By Amy Silverman
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If Pee-wee Herman ever participates in a bicycle rodeo on Mars, it's a cinch his entry won't hold a candle to the unidentified non-flying object that's been keeping Valley motorists guessing for the past several years.
A souped-up cardboard cabin attached to a bicycle frame, the winged craft is hard to ignore as it tools past traffic on the sidewalk, its reflectors, spinners and Hot Wheels decals glistening in the sun.
Perhaps you've seen it and thought it looked like something Our Gang might have cooked up after a Buck Rogers double feature.
Maybe you thought it resembled the sort of thing you'd see trailing behind a float in a small-town parade.
Or maybe you're one of those cynics who dismissed it as merely a crackpot's version of an AirStream trailer.
But as it whizzed by your car while you were stuck at a red light, you looked. And if you're like everyone else, you wondered who--or what--was attached to the two furiously pumping legs. A child? A nut? What the hell's going on here?
Adding to the puzzle has been the craft's constantly mutating color and design: Red one month, yellow the next, the rocket bike rarely looked the same twice.
Nor did the vehicle's erratic pattern of travel offer many clues. Although the mystery cyclist was frequently seen in the 3200 block of East Indian School Road, others reported seeing him downtown or near Seventh Avenue and Osborn.
Baffled by the contradictory reports, motorists scratched their heads and contemplated the unthinkable: Was it possible there was an entire fleet of rocket bikes zooming the sidewalks of Phoenix?
For at least one driver, spotting the mysterious "bicycle man" has become a real-life game of Where's Waldo? that helps kill time when gridlock develops.
"I now find myself looking for him whenever I'm out in traffic," explains one commuter who first began seeing the enigmatic cyclist in the neighborhood of 32nd Street and Indian School more than a year ago. "Months would go by without seeing him and just when I was sure he'd disappeared forever, here he'd pop up again. It got to be a challenge, seeing if I could find him whenever I was driving somewhere."
Comparing bike-man spottings to UFO sightings, this particular motorist enjoys speculating on the rocket bike's true purpose. "Is this thing functional?" he wonders. "If so, how?
"To me, one of the most fascinating things was how beat-up the thing looked," continues the "bike man" aficionado. "As this thing pedaled along the sidewalk, pieces of duct tape were flapping in the breeze like pendants. I always marveled that the thing didn't collapse around whoever was riding it. Obviously, this wasn't something new; this was real commitment on someone's part."
That someone is vehicular visionary Flossch (pronounced "Flash") Crawford. Dressed in his standard pilot's outfit--Adidas shoes, bicycling shorts and a skintight tee shirt--Crawford climbs out from under the cab of his latest "car," a two-piece corrugated cardboard shell that looks like an AWOL test vehicle from the laboratory of Dr. Seuss.
"This is about survival," muses Crawford, a short, wiry fellow of indeterminate age who attributes his startlingly orange-red hair to his Swedish/Asian/African heritage. Casting a critical eye at his most recent model, he explains, "See, I needed a car to get around. I now have that car--a two-wheeled car that keeps me cool in the summer, and warm in the winter."
Inclement weather's no problem. "I feel like it's an honor to ride it in the rain," says Crawford. "It's so incredible. Everything's nice and gray outside, and I'm inside, keepin' dry."
Crawford holds up his hands. "See, I've even got windshield wipers. And they work beautifully. This car's a trip, isn't it?"
To say the least. Using items that he salvages from Dumpsters or buys at thrift shops, Crawford transforms old bicycles into Tom Swiftian objects of wonder. Since moving to Phoenix in 1992, he's built at least eight cars and has a notebook filled with designs for dozens more. Today, the earlier prototypes exist only in photographs and videotapes whose labels bear Egyptian-style hieroglyphics that only Crawford can understand. "I'm doing good if I can get one bike at a time," he says of his latest, a white job called "B'Claytayacht," a bastardization of the Spanish word for "bicycle."
The bike currently stands in a cluttered back bedroom "workshop" of the modest apartment near the Phoenix Country Club that Crawford shares with two friends. Wired to aluminum rods attached to the bike's frame is the cab, a cardboard housing outfitted with a Plexiglas windshield. There are also side and rear windows, most of them plastered with parking-permit stickers. Inside the cab, a piece of linoleum flooring serves as an instrument panel--"instruments" being an oscillating siren and a transistor radio. A plastic grid that fits over a hole in the front of the cab provides "air conditioning."
Another cardboard aperture, this one fitted over the rear wheel of the battered Kodiak, sports cardboard fins and rudders. According to Crawford, the rear assembly makes the bike more aerodynamically efficient.
In the cosmic bike path that is Flossch Crawford's life, the origins of his dream machines are shrouded in mystery that mere mortals can only guess at.