ride freely.
“If you have a dirt bike, or an ATV, they associate you with being a bad person,” said Mr. Charles, a prominent figure in the growing urban dirt bike movement known as bike life. “But these guys are just passionate about riding the bikes. That’s all they wanna do.”
For city riders, bike life is in near constant conflict with the police.
In New York, the former police commissioner William J. Bratton called the bikers “nitwits and knuckleheads” after the New York Police Department shared a video on Twitter of bulldozers crushing dirt bikes and ATVs that had been confiscated by officers. And in Baltimore, the police department has created a special Dirt Bike Violators Task Force.
“It is illegal to operate dirt bikes on New York City streets,” said Detective Kellyann Ort, a spokeswoman for the New York Police Department. “Individuals and groups who operate these bikes in a reckless manner endanger the safety of all New Yorkers.”
Mr. Charles said he was arrested twice for riding in the streets, prompting him to start exploring legal ways to ride.
In 2013, he was part of an unsuccessful campaign to secure public funding for an urban dirt bike park, an idea that has gained traction in at least one other city. Last year, the Cleaveland City Council approved $2.3 million in funding for a dirt bike park, in part to keep riders off the streets.
But the setback didn’t stop Mr. Charles, who is known as Benadon by other dirt bikers. His company Risk Takerz, which was founded to help support dirt bike culture, created the brand Bike Life Sports last year. Bike Life Sports has hosted three legal rides since, with another planned for September.
The rides served as a sort of therapy for the riders, many of whom traveled for hours with their bikes and ATVs in U-Haul trucks, or with the vehicles precariously strapped to their cars.
Phil Rinaldi, who came to Pocono Raceway from Connecticut, began riding seriously in 2016.
A battle with testicular cancer left him searching for an outlet as he tried to restart his life after a lengthy hospital stint.
“I don’t feel any of the pain that I have to normally deal with in my life,” he said between laps around the track, where he practiced his signature move of popping a wheelie, then leaning back and covering his face with both hands.
“I can’t draw a picture. I can’t paint; I can’t do pottery; I can’t do art like that,” he said. “But you know, when I get on my bike, that’s my art.”
Though bike life is expanding across the country, the culture was created and sustained by black communities in places like Harlem, the Bronx, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Many grow up riding bikes, and bike culture features in videos from musicians like the Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill and the Harlem artist ASAP TyY.
In communities that are sometimes plagued by division and conflict, the bikers say that bikes can be a unifier.
“Bike life is all about brotherhood,” said Rocky Giles, a Harlem rider who said he has had a bike since he was 3 years old. “Everybody just shares the same passion, man. That’s it. You have some fun, take your problems away, and get on the bike.”
Melissa Luck, 24, said she grew up riding in the woods in Long Island, where avoiding the cops was never much of an issue. After riding with some bikers in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, though, she said she began to empathize with the struggle urban riders face trying to avoid the police.
“When I met the people on the streets, I was like, they have the same love, they just have nowhere to go,” she said. “We have the privilege of having the woods and having the trails. It’s not legal, but we have more opportunity to stay off the street.”
Mr. Charles said he is looking to expand the Bike Life Sports brand, and wants to create an extreme sports spectacle for television. But he faces an uphill battle in changing the perception of vehicles that have long been considered public enemies.
Still, he feels like he’s on to something.
“If we can get 400 plus people to come to a place hundreds of miles away from their house just to ride a bike,” he said, “what would you call that?”