Motorcycle club members and weekend warriors, seeking the freedom of the road, face dangerous curves on and off Dallas streets

You are supposed to be hearing this story from "Rico."

Ernie Santos is the one, after all, who cattle-prodded me into first considering telling a tale of the fast, fascinating, intimidating and sometimes dark culture of motorcycle clubs in Dallas.

"There's nothing better than being on your bike with your boys," he would say. "Just...gotta be careful."

Rico—all club members prefer to use their "road names"—invited me to a biker crawfish boil up in McKinney. He introduced me to his club, Dirty Bastards. He chided me to get out of my "cage"—that's bikerspeak for a car—and onto a motorcycle.

In mid-September, he demanded that I also witness the danger.

A Dirty Bastards member who went by "Rage" had been hospitalized after a recent accident. Run off the road by a drunken driver at State Highway 121 and Preston Road in Plano, he suffered a shattered leg, nine broken ribs, a fractured collarbone, a punctured lung, bruised kidney and a concussion. Rage died twice on the operating table, but was now living and slowly recovering in ICU. As they always do for their fallen brothers, the Bastards were planning a fundraiser.

On Saturday, September 18, I texted Rico to inform him of my arrival at Twin Peaks restaurant in McKinney, site of that afternoon's bikini car and bike wash benefiting Rage. He never texted me back.

Rico will never text anyone again.

Because on the night before he was scheduled to educate me on the horrors of motorcycle crashes, he became a victim himself. In the split-second of a pickup's unexpected late-night stop in the middle of Central Expressway, the professional salesman, tattooed biker, loving father, devoted husband, obnoxious New York Yankees fan and passionate Puerto Rican (hence the nickname) also turned tragic casualty.

"It's tough, but that's what we do. We support each other," says Bastards president "Voodoo" on a November afternoon at popular biker hangout Duke's Original Roadhouse, a restaurant and bar in Addison. "I got the call that Rico went down, and you just drop everything and go help as fast as you can. I'm not saying it isn't hard. You gotta be a strong club to have one of your guys fall in the middle of the night while you're already planning to help another one in the hospital."

For all the motorcycle world's coveted freedom on the road and romanticization in the movies, the potholes are plentiful.

On any given Sunday at biker bars across Dallas, club members from Bandidos to Soul Rydaz to Dirty Bastards will mostly peacefully co-exist but sometimes exchange stares and, albeit rarely, talk shit. There is etiquette. There is an expected modicum of respect. There is restricted turf. There is altercation, only an arched eyebrow or perceived snub away. But the real hazards arise when the kickstands go up.

Despite falling last year after an 11-year rise, as of December 1, more than 400 motorcycle deaths occurred in 2010 in Texas. From crotch-rocket exhibitionists involved in solo accidents to Harley-Davidson cruisers sideswiped by careless cars or sometimes each other, each Monday morning the newspapers are filled with a new round of weekend bike fatalities. For the most part, bikers respond to the news with sadness, but shrouded by a defiant shrug.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you what we do isn't dangerous, because it can be. Fuck, it is," says Bandidos Dallas chapter vice president "Zach" at Duke's in late October. "But to me—to all of us—it's worth it. If we die doing what we love...then that's that. We accept that."

Echoes Voodoo, "I don't want to die as some nice-looking old corpse. I wanna crash through the pearly gates grinding on my bike."

The devastating details of Rico's accident momentarily stunned a biker community usually calloused by crashes. On Friday night, September 17, Bastards members visited Rage in the hospital, swung by Twin Peaks to check on preparations for the impending charity soiree and shared pizzas at Big Tony's in McKinney. Afterward, around 11:30, they decided to go on a soul-lifting ride. Somewhere. Anywhere.

"It was a beautiful night and we all had a lot on our minds," recalls Bastards member "Scrape" over a pre-Thanksgiving beer at Strokers biker bar on Harry Hines Boulevard. "When that happens we jump on our bikes. Clears our minds. Helps everybody relax. Stress reliever, ya know?"

Heading south, but careful to avoid the spirited late-night traffic spilling from the bars in Addison, the four-bike group of Bastards—Scrape, Rico, "Gonzo," "Bull" and their wives and girlfriends—wound up at Fox And Hound at I-635 and Skillman. Couple miles north at Central Expressway and Spring Valley, two groups were engaged in a verbal and physical quarrel at the Verandah Grill and Lounge. In an incident unrelated to the Bastards who were headed for home northbound on 75 just after 2 a.m., a group including Plano teenager Sterling Mitchell was, according to Richardson Police reports and multiple eyewitness accounts, incessantly harassed and provoked by a group including Dallas' Michael Pyburn. Their hostile confrontation spilled out of the club, into the parking lot and—just ahead of the Bastards—onto Central Expressway in Richardson.