BIKE TO THE FUTURE
It is spring, and what could be more springlike than standing on the sidewalk outside Bob's Build-A-Bike with twenty other boys, admiring everyone else's bicycle while hoping yours is better? Pretending not to notice as drivers slow their cars and stare. Wishing you could afford just one treat inside Bob's glass case: a valve stem cover shaped like dice, for instance. Or maybe your very own Dayton wheels, each with 76 spokes plated with chrome or gold. Or maybe just a gear off that old Dixie bike--you could chrome it, surround it with rigid links of chain and turn the whole thing into a tiny, technically useless steering wheel to bolt onto your handlebars. That would be so tuff! But here comes the rain. And lowrider bicycles don't like rain any more than cats do.
By the time the second raindrop hits the pavement, Travis Encinias, Ricky Vallas and Adrian Cisneros have each produced handkerchiefs and are removing infinitesimal imperfections from their bikes' custom paint jobs. When the rain changes its mind, the bikes are perfect once again--far too perfect to ride.
"He worked all summer for the money to build his first bike," says Travis's mother, who, having financed two lowrider bikes so far, has come down to view the competition. "He got it all fixed up, and then he rode it down to the little store on the corner and went inside for about ten seconds, and when he came out, it was stolen."
After that, Travis's stepfather gave him a get-back-on-the-horse talk. As a lowrider son in a lowrider family, he was not to waste time mourning his stolen bike but immediately begin creating his next tuff machine. Now that he was fifteen, his stepfather said, he might even want to build a car. But Travis was hooked on bikes.
"And look," his mother says, stroking the second homemade bike, which is twice as low and sleek as the first. Unlike that green and spangly bike, this one is simply and deliberately chrome. Even its seat--which any thirtysomething would instantly recognize as an early-Seventies "banana" model--is silver.
"I bought the frame here at Bob's and just started adding stuff," Travis says modestly. "I don't ride it, that's for sure."
Well, no, of course not. With over a thousand dollars' worth of unusual parts on the bike--twisted forks, spare tire, chain-link steering wheel mounted on ape-hanger handlebars--why risk it?
As the enforcer for his younger brother's lowrider, sixteen-year-old Albert Vallas understands that attitude. He is big and muscled, with red hair, freckles, baggy pants, thick-soled huaraches and a large cross around his neck. You would not want to mess with him, or with the bike he bought for his thirteen-year-old brother, Ricky. An entry-level lowrider, it has a green-velvet upholstered seat and matching pedal covers, "Bajitas" whitewall tires, Harley-esque handlebars and a shiny chrome sissy bar.
"It was Ricky's birthday," Albert explains. "He had to have a lowrider bike, and I came into Bob's and bought it." The model he picked was a replica of a classic Schwinn that Bob's Bob Miles ordered from China. That was two months ago, and the bike no longer looks anything like it did when it arrived in the U.S. The Vallas brothers filled in part of the frame with sheet metal and Bondo, sandblasted, sanded and painted it, then had an artist friend airbrush a mural on top of that--all so Ricky's bike could appear to have a faux motorcycle gas tank. All for a bike neither brother would dream of riding.
"I have a couple of the kind of bikes you ride at home," Ricky explains. "Although their tires are flat. Besides, this is a show bike."
Besides, if he tried to ride this show bike, its pedals would graze the ground even as his knees grazed his chin.
The lower-slung, the more unrideable, the better. Then the bike becomes a showpiece, a character, a beast. Then you give it a name.
"I think I may call it Candy Green," says nine-year-old Adrian Cisneros, whose stock, green catalogue bike has been improved with Bondo and an airbrushed iguana. But his parents, who hover around him in classic stage-mother fashion, insist Candy Green is destined for a complete custom overhaul.
"Oh, Adrian'll be busy for years with this bike," his father says. "After this, he'll take over my car."
"Smile. Please, son," begs his mother--but Adrian has spotted a tiny speck of dust and is busy eradicating it with his handkerchief.
