A parade of pedestrians streams down Roosevelt Street on a warm First Friday evening in April, bringing life to an urban stretch that is desolate on most other nights of the month.
Like colorful spring blossoms sprouting up from barren plots of desert, the dusty sidewalk and parking lot next to the Modified Arts gallery is swarming with a noisy, eclectic mix of people: shaggy-haired boys in skinny pants sucking on cigarettes, well-dressed middle-aged art collectors toting bottles of water, glitter-smeared teenage girls in tank tops gabbing on cell phones.
Then, something catches the crowd's attention, and the loud chatter is reduced to a chorus of curious, excited murmurs. A gang of about two dozen hipster guys and girls on outlandish bicycles cruises east on Roosevelt, drawing a lot of stares.
One by one the bikes slowly pass by, each different from the next. Some have handlebars two feet high, some are stretched out and ride low to the ground, some have front forks raked out like chopper motorcycles -- and some have all of the above. The one thing they have in common is extreme exaggeration.
These cutting-edge rides are mobile sculpture, the latest wave of expression among creative young Phoenicians who thrive on the do-it-yourself ethos. Not content to ride pricey "cookie-cutter bikes," which they so often scorn, these custom bicycle builders get a thrill out of making and riding their own designs, which are often constructed from metal scraps. Their aesthetic is inspired by the tough-looking customized motorcycles of the 1960s and 1970s, but it also includes whimsical design ideas that are purely tongue-in-cheek.
Because the small but flourishing scene is so new, some of the builders are just getting to know each other, while others with coincidentally similar approaches to bike building are still working independently. Sometimes they actually do get a chance to meet up, particularly during the First Friday art walks in Phoenix, the Final Friday art events in Tempe, and on random weekends. But even when they cruise together, it's obvious that each individual has a unique vision of how to construct a radical ride.
Potential buyers often approach the bike builders when they're out cruising, sometimes making offers that are too good to refuse. The choppers are labors of love, though, and don't come cheaply from people who've put a lot of elbow grease into them. Until the scene grows into something more cohesive, word of mouth will continue to be these builders' best form of advertising.
Building the bikes is sometimes a source of extra cash, sometimes just a hobby, and sometimes even a political statement. But above all, it's a way of life that blends the necessities of transportation with the irresistible urge to create art.
Ryan Murray has a lot to do with the sporadic custom bicycle sightings in downtown Phoenix and Tempe in the past several months. Many of the wild rides are his own creations, built from scratch.
"We try to do First Friday every month -- it's turned into a tradition," says Murray, who's majoring in sculpture and film at Scottsdale Community College. "That's a lot of fun because it's my artwork moving around, and everybody gets to see it -- I get a lot of attention. But I usually don't get to go to very many galleries because of all the bikes."
Clad in a baggy tee shirt and shorts, the wavy-haired, athletic 22-year-old exudes a California surfer kind of energy -- laid-back, but fearless.
That impression is reinforced by the enormous snowboard ramp in the backyard of the house he shares with two roommates. It's at least 15 or 20 feet tall and covered in dirty white carpet. Murray says he often soaps it down and hoses it off, then launches off of it on his snowboard.
Murray's always been into bikes. From the looks of the bicycle and motorcycle posters adorning his living room walls, he's drawn to anything on wheels. "But I didn't start building bikes until September, when I moved out of my parents' house," he admits.
Over the past five years, Murray learned welding from making skate rails and lowering cars, and now it's his main source of income. While he also tinkers around with Vespa scooters, Murray says it was important for him to learn how to build bikes. "I figured I should probably mess around with bicycles first, before I mess around with a motor."
In 10 short months, he's built more than 20 of them under the name Antic -- some for his friends, many for himself. He hasn't sold any yet, but it's not for anyone's lack of interest. With prices that climb up to $800, depending on the bike, "Everyone wants one but nobody has the money," he says.
Still, that's not stopping him from making bikes like a madman. Sometimes Murray can finish a frame in a day. In the garage workshop behind his house, where punk rock plays loudly and a fan keeps the 105-degree air circulating, Murray shows off his latest project, a raw metal frame with a rounded, motorcycle-style fender and a front joint angled to accommodate an extremely long fork.
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 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.
Necessity has been the mother of invention for 30-year-old Patrick Englert, too. "Initially, what got me into bicycles was a DUI at age 22 -- that forced me into loving it," he says.
Englert was living in Nashville at the time. A friend of his built lowriders, and before long, he started learning how to build his own bikes.
"The problem was, I had all these ideas to cut up bikes, but I didn't have any welding equipment," he says.
