12 O’Clock Boys: Freedom Riding With Baltimore’s Biker Boys

Lofty Nathan’s new documentary captures life with Baltimore’s daring young bikers.

Pug on his dirt bike 12 O’Clock Boys/Oscilloscope Laboratories

“I went on YouTube and saw some footage and reached out to Steven and his brother Kevin,” Nathan said. “We met at a car wash in East Baltimore. He agreed to take me around, and from there it just took off.”

Steven, 37, who doesn’t want to give his last name, became a dirt bike addict when he first saw a kid from the neighborhood with his mother, riding a dirt bike with training wheels. “I saw this thing that looked like a toy, but it was real and I could put gas in it and ride it,” he says. “I was addicted.”

With Steven as his guide, Nathan’s entry into the world blossomed. The footage got more intense as he was able to keep up with the riders with Steven at the wheel. He’s a well-respected O.G. in Baltimore bike culture.

“I completely trusted Steven. The high-octane situations of filming the pack were all under Steven’s protection,” Nathan said. “He really has that paternal instinct.”

This isn’t a documentary that spends its energy trying to find those who condemn the riders. Footage isn’t wasted on cops saying it’s wrong—even the riders will tell you it isn’t legal or safe—but there is something about the ability to get yours, to take what is left and ride with that. “We tried to ride off-road, but cops would ticket our cars or tow us. We got tired of driving all the way out of the city, only to be treated like s–t, so we were like, ‘F–k it,’ and took it to the streets.”

The riding is a flamboyant display of aliveness in a city that feels like death—boasting high murder rates that compete with other metro areas for the dubious title of “most dangerous city.” But there is a sense of pride in the pack: a togetherness that feels bigger than the bikes or the tricks or the getting away from the cops. It is a bond that says, somehow, we made it despite the hardship. We made it, and we are going to ride that out, good or bad, ’til the wheels fall off.

“There is a freedom that comes with being able to leave all this s–t behind,” Steven says.

Steven knows Pug well because he was him when he was that age—a young boy at a crossroads in his life. Pug’s puffed-up bravado and language read like someone who has been through too much for his age. His hard-charging riding is fitting for the side of him that is unafraid to pop wheelies on a ride.

“Every city has a Pug,” Steven says. “Every hood has a Pug. This is what the ghetto produces … hostile environments, anger, stress, depression … you’re going to have a negative outcome. It’s a recipe. To jump on a dirt bike and leave all that s–t behind with first gear, second gear, third gear. Yeah, we gonna ride.”

And then there’s the side that only Pug’s mother, CoCo, seems to see and foster. It’s a pure child side that approaches animals with a tenderness that almost feels more authentic than his bike-riding self. So the same hand that revs the throttle is gentle when petting his dogs’ puppies, or when he unhooks a fish from his line, or when he’s talking about his turtle. Pug dreams of being a veterinarian, but the hood sees him as one of bike riding’s next legends.