Lowrider bicycles remain an Austin obsession
Spotlight shines on fantastical machines
By Jeremy Schwartz
Monday, December 26, 2005
Terry Rocha's latest creation began life as a demure Schwinn Sting-Ray in 1963 before being mothballed in the backyard of an elderly neighbor. Recently though, the bicycle entered its latest incarnation as "Dub Life."
The bike's handlebars twist upward in ribbons of chrome-dipped steel, gold-plated pedals extend from a sunburst orange frame and mock tailpipes (made from fencing from his mother's house) that give off a silvery glare. Red tractor-trailer emergency lights, bought at a truck stop and rigged to a watch battery, flash from the bike's frame. And the crowning touch — a distinctive banana seat — is made of puckered black ostrich skin.
Rocha has spent $1,400 and nine months creating the bicycle with the help of his 15-year-old nephew, Ray Manchaca, whom Rocha is building it for. "I want him to grow up like I did," the 29-year-old Austin native and member of the Majic Car Club, said. "To be different, to be unique and to be as custom as possible."
Custom is the name of the game in the quickly expanding world of lowrider bicycles, whose most extreme versions look like they could have flown out of a Salvador Dalí painting.
While lowrider bicycles have been known to take up occasional residence in art galleries, they are most at home in lowrider shows and contests, where, Austin lowrider enthusiasts say, they are quickly gaining on the more traditional lowrider cars in popularity. Fueled by a thriving Internet industry in custom parts, lowrider bicycles are becoming more accessible to the masses.
"Bikes, as far as the metal work goes, if you can dream it you can do it," said Montopolis resident Alex Vargas, president of the Knights of Pleasure Car Club.
Lowrider bicycles can be customized to look like dragons or movie monsters and some even come equipped with stereos, TV screens and hydraulic pumps to bounce like lowrider cars. A number of local lowrider bicycles will be on display Jan. 14 at the second Annual Youth Endowment Fund Car Show, sponsored by the Austin Travis County Advocate Program, a private, nonprofit mentoring program for at-risk juveniles.
Far cheaper and easier to transport than lowrider cars, lowrider bicycles are often owned by kids and passed down through the generations.
"If a dad or mom has a lowrider, their kids usually get into it with the bikes," Vargas said. "Parents see it as a way to keep kids away from drugs or gangs, to keep them occupied. . .They're a way for the younger generation, the kids, to express themselves."
Vargas's 11-year-old son Manuel has won awards with his lowrider bicycle, "Aztec Pride," which features a detailed mural of pyramids and warriors on its frame. When presented in all its glory at lowrider shows, it sits atop a replica pyramid adorned with artifacts like Aztec calendars. At shows, the displays for lowrider bicycles can be as elaborate as the machines themselves.
Rocky Castro, also a Knights of Pleasure member, passed his Spider-Man-themed bicycle down to his 5-year-old son Rocky Jr. Like a lot of lowriders, Castro's bike has been torn down and rebuilt several times over the last 10 years, assuming several new identities.
"We just try to be different every year," Castro said. "It keeps my son happy and that's the main thing. . . . He loves taking it to the shows."
Castro said that with the rise of the Internet, lowrider bicycling is going more mainstream. When he began customizing bicycles a decade ago, Castro said he had to find a welder or machinist to give birth to his ideas. Today, dozens of Internet parts companies supply nearly every accessory imaginable, including spinning rims and crushed velvet seats.
At least one Austin shop sells lowrider parts as well as completed lowrider bicycles. Rene Martinez opened his East Cesar Chavez Street business as a Mexican import shop before moving into lowriders about six months ago at the suggestion of his nephew.
Perhaps owing to the do-it-yourself ethos of the lowrider movement, Martinez said that the sales of parts far outpaces sales of entire bicycles, which sell for $230 to $1,300 at Rene's Imports Bicycle Shop.
"They have their own bikes and want to soup them up," said Martinez, who has also made a name for himself by building bikes with handlebars replaced with polished sets of longhorns. "The twisted stuff is real popular right now."
Tsunami Cycles in South Austin also sells lowrider-inspired bicycles. But unlike most lowriders, their cruisers, reminiscent of motorcycle choppers with exaggerated handlebars and six-foot chains, are meant to be ridden.
Whatever form lowriders take, the people who love them say they are driven by a need to be different, to stand out.
"You can only do so much on a car," said Rocha, standing over "Dub Life" and mulling some modifications. "You can go all out on a bike. The sky's the limit."
If you go
What: Youth Endowment Fund Car Show
Where: H & H Ballroom, 4402 Brandt Road
When: Jan. 14, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tickets: $4 for adults; $2 for children 12 and younger
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