Vaughn says he had asked Johnson to make sure the statement was read during the press conference by him or some other police officer. That did not happen.

Yet the fact remains that for the very first time in Streetfighterz's history, a phrase like "chaos and mayhem" appeared not as an all-caps tag line on a DVD box set but as a plea to — of all things — lower the intensity level.

The Streetfighterz couldn't have anticipated what that first "group ride" would become. Cardwell's message posted on that online forum back in 2002 brought just 60 riders out to the flood wall on the St. Louis riverfront. Participation quadrupled the next year at the first official Ride of the Century, and Hunziker came up with the beguiling name for the annual gathering.

See a larger version of this week's cover.
Photography by Mark Gilliland.

"It was my idea, and everyone was giving me shit because they're like, 'How can it be Ride of the Century if you do it next year?'" The paradox didn't seem to hurt attendance, and the ride grew. After 2005, Vaughn estimates, the gathering grew annually by around 500 riders.

Now after eleven successive years, the Ride of the Century is one of the largest, if not the largest, gathering of stunt bikes in the world. This year an estimated 3,000 bikers attended the event, and their run-ins (figuratively and literally) with the cops began before the ride even got under way.

On Thursday night, three days before the actual Ride of the Century, undercover officers in north St. Louis arrested 23 riders on charges of reckless driving. Authorities also impounded 24 bikes during the same bust near a gas station at Interstate 70 and Salisbury Street. (Riders who witnessed the arrest tell Riverfront Times that they were victims of police profiling and were not doing illicit motorcycle stunts on roadways.)

Then, at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, Justin Rohe, a cyclist who, unlike the Streetfighterz, did attend the police press conference earlier in the week to defend Ride of the Century, died when he ran his sports bike through a red light and crashed into a car in St. Charles. Johnson considers Rohe's fatality the first death of Ride of the Century 2013.

The second came hours later. Police say Mike Evans was part of a group of motorcycles speeding the wrong way down a south St. Louis street around 6:05 p.m. Saturday when he attempted to pass a car on the right. The incident report states that the 32-year-old's motorcycle clipped the passenger side of the car, flew off the road and hit a pole, killing the resident of Harrisburg, Illinois. The car Evans clipped turned out to be an unmarked police vehicle.

James Vaughn got a call about Evans' death while cleaning up after the Funfest, which had been relocated to a bar in Columbia, Illinois. It was there that he also got word about the incident going down at the Red Roof Inn.

The Funfest had gone off without a hitch, despite its eleventh-hour venue change and a huge police presence along the roads near the bar. The problem occurred as some of the last bikers to leave the event — a group of around 100 — headed back to Missouri.

Captain Johnson says the group began pulling stunts and speeding down the highway service lane once they crossed the river. Police and troopers followed the riders to the Red Roof Inn, where the cops quickly began impounding motorcycles. Eventually two flatbed tow trucks pulled away with ten sports bikes at about 6:30 p.m.

Police say the motorcycles were specifically identified as those that had been driven recklessly, but their case isn't helped by a YouTube clip in which a trooper can be heard telling the outraged cyclists that he was "under direction" to tow "any bike with a hot motor." It's probably the best evidence to date that supports the Streetfighterz's claim that police indiscriminately targeted motorcyclists regardless of whether they were actually involved in any wrongdoing.

"We know the cops acted irresponsibly from their end," says Hunziker. "You should be protecting the bikers themselves and the public. The way they acted that weekend? None of the above. In my eyes, they acted more irresponsibly than the bikers who were doing wheelies."

Vaughn arrived at the Red Roof Inn just as the bikes were being towed. Johnson was there, too. Vaughn says he approached the captain and told him he had heard about Mike Evans' death. Was there anything he could do?

Vaughn recalls Johnson's response: "He told me, 'This is number two for your ride, you know. I'm talking about deaths.'"

Johnson later left the Red Roof Inn and headed to the site of Evans' crash.

The victim's emotionally shaken brother-in-law was there at the scene. Johnson recalls confirming the victim's identity to his in-law. He also recalls the T-shirt the brother-in-law — a fellow rider — was wearing. It read: "I don't stop for cops."

The actual Ride of the Century on Sunday, September 1, was anticlimactic by comparison. There were no deaths. No accidents. Just mass inconvenience as hundreds of riders inched, sometimes one by one, through police checkpoints near the St. Louis riverfront. YouTube videos uploaded from helmet cams show the area clogged with bikers waiting to be let out by police, though police spokespersons say that, as prescribed by law, the checkpoints did not function exclusively to target motorcycles.

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