Daredevil stunt rider comes to terms with the law

Daredevil stunt rider comes to terms with the law

NEW HAVEN — An already legendary 22-year-old stunt rider involved in controversial mass rides promised to keep doing wheelies and drifts and tire melts with his buddies on asphalt — but no longer on city streets.

The rider, Gabe Canestri Jr., made that promise to an East Shore beat cop who’s been on his tail as New Haven cops respond to a citywide outcry over packs of motorcyclists, dirt bikers and quad riders endangering lives by speeding and doing tricks in traffic.

Canestri leads a local group of 20-something riders called East Coastin’, which has attracted a hard-core Instagram following as well as sponsorships from motorcycle parts suppliers.

It has also earned the attention of the cops. After a video captured a mass law-defying gathering by the group on state roads in New Haven’s Annex neighborhood, state police arrested Canestri in April on 15 counts of reckless endangerment, 23 counts of reckless driving and 24 counts of operating a motorcycle without facial protection. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanors in return for a suspended prison sentence.

Meanwhile, veteran East Shore beat cop Bill Gargone responded to neighborhood complaints about reckless riding by Canestri and the crew. A couple of times Gargone tried without success to stop them in the act. He kept the heat on Canestri’s tail until, at a respectful meeting at the Woodward Avenue police substation two weeks ago, Canestri made a promise: To confine his and his group’s activities to sponsored shows at dealerships and legal park settings.

“We’re doing everything by the book,” Canestri vowed this week.

If the promise holds, it would reflect just one of a number of suggested strategies for curtailing New Haven’s out-of-control warm-weather “bike life” activities. The police department has a policy of not chasing speeding stunt riders out of fear of danger to the public, to cops, and to the riders themselves. They’re concentrating on building cases through intelligence-gathering. Others have suggested using drones. The crackdown followed by the meeting with Canestri reflects an added approach.

It resulted from an unusual encounter between two lifelong lovers of the power of motorized two-wheelers, who happen now to operate on different sides of the same street.

The bike life has been in Gabe Canestri Jr.’s blood for as long as he can remember. It was passed down to him. Not just the tradition of riding motorcycles, but the Harley Davidson FXRP model he’s riding these days.

He was outside the Hole in the Wall motorcycle club on Forbes Avenue in the Annex the other day polishing the Harley, hoping to “melt” one of the tires later on in a “rolling burnout.” Using the brake, the rider doing a burnout keeps the back wheel moving several times faster than the front, a maneuver that has the rear wheel spinning at high speed while the bike is lifted in the air.

Canestri’s father, runs the Hole in the Wall. Canestri lives upstairs.

“If it wasn’t this,” Canestri, an apprentice union glazer, said of his daily bike activity, “no point in going to work every day.”

The Harley is older than Gabe is, by 11 years. His father’s cousin Joseph bought it in 1984. It stayed in the family, passed along to different relatives. Canestri remembers riding on the back of it at age 6 or 7 as his father drove it to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Growing up in Fair Haven, then North Haven, then back in the Annex, Gabe Jr. was surrounded by bike lifers. He first rode a BMX bike at 3 years old. He began trying out a 50cc Yamaha dirt bike in the back yard at age 5, he said.

Home life was chaotic. Several of the family members with whom he lived were strung out on drugs, Canestri said. He started getting in trouble at school. At 10 years old, he received a dirt bike from his dad, along with a conditional warning: “If you get into trouble, no more dirt bikes. I’ll cut that thing into pieces if you don’t behave.”

Much is made of criminal activity being associated with the bike life. Canestri said the life had an opposite effect on him: It gave him a preoccupation into which to funnel his passion. It kept him straight.

“I grew up around motorcycles,” he said. “There were a lot of other things going on; I decided to focus on this one thing. This helped me out where I was headed; I had to pick something.”

Soon he and his friends were perfecting tricks on their dirt bikes, then motorcycles, at a now-defunct recreation center in North Haven and at the East Haven dump.

“We were always pushing each other to do more tricks, more stunts. We had style.”

They found camaraderie. They also felt the adrenaline rush, the sense of freedom, in the riding itself.

Canestri also learned his way around repairing and building motorcycles. It was by necessity: he didn’t have money to buy new models.

And he did stay in school. He graduated from High School in the Community four years ago. He’s two years into the glazer apprentice gig.

Riding and motorcycle maintenance occupy much of his out-of-work time and attention. He and his buddies incorporated East Coastin’ as a limited liability corporation to accept sponsorships for demonstrations. Their videos began attracting as many as a million or more views. They got a rep.

