Danny Lyon considered himself a bikerider, but there were glaring differences between him and the members of the Chicago Outlaws, a notorious motorcycle club. They were blue-collar Midwesterners riding Harleys and living on the outskirts of society. Lyon was a college-educated photographer who rode a Triumph and toted around two cameras and a seven-pound tape recorder.

It was the mid-1960s, and Lyon was following in the footsteps of Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist who rode with—and wrote about—the Hells Angels around the same time. Lyon even sent a letter to Thompson, perhaps expecting encouragement from a like-minded chronicler. Instead, the writer advised Lyon to “get the hell out of that club. … I’ve seen the Angels work, and they scare the hell out of me.” Lyon bristled at this advice, which he later summed up thusly: “[Thompson] advised me not to join the Outlaws and to wear a helmet. I joined the club and seldom wore a helmet.”

Lyon documented the Outlaws for several years, but he was not an objective observer. When The Bikeriders, a collection of photographs and interviews, came out in 1968, Lyon—who had become a full member of the club in 1965—billed it as an “attempt to record and glorify the life of the American bikerider. It is a personal record, dealing mostly with bikeriders whom I know and care for.”

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Now, more than 50 years later, The Bikeriders forms the basis of a new movie adaptation of the same name. Directed by Jeff Nichols, the film uses verbatim quotes from Lyon’s interviews for around 70 percent of its dialogue. The plot, meanwhile, is a work of fiction created by weaving the interviews together.

The movie is concerned less with telling a true story than with capturing the feeling of freeways and freedom, of outlaws and open roads—what Lyon calls the “spirit of the bikeriders: the spirit of the hand that twists open the throttle on the crackling engines of big bikes and rides them on racetracks or through traffic or, on occasion, into oblivion.”

Here’s what you need to know about The Bikeriders (both the book and the adaptation) as the film, which stars Austin Butler, Jodie Comer and Tom Hardy, arrives in theaters in the United States on Friday.

The outlaw archetype

In 1957, about a decade before The Bikeriders, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, his famous chronicle of disillusioned, peripatetic young travelers wandering the country and searching for answers. One reviewer described Kerouac as a “kind of literary James Dean,” the actor responsible for a formidable percentage of the motorcycle’s cultural cachet.

Members of Hells Angels rounding a corner on their motorcycles in 1966
Members of Hells Angels rounding a corner on their motorcycles in 1966 Bettmann via Getty Images

Like many young men, Lyon, who was 15 when On the Road came out, was inspired by the book. In the summer of 1962, after wrapping up a semester at the University of Chicago, he asked friends to drop him off along Route 66, “the road Jack Kerouac used,” and hitchhiked to Cairo, Illinois, where he saw future congressman John Lewis speak and began photographing scenes from the civil rights movement. By 1964, he was back in Chicago, where he started planning The Bikeriders.

Around this time, Lyon wrote to a publisher about the project. When he revisited the letter many years later, he realized he came across as “a kind of crazy person who writes in this sub-Jack Kerouac-style prose about the open road and the freedom of being an outlaw,” as he told the Observer in 2014.

American motorcycle clubs were also fueled by this outlaw spirit. Their history stretches back to the end of World War II, when returning veterans—particularly those having trouble reintegrating into civilian life—began to form new groups. The lifestyle combined several values these former soldiers clung to: As Vox put it in 2015, “Nostalgia for the camaraderie and risk-taking of the war made the clubs’ focus on male bonding and dangerous activities like, say, riding motorcycles particularly attractive.”

Many such clubs were part of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). Membership in the organization, which was founded in 1924 and still exists today, requires adherence to strict rules. Some clubs resisted these rules and formed without the group’s stamp of approval. As Lyon wrote in The Bikeriders, they “are so far in spirit from attitudes of the AMA that they neither want nor could receive AMA sanction. These are known as outlaw clubs.”


Members of outlaw clubs are also known by another term: “one-percenters.” This identifier comes from an oft-repeated (but possibly false) story about the AMA insisting that 99 percent of motorcyclists are mainstream, law-abiding Americans. The outlaw clubs proudly position themselves in that remaining 1 percent.