Now Bob Miles appears on the sidewalk. "It's fixing to rain," he tells everyone. "Better get your bikes inside. You'll have to squeeze." After the crowd has manuevered its way into the tiny store, fenders are grazing against each other and everyone is jostling for a turn with Bob, who can add infinite coolness to a lowrider bike with a flick of his wrench. "I still got three bikes to put together," Bob yells above the noise, enjoying being the center of attention. "Come on. Let's build another one."
So Ramiro Reyes hands over his antique Stingray frame, to which one wheel, a fender and handlebars are attached. The entire Miles family, including Bob's wife, Michaela, his parents Bert and Lee and his children Bobby and Stacie, fall on the bike and start bolting custom parts onto it. Reyes looks on, grinning. Now 25, he's been messing with lowrider bikes for eleven years.
"And this will be my best," he says. "I call it Suavecito. I didn't want it to be all one theme," he adds--unnecessarily, since Suavecito already boasts a little of every color and style in the lowrider palette, as well as most of the accessories: red stripes, green stripes, lots of Bondo, lots of dice, lots of chrome, hints of gold. "I'll convert it into a three-wheeler," Ramiros dreams aloud, "and no matter what, it'll never be finished."
At this point, Suavecito comes back over the counter sporting a new rear wheel and sparkly hand grips. Next, the Mileses pounce on Ramiro's second-string bike, a tiny purple confection he built for his four-year-old daughter, Jexali.
"I'll put training wheels on it, so she can actually ride this ride," Ramiro says. "But only if I go with her, of course."
"No way," Jexali yells.
"Way," Ramiro corrects, easing the little bike up against Next Opponent, a vicious-looking machine owned by Sean Romero, a quiet seventeen-year-old.
"Got the frame at the segunda," he says tersely. "Put a thousand dollars in it. Working, and my mom helped."
Eighteen-year-old O.J. Bazel, whose all-chrome bike rests on an elaborate display mat made of mirror tile and black-vinyl flooring, is more specific. "I spent a thousand dollars, too," he says. "I do pizza delivery. Every tip I get, I buy something for this bike. I love everything lowrider--bikes, cars, everything."
This makes him something of a curiosity in his hometown of Aurora, where he cruises on his bike every Sunday, hoping to spur interest in lowriders. "Maybe start some kind of chapter or some kind of club," he says. "It shouldn't just be a Hispanic thing. Everyone should have a lowrider. Like my girlfriend, Claire--she's building a bike, even though girls usually don't."
"All purple," Claire Sellers adds shyly. "Remember that time? With the bus?"
One day Claire and O.J. were riding down Colfax, double, on O.J.'s silver bike, when a bus pulled up alongside. No one on the bus could believe what they were seeing, and they all stood up and stared. Really.
Suddenly Taz, an elaborate black-and-blue remodeled Stingray, crashes over onto the floor, bringing its cushy purple velvet trailer with it. This has occurred several times already today, as it is generally accepted that a kickstand would ruin Taz's lovely lines. The bike's owner, six-year-old Luis Gutierrez, remains calm, but his mother, her brother and a guy named Francisco, who is serving as some kind of consultant, rush over to right the bike and buff it up with their hankies.
"You see, this bike is so important," says Luis's mother. "Where we live, in Boulder, it's low-income. Having a bike like this to work on will keep Luis out of gangs."
At age six? In Boulder?
"Well, there might be gangs in Boulder," she says. "Or that's what people say."
She runs back over to the trailer to rearrange three plastic champagne glasses on its tailgate. "I got them at Party Galore this morning. They're perfect, aren't they, Luis?"
Luis says, "Oh, mom."
"Take this," Bob says, handing over a set of chrome running lights. Luis's mother protests--they don't have the money for this kind of thing. "But possession is nine-tenths of the law," Bob tells Luis. "And your mom's bill is already as long as my arm. So take it."
Despite unpaid bills as long as his arm, 1995 has been pretty sweet so far for Bob Miles. For the two years before that, his store at 4223 West 38th Avenue was little more than "a place for used bicycles, because no one else was doing it," he says. "In the winter we all used to have to go to Arby's and get jobs to tide us over."
