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Banana seats and sissy bars

The beach cruiser was born here, and now it's back as bike companies catch up with L.A.'s vintage enthusiasts. Sure you get from Point A to Point B, but it's really about enjoying the ride.

September 23, 2004|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

Looking as if she stepped out of a 1950s California beach party movie, Jennifer Gallagher pushes her sparkling green, balloon-tire bicycle through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. Heads turn, eager to glimpse a bit of pop culture that seemed lost: Gallagher's mint-condition, Deluxe 7 Schwinn with a snazzy two-tone paint job on the fenders, chain guard and "gas tank." The bike just looks like a carefree spin on a sunny day -- a feeling you don't getting looking at today's stripped-down, ultra-light bikes.

Beautiful retro bicycles like these have become the latest vintage object of desire in Los Angeles. Hang out by the beach and watch buff guys roll by on high-handlebar choppers decked out with flames, or young women glide past on decorative cruisers. Go for a run at the Rose Bowl and look for the collectors who gently ride their rare old bikes. Next week, vintage collectors will gather in Pasadena at the Velo Rendezvous to ride and revere the builders of their elegant marvels of engineering.

But you don't have to become a bike geek to get the feeling. These days, you can roll a faithful reproduction right off the bike shop floor. In fact, many of the hottest 2005 models trace their lineage directly to Southern California's vintage hot rods, motorcycle choppers and customized bike culture. They'll be introduced next week at the International Bicycle Expo in Las Vegas, the world's largest trade event.

And most of these new-old bikes are still designed by Southern California independents who are pushing the limits of innovation. Electra Bicycle Co. of Carlsbad is introducing cruisers that are carefully aged to look as if they've spent the last 25 years on a Venice Beach porch. A new player out of Long Beach, Shizzle, is bringing bling-bling to bikes with a blinding chrome stretch cruiser and a new dazzling pink model. Nirve Sports, a Fountain Valley outfit, is known for cruisers with hip flourishes including leopard saddles and Pink Panther graphics. Phat Cycles of Huntington Beach is making some of the lowest, most exaggerated choppers to hit the sidewalk.

Whether you're riding a remake or an original, there's something rewarding about chasing down a bike you may have ridden as a kid -- or wished that you had. In motion, the bicycles connect with buried memories of youthful freedom and vigor. The look can be copied, but often the sound cannot -- the click of the kickstand snapping into place, the clank of rocks hitting fenders and the whir of wide tires rolling across the pavement.

Even on a reproduction, riders can be confident that they're part of something that the major bicycle makers are just beginning to understand: Cool-looking bikes are great for short rides, such as trips to the coffee shop. Clearly, this trend is about style over speed.

"I have comments on my bike every time I ride it," Gallagher says of her green Schwinn, one of eight retro cruisers that she shares with her boyfriend, artist Tom Everhart. They ride for transportation, exercise and, always, fun. Aided by built-in lights and the slow-going safety of a cruiser, Gallagher and her bike-riding buddies have embarked on a new diversion, night rides. Riding is simply easier on an upright cruiser.

Visibility of a different kind keeps customers swarming into shops like Helen's Cycles in Santa Monica. General manager Jay Wolff says customers for the cool cruisers include moms, pops and a stream of young women who swoon over bikes with pink paint jobs, floral fenders, sissy bars and whimsical details.

"They go down the boardwalk just drawing all kinds of attention," says Wolff. "That's their mission."

Even at bicycle shops far from the sand, the tricked-out beach cruisers attract friendly waves from drivers and comments from impressed bystanders. Wherever Nick Didovic takes one of his Shizzle bikes, a full-chrome, 7-foot-5 stretch cruiser, heads turn and grown men are unable to resist its infectious appeal.

"These don't require any physical fitness," says Didovic, a veteran skateboarder. "You just get on and go." When Didovic first laid envious eyes on the dazzling stretch cruisers near his Long Beach home, he was ready to buy one -- until he discovered that most were custom bikes that cost $2,000 to $5,000. He gave up an international, high-tech career in business development to build the low-tech Shizzles.

The collective itch for a carefree spin was scratched in April when Schwinn reintroduced the Sting-Ray -- updated for today's kids. Bearing little resemblance to the cruiser-inflected styling of the 1963 original (which was modeled on California custom bikes), the new Sting-Ray looks like a mini chopper motorcycle, minus the engine.

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