Breaking Away

Though weighted down with everything from CD players and wine glasses to Mexican-flag fringing, lowrider bikes are a fast way to get noticed

The body of Steve Hernandez's lowrider bike is bondo-covered and painted black. An antenna sticks up from its rear fender; "gangster" muffler pipes jut out from its back. "No, they don't shoot flames," the 14-year-old says. "They're just for show." Also for show are the green, white, and red tassels that hang from the bike's body which match the colors of the Mexican flag and represent Mexican pride. Brown pride. But the most distinguishing characteristic of his cruiser is its 20-inch fork, which he swapped for the Schwinn frame's original. "It makes it look longer and lower," he says. "You know, lowrider."

On any given day, you can see Hernandez pedaling down the streets of his hometown, Willmar, Minnesota (about two hours west of the Twin Cities on Highway 12). Most likely, he'll be cruising the town's main drag, where Highway 71 curves and turns into First Street. Willmar is a relatively sleepy town of roughly 18,000 located in farm country in the middle of the Little Crow Lakes region. Yet judging from the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken stuck between the residential homes lining the main strip and the Jennie-O turkey-processing plants dotting the town, Willmar is in the midst of a significant expansion.

"I moved here nine years ago from Texas," Hernandez says. "My aunt, she was here first. She works at Woodland Centers--it's like for crisis people, I don't know. And she called us and told us it was really nice over here, so my parents decided to move. My dad's a welder, and my mom doesn't work."

Hernandez fancies himself as a burgeoning cholo, a sort of '50s Chicano beat rebel; he compares the type to a character played by Andy Garcia in his favorite film, Hoodlum. "I dress up like this, all the same color, all brown. And you wear suspenders, and pants that come up to here," he says, leveling his hand half a foot above his waistline. "You just get low, you just get low."

Hernandez began creating lowriders three or four years ago, taking most of his ideas from the Lowrider magazines that he buys at Wal-Mart. "This one is only a temporary bike. I made it in two days," he says with an eighth-grader's bravado. "I just made it until I get my other bike back. My other bike is worth more. It's better than this one. This one is just for now so I won't have to walk."

Hernandez's real bike is currently on display at Gus Lucky's Gallery in Minneapolis, along with five other lowriders made by members of his club, the Eternal Styles Low Rider B.C. & C.C. (bike club and car club). The number of members in the group varies depending on whom you ask. Jon Rangel, 16, who founded Eternal Styles in 1996 and is currently its president, addresses questions about membership with a shrug. "I don't know. I know guys at Jennie-O who build cars," Rangel says, "and there are lots of guys building bikes around town."

The club took a more organized shape during the past year when Rangel hooked up with Francisco Morales, the club's adult sponsor, and a youth worker at Willmar Junior High. Morales tried to give the club more focus, organizing meetings, arranging for a work space at Willmar's armory, and writing grant proposals. He also placed an ad in the local paper asking for bike donations. The community responded with 71 bikes, which are now stacked in piles in a garage behind Morales's house. The four kids that he and Rangel both recognize as members of the club--Rangel, Hernandez, Arturo Ruiz, and Gilbert Reyes--restore the bikes and sell them for money that goes into the club's treasury. The teens also use the parts to construct their own lowriding creations.

At the gallery opening in Minneapolis, the Eternal Styles boys stand apart from Gus Lucky's crusty punk patrons. A girl dressed in a black miniskirt and knee-high boots walks by. With tattooed arms and long black hair that probably hasn't been washed this month, she earns a rolled-eyed look from the Willmar boys, who joke with each other in muffled, rapid-fire Spanish.

The Eternal Styles' elaborate, chrome-plated lowriders also stand in opposition to the junkyard circus cruisers of the local Hard Times bike club, who are also displaying works in the exhibit. The Hard Times crew's fully functional abnormalities have seats boosted to shoulder height, and a mix-and-match construction that recalls a two-wheeled Frankenstein. Hernandez's prize bike, by contrast, is lavishly finished. Like his temporary wheels, this bike is covered with the colors of the Mexican flag, extravagantly displayed on a velvet seat. Hooked to the back is a CD player and a speaker that he uses to play hip hop and Mexican dance tunes.

Like a Mercedes salesman on the showroom floor, Rangel, who wears a sports jersey, fat pants, and gold-chain jewelry, saunters confidently around his bike. It's really a trike, the extra wheel necessary for carrying all the excess baggage. "I got a CD player, 12-inch subwoofers, midrange tweeters, and a car battery pumping the juice," Rangel says. "The tires have 144-spoke rims. And I have a triple-chrome-plated frame." Crushed black-and-red velvet covers the handlebars, the seat, and the chain-link steering wheel. Wine glasses sit on lowered reflector mirrors that almost scrape the floor. "I plan on putting hydraulics on it, make it jump like that," Rangel says, bouncing his hand up and down.

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