Lowriders and Wheelies
Thoughts on Bikes and Bicycling in the Shovel Town
I guess I can state that I have reached that place in life when I can return over and over to that line, that comment tinged with nostalgia and longing and sometimes used to mildly criticize young people of today– this line here: When I was a kid.
When I was a kid can be the setup for any number of stories. Like when I was a kid we used to walk places. Walking a mile or more was what we did.
And when I was a kid bicycles and bicycling (not for exercise, but to get places) were a big deal. It was all integral to our culture.
As for the bicycles, we're talking not so much the BMX or all-terrain or mountain bikes of today. No, we knew different animals. When you start riding a bike in the late 1960s, you experienced the cusp and interchange of moving from those classic lowrider bikes – the most famous of which was the Schwinn Sting-Ray – which were mostly about looks (sort of the bicycle version of a muscle car) to the more utilitarian and efficient ride of the 10-speed bike.
I remember my first lowrider, one of the sweetest pieces of machinery you could ever imagine: it was a yellow Columbia with a three-speed stick shift, handle brakes, and … get this … heart be still … red colored tires with thick treads. I eventually customized the ride with a steering wheel – yes, an actual round steering wheel – that was purchased from my neighbor Bill Emery for $5. Interestingly, when the steering wheel was put on the bike, the hand brakes, actually any brakes, were ditched, and my stopping ability was totally reliant on me jamming my foot on the ground.
I continue to think back with a grinding envy when I was attending North Easton Grammar School and one day the Tracey brothers, Joe and his younger brother, Shawn, showed up at school with these matching shiny gold colored five-speed stick shift lowriders. Five speed! Stick shift! Are you kidding me? Talk about loading it on: oh, the opulence; oh, the bling.
But let's get back to customization. I had an online conversation earlier this week with Gregg LeBlanc, a fellow OA Class of 1981 grad. Gregg had emailed me with a suggestion for a column about the customization of lowrider bikes, which was all the craze in the Unionville section of town where he lived (on Washington Street) in grade school and junior high; his family moved to Shady Rest Road in August just prior to our freshman year.
I was on it. I asked Gregg for info. Here is some of Gregg's reflection:
"Probably the best way is to break it down to components. Most Sting-Ray type bikes were one to three speeds. The kids that really got into it would tear down the bike completely (all components), paint the frame and forks (some would even add pinstripes or designs) and rebuild it to new modifications. Schwinn Sting-Ray was a popular name brand but you were really 'cruising' if you found that one of a kind frame that you could do anything with, because it was 'unique.' Some would cut off the front forks of old bikes and attach them to their new one, sometimes having two or three set extensions. You might put a fat knobby tire on the back and maybe a slim cruising tire on the front. It was like Orange County choppers but with pedals, chains and no motors. I mean you were building your own custom chopper using a bicycle.
"The handle bars were often like the 'ape hangers' that you see on choppers, often set at different angles to create an effect. Some still used the shorter handle bars. The 'banana' seat had a certain style, it would have been thin and sleek or fat and padded. Then there was the 'sissy bar' which attached from the axle of the back wheel through the sides of the seat and into the air. It would be of various lengths; some would attach flags or reflectors or wrap them with ribbon. There were certainly some who used clothes pins to attach playing cards near the spokes to make a motor sound. It was all to make it your own custom cycle. There was always that chance you had to take a friend home on the bike and the long seat and sissy bar certainly helped. It was a much nicer ride than being on the front handle bars. I would guess it had something to do with the movie Easy Rider …"
Brian Chapman graduated from OA in 1985. He lived on Columbus Avenue, on the corner of Chestnut Avenue. He was all in to customizing lowriders.
"I used to customize my bike, and make these long forks, create a real chopper," said Brian. "We would saw through forks, and then attach them to create long lengths. I would give the forks to my brother and he would braze the joints together. I had these big ape-hanger handle bars; it was one nice machine. It might not have been the easiest bike to ride – but that wasn't the point. It needed to look good. And I had one of the best looking choppers anywhere."
In talking with Brian Chapman, the conversation segued a bit from lowriders and Sting-Rays to the art of "riding the wheelie" on a bicycle. Chapman could ride a mean wheelie. And like most skilled Easton wheelie riders, he did his best work with a 10-speed type bike on which the curved handle bars were turned around and were backward.
Yes, we used bikes to get places, but also for stunts. Before BMX bicycles and spinning handlebars and mega-jumps and front flips, there was the wheelie.
"It wasn't anything for me to pop a wheelie as I was leaving the park (Frothingham Memorial Park)," said Brian, "and ride that wheelie across Park Street and down Hayward Street, bank the turn onto Columbus Avenue, and ride it into my driveway; all the way without ever putting that front wheel back on the tar."
That is some impressive wheelie riding. But I am not sure Chapman is the best wheelie rider I knew of. I still think that Tommy "Simo" Simonson, a member of the OA Class of '81, is the standard by which all Easton wheelie riders should be judged. Like Chapman, he used a 10-speed with the handlebars reversed – and like Chapman, he prided himself in riding a wheelie with "no crossovers" – that is, during the wheelie, keeping the handlebars straight, and not moving them from side to side for balancing benefit.
I was talking with Simo recently. He recalled a specific wheelie.
"It was in between innings of a Huskies game at the [Frothingham] park," said Simo. "I got the bike on to the track, on the homestretch, about 50 yards from home plate, and started pedaling toward home, picking up steam. Just before I crossed past home plate, I popped the wheelie. I took it around the curve and down the backstretch. When I got near the scoreboard, at the top of the back homestretch, I took a hand off of the steering wheel and I shifted gears …"
Okay, let's stop here for a bit; this is where I need to make a comment about the gear shifting. I am not saying that Simo is not being totally honest about the shifting, but maybe he doesn't remember exactly how it all went down. C'mon, shifting gears, on a cinder surface, while already holding the wheelie for about 200 yards. I just don't know about that. But when I told Brian Chapman about Simo's claim of the gear shift near the scoreboard, and the doubts I harbored about the story, Chapman nodded and replied, "I believe it. I believe he did it."
An example of respect that one wheelie rider accords another.
Simo continued, "I took it around the curve, and into the homestretch. And as I approached home plate again, the crowd started cheering. When I crossed home plate, the applause was loud. And I didn't even stop then. I kept the wheelie going and rode it out of the park."
Tommy Simonson – ever the showman.
When I was talking to Brian Chapman about Simo and his wheelies, Chapman started laughing, and said, "You tell Simo, if he wants to go at it in wheelies, I am ready whenever he is."
I mentioned Chapman's challenge to Tommy Simonson.
Alas it seems there will be no Chapman-Simonson showdown.
"Not too long ago I tried to show my daughters how to ride a wheelie," said Simo. "I wiped out and made a fool of myself. I'm retired."