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Riding with Hells Angel Sonny Barger

July 6, 2010 |  7:52 am

In 1957, Sonny Barger helped found the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the Hells Angels, the outlaw motorcycle club. Barger became a leading figure of the group, which played a major cultural role in the 1960s. Barger himself appeared in Hunter S. Thompson's 1966 "Hell's Angels" and was at the disastrous 1969 concert at Altamont. Barger has been arrested more than 20 times and spent 13 years in jail.

Today, Barger, 71, lives in Arizona, where the L.A. Times' Susan Carpenter went to ride with him and talk about his sixth book, "Let's Ride: Sonny Barger's Guide to Motorcycling, How to Ride the Right Way -- for Life."

Having logged more than a million miles and suffered only one serious accident, Barger is the rare rider who could write such a book with authority. In fact, "Let's Ride" is just the latest example of how he has used a marginalized form of transportation to elevate himself from troublemaker to an author who has sold hundreds of thousands of books worldwide. Leading a controversial life in his youth is clearly paying off in old age.

"I'm making a better living today than I ever have," says Barger, who was running a motorcycle shop when, a decade ago, he decided to trade on his checkered past in the bestselling memoir "Hell's Angel."

"Say what you will about the Angels," writes Carpenter, "one thing is not in dispute: their skill and devotion to motorcycling." Susan Carpenter has written extensively about motorcycles for the L.A. Times (see her Throttle Jockey stories here), so she knows of what she writes. Nevertheless, when she takes to the Arizona highways with Sonny Barger and a close-knit group of Hells Angles, she writes, "I felt fearful."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sonny Barger of the Hells Angels with Susan Carpenter in Phoenix in May 2010. Credit: Susan Carpenter / Los Angeles Times

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