Waikato Expressway attack: Jarrod Gilbert on the Tribesmen – should we fear outlaw motorcycle gang packs?


The footage of scores of Tribesmen roaring down the Waikato Expressway on motorcycles, riding down the wrong side of the motorway,and ultimately assaulting another motorist were confronting.

The ins-and- outs of that incident will undoubtedly be played out in court, but should we fear the noisy outlaw packs?

I’ve ridden in such packs with a number of different outlaw motorcycle clubs over the years. I’ve been on long runs that travelled much of the country, short ones just across a city, and one in which I was accidentally knocked off my bike and straight into a good stint in hospital. Overall, the view from inside the pack is very different to what’s seen by outsiders. As is the case with many things, how the travelling gangs are perceived
depends on who’s doing the looking.

Public concern associated with outlaw motorcycle clubs travelling the country are not new. As far back as the 1960s such groups were causing consternation.

Police responded by creating “shadow patrols”, where a police car would tail the biker groups as a deterrent to them causing trouble. The relationship between the shadow patrols and the bikers was mixed. Some of the biker packs did all manner of tricks to lose their tails, while others requested the police carry beer or tents in the boots of the police cars.

The political response came in 1972, in the lead-up to the general election when opposition leader Norman Kirk promised to take the “bikes off the bikies”. He never did a thing about vehicle confiscations, but he did get elected. The politicisation of the gangs had arrived.

But while the gangs remained a near permanent topic for opposition political parties, the police shadow patrols dropped off. As the scene matured, the bikers just weren’t causing that much trouble and the cost of tailing them was no longer seen as money well spent.

The recent footage of the Tribesmen showed a frantic pack acting dangerously (and ultimately violently) and the reasons for that will only become clear in time, but that is not the norm. In fact, riding in a large groups is deceptively uniform and there are a number of rules the riders adhere to.

While it may not be noticeable from the outside, the pack rides in a strict formation of two staggered files. One file on the inside of the lane and one on the outside, and being staggered it means that each rider has space to the side, front and behind. That’s room for error. If for whatever reason a rider leaves the pack to stop or to take off ahead, the riders fall in to fill the space organically.

Within outlaw clubs, there is also a hierarchy within the group; patched members at the front, then prospects and then non-patched members. It’s considered incredibly poor form to overtake a patched member.

Many groups have a road captain whose job it is to plan the route and the stops for gas and kai.

The president leads the formation, and he dictates the terms. He sets the overall speed of the group, and any overtaking. The personality (and skills) of the president means rides can be entirely different to one another.

I’ve ridden with the same club on many occasions and when the president changed one year (the outlaw clubs tend to have annual elections), the ride went from sedate and uniform to fast and challenging, where the pack was often split and the back forced to catch up. When that happened it tended to lead to more dangerous overtaking manoeuvres.

Anybody who rides a motorcycle knows the simple joy of it, but riding in a pack adds to the exhilaration. The noise, the pack moving in individual parts but nevertheless as one, each rider relying on the people around him to do things right, and with a deep feeling of camaraderie.

But having a pack roar up behind you when you’re in a car is an altogether different story, and it’s natural to get a fright or be nervous.

When that happens, remember that they’re not out to get you, you’re just another car on the road to them. Nobody on a motorcycle likes unpredictability, so hold your line and don’t speed up or slow down dramatically, they’ll make their way past. If you can do so safely, move over just a little and give them a bit more space to pass, all motorcyclists
– even the wild looking ones – appreciate that.

Anyone who takes a long drive knows there are a few idiots on our roads, and there are certainly idiots in gang packs, too. You might see some reckless riding, but overall there is little to fear if you find yourself being buzzed by a group of outlaw motorcyclists. In the hours and hours I’ve spent on different runs, I’ve never witnessed violence against the public.

And the only aggression I’ve seen has occurred after car drivers did something crazy that endangered the riders.

But for all of that, incidents like the on the Waikato Expressway don’t have to be common for a response by police and politicians to become inevitable. If outlaw bikers want to enjoy the freedom of riding their bikes as they currently do, they need to be extremely mindful of the knife-edge of current community concern.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the
Director of Independent Research Solutions. He is the author of Patched:
the history of gangs in New Zealand.

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