Sactown cruiser culture

Free Wheelin’: In midtown Sacramento, bicycles are more than transportation – they’re a cultural identity statement
The Sacramento Bee, August 21, 2003


Cruising on a bike down tree-sheltered streets, it’s easy to forget the superheated highways and be transported back to a simpler time, when bikes were a common form of transportation.

And what better place to ride than the streets of midtown, with its close proximity to shops, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and outdoor activities?

“Midtown is human scale,” says Michael Neff, 51, a state employee. “I can get from point A to B as fast on a bike as I can in a car.”

Certainly, if you walk or drive down any street in the area known to midtown residents as “the Grid” – the midtown and downtown areas girded by the Capital City Freeway to the south and east, Interstate 5 to the west and the American River levee to the north – you’ll see an emerging, bike-based culture. One that isn’t just about convenience. Or about an efficient commuter bike lane, a sensible helmet and waterproof panniers.

Instead, the bikes favored by the members of this growing scene are stretched – built longer and lower to look like a lowrider car – or chopped, like a Harley-Davidson with an extended front wheel. Or something even more bizarre.

A midtown culture that was quick to embrace tattoos, piercings and vintage clothing now is taking to bikes and their possibilities for personal expression. And many bikers are in a particularly creative frenzy this week, as Nevada’s countercultural arts festival, Burning Man, nears its opening on Monday.

Tim White, 32, a local painter, musician and vintage-bike enthusiast who lives in the Grid, says of the midtown bike scene: “There’s a ‘Wow, look at me!’ element to it. There’s a desire to be unusual. People don’t want to be homogenized; they don’t want the same store-bought bikes that other people have.”

The scene grew out of the ’80s vogue for vintage bikes, when hobbyists such as White used to pick up old cruisers for a song and refurbish them, he says. However, those bikes are not as much in evidence these days.

What’s come in their wake are outlandish bikes cobbled together out of spare parts found in trash bins and at garage sales, welded together with an eye for the exotic and funky, or sleek and sometimes very expensive bikes built by local entrepreneurs.

Brad Gleed, 37, was a bike messenger for 10 years and a member of a group of bike nuts called the Hooligans. He’s watched the Grid’s bike culture grow over the years and divides it into several overlapping groups.

“It’s pretty diverse,” he says. “You have the commuter crowd, then you have the roadie crowd (riding thin-tire road bikes), then you have the bike messengers, and now you have the emergence of this chopper-bike scene, (that is) more art-based, which is kinda cool.

“It sort of sprang from Burning Man,” he adds. “I’ve never been, but a lot of people started building crazy bikes to take up there.”

One bike-maker who came back from Burning Man with new ideas is Hollis Hoisington, 45, who works in a steel shop making tractor-trailers in Woodland by day and spends his weekends creating outlandish bikes.

“I saw all the weirdness, and I thrive on weirdness,” he says of his 2000 sojourn at Burning Man. “All of our artists seem to live in the midtown area – that’s what drew me here – so I’m surrounded by weird people, and I fit right in.”

Hoisington’s bikes redefine “weird.” They include a double-decker bike with complex gearing that he has offered – reluctantly – for sale at a whopping $3,500. It’s a beautifully crafted vehicle, but certainly no commuter bike. In fact, he says, the police have told him that he can’t ride it downtown because the rider sits so high he can’t easily stop. But, Hoisington says, he made it purely for the love of it.

Other amateur bike-makers are going pro: John Lucas opened his midtown shop, Boss Bikes, three months ago, and expresses his credo in an offhand “different bikes for different folks.” (See Lucas’ creations at www.bossbikes.com.)

While Hoisington has gone for the extravagant, Lucas has begun turning out bikes that, while creatively made, are a bit more practical.

“I have an old Indian motorcycle – that’s what I modeled the bikes after,” Lucas says. “The stretched bikes – you can sit on the seat at a stoplight, like a Harley; you can stop and talk. It’s really relaxing.”

Scott Duncan, 34, and Carrie Levin, 23, agree. They both own stretched bikes, and they love them.

“They turn a lot of heads, and they’re just stock Dyno bikes,” Duncan says. “My friend Rick is going to fix mine up for my birthday – put 144 spokes on it – it’s going to look awesome.”

Adds Levin: “I have never had as much attention on a bike as I get on this one. People call out, ‘Beautiful bike!,’ and little kids really really like ’em.”

And, she says, although many cruisers are guys – some of whom form their own gangs, like Duncan’s Jagged Daggers – women have a good time with it, too.

“There are a lot of girls who like to get together, cruise around,” she says. “Girls have their crews, too.”

What Duncan and Levin like best, they say, is to cruise around together, visiting bars, friends and the Friday night concerts at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

“We were pretty much the first couple with stretched bikes cruising around,” Levin says. “We’ll cruise around midtown holding hands. And now we see other couples cruising around on bikes like ours. It’s romantic.”

The romance of bikes is something Vincent Sterne, 46, understands.

“There’s something romantic about riding a vintage bike that’s been on the planet longer than the person riding it,” he says. “I love to ride my bike down the street and have someone notice my shiny tank, or my big, fat balloon tires.”

Of course, there are downsides to this funky scene.

With the growth of night life in the Grid, traffic has become a greater danger, and safety is always an issue.

Police are seeing more conflicts between bicyclists and drivers, says Derek Stigerts, a bike cop with the Sacramento Police Department.

“The main problem we have is that most bike riders don’t know they are supposed to follow the rules of the road,” he says. “They ride against traffic, or they ride on the sidewalks. They go through red lights and stop signs. And the worst is when they ride against traffic on the sidewalk.”

But, he is quick to add, he will occasionally ride on the sidewalk himself because “it feels safer.”

“We have drivers downtown who don’t recognize the rights of bikers,” he says. “I almost get hit by a car every other day. You get cars passing you and then turning right in front of you, without signaling. A lot of the vehicles don’t concern themselves with bikes, so the problems go both ways.

“They don’t respect each other.”

Another common problem is bike theft. Stigerts says that he never leaves his bike without locking it up – sometimes using his handcuffs.

“Just today, I had two guys come up to me and tell me their bikes were stolen,” he says. “There are bolt cutters thieves can carry in a backpack. It’s ‘snip’ and it’s gone.”

So, perhaps the Grid isn’t exactly paradise for bikers. But in general, life on two wheels is remarkably pleasant.

As Sterne says: “You’re not racing. You’re cruising.”