One of the first such clubs was the McCook Outlaws, which formed in McCook, Illinois, in the 1930s. After a period of dormancy during World War II, the group came back together and ultimately relocated to Chicago, becoming the Chicago Outlaws in the 1950s, about a decade before Lyon started tagging along.

The bikeriders’ best storyteller

Each of Lyon’s interviewees had a unique perspective on outlaw culture and how they fit into it. Cal, a former airman, had been to 18 countries and “seen what most people have read about.” Rodney Pink, meanwhile, was a motorcycle racer who insisted that “being on a motorcycle don’t make you special at all” and lamented that while “everyone wants to be part of something,” nobody wants to “have any responsibility unloaded on ’em.”

Danny and Kathy
Lyon (played by Mike Faist) interviewing Kathy (Jodie Comer) in The Bikeriders Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

The bikeriders also spoke candidly about the dangers of their lifestyle. Johnny Goodpaster, who once broke his leg in 17 places, called such injuries an “occupational disease,” while “Funny Sonny” described watching a “little guy on his Honda” with a “helmet and everything” who accidentally drove over a cliff.

But as Lyon recalled in a 1997 preface to a new edition of the book, the “best storyteller” of the group was Kathy Bauer, 26, who “didn’t even ride a motorcycle, but was married to Benny, a member of the club.”

According to her interview, Kathy noticed Benny while she was at a bar with a friend, who advised her not to get involved. “Every time he gets up on his bike, he has an accident,” the friend warned. Benny persisted, planting himself outside Kathy’s house and refusing to go home.

“My boyfriend would still come over, and Benny would still sit here, and I’d tell him, ‘You better go home.’ And he wouldn’t go,” she recalled. “So finally, my boyfriend left, and Benny was still around. So he says, ‘Let me take you to the meeting. Everything’ll be real nice.’ So I went to the meeting. After that, I started goin’ out with him. I only went out with him, never with any of the other guys in the club. And five weeks later, I married him.”

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In The Bikeriders, Kathy describes the arc of the couple’s relationship in a series of startling anecdotes and off-the-cuff reflections:

I’ve had nothin’ but trouble since I married Benny. I’ve seen more jails, been to more courts and met more lawyers, and it’s only a year. That’s a short time for so much to happen.


Benny thinks that when you die, you’re better off than when you’re living. You know, like when his dad died, he said, “It’s just as well, he’s better off that way.” When his friends got killed, well, they’re better off that way. No feelings.


I thought I could change him, you know? Every woman thinks that she can change a guy. Not to her own ways, but to be different. Not to be different, but to be, I don’t know. Like he’s wild. I used to think he’d get over that. But he don’t.

Lyon’s book features one photograph of Kathy. Sporting a dark beehive haircut with side-swept bangs, she stands in a bathroom with three mirrors, each reflecting her profile at a slightly different angle. In the main reflection, she looks directly at the camera, lips slightly parted, at ease but alert.

Benny, meanwhile, is an elusive figure. While Kathy describes him at length, he was never interviewed. The book features two photographs identified as him: One shows him gripping a pool table covered with ring stains; his head hangs between his shoulders, obscuring his face. The other captures him from behind on his motorcycle, wearing a “Chicago Outlaws” jacket and backlit by headlights.

Adapting The Bikeriders for the screen

The film adaptation, which debuts Friday, follows characters based on Kathy (played by Comer), who also narrates the story, and Benny (Butler). Some scenes play out just as the anecdotes in the book, such as the pair’s first meeting. Kathy is at a bar with a friend when she notices Benny, who is leaning against a pool table in a nearly perfect recreation of Lyon’s photo. Here, though, he looks up. We see his face, hear his voice and find out what happens next.

Still of Benny
This still from The Bikeriders is a recreation of Danny Lyon's photo Benny at the Stoplight, Cicero, Illinois. Focus Features

Ahead of the movie premiere, Lyon heard from a man named Kirk: Kathy and Benny’s son. He learned that Kathy had died, but Benny was living in Florida. “So I call Benny up,” Lyon tells the Telegraph. “We have a great talk. He’s totally upbeat. And then he says, ‘Hey, you know the picture of me at the pool hall?’ I said, yeah. He says, ‘It’s not me.’ What? ‘Check out the tattoos. It’s not me.’”

