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."

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff