Road Show

Valley bike builders are creating a whole new world of wheels

"A lot of time I just ride around with For Sale' stickers on the seat, just joking, to see what I can get for it," says Luckey. "If I get a good enough offer, I say, Put your money where your mouth is.' Then it's like, All right! We're walking home! Drinks on me!'"

With big brown eyes and a backward baseball hat, 16-year-old Matt Troutman doesn't look anything like a businessman. But he's already turned his bike-building hobby into a budding profession.

Troy DiBurgo builds a variety of outrageous bicycles.
Jackie Mercandetti
Troy DiBurgo builds a variety of outrageous bicycles.
Troy DiBurgo isn’t fazed by a hot day in the metal shop.
Jackie Mercandetti
Troy DiBurgo isn’t fazed by a hot day in the metal shop.

He started two years ago, teaching himself how to weld with an antiquated arc welder. "I was sick of seeing everybody else's cool bikes," Troutman says. "I wanted to make my own style."

Troutman got the money to build his first one by helping his uncle paint houses.

"Now they pretty much just build off each other. I can get $450 for one, then turn around and make another for $100," he says.

Besides riding around local streets, Troutman takes his "Chaos Cruisers" to local motorcycle shops and car shows, where their look gets a great response. "I like to have some of them with that vintage look, with whitewalls and the flat black -- kind of like that old hot rod look," he says.

Indeed, Troutman's works look like they were custom made for Rat Fink. His long, black chopper sits so low that the seat is actually lower than the rear tire. Since there's no fender, it puts a rider perilously close to getting a skid mark on the ass.

His fire-engine-red trike, parked in the grass near a rusty junk heap of old bikes and metal scraps just outside his backyard workshop in central Phoenix, screams for attention with two large rear wheels, straight motorcycle-style handlebars, and an extremely long fork that ends with a tiny front wheel.

With crazy rides like these, it's understandable that Troutman's buddies are getting interested in building bikes, too. "They're liking the look of it and wanting to come cruise with me, so that's cool -- I like that," he says. "The more people, the better."

A name that comes up frequently in conversations with young bike builders is "Billy O." Those who have met the man heap nothing but praise on him, as if he's the bicycle guru of Phoenix.

As it turns out, that's not stretching the truth.

Billy Oxford, owner of Arizona Pedal Cab, is living his dream by earning his livelihood with bicycles, something all of the younger builders seem to aspire to.

The 45-year-old Anchorage native, with hair pulled back in a ponytail and a bottomless cup of rocket-fuel-grade coffee in his hand, says he's been riding bikes since the mid-'60s. "It was an unhappy childhood, and bicycles got me out of the house," he says.

"Oh, man, they just take my head out of normal reality," he adds with a grin.

He moved to Phoenix in 1981, but went through a succession of different jobs -- attack-dog trainer, computer programmer, palm tree planter -- before stumbling upon this destiny.

Walking through downtown Tempe one day back in 1993, he turned the corner and there it was: bike number 23, the three-wheeled pedal cab of his dreams.

"So two days later I'm working for the bike's owner, two months later I'm running his operation, and two years later I bought it from him," Oxford says.

The purchase simultaneously kicked off his new career and his new bike-building hobby. It didn't take long for the money to start rolling in -- on average, without charging, he made $400 just in tips in six hours.

"I just wanted to get paid enough to buy more parts to build more bikes."

Over the last decade, he's built up a thriving business. His headquarters, inside a downtown Phoenix warehouse, is tangible evidence of his passion for bicycles.

Just inside the doorway, several pedal cabs are lined up against each other, tilted backward with front wheels in the air. Scores of ordinary bikes are stacked in corners, leaning against walls and hanging from the ceiling. Oxford's metal shop in the back overflows with wheels, tires and miscellaneous pieces of scrap that surround the jigs and welding equipment. Oxford says that when DiBurgo first visited the shop, his reaction was, "Whoa! The mecca!"

Out of his mecca, Oxford not only works on pedal cabs for his business, but also custom recumbent bikes for his own enjoyment. He points out one unusual specimen, a raw hodgepodge of pipe and gears that looks like a Mad Max recliner on wheels. There's no mistaking that it's a homemade bike, but it's still a complex machine. "You could buy one of these for $1,500 to $3,000, but I can build them for me. This one here is my latest, bestest, coolest, gnarliest, fastest."

At the thought, Oxford interrupts himself with a loud, growly giggle that sounds like a naughty Scooby-Doo. "Oh, man!"

Oxford builds a different style of custom bikes from the younger guys, but he still appreciates their bold designs. In particular, he really loves DiBurgo's outrageous chopper with the swooping bug antennae handlebars. "It's impractical, but what's the practicality of art?"

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