As a high school graduation present Canestri got his hands on that Harley FXRP, with the condition that he keep it in the family. He spent years gradually rebuilding it. One way he found the money: Having manufacturers donate the parts in return for having him display them at stunt shows, through East Coastin’. Thrashin Supply Company provided his Harley’s exhaust system and the foot pads, for instance. Lucky Daves covered the handlebars.

One recent show was at Mike’s Family Harley-Davidson in New London, another at TSI Harley Davidson in Ellington. The crew did a benefit show for the Wounded Warrior Project at the North Haven fairgrounds.

An employee at TSI Harley named Todd Tully stumbled across the East Coastin’ videos on Instagram. Impressed, he invited Canestri to the shop, where the owner, also impressed, asked him to do shows there.

The most recent exhibition drew 1,000 people, Tully said. “I had people come all the way from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire.”

A new generation of former dirt bikers have graduated to Harley’s and brought their penchant for stunts — usually done on lighter sports bikes — to the heavy hogs. Canestri and his East Coastin’ buddies, Tully said, “are some of the best, if not the best” of the new generation.

Canestri’s prowess astounds Paul D’Agostino, an older cousin who watched him grow up and serves as a mentor to his group.

He spoke of how the bike life “ties up” time for Canestri and his buddies, “as opposed to having free time when you do stupid (expletive).”

“I’m 45 years old. I grew up loving Evel Kneivel,” said D’Agostino, a landscaper and property manager as well as an avid lifelong biker. “Evel Kneivel doesn’t have (expletive) on these kids today.”

Officer Bill Gargone, too, was floored by Canestri’s videos. Gargone grew up riding dirt bikes and then quads and motorcycles in the suburbs. Today he travels to rural Vermont to ride. He knows about the adrenaline rush.

But Gargone wasn’t watching the videos for fun. The state cops had arrested Canestri for his rides on state-owned New Haven streets. And Gargone himself, while patrolling the Annex, had spotted Canestri and his compatriots popping wheelies and speeding on city streets. He tried to stop them; he got sassed instead.

Gargone has worked in the East Shore policing district throughout his 18 1/2 years on the force. The district had started hearing complaints from companies along the harbor about the bikers zooming up and down Connecticut Avenue.

“When they were doing burnouts, they were creating so much smoke that the Gateway Terminal delivery drivers coming to get oil couldn’t see,” said Gargone’s supervisor, top East Shore cop Sgt. Roy Davis. Davis grew concerned about the drivers’ safety, the safety of the public at large, and the safety of bikers themselves. In addition, Gargone feared what would happen if “that Harley ever got away from them and hit a tanker. You’re talking about an environmental disaster.”

So, with Davis’s encouragement, Gargone followed up. He started showing up at the Hole in the Wall asking for Canestri.

Gargone knew the older Hole in the Wall guys, the generation that actually belongs to the club. Gargone always got along with the older guys. He popped in on their barbecues. He succeeded with a colleague in tracking down a woman who had drunkenly driven her car into a club member’s motorcycle and left him permanently disabled. Gargone always considered the Hole in the Wall gang law-abiding: The members love riding, and they follow the rules. But he considered the new millennial crew hanging out near there a problem. He left word with Canestri’s father that something needed to change.

Canestri’s father, also named Gabe, told his son to go meet Gargone at the Woodward Avenue substation. So he did.

Gargone has negotiated with Taliban in his capacity as an Army Special Forces captain in Afghanistan. He figured he could do business with a 22-year-old Harley maestro as a beat cop back home.

He began by showing respect, genuine respect. “I’ve been riding my whole life. I cannot hold a candle to how you ride,” Gargone remembered telling Canestri. He spoke of how he, too, understands the thrill of the ride.

He told Canestri that the cops planned to crack down on motor vehicle enforcement at the club and among the East Coastin’ riders. He said they could call it off if Canestri and his crew alter their approach.

“Don’t you have sponsors? You and your friends are incredible riders,” Gargone recalled saying. “Why don’t you take this to a new level?”

That could include staying off the city streets. Ramping up the sponsored shows. Practicing in designated off-road areas.

And respect has to work both ways: “You’re good. You can’t be running from us. And no disrespect to officers.”

Canestri confirmed that he agreed to Gargone’s terms. He said he plans to make good on his word: Keep coastin’, but without endangering the public.

There’s no guarantee the truce will hold. And the rapprochement between a daredevil biker and a biker cop can’t necessarily be replicated citywide, in all or even most of the “bike life” challenges facing the police department and the community. But for now at least, there’s hope in the Annex.


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