Now that he has the equipment, Englert's in need of a garage. In the meantime, he makes do by keeping his equipment in the hallway closet of his Phoenix apartment. A large shelving unit in his bedroom contains dozens of bike frames, wheels and metal parts. Three bicycles are lined up in his living room, and several more are in his kitchen. A tangle of old junk bikes and scrap parts is visible outside his kitchen window.
Tall, with a shaved head and easygoing smile, Englert has been living in the Valley for two and a half years, since moving from Richmond, Virginia. "I had no intention of coming here, but I knew there was work here," he says.
Currently, he's working at Trader Joe's and planning to enroll at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute.
Englert explains how he made his favorite chopper bike, which boasts ape-hanger handlebars, a Maltese cross on the silver tank, a large rear wheel and a tiny front wheel mounted at the end of an extended front fork. "I found a mountain bike in an alleyway, added 20 inches of pipe to the existing fork, and got the sheet metal for the tank from a pickup truck hood that I found." Alleys, auctions, garage sales and friends are just a few of the sources of material for his recycled creations.
He says his custom rides are more art than function. But since his car broke down recently, Englert is once again relying on them for transportation.
"It's not a very bike-friendly city," he says. "We need more bike lanes."
David Luckey -- known simply as Luckey -- spends much of his free time cruising from bar to bar in Tempe. The city's advantage is its abundance of bike lanes, he says. "Not having a reliable car, you tend to depend on your bike a lot, especially in this area. You can really just get by with a bike here," he says.
Tempe's relatively bike-friendly streets are the perfect playground for Luckey and his friends to cruise in large groups. The only problem is, bicycle people come and go. "We used to have biking for beers,'" says Luckey. "I hate calling it that, because of the police, but we used to have a really good turnout. It just kind of fizzled out. Everyone moves, and now it's just not as organized," he laments.
Dressed in a black rock tee shirt and shorts, with dark hair in a grown-out Mohawk, 25-year-old Luckey came to the Valley from Orange County, California, during high school. In the fall, he's transferring to Arizona State University from Mesa Community College. For the time being, he's happy just getting by on building bicycles.
"I haven't really worked in a while. I'm just not too into corporate America right now -- it pays, but it doesn't pay, you know?"
What does pay, Luckey's finding out, is selling his creations outright. During a recent trip to California, he was riding through downtown Huntington Beach when an admirer offered to buy the bike from him. Luckey was half kidding when he asked for $400, but the man didn't hesitate to pay him.
Now, he reasons that it was a fair price. "If you go to the Schwinn shops, you can get a cookie-cutter bike for three or four hundred bucks."
Without a doubt, Luckey does not build cookie-cutter bikes. He's made 10 from scratch, and restored and sold countless more old cruisers bought at thrift stores. One parked in the patio at Casey Moore's -- a mean-looking flat black, lowered and stretched model -- turns heads when he walks over to it.
Another, stowed in the back of his van, is a total statement of individuality; it's the cow bike, covered in fuzzy fake cow fur and adorned with a big pair of bullhorns on the handlebars.
"When you have a bike that catches someone's eye, you get noticed by vehicles more -- they kind of look out for you," says Luckey. Considering he was once hit by a car at Ash and University, it's yet another motivation to build far-out bicycles. He rides more defensively now, but also puts extra thought into building bikes that get a lot of attention.
Luckey works out of his garage using tools and welding equipment he bought after selling a few bikes. He barters with friends for parts, and scavenges for junk that he can transform into a bad-ass work of art. "I think that's cool, taking scrap and turning it into something -- that's the best way to go," he says.
And it's turning out to be profitable, too. So far, he's sold several custom bicycles without even trying -- just riding them is all the advertising he needs to do.
"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.
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?"
"The practicality of art is to remind you that linear is not the only way to go," says Oxford. "That bike is art, not just scrap thrown together."
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One of Oxford's own stretched-out, handmade bikes lets the rider lean back in comfort, with handlebars conveniently located right under the seat. And his chi gong bicycle, with a metal pipe frame, wooden seat and foam-and-duct-tape back rest, is custom-made for chanting and resonating while riding.
"I can bring myself to this place where I even like BMXers and people in high-rider four-wheel drives," he says.
With bike builders like DiBurgo, Oxford shares the same drive to combine artistic expression with practical transportation. But while most guys would say that building custom bicycles is ultimately about fun, Oxford takes it to the level of enlightenment.
"There is a high to manifesting what the universe wants to happen. And when you're channeling the universe, you're surfing with God, right?"