Wheels Up: Santa Barbara’s Wheelie Generation
City Teens Find a Positive Physical Outlet During the Pandemic
By Ryan P. Cruz
Santa Barbara’s next generation of bikers has burst on the scene in the form of high-energy teenagers swerving through the city on their big-wheeled rides, turning heads with an aggressive style of wheelie-popping bravado and drawing both praise and criticism from residents and officials.
You can’t miss them. Since State Street was closed off to car traffic in 2020, they’ve turned the small strip of road in front of the old Macy’s building into an impromptu practice ground. Nobody organized this pop-up wheelie spot; it just happened, with the kids organically taking their place in the center of a bustling downtown.
“We’re just trying to have fun,” said Angel Reyes. He’s out on State Street most days with his friends, living the “bike life,” as they call it.
It’s early August, and they’re out again, enjoying an early Friday afternoon, soaking up as much summer as possible before school begins. Reyes takes a quick pedal, turning around in front of a couple walking their dog and a family eating ice cream, all watching him intently.
He accelerates and hunches down before leaning back, pulling up his front wheel. He finds his balance point, then hops up, taking both feet off the pedals and landing with one foot on his seat, the other raised up behind him. Reyes looks 10 feet tall, holding the pose for a couple of seconds before dropping back down and rolling away with a smile.
His friends all whoop and high-five each other and are soon speeding up for their own tricks, always trying to one-up one another.
Javier Rojas, a San Marcos High School student, has been riding for about 10 months, picking up the bike life during the pandemic, like most of the crew.
“I was into skating first, but I sprained my ankle,” Rojas said. “I didn’t want to be stuck at home doing nothing, so I took a bike out and I started riding.”
Each rider has their own style. Rojas is quiet, but his tricks speak for themselves. He lies back effortlessly, rolls along, and sticks his right leg up over and across the bike’s frame. He points to the camera, making it look too easy. He says riding has introduced him to friends from different schools and neighborhoods he might not have met otherwise.
“It’s just really fun, riding out with your friends,” he said.
Isaac Molina is the youngest of the crew that day. The 13-year-old is full of energy, riding a bright-yellow SE Flyer peppered with “BIKE LIFE” stickers. He hops on his back pegs, lifting up his front wheel and doing “combos,” switching between his knees and feet on the seat and turning himself into a corkscrew.
The kids themselves shrug off the criticism that they are too aggressive or dangerous. “They just get mad ’cause we’re taking over,” Molina said. “We’re just taking over at this point.”
This taking-back of spaces is an almost unconscious action by the historically marginalized group against a system that often doesn’t include them in decision-making processes — they are left out of the conversation, so now they’re fighting back by simply existing and being themselves.
Santa Barbara’s biking policies are often drafted to meet the needs of businesses and pedestrians; when patio seating popped up on State Street in the place of the traditional bike lanes, cyclists were pushed to the middle of the road. But business owners and residents complained to City Hall that kids on bikes were disturbing the peace with their one-wheeled antics.
During a July 2020 meeting, City Councilmember Mike Jordan called the teens “obnoxious,” claimed that they were “terrorizing” people, and even said that downtown ambassadors should ram a “stick in their spokes” to stop them.
City Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez pushed back on Jordan’s comments, reminding the council that a safety task force recently found crime among Santa Barbara youth had dropped “significantly.”
“Maybe it’s because they’re biking and staying active and staying out of trouble,” Gutierrez said. “To make comments about having city staff put sticks in their spokes … these are children we’re talking about. I’m not a parent, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want someone, especially an elected official, talking like that about my children.”
There have been reports of altercations involving teenagers on bikes, but in many of these cases, the juveniles are actually victims of adult offenders. In the past month alone, two teens have been struck by vehicles, with the drivers fleeing the scene in both cases and later being arrested for hit-and-run.
This May, the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition partnered with SE Bikes team rider and Santa Barbara native Feliciano Herrera to create Wheelie Wednesdays at Santa Barbara City College.
Herrera is somewhat of a “godfather” figure to the younger wheelie generation. He started in the late ’80s and early ’90s in California’s thriving BMX scene, but it wasn’t until 2017 that he picked up a big-wheeled SE Bikes Big Ripper — the “grown-up” version of his childhood dream bike, SE’s PK Ripper.
“It just changed my life,” he said.
Herrera runs a popular Instagram page, @santabarbarasefamilia, with more than 7,500 followers. Through the page, he organizes and promotes community ride-outs, as well as group trips across the state.
“I’ve traveled a lot, all through California,” he said. “I’ve ridden bikes through Los Angeles, San Francisco, Stockton, San Diego — I’ve met a lot of cool people.”
The rides, and social media, are a way of networking and finding other riders with the same lifestyle. “You meet kids, you meet older people — they all have a different style, all have a different way of looking at it, and it just builds friendships,” Herrera said.
For the first couple of years, the participants were mostly his age. “There weren’t too many kids riding,” he said.
But something happened during the pandemic. Everything shut down. Maybe the kids were restless; maybe they were looking for an outlet. However it happened, Santa Barbara’s youth started picking up the now ubiquitous, big-wheeled SE bikes.
And just as Herrera looked up to “OGs” in bike culture, like his friend Tom Lopez and Santa Barbara bike legend Jesus “Chuy” Reyes — the man locals say used to ride up and down State Street entirely on his back wheel — the new generation looks up to him.
At SBCC, in the parking lot across from Ledbetter Beach, the kids are enjoying the open space used by roller skaters, scooter-ers, and now the wheelie riders on Wednesdays.
There, they can go full speed, trying trick variations they can’t on State Street, without fear of being hassled. Herrera is their unofficial coach and mentor. He calls the boys “mijo” and their female crew member, Leianna, “mija.” He says seeing them out there in their element, having fun and staying out of trouble, makes him proud.
“It feels great. I love it,” Herrera said. “It encourages these kids to do something positive. You’re in the street, but you’re not in the street. You’re still out there doing your thing and people are seeing you, and you’re still getting that street credibility, but without the violence.”
There are no city-sanctioned areas for the wheelie riders, but Herrera is hoping they can change that.
“Our goal is to actually get a spot for them locally, here in Santa Barbara,” he said. Herrera also wants to change the way people see the kids and said it hurts when he hears them being judged.
“It’s tough because a lot of these kids are really good kids,” he said. “If you took the chance to see what they’re doing, and the positivity they’re putting into it … they could be doing a lot worse things in their lives right now.”
For now, at least on Wednesdays, they have a space to ride. As for the future, Herrera said, the goal is to keep the scene strong.
“Keep the ride positive and keep these kids in a positive lane, where they can do their thing and just enjoy the bike life.”