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RAD RIDE : California's Beach Crowd Leads Bikes Back to the Future

July 20, 1986|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

Bryce Mirtle owns a goofy-looking bike. It has thick balloon tires and a seat as wide as a watermelon.

Bryce, however, won't go anywhere without his rusty clunker. The 16-year-old Huntington Beach student pedals it to school every day. But his favorite spot to take it is to the beach, where Bryce rides his so-called beach cruiser each morning to surfing class. "I wouldn't be caught dead on a 10-speed bicycle," he said. "No way."

He--and his surfing buddies--will be seen cycling only on these back-to-basics bicycles that industry executives say are already changing the face of the industry.

Even the newest breeds of high-tech bicycles--with 15 gears and price tags that can exceed $1,000--look remarkably like these low-budget beach cruisers, with wider seats and fatter frames.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 22, 1986 Orange County Edition Business Part 4 Page 2 Column 3 Financial Desk 1 inches; 17 words Type of Material: Correction
Steve Pezman is publisher of Surfer Magazine. An article in Sunday's editions of The Times incorrectly identified him.

The rise in popularity of cruisers--both new and used--comes when total bicycle industry sales rose only marginally last year and are expected to be flat this year.

Nationwide, sales of cruisers were up 60% in the first five months of 1986, compared to the same period last year, reports the Bicycle Manufacturers Assn. Sales of these bicycles surpassed 500,000 last year, compared to less than 200,000 five years ago.

In an industry that sells about 11 million units annually, that still represents a very small niche, "but the very healthy increase in cruiser sales cannot be ignored," said Michael Kershow, a spokesman for the association.

The beach cruisers are actually reverse status symbols. Much as with the popularity of pants with patches in the 1960s, it is suddenly hip to own a scruffy-looking, one-speed bike. Their origins have been closely traced to the Southland's sun 'n' surfing set. And with summer's arrival, the beach cruisers are becoming standard beach equipment, on a par with the Walkman radio and tanning mousse of recent summers.

In fact, the cruiser bikes, a throwback to their tank-like forerunners of the 1950s, have given Volkswagen Beetles the heave-ho and emerged as the newest transportation status symbol of the California surfer.

And, industry executives say, what is popular with the West Coast surfers will likely be the craze of the rest of the nation within a year or two.

Some regions are catching on already.

In Colorado, they're tabbed "dork bikes"--a reaction to their silly looks. Back East, they're sometimes known as "campus cruisers," as even the college crowd has taken a liking to them. In the Midwest, some call them "beater bikes," because they can withstand everyday obstacles such as curbs and potholes.

In California, the bikes are appropriately called beach cruisers, because beach-goers can pedal these no-nonsense bicycles over rocks, glass and sand.

"It's a return to the old Schwinn clunkers," said James McCullah, editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine.

Beach cruisers are leaving a particularly strong impression on the teen crowd. A collector's version of the bike was a veritable co-star in the recent Warner Bros. motion picture "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure," which featured comic Pee-Wee Herman as a boy in search of his lost bicycle.

The key market for cruiser bikes is Southern California. "It's the perfect scouting vehicle," said Steve Pezman, editor of Surfing magazine. "When you're on it, you can scout the surf, scout the sand and scout the girls."

Since Target Stores began selling the bike in Southern California three years ago, sales have doubled every year. Target now sells 25,000 annually. And at National Lumber, nearly 70% of the bicycles sold at its 19 Southland stores are cruisers.

"Sometimes I wonder where all the bikes are going," said Stefen Krieger, bike buyer for Target Stores. "Every year, sales keep growing." He expects sales to rocket this year, now that Target has introduced what he calls "Miami Vice" colors for cruisers, such as pink and aqua.

"Cruisers account for the largest percentage of the bike business in Southern California," said Sam Leute, senior buyer at National Lumber, which sells "many thousands" of them annually.

Used as Loss-Leaders

So popular are these bikes that many retailers are using them as loss leaders, selling the $79-to-$150 bikes at a loss in order to attract customers into the store.

The new popularity hasn't gone unnoticed with bicycle manufacturers, either.

Huffy Corp., the Miamisburg, Ohio, company that sells 3 million bikes annually, has seen cruiser sales rise to 10% of volume, compared to about 2% of sales 10 years ago, said a company spokesman. And Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co. said its annual sales of cruisers doubled to nearly 100,000 over the past year.

The biggest market is tan-faced, surfboard-toting teen-age boys who like to stand out from the crowd. "We can't seem to make the bikes bright enough," said James M. Barr, executive vice president at Huffy.

A few Asian manufacturers also have caught on to the American fad, and are just beginning to export to the United States low-priced cruisers that sell for about $10 less than American-made models.

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