That was before he began carrying lowrider bike parts. Although Bob had always stocked parts for the bikes he calls "antiques," an increasing number of kids were coming in looking for a certain vintage of Schwinn Stingray. "It had to be from the Sixties or Seventies," Bob explains. "And it was better if it had a name on the chain guard." He reaches behind the counter and produces a list of names: Apple Krate, Lemon Peeler, Pea Picker, Grey Ghost. These are the ultimate--if you can find them.
Bob learned this and more by reading Lowrider Bicycle, known in these circles as either The Magazine or The Book. Through The Book, he ordered Chinese replica bikes from a company called Lowrider Collection. In January, he managed to sell one. In the first week of May alone, he sold twelve. "And not just to kids, either," Bob says. "I have customers from zero to eighty. I have old guys who just like collecting parts and putting things together. And on weekends, there's more kids around here than I know what to do with."
Lowrider bikes have finally taken off in northwest Denver.
"We're almost in the dark about you guys in Denver," says Nathan Trujillo, editor of Lowrider Bicycle. Although he's received reports that the Denver scene is hopping, Trujillo can't afford to send out a reporter from Lowrider headquarters in Walnut, California. "We hear new bikes are breaking out almost every day," he says, with some frustration. "I wish I could get there."
For now, Lowrider Bicycle's readers will have to be content with features on bikes from other states, stories like "Gold Plating: Too Much of a Good Thing Is a Bad Idea," and historical thrillers such as the recent piece on the world's first lowrider bike. Discovered at the home of a California collector, the chopped Stingray was built for Butch Patrick, the actor who played Eddie Munster. "It was equipped with many extra features," The Book reports, "including a chopper-style sissy bar, custom chopper-style handlebars with a windshield and an upholstered biscuit seat."
But a group of Texas bike builders have since disputed the Eddie Munster-origin theory, claiming to have built exotic, Mexican-styled bikes at least a decade earlier than The Munsters debuted on television. And certainly, tricked-out bicycles have appeared alongside lowrider cars at shows for at least a decade.
Over the past five years, though, the number of people devoting their time, energy and money to lowrider bikes has increased exponentially. In response, many lowrider car clubs have added bicycle auxiliaries, offering trophies and encouraging experimentation. And just two years ago, Lowrider magazine launched Lowrider Bicycle, which today has a circulation of 50,000.
"That's where I first saw that you can put an incredible amount of money into a bicycle," Bob Miles recalls. "Some of The Books have bikes with $20,000 in them. What I have never figured out is, where do they get their money? I'm the owner, and I don't have that kind of money to spend on a bike."
Weekdays, between punctured tires and catalogue orders, Miles has time to ponder this as he leafs through his well-thumbed back issues of The Book. He does not hesitate to disparage the bikes--and lifestyles--he comes across in their pages.
"They're even going into hydraulic parts for bikes," he comments. "And these paint jobs--why spend the money? You know those mall kids you see airbrushing T-shirts? That's who you need."
Now he surveys the near-naked (and usually Caucasian) women who are draped over almost every fender in Lowrider. "To me, this is crummy," he says, firmly turning the page. "What is it, a beauty contest? And here's an ad for the music, that Mexican thump-thump crap--I can't stand it. And here's your basic white guys trying to look Mexican. Why? Lowrider bikes have moved into every color. Chinese, colored, white, old guys. Hey, even girls."
"I wish more girls did it," sighs sixteen-year-old Morningstar Galves, whose bike, Plum Crazy II, appears in the current issue of Lowrider Bicycle, making her a celebrity--if not to the world at large, at least on her block near the steel mill in downtown Pueblo. "Not many girls do, though. In a small town like this one, boys do bikes, and girls, girls--"
"Girls play with their dolls," prompts Morningstar's stepfather, Ralph Herrera.
"No," Morningstar decides. "Girls go to the mall, put on their makeup, talk. I don't neglect that stuff, but I'm always looking for bike parts. I always keep my mind open."
"Meanwhile," Ralph says, "you are competing with the boys and doing pretty good."
