It's hard to miss Eric Sauers when he roars up on his motorcycle. It's not just the bike - a gleaming white Yamaha Stratoliner - but the black T-shirt with the words "Death Grip" on the front and a black leather vest displaying a skull logo.
Many things about Sauers, at a beefy 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, seem contradictory. The soft-spoken 29-year-old works as a Web designer at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Mount Airy with his wife and dog, but he also spends time riding in full gear and partying with friends. He's been known to offer a work colleague a proper burial for a dead baby mouse she found in her office, but he is comfortable projecting an imposing, tough-guy image.
"You can't get involved in a motorcycle club and not have grit," Sauers says. "You have to be tough to get out and ride at fast speeds on the highway in rain and snow."
And so it goes as a member of the local Death Grip chapter of the international Iron Order Motorcycle Club (IOMC), a 10-year-old organization with members in 50 states and 12 countries. As vice president of Death Grip, Sauers must raise money for club events and the chapter's adopted charity, Cradles to Crayons Philadelphia, which provides children from low-income families with clothes, books, and school supplies. Over the last two years, the club has raised more than $10,000 in addition to making donations of its own: Big guys on bikes go out to collect tiny pairs of socks and SpongeBob underwear for little kids.
Sauers' latest fund-raiser begins Saturday, when club members take on "The Gnomad Challenge." Three 10-inch yard gnomes will be raced across the country, passed off to fellow bikers at relay points in different cities, and posed for photographs to confirm their progress. The first gnome to reach Alcatraz club members in San Francisco wins.
Why gnomes, or in this case, gnomads?
"It's a play on words," Sauers says, noting that some members of the Iron Order MC are selected to be nomads, "an honored position whose responsibilities include club security, public relations, legal affairs, and IT. Besides," he adds, "I have a soft spot for gnomes. One of my chapter brothers looks like one."
It's yet another unexpected twist - motorcycle men with a serious mission engaging in playful, goofball antics. But Sauers is aware of the mixed image he presents.
"Ever since I started riding motorcycles, I have realized that society sees you as a biker," he said. "I have been denied entry into a gas station in Wyoming, and had restaurants refuse to serve me after a long day of riding. As a biker, you need to be independent and be able to stand your ground. It's part of the biker lifestyle."
That lifestyle was established for him at an early age.
Sauers grew up on a farm in Jersey Shore, Pa., a small town about 30 minutes east of State College. He was 8 when his cousin got a dirt bike and finally let him ride it. "I never wanted to stop. As a kid, I thought I had found my true love - the machine, the feeling of freedom. I was hooked."
He got his own dirt bike and then, at age 22, bought his first full-fledged motorcycle, a 2001 Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster Custom. His bikes - in addition to the Stratoliner and the Sportster, he owns another Harley - are more than pieces of hardware.
"I get attached to them," he said. "They become a part of your life, almost like a family member, and each has its own personality."
His wife, Lindsay, is also a biker, although the attraction wasn't immediate. Riding on the back of his motorcycle one day several years ago, "she kept telling me I was speeding, that I was taking the corners too fast. . . . I was bummed because I thought riding bikes was something we could do together."
When they stopped at a Harley-Davidson outlet, a mechanic told her about a new bike that had just arrived at the store. "Next thing I know, she's riding the bike in tight circles around the parking lot. She bought it that afternoon."
The two ride together as much as time permits, which isn't a lot. Lindsay currently commutes to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she counsels students as part of an internship required by her psychology doctoral program.
When the two moved to Philadelphia from Williamsport, Pa., in 2008 so Lindsay could start classes at La Salle University, Sauers applied to the Reading-based Kameraden Chapter of the IOMC, a multistep process that included such chores as washing bikes and picking up trash. Nine months later, he was invited to join, and in 2012, he helped start the local club in Philadelphia.
Members of the Death Grip chapter - whose logo shows skeleton fingers gripping the handle of a motorcycle - are mostly construction workers, truck drivers, and cooks, as well as veterans and active-duty military men.
Sauers knows he "crosses a couple of different worlds" between his professional and riding life, but nothing, he says, defines him. "People base who they are on their job, their possessions, their bank accounts. I haven't let that [stuff] get into my head."
Indeed, at the heart of his club affiliation is the simple idea of brotherhood. Bikers can be counted on to watch each other's backs and help out in any emergency.
"I was once stranded in Washington, D.C., and my chapter brothers didn't hesitate for a second," Sauers said. "Two of them jumped in a car and drove three hours to pick me up. I have helped brothers move, worked on their houses, and been there for funerals, weddings, and babies."
It's what led him to get a tattoo on his left forearm: "MBBM" carved in the Iron Order's medieval-looking ironwood font. "It stands for 'My Brothers Before Me.' It's not just the obvious meaning of putting my club brothers before me. It's about putting my fellow man before me."
Because Sauers rides a couple of times a week during the winter and almost every day in warmer weather - including to his desk job - bike maintenance is a priority, on the same level as keeping the bills paid.
"I do whatever it takes, like working some weekends on a construction site or being a bouncer at a bar, to get the cash I need," he said.