Longform

LOWRIDER, HIGH HOPES

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But it wasn't long ago that the parts themselves were hard to come by locally, and it was into this void that Nancy Morris and Cliff Tyler descended from Anchorage, Alaska. The grand plan at first did not reveal itself--there were stints at Circle K and Denny's, then one day, Morris spotted a lowrider bike and was hooked for good.

The two looked around the Valley and found accessories were hard to find, and with the help of stretched-out credit cards, Build-A-Bike was born near 43rd Avenue and Bethany Home Road in Glendale. Business has been increasingly flush. Morris says the store has taken on a community role, too, and a lot of single parents like Frances Cano appreciate their kids having a place to hang out. "I have moms call me to see if their kids are here," Morris says. "A lot of them don't have dads around. You can tell the ones who do, because they're the ones who have gold on their bikes and the best paint jobs."

As popularity balloons, Build-A-Bike's customers have become a mix of all ethnicities and age brackets, and for a while, there was even a 52-year-old guy from Sanderson Ford, a longtime bike collector, who was coming in two, three times a week to drool over all the custom parts.

Cliff Tyler is Morris' fianc, and he learned most of what he knows at dad's gas station, where if you didn't have the tool you needed, you made one. He gets about as excited as some of the kids do about the bikes, and he keeps a spiral notebook in which he jots down ideas. Today, he's working on another one--a sissy-bar that shoots down from the rear of the seat, with blinking lights.

"All this stuff's been done before, if you think about it," Tyler says. "It's one thing to think of an idea, but to actually make it work, that's the challenge. That's what I like about it."

And that's what he tells the kids. Don't just get the latest thing. Lead the way, if you can. Innovations don't stay exclusive for long.

Before all of that can happen, though, old frames must be sanded free of old paint so new paint will stick. Lowbikers often weld shaped metal plates to their frames or add cut-to-fit cardboard with bondo, a putty mixed with a hardener for body filling. After sanding off rough edges and spraying it with primer, the frame is ready for painting and whatever else the lowbikers have dreamed up.

"There are no rules," Morris says. "The people that come in here are so creative. Dads are building bikes for their kids, and they come in and see one of these and go, 'Wow, a 26-inch frame.' People now are talking about [creating] a second bike."

Lowrider Bicycle features a how-to section spelling out some processes, but those and the more elaborate, prize-winning alterations aren't exactly do-it-yourself material for youngsters. "It comes down to the people who have access to welding and machines," says tech editor Vargas, who, at 23, has claimed a few trophies himself. "I have complete access to a machine shop. I've built several feature bikes with a budget of $600. We did all the work ourselves. But then you have other kids--one guy spent $2,200, and it still wasn't as good as some of the ones we did for $600."

And so this is what a kid like James Cano is up against out there. Morris and Tyler, then, when they planned a lowrider-bike show along with the Valley's Seductive Car Club, wanted a less exclusive atmosphere. They decided to start, first off, by replacing the $15-to-$25 entry fee typically charged at big-name shows with a $2 fee and canned food for Westside Food Bank.

The kids wander the aisles at the Build-A-Bike/Seductive Car Club bike show in January, bestowing pronouncements of sorriness and badness on 64 bikes from around the Valley. Marvin Martian murals, mini champagne glasses, eight-ball themes, Southwestern chic . . . and there's a three-wheeler with a wicker basket riding its back, planted amid a picnic-style display of Coca-Cola memorabilia, pitcher and glasses, a bucket of grapes and apples. "That's bad, huh?" one kid with a Boyz Wit Toyz bike-club cap says to another. "Like if you rode it to the park, huh?"

Morris scrambles to the mike and warns that official judging will begin in five minutes; all preparations must be completed now. She praises the large turnout. "This is the best day of my life," she says as she comes down.

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Marc Ramirez