Cruiser Culture: Two Wheels With Style

Bikes become fashion statements in the hands of some owners



Boise is bike-heavy. Wandering downtown or in the North End, you can't help but notice: This city likes its bikes. But Boise's is a different sort of love affair than other bike-friendly American cities. In New York there are tons of bikes. Messenger bikes weave through snarled traffic like greased pigs. Delivery boys on beat-up town bikes wrapped in chains carry pizzas all over town and blend into the bustle. But in Boise, bicycles serve more abstract purposes. Our bikes are self-consciously styled.

"Two different people on two different cruisers who didn't know each other pull up next to each other and talk about their bikes," said Jonny Fuego, owner of C&C Bikes and one of Boise's premier custom cruiser builders. "I sit and listen to them in Hyde Park. It's almost a status symbol in the North End."

The hip among us don't often stop their stylish ways at bikes.

"Boise's North End older homes--people take care of them," Fuego said. "They don't just slap 'em up. They were built with pride and have a certain heritage about them. People won't tear them down but will remodel them with fresh new colors and fresh new style. It's the same way with their bikes. I make people cruisers, in some cases, based on their house. They have a blue house, they want a blue bike."

For most of the world, a bicycle is a utilitarian device. And they have been that way more or less from their inception. You've got your frame, your wheels and your handlebars. And once somebody added foot pedals to the Flintstone-ish prototypes 200 years ago, little else has changed all that much.

The humble bicycle did evolve, but the innovations and remodels of the past two centuries were made mostly for increased functionality. In rainy London, fenders were introduced to keep the businessman's cuffs dry. Lighter frames and ergonomic seats helped speed the racer along the velodrome at ever higher speeds. More recently, nubby tires and springy suspensions guide our mountain bikes over nature's sticks and stones. But sometime in the early 20th century, some crafty American designers looked disapprovingly at a standard-issue bicycle and said, "This thing needs some style." Enter the cruiser.

The cruiser bike was the product of a comfortable and creative society. Getting from Point A to Point B was fine for the rest of the world, but pre-war American designers saw an opportunity for something better. As early as 1916, the Hendee Indian featured a flared fender skirt and a faux-gas tank, giving an otherwise workmanlike bike a touch of the motorcycle's cachet. By the time the 1938 Schwinn Cantilevered Autocycle came around, bike designers were in full Art Deco thrall. These were objects of sublime design, coveted, cherished and marketed to enthusiastic customers. And then they went away.

With the advent of the mass-produced automobile and the suburban car culture of the 1950s, elegant riding bicycles became little more than curios and collector items for nostalgic connoisseurs. For 30 years or more, cycling was a fragmented pastime. The average American adult looking to buy a bike in the mid-'80s better have had a specific reason. BMX bikes were for dirt-biking tricksters, road bikes for fitness junkies and Schwinn Sting-Rays for neighborhood kids. As the highways and connectors brought our expansive country closer together, the most basic tool for simply getting people around town ironically vanished.

Today, things are different. It took us awhile to get here, and while America's car culture isn't about to be overtaken by mad-cycling hordes, cyclophiles can be pretty stoked about the 21st century's bike resurrection. In 2000, the recreational cruiser was on its way back in mountain and beach towns from Idaho to Florida. Now, a decade later, bike commuting is a practical and productive practice for just about anyone looking to save gas money, cut carbon emissions and get healthy.

Pleasant bike commutes on tree-lined streets are a luxury that Boiseans take for granted. Starting the day with that wind-in-your-hair, body-working experience is good for you in ways that the average American's work commute can't compare.

In 2004, two Swiss economists published a study to prove it. Alois Stutzer and Bruno Frey explored why commuting is one of the most soul-crushing activities known to mankind and why so many people do it anyway. How do so many people decide on something so obviously detrimental to their happiness and well-being? They called it "The Commuting Paradox," and showed that people will accept a longer commute if it's counterbalanced by a higher salary or a bigger home. In the end, the bargain is false; the house always wins.

As greater Boise spreads westward, like ants colonizing a picnic, work commutes upward of an hour are no longer unusual. The debate over how to manage sprawling growth and plans (or the lack thereof) for a commuter rail system will likely be politicized to no one's benefit (except the politicians). But for those lucky enough to live within biking distance from the office, there's never been a better time to celebrate the choices that led them there. Modern lives are complicated and harried. The cruiser bike wants to make a deal: get out of your car, get on the saddle and rediscover the free-rolling freedom of a simple bike ride.

Michael Ames is the co-author of the book Cruisers.

To read more about bike touring, click here.

To read more about how to tour on a bike, click here.

To read more about what's going on in Boise's bike world, click here.

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