Too Young to Drive? Lowrider Bikes Are the Way to Go

Patrick Nieto has no problem with his father, Robert, when he wants to keep his bike in the living room. Nor is there any argument if Patrick wants to clean and polish the bike's chrome accessories near the family TV. In the Nieto family this is devotion to the cultural phenomenon of the lowrider bike, a spinoff from lowrider cars in the Hispanic community. Patrick's bike, with an Aztec warrior theme, is a joint venture with his father. With Patrick's work, and his father's money, the bike is worth $3,000. "I told him if he passed his spelling and math test every Friday in school, he could build the bike," says Mr. Nieto. Patrick is now an A student in the third grade, and the bike that he and his father built has been proclaimed a winner in five shows.

"I cleaned and polished it for a week before this show," says Patrick, standing next to the bike in a parking lot where lowrider bikes are on display near lowrider cars. The bike, basically a 1970s Schwinn with a jaw-dropping number of chrome accessories, features a hand-painted Aztec warrior on the old 20-inch long, banana-style seat popular in the 1970s. Classic Schwinn Sting-Rays are now popular lowrider bikes across the US. The front suspension system of Patrick's bike has been raked forward, giving it the lowrider look. He can steer it in two ways: handlebars (with four rear-view mirrors) or a small twisted steel steering wheel jutting out of the neck of the bike.

Attached to the rear fender, and braced to the frame, is a spare wheel with a swirling hubcap, styled somewhere between art deco and Ben Hur. The tires are spotless whitewall, and each wheel has double the number of spokes, all gleaming chrome. Nieto, a retired policeman, says, "Patrick selected everything on the bike and then we put it together over a year's time." Maribel Alvarez, who curated a recent exhibition of lowrider bikes at the San Jose Center for Latino Arts in California, says the interest in lowrider bikes among Hispanic kids grew out of watching older brothers and fathers working on lowrider cars.

Because the bikes are usually constructed within a family context, she calls them "an intrinsically social phenomenon with a brother, dad, or friend usually there." While basically a male arena, some Hispanic girls also have lowrider bikes.

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