Road Show

Valley bike builders are creating a whole new world of wheels

Outside in the yard, he points out one of his typical designs. The dark green bike has a minuscule seat, no fenders, and is dramatically stretched out. "This is the style I like -- really low to the ground," Murray says. "But if your shirt hangs over it, it gets caught in the tire!"

Some of Murray's past projects, parked behind the garage, demonstrate his playful sense of humor. One model has a toolbox installed where the tank usually would be. Another is a tricycle with an old school chair welded on as the seat.

And then there's one of Murray's showiest pieces: the Pink 'N Pretty, a pink and purple kiddy bike that's been chopped and stretched beyond recognition. "It even has a wheelie bar that makes sparks!"

Murray can weld a frame in a day.
Jackie Mercandetti
Murray can weld a frame in a day.
His signature bicycle style is low to the ground.
Jackie Mercandetti
His signature bicycle style is low to the ground.

Murray still loves the Pink 'N Pretty. But his devotion lies with his latest bike. "My newest one is always my favorite," he says.

Troy DiBurgo always wanted to build chopper bikes, but never had the means to do it. The muscular, dark-haired 23-year-old Bostonian moved here a year ago and took jobs that involved welding. He finally got his break in January when he started doing fabricating jobs for metal artist Chris Duran.

Located on Grand Avenue, Duran's Icon Studios has a large shop where DiBurgo is working on his fifth chopper bike. There's no air conditioning in the workshop, only stifling heat radiating from the corrugated metal walls. DiBurgo and his barking dog are unfazed by the heat.

"This is more sculpture than anything," DiBurgo says, pointing out a bike he built from the ground up, using salvaged metal. Long and low, with three-foot-long handlebars that curve up like insect antennae, the bike is both beautiful and intimidating.

"If you ride it like you think you're supposed to ride it, it's hard, because the handlebars are way out here," DiBurgo explains. "But you just lay down on it."

"You get used to it. I usually ride on my forearms with a beer in my hand," he says.

The fuss over these choppers makes perfect sense. They are ridiculously fun to ride -- one design's tiny metal seat forces the body forward into a slouch behind gargantuan handlebars, while another model rides fast and makes sharp, sudden turns because the front wheel is so small. Each work-of-art-on-wheels operates on its own strange laws of physics, which takes some getting used to. But after the first few wobbly seconds of uncertainty, riding one is a rush.

"You gotta take some function out of it to make it fun," DiBurgo says.

His other bikes look completely different, but are just as wild. One is painted red, with cream-colored ape-hanger handlebars, black leather grips and an oversize rear wheel. Volture, his design moniker, is spray painted on the side. Another bike is part beach cruiser, part Schwinn girl's bike, with whitewall tires and a raked-out front fork.

"It's a blast to cruise around with a bunch of people on these," says DiBurgo, who also frequents First Fridays with Murray and his friends. "I'm just into it because I live down here -- this is my neighborhood."

But DiBurgo complains that there's no sign of life downtown when it's not First Friday. "It's a shame. This is where all the history is. It could be really cool down here," he says.

"It will be, one day, I think. But right now it's struggling."

For that reason, DiBurgo also loves cruising around Tempe, even if it means he has to load up his van with the bikes. "There are always so many people out and about," he raves.

Cruising is a satisfying reward for every bike customizer who labors in a sweltering workshop, alone with raw metal and a welding torch, because it's a chance to show off new ideas. If building the bike is the artistic challenge, then riding it is pure exhibitionism.

But for Alexander Chavez, cruising is also a necessity.

"This is my only form of transportation," he explains. Diagnosed with epilepsy and diabetes, the middle-aged Chavez does not drive.

For as much use as it gets, though, his bicycle is no less a stunning work of art. In fact, it's on display along with several other custom bikes -- including those made by DiBurgo, Murray and Patrick Englert -- at Holga's gallery during a Fourth of July First Friday exhibition. Outside, break-dancers move to thumping beats as a crowd gathers. Just inside, Chavez hovers near his pride and joy, which gleams from the gallery lighting.

The intricately adorned cruiser is Chavez's only creation, but it's a constant work-in-progress. "I've had it for nine years, and it's won more than 40 awards," he says. The annual World of Wheels and Super Events car shows are just a couple of the places where his bike has garnered honors.

"I keep changing the bike -- every year it has a different theme," says Chavez. "This year, it's Greed.'"

Satisfying Chavez's need for wheels, for a creative outlet and even for a social statement, the bike embodies a balance of form and function.

The bike's rack, side panels, tank and handlebars are all made out of wood, hand-carved and finished by Chavez. Tiny fake dollar bills are lacquered onto the shiny frame, and the rear "exhaust" pipes are plated in 24-carat gold.

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