Pleasure Cruise

Categories: Bike

With their beach-town cred and funky vibe, cruiser bikes are suddenly hip again–and no place more than in Santa Cruz

By Rebecca Patt

YOU’VE SEEN the new ones lined up like jewels in front of the bike shops–cruiser bikes with gleaming paint jobs that make you want to drool: cherry red, lip-smacking purple, lemony yellow, creamy apricot, dreamy blue, licorice black. And then there are the old rusty ones with a charm all their own, hitched to railings and stowed in garages all over town.

In our rushed, tense world, the cruiser bike stands as a rare, shining icon of playfulness, laid-back whimsy and a nostalgic throwback to a simpler time–a toy for children and grown-ups. They are not machines built for aggro cycling over miles of high-impact trails. They are things of beauty.

Of course there’s a time and a place for shredding down the side of a mountain on a precision machine, for being goal-oriented and utilitarian. And you have to give props to the serious mountain and road bikers, as you would to any group with enough cajones to wear skin-tight Lycra in public.

But goddammit, some of us just want to throw spandex to the wind, slide into our flip-flops, hop onto our padded (and possibly sheepskin-covered) seat and cruise.

And in Santa Cruz–a bicyclist’s paradise replete with world-class biking trails, bike-friendly streets and lots of flat places to ride by the beach–cruisers are among the primary forms of transportation. Santa Cruz is one of the three biggest cruiser-bike hot spots in the world, along with Huntington Beach and San Diego, according to Jeano Erforth, president of Electra Bicycle Co.

Sexy Curves

With the design that gave bicycling to the children of America and became the precursor to the mountain bike, the cruiser’s magic is contained in the sum of its time-honored, simple ingredients: a curvaceous frame, swooping handlebars, fat tires and a saddle that makes you feel as if you’re riding a couch.

Cruiser bikes just come with the territory in Santa Cruz, a place already built around leisure and colorfulness, where even some of the speed-limit signs on the east side say “Chill Out.” They are the beach-dwelling, gatherer kin of the hunter bikes that prowl the mountains and roads.

A longtime staple of bicycle culture in seaside towns, the cruiser is now making a resurgence in popularity as a new wave of colors and styles has hit the market in the last few years.

“We sold twice as many this year than last year, even though we were selling a lot last year, and it continues to grow,” says Mark Michel, owner of the Bicycle Trip on Soquel Avenue.

Yup, that’s right, cruiser bikes have become hip again, partly as a backlash against the bicycle industry’s totalitarian tech obsession and partly because of their unique style, comfort, retro-nostalgia factor and affordability. The average new cruiser runs about $250, about half the price of an inexpensive new mountain bike.

In the last few years, a fresh crop of cruiser bike companies–including Electra, Phat, Sun and Torker–have appeared to claim their share of business in the independent bike shops. They are moving in to fill the void left by bike monolith Schwinn due to its bankruptcy in 2001 and by the buyout of Pacific Bicycle Company, which has brought its cruiser bike production down to a trickle. The new companies have ushered in a boom in cruiser-bike aesthetics and design, with many more options than previously available. Custom cruiser bikes are now in vogue, with people upgrading their cruiser bikes into showpieces that are extensions of their personalityies.

Bike to Basics

Cruiser bikes represent a whole different form of consciousness from that of other bikes–and not only because of their curvy frames. Riding a cruiser bike is about enjoying the moment, being in the flow, being cushy and comforted–and embracing a simpler form of transportation.

“It’s just classic soul,” explains Eric Down, owner of Bicycle Shop Santa Cruz on Mission Street.

And more than any other kind of bike, cruiser bikes are the people’s bike. People ride them while toting their surfboards under one arm, gripping cups of coffee or dog leashes in one hand or balancing a friend or a skateboard across the wide handlebars. They are commonly seen as the mode of transportation favored by packs of teenage girls. Seniors like them because of their stability and the comfort of their upright riding position.

Cruiser bikes are so steady that they can even hold themselves up while not moving, because they come with that delightful but neglected part of bike anatomy, the kickstand.

But today’s bikes ain’t your father’s cruiser. Many contemporary cruiser bikes are made of lightweight aluminum and average about 30 pounds. Some borrow from the modern components of the mountain bike with features like multispeeds, internal hubs and hand brakes. The designs have also become edgier, with cruisers resembling tricked-out hot rods and custom cars.

“It is more fun than a lot of other parts of the bike industry because you can play with ideas. You are creating something people like, and they fall in love with it,” says Erforth. “Being faster and lighter is not the issue with cruisers.”

Before cruisers first emerged in the 1930s, bikes were lanky contraptions with narrow tires. But during the Depression, after Arnold Schwinn & Co. phased out its motorcycles, bicycle design began to evolve significantly.

Schwinn put its motorcycle engineers to work in its bike department. The designers, perhaps coveting their former jobs, created bikes heavily influenced by motorcycle styling. The 1933 Schwinn Excelsior Motorbike B-10E was the model that transformed the bicycle market.

The B-10E had curvy lines, a lower center of gravity and wide balloon tires imported from Germany that used the same inner tubes as the hard-driving motorcycles of the era, about 2 inches shorter in diameter and half an inch wider than the standard at the time. This simple change in tire style made the bike practical, durable and comfortable for children.

