Bang, bang, bang. The bar’s wooden ceiling flexes and the walls shake. It’s a typical Friday night in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and I’m having a drink with friends at Dive Bar, one of two watering holes in town mainly intended for foreigners.
Just upstairs, another bar has opened this May. The sound of motorcycles parking outside indicates that the newer place, in the crumbling building that once served as a tuberculosis clinic, is Tbilisi’s first biker bar.
My friends aren’t quite up for the adventure, so I head outside and enter a rather inconspicuous door around the corner. The bar is certainly basic: second-hand tables, benches, and even abandoned car seats. One wall has been painted with a desert road scene resembling a vista from a Road Runner cartoon. Rock n’ roll classics play via YouTube from a simple mobile phone connected to a pair of loudspeakers placed on top of each other on the bar. Leather-clad bikers are dancing in their heavy duty footwear, oblivious to the effect it’s having below.
Welcome to the Cross Riders Motorcycle Club, a clubhouse and bar situated just a minute’s walk from Tbilisi’s grandiose and baroque Opera building. Motorcycle Clubs were restricted in the Soviet Union until 1989, when the Night Wolves were officially founded. Now controversial for its pro-Putin stance, the legendary Russian MC counts Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as a member. But their high profile doesn’t mean that clubs like the Night Wolves have flourished everywhere in the region: motorcycles are still a rare sight in the South Caucasus.
The Cross Riders MC was established in 2013 in an attempt to create a sense of camaraderie and unity among the bikers of Tbilisi. A private room serves as the meeting space for the MC itself while proceeds from the bar are used not only to keep the club running, but also to help members when they have no money for petrol, a frequent problem in a transitional former Soviet republic such as Georgia.
“We’ve never been in touch with the Night Wolves and we’re certainly not pro-Putin,” Data Makashvili, a newly inaugurated member of the Cross Riders MC, assures me. The 28-year-old biker had been studying in the United Kingdom until the August 2008 war with Russia disrupted his education and brought him back to Georgia to join the ranks of other reservists. “We love our country” he says, “but we’re not nationalists either.”
When I met the Cross Riders, I had already started photographing nightlife in Tbilisi and its various sub-cultures. It became clear that the Cross Riders bar was worth a special focus of its own.
“Drink,” commands the MC’s President, 23-year-old Gio Chkhartishvili in broken English, on one of my most recent visits at the end of September. He places multiple shot glasses and a round-bottomed laboratory flask on the table. It’s full of home-made brandy has been placed on top of a plastic pint glass half full of water for balance. The biggest danger these bikers seem to pose is to a visitor’s liver. True, some might wince at the sight of the Confederate flag hanging in the bar, but Chkhartishvili is adamant that the Cross Riders are not racist. “Everyone is welcome at the bar,” he says. “We do not support or engage in any kind of political movement and attitudes towards us are generally very positive.”
“Being part of the Cross Riders MC is about a raging thirst for freedom, which I find when we hit the road together or just get piss-drunk at the bar,” says 31-year-old Alexander Didsulovani, a prospective club member who joins in on the conversation. “Some think that we’re just dirty bikers who swear like sailors—which is admittedly true—but behind that image there’s a whole philosophy of mutual respect and trust.”