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SoCal Hot Rod Pedaling

Fancy Fixies and Custom Coaches


Most Pedal On columns are easy to write — this one not so much. Two pieces of news changed the ending of this column. One, a joyous beginning, will be a surprise. The second, the death of Ralph Fertig, the founder of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition and supporter of Bici Centro, sadly ended the life of a man who for years spoke quietly but passionately for cyclist of all ages. I’ll be thinking about Ralph as I pass through our Bici Centro bike shop.

Most days, I’m amazed at how cyclists express their unique individuality by customizing their bikes. I’ve seen tall bikes, swivel bikes, multiple tandems, homemade cargo bikes, and Matt Dobberteen’s incredible passenger coach complete with twinkle lights and comfy red velvet seats!

Travel in style on Matt Dobberteen’s homemade bike trailer.
Click to enlarge photo

Howard Booth

Travel in style on Matt Dobberteen’s homemade bike trailer.

Some cyclists are on a budget and solve mechanical problems with whatever materials they have on hand. There creativity is often in the best tradition of the backyard tinkerer who doesn’t realize that it shouldn’t work … so it does.

Here’s an example I recently saw at the Ralph’s on Carrillo. We’ve all had problems with a saddle that over time is getting worn and falling apart. I don’t know about you, but usually I go out and buy a new or used one. Not this bike mechanic. Why buy an expensive saddle when you have lots of less expensive blue painters tape?

The bike seat fix with blue painters tape
Click to enlarge photo

Howard Booth

The bike seat fix with blue painters tape

Everyone at Bici Centro knows I’m not the best mechanic in Santa Barbara. In fact, I’m a lot closer to being Mr. Rogers and Bob Trow trying to put some air in a beautiful old yellow tandem’s front tire. The introduction to the video clip quotes Fred as saying “Someone once asked Thomas Edison if he was disappointed after trying 382 different ways to make a light bulb. He answered that he wasn’t. He was glad that he now knew 382 ways not to try.”

Great mechanics like Bici’s Shawn van Biela or Cranky’s Jim Cadenhead would not only pump up that bike tire in a jiffy but they’d also probably think of dozens of better ways to do it. If they had enough time they’d probably even turn Mr. Roger’s tandem into a bike-jet. These mechanics are truly expressing their creativity and individualism through building or modifying a stock bike, and customizing bicycles is a branch of Southern California’s long history of custom automotive hot rodders.

Modifying stock cars into hot rods started in the Los Angeles area in the late 1930s. Drivers would take their homebuilt hot rods out to the vast dry lakebeds northeast of Los Angeles and race against each other. The first hot rods were most often Model T Fords with convertible tops, hood, bumpers, windshields, and fenders removed to save weight. Early hot rodders would spend hours modifying the engine to increase speed and removing parts to save weight. Only later did they begin to finish their hot rods with elaborate custom paint jobs, chrome plating, and pinstriping. By the ‘60s some hot rod builders were creating works of art that traveled to custom car shows instead of leaving rubber on the drag strip.

There are cyclists who ride stripped-down fixie bikes without brakes, front and rear derailleurs, fenders, or a freewheel. These bikes are light, fast, and simple to fix. At the other extreme, low riders customize their bikes to resemble chrome-plated, highly decorated and painted automotive hot rods. These bikes often feature a long, curved banana seat with a sissy bar and very tall upward-swept ape hanger handlebars. A lot of chrome components, spring-action suspension for the front fork, fenders, and wheels with up to 144-chromed spokes are common accessories for these custom bicycles.

Low-rider bikes first appeared in the 1960s at the same time that hot rodders were beginning to paint their modified cars with elaborate paint schemes. Kids would copy the work on their bikes, usually starting with the classic Schwinn Sting-Ray. Some low-rider bikes are modified into tricycles, allowing them to sit much closer to the ground. Some of these bikes have an air bag or hydraulic suspension so they can emulate the hopping of low-rider cars. Many of the bikes also feature custom framework such as tanks and skirts, birdcage handlebars, forks, spokes, sissy bars, and pedals.

Want to see cool low-rider bikes in town? The Don Riders, a Santa Barbara High School club, design and build unique low riders that are works of art. In the process, the students learn how to design, weld, paint, modify, and decorate their bikes. These high school kids also learn how to work together as a group, do the hard work required to make a dream a reality, and mentor other students once they have mastered the craft. You can see the Don Riders roll out at local parades and events.

Don Riders bike at the Christmas Parade 2012
Click to enlarge photo

Christine Bourgeois

Don Riders bike at the Christmas Parade 2012

If you ride a bike or low rider, be at Goleta Beach on Saturday, August 2 at 9:30 a.m. Doris Phinney, president of the Goleta Valley Cycling Club, will lead the monthly Newcomers Ride as an easy-paced memorial ride around Goleta for Ralph Fertig. It is with great sadness that the Santa Barbara cycling community pauses to remember Ralph. As Jim Marshall reminds us Ralph was “Santa Barbara’s Mr. Bicycle and the founding force behind the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition and ran it with the greatest enthusiasm. I can’t think of one person who has done more to bring the bicycle culture to Santa Barbara. Ralph sat through countless hours of government meetings just to make sure that we, bicyclists, had a voice in how our city and county was run. Look at almost any piece of bicycle infrastructure in our area, and I guarantee that Ralph had a lot to do with it. Ralph, you will be missed, but your legacy will never be forgotten.”

Finally, it is with great happiness that I end this column by announcing that my Pedal On column collaborator, Andie Bridges, and her family welcomed a beautiful new baby on July 12. I’m sure you’ll soon be reading about Henry Forrest Bridges’ first bike ride in an upcoming column. Congratulations to the Bridges family!

This story was updated on July 30 to reflect that the Ralph Fertig memorial ride will leave from Goleta Beach on August 2 (not from Java Station).

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