Actually, Morningstar is doing pretty good in a variety of endeavors, with her heart set on a pre-law career at the Air Force Academy, her eleventh-grade afternoons filled with Hispanic honor societies, and an '81 Malibu Classic in the garage waiting for the day she wants to restore something bigger than bikes. She lives with Ralph and her mother in a modest adobe house that is crusted on the inside with lace curtains, gilded mirrors and brass knickknack shelves. Wedged between the dining-room table and the brass rack that holds back issues of The Book is Plum Crazy II.
"Oh, I can never get this correctly," Morningstar complains, as she props up the bike against the sideboard. "It's supposed to be fender side out."
She steps back to view the bike, adjusts it an inch in several different directions, inspects it for tiny dings and then just stares at it for a while, wondering if it could be taken apart and rewelded into a three-wheeler, with a velvet-upholstered trailer.
In the meantime, chrome dice hang from its handlebars. Other delicious features: purple/maroon paint job, courtesy of Ray's Custom Auto Body. Gray velvet tuck-and-roll seat. Twisted chrome forks. Whitewall tires with the word "Lowrider" printed on them in black. The unusual, downward-curving handlebars that first caught editor Trujillo's attention at a lowrider show in New Mexico last year.
"Ralph, he used to be a mechanic, and I'd help him prep cars for painting when I was a little girl," she says. "I helped him fix tires and change them. He was all for it; he thought it was great. He had a show truck back then, and he took me with him to the lowrider shows. I saw pickup trucks with beds that danced, big Corvettes on pedestals that went around and around, little cars that hop. And then I started seeing the lowrider bikes and I thought of doing it."
She bought the frame--a Schwinn relic--from a neighbor for twenty bucks. She saved her money and bought parts, one at a time, from Chicano-Mestiza, a lowrider store in Colorado Springs. "The worst part," Morningstar says, "was waiting for the kid up the street to finally get done with the upholstery. I swear, that took almost a year."
The wait paid off last fall, when the family took a trip to Ralph's hometown of Espaola, New Mexico, which happens to be one of three cities that claim credit for being the official birthplace of the lowrider car. Trujillo was there checking out the cars when he ran into Morningstar and Plum Crazy II and photographed them both.
"He was a short, round man, maybe in his forties, carried all his camera supplies with him," Morningstar recalls, still dizzy from the attention. "You wouldn't even know it was him, from The Magazine. He didn't even act like him."
Not that she had ever seen him before. Morningstar grabs a stack of back issues of Lowrider Bicycles, but Trujillo, true to his low-key personality, does not appear in his own pages. By now, though, Morningstar is distracted by photographs of several Fifties-era Mercuries. "Oh, they're so tuff," she breathes. "Forget all these '64 Impalas. Forget them. Think about a '57 Chevy. Think about this '49 Merc...talk about tuff." The Mercury is festooned with a near-naked blond woman in lingerie. "I don't know about this," she adds.
"It's a man's hobby," Ralph prompts.
"So what. I find it distasteful. They don't have to have lingerie to show lowrider bikes."
She slams The Book shut and gazes lovingly at Plum Crazy II. "This summer," she says, "I will begin again. Maybe, I don't know, a sidecar?"
In the parking lot of Adams City High School, the 2 the Extremes Car Club is hosting a small, almost intimate lowrider show, with a bass-heavy sound system blaring music at each point of the compass. The bikes mixed in amid the cars have been decorated with handfuls of gold sequins, serapes, champagne glasses and the occasional bottle of Jose Cuervo or Riunite.
"I made and made and made this bike," says Carlos Cespedes of his chrome monster, whose frame rests directly on the ground. He can't even begin to ride it until he flips it into a different position, a maneuver that has gathered a small crowd of gawkers. "I made it for my son so he'll have something to do with his life," Carlos says. "It will never be finished. I just keep seeing new ideas in The Book and starting over."
Nearby, David Miera Sr. displays the bike he's been fiddling with for thirteen years. "It's the Little Devil," he says, showing off the airbrushed sprite-in-a-diaper that graces the bike's chain guard. "I built it for my son, David Miera Jr. I named it for him, too, 'cause he's a devil when he's in a bad mood."
But six-year-old David Jr. is in a good mood today. To prove it, he smiles widely at his dad, displaying two silver front teeth that match the bike's chrome.
