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For James Cano, the show is a welcome distraction. Sometimes his attitude toward his bike doesn't carry over into school, and after he and his mom visited his ailing grandmother in Mexico last fall, he got into trouble for fighting with a classmate. He says the guy had taunted him about his ancestry. Both were suspended, but with the time James had already missed in Mexico, he had too many absences to finish the semester.

He's hoping, nervously, that his father will make it to the show; so many other dads are here, and his father's son by his new marriage had expressed some interest in getting into lowrider bikes, too.

Arizona has never seen more lowrider bikes in one place. Just the same, more formidable competition will appear in about six weeks, at the annual show in Mesa. A pudgy guy in a black tee shirt struts around harrumphingly, a member of Phoenix's Prestige car and bike club. He tells one of today's participants he's got a bike he's poured $2,000 into, but he's saving it for the big-name show in Mesa.

James is out of earshot when the big guy finds "Wicked" at the end of the third row of bikes. "See that little hole in the fender there?" Pudgy says to the other guy. "All those things, little things, in a big show, are points taken away. But a lot of judges don't know what they're looking for. Little show like this."

At 2 p.m., the clipboard-armed judges--Cliff Tyler of Build-A-Bike, one of Seductive Car Club's co-presidents and a guy who does gold dipping for the store--begin. A hydraulic carhop is staged out front to occupy the youngsters. Bikes are divided into categories to distinguish between, say, a fully customized bike like the Black Widow or an all-original-parts Schwinn like Wicked. The Seductive co-president is serene, expressionless, judging from a standing distance. Tyler's style is more intense, on his haunches, studied looks under lifted sunglasses.

The rumor was that Lowrider Bicycle magazine photographers would be here, but they turn out to be no-shows. So does James' dad.

When it is over, the Black Widow claims first prize in its division, and the Coca-Cola bike wins for best display. Wicked does not place at all.

Where did he go wrong? What more should he have done to the bike? From a bare frame, he built it, and obviously, something wasn't good enough. He saw it in his mind, he hunted down the right parts, he spent hours cleaning and fixing it--what happened? He studies the magazine like a Biblical scholar, and there was a bike, he remembers now, completely done up in chain; maybe that's what he'll do next, for the big show in March.

No--instead of all chain, it'll be half-and-half. He'll chop the handlebars where they bend, near the base and up at the handles, and just put chain in there. He'll have to find someone, maybe his father, to help out with the welding and the expense. And the pedals, too--same thing. Those will take a lot longer.

That's what I do, he says. I look at my competition. I get ideas. Sometimes I get real nervous. I wonder what I'm going to do with my bike, what's next.

"He stresses out," says Morris. "I'm trying to get him to chill out. He wants his bike to be perfect."

But now it's already March 1, two and a half weeks until the Mesa show, and James is running out of time. While other guys are signing up for last-minute gold plating, James' father, who works double shifts, hasn't returned his calls. Sometimes James wonders whether his messages are being delivered at all. (New Times couldn't reach him, either.)

People are backing out on him. Like his uncle--he said he would help with the paint job. Maybe someone will sponsor him, an auto-body shop or something, in trade for free advertisement at the show. He'll wear a cap, put a business card on the bike, whatever.

It's hard for his mom, he says. She has to feed four kids and the dogs and all that. He tells her not to worry about it, he'll find a way to do it on his own. He's almost there. He just needs a few more things.

He walks his bicycle over to Build-A-Bike and tells Morris his forks, which he bought used, are a little out of alignment.

He's already added stuff to the bike since the January show--new wing nuts, shiny tail pipes, a pair of custom mirrors he made himself--but he's sure those out-of-whack forks will spell doom with the judges. It's getting to the point where he's going to have to pawn some of his video games to pay for all the work this bike needs.

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Marc Ramirez