The framed photograph hanging in his family's deli in Mehlville shows James Ruma at his best. The front wheel of his motorcycle is high in the sky, the back wheel planted on the pavement.
It's an image of thrill-seeking that stands in sharp contrast to where Ruma is now, drifting in and out of consciousness at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Ruma is expected to live, but his family wonders whether his final ride was last weekend.
On Saturday, Ruma, 32, of De Soto, was one of about 2,500 bikers who converged on St. Louis area highways for the "Ride of the Century," an annual event that has escaped major attention until this year. It drew so much anger from startled drivers that organizers are now considering canceling the event. And if it does happen again, state law enforcement has pledged to step in.
Drivers this last weekend reported bikers going up to 90 mph, weaving in and out of traffic, and forcing cars off the road. YouTube videos show riders performing stunts such as wheelies and, in at least one case, a rider standing backward on his motorcycle.
Ruma had his wife, Trisha, on the back of his bike and was riding safely, according to friends. As a lifelong biker, he knew the drill: Pay attention to the cars around you because if there's a collision, they will win.
Ruma was struck by a 1999 Ford F350 pickup truck as he stepped into traffic while walking on the side of Interstate 270, east of Halls Ferry Road, to retrieve a backpack he had dropped. He suffered several injuries to the lower half of his body, including multiple fractures and a ruptured artery in his right leg.
Mac Metzler, a close family friend and manager at Rumas Deli, called it "a freak accident." James Vaughn, co-owner of Streetfighterz Productions, a St. Louis-based stunt company that organizes Ride of the Century, said the accident could have happened independently of the event. He also insisted that reckless riding was not encouraged.
But for critics, the accident speaks to the dangers of throwing a couple of thousand motorcycles, many of them speeding and performing stunts, on the highway. And they wonder why police officers did little to control the event, which has been held for the last nine years and was announced months in advance.
"It was extremely dangerous," said Andrew Molina, of Town and Country, who encountered the ride on Highway 40 (Interstate 64), approaching Clayton Road. "If they knew it was coming, why didn't they have more of a police presence on the highway?"
ORIGINS OF GROUP
Streetfighterz Productions grew out of basketball games among Vaughn and three friends at the South County YMCA. The foursome, who shared a love of motorcycles, began challenging one another to tricks on the highway and videotaping the stunts. They sold the videos at a mall kiosk. In 1999, they formally organized, gaining sponsors and a bevy of underground fans.
Streetfighterz gained the attention of police and media in 2004, after a crash on Highway 364 in Maryland Heights. A 16-year-old crashed his car into another while following four bikers who suddenly veered off the highway. The bikers were never identified. Vaughn insists that it wasn't Streetfighterz.
The group gained notoriety again in 2007, when a television reporter named them as the bikers who were kicking and throwing bricks at cars. Streetfighterz, which once acknowledged receiving 80 tickets from police in five years, again claimed innocence.
Vaughn said in an interview this week that the group restricted its stunts to shows it performed on drag strips across the country.
"We've always gotten kind of a bad rap in the press, and maybe rightfully so in the beginning," he said. "But for the last six or seven years, we've pretty much kept to ourselves."
He said that as the popularity of Streetfighterz had grown, so had Ride of the Century, a gathering of bikers and fans. Vaughn described it a loosely organized ride in which bikers come on their own and act on their own.
"The event is as safe as the riders are going to make it," he said. "Everybody is on their own motorcycle, everybody is responsible for their own actions. I feel that I'm safe when I ride. I can't speak for everyone else."
The Saturday ride started with lunch at Big St. Charles Motorsports, which was hosting a calendar girl contest, billed as "one bad-ass party all day long." Terry MacCauley, the dealership's general sales manager, described the group in attendance as "nice, clean-cut kids who like riding their motorcycles."
Starting at 2 p.m. in downtown St. Louis, the bikers proceeded to ride on several local highways, including Interstates 270, 170 and 70, before finishing three hours later at the dealership in St. Charles.
"As weird as it sounds, we try to pick the least-used highways as possible," Vaughn said.
Police dispatchers across the area received a flood of calls from drivers. They included complaints of bikers weaving among cars, causing the cars to swerve to avoid accidents. There was one report in Maryland Heights of a biker punching a car mirror.
Drivers this week said they were startled by two things: the sheer size of the group — a thick swarm that often stretched a half-mile long — and its aggressive behavior.
"Every day you'll see one of these fools dodging in and out of traffic, but to see dozens and dozens of these people doing it — it was absolutely mind-boggling," Molina said.
Molina watched on Highway 40 as confused drivers to his right slowed, nearly causing a five-car pile-up. A motorcycle rammed into the rear car, the bike's rider thrown about 15 feet in the air, Molina said. Another driver complained about the incident on an online forum, saying the biker lay still on the highway after being thrown.
The Highway Patrol has no record of the accident, but Vaughn confirmed the incident and said the biker was fine.
Mel Jordan, of Bismarck, Mo., was driving on I-70 when he encountered the ride. He was one of several drivers who complained that they could see police cruisers nearby but that the officers did not appear to take action.
At some point during the ride, electronic billboards on highways started warning drivers: "Motorcycles are everywhere. Stay alert."
Since the ride, several of the bikers have boasted about their invincibility in online forums. "There's too many of us to corral," one wrote on the ride's Facebook page.
Several police departments said they were unaware of problems with the bikers, or dismissed the incidents as isolated.
Others acknowledged, however, that the size of the ride, and its quick movement across multiple police jurisdictions, made it difficult to target those causing trouble.
"It's easy for someone to be brave in a crowd," said St. Louis County police spokesman Rick Eckhard. "And it's hard to enforce when you have multiple offenses at the same time."
Sgt. Al Nothum, spokesman for the Highway Patrol, said his agency became aware of the event only the night before, and officers handed out about a dozen tickets Saturday. The patrol is scheduling a meeting with other law enforcement departments and prosecutors to talk about how to handle the event next year.
"When we get notice of this again, we're going to have a game plan," Nothum said.
It may be a moot point. Vaughn said Ruma's accident has organizers considering canceling the event.
"It's great to see everyone and for everybody to have a great time," he said. "But we don't want to put anyone in harm's way by having an unsafe event."