The movie is structured in two parts. The first half follows a group of misfits finding a family; much like Lyon’s book, it is meant to “glorify the life of the American bikerider.” As one of the club members, Brucie (Damon Herriman), says, “We don’t belong nowhere else, so we belong together.” The second half is a darker meditation on the dangers of outlaw life. As members of a younger generation join up, they introduce a newfound aggression and propensity for cruelty.

“[The violence] in the second half is fairly cruel, and that’s the important part,” Nichols tells PA Media. “If you just have the first hour, this would be a film glamorizing violence. Nobody wants that, nobody needs that, the world doesn’t need that. If you take the two parts as the whole, I think it says, ‘Here are the consequences of choosing to live this kind of life.’”

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The book does not feature this second chapter. But while Lyon has retained an affection for the outsider spirit—“I like rebels and think they are intrinsic to the survival of our democracy,” he told the Chicago Reader in 2014—his views have evolved with time.

By the end of his stint with the Outlaws, Lyon was already growing disillusioned with the group. As he said to the Observer, he remembers getting into a “big disagreement with this guy who rolled out a huge Nazi flag as a picnic rug to put our beers on. By then, I had realized that some of these guys were not so romantic after all.”

What became of the Outlaws

Today, more than 300 outlaw motorcycle gangs operate across the United States. According to the Department of Justice, which defines the groups as “organizations whose members use their motorcycle clubs as conduits for criminal enterprises,” the Outlaws have some 1,700 members in more than 100 chapters around the world. The club has engaged in criminal activities such as “arson, assault, explosives, extortion, fraud, homicide, intimidation, kidnapping, money laundering, prostitution, robbery, theft and weapons violations.”

Benny on his motorcycle
Benny (played by Austin Butler) on his motorcycle in The Bikeriders Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

The real Outlaws are “certainly aware of the film,” Nichols tells the Globe and Mail, but he has not had any contact with them. In the film, the club is called the Vandals, a fictional name intended to distance the project from existing groups, which the director had no desire to portray on screen. “If I’m being completely honest, I’m not really interested in contemporary biker culture,” he adds. “I was interested in the people in Danny’s book.”

Besides, Lyon believes the two groups have little in common. The people he knew in the 1960s were quite different from today’s biker types, whom he notices in connection with news events like the January 6 insurrection. Instead, the photographer tells A Rabbit’s Foot, the closest analogues are perhaps “the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux fighting the oil pipeline and the catastrophe of climate change.”

Today’s Outlaws appear to have an internet presence, albeit a limited one. One website, belonging to the Outlaws M.C., instructs, “Everything is done face to face NOT online DO NOT write us asking how to join! Find an Outlaw and ask him!” Another site, belonging to the Outlaws M.C. World, features an article titled, “What is [an] Outlaw M.C. one-percenter today?” “To say that one-percenters are criminals or people of a lesser moral code than the rest of society is a tainted opinion,” the pseudonymous author argues. “We may not live by the rules of society, but we do live by its laws.”

Kathy and Benny
Kathy (played by Jodie Comer) and her husband, Benny (Austin Butler), in The Bikeriders Kyle Kaplan / Focus Features

Another language quibble: “Bikerider” is not a word, strictly speaking. It does not appear in the dictionary. According to Lyon, it is a word that once held a narrow definition, describing a subculture as it existed at a specific time and place.

“Back then in Chicago, they had a lot of names for things, names that were of the Midwest, and of that city, words belonging to that place and to the people who lived there,” wrote Lyon in the 1997 preface. “One of those words was bikeriders. No one there ever called them motorcyclists. The machines were called bikes, and the riders were called bikeriders. The word biker was simply never used in the Midwest by anyone at that time.”

After finding a publisher for the book, a copy editor explained that the title would need to be two words: The Bike Riders. Lyon pled his case—and won. In the years that followed, he was aghast to see “biker” become widespread. “I even use it myself,” he wrote. “The term that I heard and loved, and used with such pride, has all but been forgotten.”

Benny on his bike at night
Benny (played by Austin Butler) in The Bikeriders Focus Features

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