When Cruisers Ruled

Cruiser design reached its apex in bikes like the 1941 Special Streamline Motobike built by Columbia, which sported whitewall balloon tires, long chrome fenders, a faux gas tank, a speedometer/clock combo mounted on the longhorn handlebar and a chain guard reminiscent of a racing locomotive. Mechanically simple cruisers like the Streamline were slow and heavy, often weighing more than 50 pounds, but they affirmed that style, not performance, was what Americans craved in their bikes.

In the ’40s, cruiser bikes resembled cars, motorcycles and trains; in the ’50s, they looked like rocket ships. The average cruiser bike during the ’40s and ’50s cost between $39 and $69.

Cruiser bikes reigned as the country’s dominant bicycle until the 1960s, when the cruiser began to lose some of it flair compared to the thin-tired, lightweight racing bikes that were being introduced at the time. By the time the 10-speed craze hit in the 1970s, many of the older models had been committed to the junkyard. People saw them as throwaway bikes, sometimes literally hurling them off the sides of cliffs just for sport.

According to the prevailing creation myth of mountain biking, it was these clunker cruiser bikes with their coaster brakes, single gear, upright handle bars and fat tires that were reborn as the first primitive mountain bikes. In 1973, a posse of road racers and bike fanatics living near Mount Tamalpais began salvaging the old bikes from junk heaps and curio shops and making excursions on them down Mount Tam. The coaster brakes would smoke on the way down, requiring constant repacking with grease. This greasy group of gearheads and their old cruisers forged the path to a new sport, mountain biking, that redefined the world’s idea of a bicycle and gave way to the BMX fad of the 1980s.

While today’s flashy new cruisers are within relatively easy budgetary reach, it’s also pretty easy to scrounge up a broken-in, secondhand cruiser at local garage sales, the flea market, recycled bike shops or maybe even resting forgotten somewhere in your own backyard or garage.

In keeping with the cruiser bike’s casual vibe, the scene in Santa Cruz is low-key in that cruiser bike owners don’t have any type of club or formal gathering, although Erforth says cities including Tucson, Austin and Chico have organized events for cruiser bike rides. But in any case, the truly devoted will tell you that having a cruiser is like being a member of a club that anyone can belong to, one with no meetings, dues or annual conventions.

The old-school, single-speed cruisers do inspire a cavalier subculture of their own. According to local legend, during the Gulf War, while George Sr. was in office, a group of Santa Cruzans traveled to San Francisco together for a protest. They rode their bikes because they felt it would have been hypocritical to drive, and a group of hippies all showed up on single-speed cruisers with coaster brakes and rode barefoot the entire way to the city.

Old cruiser bikes are also the prevailing form of transportation for getting around Burning Man, the ultimate communion of free-spirited performance artists that happens every summer in the Nevada desert. There, cruisers can be seen moving en masse across the salt flats during Burning Man regular events such as Critical Tits, a spinoff of Critical Mass that probably needs no further explanation.

The Generation Gap

Some purists argue that modern cruiser bikes are not of the quality they used to have during their golden era, when they were all manufactured in America. Starting in the 1960s, bicycle companies began moving their manufacturing overseas to Japan. Today, virtually every single one of these American icons is produced in Taiwan, China or Korea, and almost all cruiser bike hubs are manufactured by a single company, Japan-based Shimano.

“It’s incredible what’s gone on in the last 30 to 40 years,” laments “Bicycle Bill” Reid, Santa Cruz’s own leather-jacket-and-gold-lamé-wearing, chain-smoking bicycle Bodhisattva, who resembles an exotic racing jockey but is actually a longtime mechanic at one of Santa Cruz’s best sources for antique bikes, Armadillo Cyclery on Mission Street.

According to Reid, the new aluminum cruiser bikes may be lighter, but they don’t have the longevity of the classic ones that were produced during the days when Arnold Schwinn stamped his initials on every single hard steel part.

“The quality was fantastic compared to today,” he says. “Today, the machining is much better, but the materials are worse.”

Reid says that in the last few years he’s seen a skyrocketing demand for classic cruiser bikes, which can be found on eBay selling for thousands of dollars–not only Schwinn but also brands like Rollfast, Iverson and Huffy. Down on the Santa Cruz Wharf at the Santa Cruz Bay Company store, a two-tone red and white 1947 Schwinn Deluxe Hornet is on sale for $4,000. Cruiser parts are also in demand, and they’re hard to find simply because they’re not made anymore.

“We’re running out of the doggone things,” he says.

But modern technology does have its advantages, including helping the cruiser bike proliferate into previously hard-to-access terrain. Nowadays, one can even have an electronic cruiser bike, which could invariably transform a gut-wrenching ride up to UCSC into a cruise. Electric Sierra Cycles on Pacific Avenue sells them for $310 after the $500 rebate offered by the county for buying e-bikes.

But while plenty of things have changed, the essence of cruiser bikes remains the same: a reminder that life is a journey and not a destination. What matters most is enjoying the ride … and looking cool while doing it.