"We need more chrome," says Matthew Zamora as he surveys his bike, Deadly '69. "We must repaint. More flake."
"More murals," adds his twin, Michael.
The seventeen-year-old Zamoras have taken Deadly '69 through six incarnations in two years. Right now the bike is clearly at the top of its class, with its sleek black frame, red running lights, gold and chrome twisted forks, a mural featuring a grinning skull and tombstones, and a trailer no one can actually sit in because it's a miniature plush velvet coffin.
"See, it's a '69 Schwinn we got--"
"--at a yard sale for fifteen bucks, and stripped it down to the bare metal. It took six months to tack-weld this incredible shape on it, in our own backyard--"
"--going without dinner, staying up late--but then people saw it and said, `Oh, dude, that's deadly.'"
"It's a form of speech, see," Michael finishes, a bit breathless. The Zamoras worked two jobs apiece, sometimes as bus boys, sometimes as cooks, to finance their dream bike. They hope--no, plan--to become lowrider bike designers when they grow up. They take bicycles very, very seriously.
"Twenty-inch fenders and sixteen-inch wheels," Matthew points out, holding court for a handful of tough-looking boys decked out in 'do-rags and hairnets.
"It's the beginning of our bike club," Michael explains. "We're going to call it Strictly Custom, and it will be strictly clean."
"We're kind of church boys, see," Matthew adds. "This is our vice-president, Tony. He couldn't bring his bike today."
"Oh, I wish I could have," Tony says. "You would have loved my forks. Nobody has my forks."
But do subtle, hydraulic rivers of motor oil run through them? Rick Murray thinks not. "I'm the only one who has this feature," he says proudly. "Do it, son."
Seven-year-old Lewis Murray squeezes a bulb, and suddenly the gold '69 Schwinn upon which he's sitting, the one with the lush and splendid maroon tuck-and-roll trailer, hops a foot off the pavement. "I found it in a dumpster," Rick says. "Now he rides it around, but not when I don't have my eye on him."
Rick has elaborately customized a bike for each of his three children and many of their friends. There's the '69 newspaper-boy Schwinn, Bondo'd within an inch of its life and covered with gold metalflake. "The fenders on this purple one came off a '78 Porsche," he says. "I been with the lowriders, one way or another, since I was fifteen. Now I'm 35, and it's time for my kids to get some fame."
Ensuring that this happens takes nearly every second of his life away from work. "Every weekend. Every night," Rick explains. "I have to keep my kids' minds occupied, and their money. Having done this, they might be mechanics, they might be painters, they might be artists. I hope," he adds, "they might end up using their minds."
A twelve-year-old boy walks by with an all-original '67 Schwinn. Unable to stop himself, Rick runs after the kid. "Are you gonna plate that thing?" he asks. "Don't do it. Take it back to what it was. That bike is worth three grand, at least."
Then Rick stops short--in front of a bright-purple sidecar bike awash in a gothic death theme. "It's the Grim Reaper," explains its builder, 36-year-old Freddie Perez. "I got very sick from breathing paint fumes while I was working on this bike, and the idea came to me, the idea of death. You gotta fear the Reaper."
Freddie can't remember how many bikes he's built since his first in 1976. "That was in El Paso, and I never knew anyone else who did it till I met him," he says, introducing Randy Lopez, president of the Unique Image Car Club.
"We build them together," Randy says. "Even five years ago, there may not even have been five others. And we're still different. We're clean."
"Look at these bikes with the little bottles and glasses. Drink and drive, that's what they're telling our children."
"I don't like it," says Randy. "In the Unique Car Club, the family owns the car. The kids build bikes. It's clean."
"Hey, I started out building bikes to stay away from drugs," Freddie says.
"How's that work, vato?" Randy says, laughing.
"I had to keep my mind thinking always of bodywork and something on wheels," Freddie answers, quite seriously. "I mean, look at this bike. Three bikes welded together, sheet metal, Bondo and a candy purple-and-silver base. Don't you see your talent is not to build a bike but to do a piece of art? It comes to you in a dream," he says. "Don't you see that?
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