Longform

LOWRIDER, HIGH HOPES

From a bare frame, he created this bike.
In his mind, he saw it come together.
He looked to others for the freshest ideas.
Out of patience and skill came beauty.

But what, he wondered, does it take to win? The boy from the projects is scoping out his competition. He slurps a Coke and nibbles on peanut-butter crackers, browsing the crowded aisles behind a Glendale bicycle shop named Build-A-Bike. Customized bikes dot the rows on little plots divvied up as at a swap meet, gleaming jewels bathed in elaborate displays.

"There's a lot of pretty bikes here," James Cano says. He sits low to the ground, 15 years old, swaddled in baggy pants and a denim Dickies jacket. His mother and stepsisters fidget nearby, Sunday afternoon crisp but bright, clouds interrupting the January sunlight like passing trains. Event organizers couldn't be happier. No rain.

Check it out--there's gotta be a few hundred people here. And 64 sparkling bikes in the lot--last fall's lowrider show at Phoenix Civic Plaza drew only 24. The promoters circulated fliers, but they never imagined this. "This is the biggest lowrider bicycle show that Arizona has ever seen," Build-A-Bike co-owner Nancy Morris beams over the loudspeaker, her pulpit the bed of a red pickup truck.

From there, she looks over a world of little Michelangelos, sculptors straining to draw life from inanimate form. But there's a dash of Dr. Seuss thrown in. It's a world of candy paint jobs and Batman-style welding and pedals that barely elude the ground. The bikes are gold- and chrome-dipped proclamations of individual artistry, much of it homage to a vanguard cradled in Southern California. Which is where all of this began.

It was out of the kingdom of lowrider cars that it grew 20 years ago, the cry of young Chicanos in East Los Angeles who couldn't wait until they were of driving age to invest their rides with time and money and pride. But the modified Schwinn Sting-Rays, with their distinctive banana seats and sissy-bar struts, were often clumsy and heavy, and in the late Seventies, they abdicated popularity to the swifter BMX.

In the early Nineties, lowrider bicycles began spreading again like spores, and they have never been more popular, this time expanding beyond their Chicano roots. L.A. County-based Lowrider Bicycle magazine, itself an offspring of Lowrider magazine, debuted in late 1993 with 75,000 sold-out copies; now it features bikes from Hawaii, Iowa and Japan. The Schwinn Sting-Ray, which the Schwinn Bicycle Company stopped producing in 1983 amid dwindling sales, is still the choice frame, but the magazine has spawned its own line of replica frames and custom accessories to sponge off demand. You can get the basic Aztlan Cruiser with Baby Daytons (double-spoked wheels), for example, for $269.95.

But for the lowrider purist, that's painting by numbers. The real prize lies in creativity, in patient yard-sale searches for authentic parts and in hands-on work and initiative. On average, $300 goes into the making of a lowrider bike, and some of the wilder modifications, stereo systems and hydraulics and fish tanks, for heaven's sakes, all the things that nudge these contraptions closer to what they really long to be--customized cars--can run the tab into the thousands.

Clouds steal the sun again, and the afternoon turns chilly. James Cano volunteers his jacket to his mom, Frances, who shuffles nearby in a black Betty Boop tee shirt. James is a freshman at Apollo High, and tomorrow, he'll go back to school for the first time since he was booted out for a combination of excessive absences and fighting. Things fall apart, as they say. You can only be called "wetback" so many times.

James already has sunk several hundred dollars into "Wicked," a metallic-blue '66 Schwinn, all of it original parts, the frame purchased right here at Build-A-Bike. With the paint job, he got lucky--his uncle knew somebody, and it was that easy. And he has bigger dreams in store.

You have to see these things to believe them, to understand why most exist not for riding but for show. There's "Badness," a '72 Murray with a green cobra mural and gold dice dangling under the seat. Down the aisle, there's "Bloody Revenge," a red '77 Rampor three-wheeler so low it smooches the pavement, three gold mirrors riding down each handlebar.

And in the last row, the captivating "Black Widow," a black '74 Schwinn Sting-Ray with gold rims, black-velour seat, mini steering wheel between stretched handlebars, whitewall tires and the highlight, a weblike metal pattern welded into the frame, shining in kaleidoscopic burgundy. Drenched in angel hair, the Black Widow stands on a black sheet dotted with smoked-glass plates, its owner a shy kid in stylish denim.

A lot of parents use the hobby as incentive--keep up the grades, collect your allowance and get that accessory you've been waiting for. Others say it's a way to keep kids out of trouble and off the streets. Frances Cano herself says she's thankful for Build-A-Bike; she usually knows where to find her son. Kids learn patience and persistence and pride, and for a kid like James, it's more than even that, because no matter how good you are with your hands, there are things that slip out of your control, things like a bad temper or whether a family stays together, and at least a bike--well, sometimes that's about the most solid thing there can be.