Clan of the Bike Men

It's a strange sort of subculture, this communion of men working the streets for money in an athletic endeavor they say is both exhausting and exhilarating. The money can be good, especially as it's all tips, untouched by and invisible to government tax collectors, but it's not all that brings them to the streets.

On breaks, pedicabbers will congregate at cafes where they smoke cigarettes and talk long and hard about such things as the potency of a certain strain of coffee bean. They'll employ the same terms often used for a premium bag of weed. "Once that shit hits your bloodstream . . . aww, dude."

Veteran cabbies counsel the new initiates, recommending dietary supplements and particular brands of power bars that help replenish the energy they burn -- which can be nearly 4,000 calories a shift.

Sometimes they'll tell stories about how in the early '90s, a particular owner used a pair of burly cowboy enforcers to stomp the shit out of independents who dared run the streets without his permission. Whether it's true or not is hard to tell; these kinds of tales are repeated so often on the streets that they've become the stuff of legends.

Other times they'll brag about how much they earned in the past -- more tallish tales about "back in the day" when taking home $400 a night was more the rule than the exception.

On a bad night lately, a pedicabber is just as likely to get slammed into, underbid, cut in front of or cursed at by fellow pedicabbers. Someone might even threaten to take you into a back alley and kick your ass.

"It's like the Wild West all over again," says Billy Oxford, owner of a fleet of pedicabs for more than a decade.

With too many cabs on the street and nothing more than bicycle statutes and stop signs to govern pedicabbers nowadays, Oxford and other owners say it's time the City of Phoenix stepped in. Most hope regulations can ease some of the tensions. Anarchy on the streets was one of the reasons that pedicabbing was so appealing to many of the drivers, but lately the chaos has gotten out of hand.

If there's one thing pedicabbers share, it's a love of what they do. Although shuttling people to and from parking garages and sporting venues doesn't sound like a particularly pleasant way to make a living -- especially in summer months -- for some it's a dream come true.

Aaron Fishler, a slight, soft-spoken 23-year-old aviation student, moved to Phoenix from Florida four years ago and began driving a cab at night as a way to help pay for school.

Right away, "I fell in love with it," says Fishler as he queues up next to the Arizona Center waiting for rides on a recent weeknight.

It's the interaction with people that Fishler says he values, and the chance to step outside of himself. "It's putting on an act and playing somebody that I'm not that makes it fun."

The rides are entertaining for passengers, as well. Many drivers are personable, fit young men. This means that getting flashed, kissed, or having their butts grabbed by alcohol-infused women is common. Even when riders show their appreciation in a tamer fashion, there's fun to be had as a participant in someone else's party.

Some pedicabbers aren't the kind of people who get invited much to actual parties. They aren't like Fishler, and that's another element of the business he appreciates. Pedicabbers are a "myriad of different people," he says, "from professional businessmen to some of the most inspirational people, who have been able to lift themselves up from the gutter [through pedicabbing]."

They can be rebellious individuals with an aversion to corporate structure, unwilling to spend nine to five imprisoned in a cubicle. Some have backgrounds that prevent them from other more conventional forms of employment. They may have gaping holes in their résumés caused by mental illness, homelessness or felony convictions. Some prefer not to bathe. Others work conventional day jobs and choose to moonlight as pedicabbers to supplement their income.

As much as they battle each other on the streets for fares, they share a kinship missing in other areas of their life. It's a way an unconventional group of people who never quite fit in can come together and find common ground.

Some are independents and run their own equipment. Most lease a rig from one of four main operators in downtown Phoenix; Fat Tire runs 10 cabs, PedalTek has 18, Big Papa has 16 and Arizona Pedal Cab runs 23.

In all, Phoenix has between 70 and 100 pedicabs, although all of them aren't usually out on the streets at one time. Large events such as a World Series, Fiesta Bowl or Super Bowl will draw every driver, even attracting pedicab crews from San Diego who truck in for the day.

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Susy Buchanan