There was a time when anything was possible. Remember? For most of us, bicycles are permanently linked to that freestyle frame of mind: a time when we swam in wonder at the world and had a hunger to explore; a time when simply riding to the store to buy a squirt gun, look at the new Matchbox cars and get a scoop of Blue Moon brought a sense of accomplishment and freedom. Learning to ride a bike is a rite of passage, a great lesson in the balancing, manipulation and conquering of a technology beyond ourselves, but at the same time, completely self-propelled. And at those tender bike-riding ages, we tend to bond and identify, at least a little bit, with this simple pedal-machine that expands our wide-eyed worlds.
Dominic Watson and Brandon Anderson have escaped video game hypnosis long enough to take their instruments of independence and push them to their most sparkly, spinning, extravagant extreme. Against gray pavement on the west side of Detroit, the two boys on their lowriders (what we knew as banana bikes) make an awesome green-and-red, chrome-and-polished brass spectacle, all twisted and white-walled to perfection. Just beginning ninth grade, Dominic, 13, and Brandon, 14, have been best friends for two years, brought together by a common love of customizing and modifying their rides.
Brandon: Coming home one day, I saw a lowrider, a Schwinn, with an extended fork.
Dominic: He sped up behind me, we started talking, and we’ve been best friends ever since. He already had a twisted frame, with an extended fork, and some nice U-handlebars.
Brandon: Also called ape-hangers.
Dominic: I had the ram-horn handlebars, like on a 10-speed.
Metro Times: What gave you the idea to customize your bikes?
Dominic: My father is a motorhead, and he has a lot of car magazines and lowrider stuff lying around, so I picked some up and looked at them.
Brandon: My dad was working on the older Schwinns. He rebuilds the old bikes. I just saw him driving around, and decided to make one. I wanted to give him [Dominic] some competition, because he was the only kid that had that good of a bike. He’s the one that really got me into it.
Metro Times: When I was young, I was into Evel Knievel, and we used to jump ramps with the banana bikes. Do you guys do anything like that?
Brandon: No. They’re show bikes. We usually get together in the morning and clean ’em up.
Dominic: We ride around the neighborhood for about an hour until we get bored of that, go up to the store and get something to eat, go to the park, stay there for about an hour or two, come home, watch some TV and then go back out. It’s just like a cycle, almost.
Brandon: We eventually end up back at the house cleaning ’em and fixing ’em.
Dominic: We see how many heads we can turn with the bikes, like how many compliments we can get.
Brandon: Well, we get a lot of ...
Dominic: Would you build me one?
Brandon: Right, yeah. Where’d you get that from? Let me ride it, or something.
Dominic: A lot of people like to touch stuff. They get fingerprints all over. I can’t stand that! I’d probably be the same way.
Metro Times: How did you twist your bike frames?
Brandon: Me and my dad, we just heated it with a torch until it was red, put it in a vise, and twisted some of it. And some of it we had to make molds and melt the metal down to make curves and stuff. I had to mold the two bottom bars that make the tank, because they were so small, that if you heated the metal, it would just melt. … Everything else is just basically store-bought.
Brandon: I go on EBay a lot to see what’s on that.
Metro Times: What do you call those [pointing to the spokes], wire wheels?
Brandon: Daytons. They make a car rim called a Dayton.
Dominic: With spokes just like those.
[Some neighborhood kids ride by with aluminum foil in their spokes. Brandon and Dominic groan at the primitive modification and talk about their own wheel-enhancement plans.]
Brandon: It’s a wannabe spree wheel, it’s just something interesting to look at as it’s rolling.
Dominic: When it’s rolling it’s like, dang, what is that? It looks like you got a hubcap on the bike. But when you get up close, it’s like, Ugh, why’d you do that?
Brandon: Eventually, we’re gonna put spinners on.
Metro Times: What’s a spinner?
Dominic: They’ve got them for motorcycles and cars and trucks.
Brandon: Basically it’s an outer rim that has a ball bearing on it so that when you’re pedaling slower it moves with the rim and then when you stop, because it has ball bearings, it continues to move.
Dominic: I drew the design up for it and Brandon’s gonna turn it into a reality, because his father has a shop with all that stuff, he’s going to build it. These will be completely one-offs.
Metro Times: You guys ever get rough with these?
Dominic: Yeah, like if there’s no way else around, and you gotta ride on grass or rocks or something like that, if it’s the only way to get there, then we have to do it.
Brandon: Maybe once in a while, to show off, we’ll bounce on the springs, but not too often.
Dominic: There’s a number of kids in this neighborhood that have bikes.
Brandon: Just plain lowriders. They don’t have all the stuff on them.
Dominic: When they’re done riding them they just throw ’em down like any other bike. We don’t do that. We’re like the only ones that take care of them and really do stuff to ’em.
Brandon: Yeah, and we find that if their parents go out and buy them this nice bike, they tend to mistreat it, and it ends up rusting out in the garage or something.
Dominic: When I was younger and my parents used to buy me stuff, I’d usually, like, break them and they’d get me another one, but when you finally sit down, get the tools out and get your hands dirty and everything for your bike, you’ll take more respect in it because you did it yourself. If you break it, you have to do it all over again. And these bikes break pretty easy.
Brandon: It definitely changes the way you think. If you see a guy with a bike down the street, you pay more attention to it because you’ve worked on them. You see he’s got a special-made front end or something, it just makes you respect other people a lot more. The best thing about them is there’s no two the same. Since I’ve been working on this, I’ve gotten into mechanics a lot more, like motorcycles and stuff, so I think I might go into that for a trade.
Dominic: I had one before this and it got stolen. And it really, really made me mad because I put a lot of time into that bike. But I went and built another one, and it’s bigger and better. Once you lose one, you make another one on another level. You just keep going higher and higher. I’ll move on from bikes to mopeds, from mopeds to go-karts, go-karts to cars, cars to trucks and I’m gonna keep going up. And it’s not gonna stop with me.
Chances are, you haven’t seen anything like what’s riding on the streets of Grosse Pointe. Kyle Watson’s three bicyclic concoctions look like Rat Fink mated with the Ambassador Bridge. Watson (no relation to Dominic Watson) is a recent graduate of the College for Creative Studies with a focus in interdisciplinary crafts. He’s 29, not a kid anymore — or is he? Last summer he gave birth to a triangulated stainless steel idea that rides low to the road with a spirit that’s still young at heart. And he’s still going strong, having constructed three completely original bicycles that alter your preconceived ideas of structure and ride on flame-embossed tires.
Kyle: I studied furniture design and a little bit of industrial design. The ID doesn’t leave you very much room for creativity, their focus is primarily two-dimensional design work. It’s more about just following the subtle trends and being one little step ahead of what’s going on to keep everything marketable. With the crafts department, we were allowed to pretty much go in any direction that we wanted to. I was able to design work and fabricate what I was designing.
I didn’t own a bike. I had a bunch of extra material left over from building furniture. This truss structure, the triangulation, is a theme I’ve used in my furniture. I had a lot of extra rod left over and I figured, well, why don’t I try building a bike? I work down at CCS during the summertime, I had some extra time, some extra materials, and so I figured if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And it worked. I got a buddy who works at a bike store, and he gave me all the specific measurements, all the things that I couldn’t alter — just how wide the back forks were to allow the wheel to fit in, the distance from the seat to the end of the pedal, basic human factors. And then tried my best to stay within those parameters.
I tried to challenge an aspect of bicycle design with each one. Like the first one was simply to see if I could build it. The second one was to see if I could build one with a suspension, and with different engineering involved — solid bodywork and some different elements for void and negative space. And the third one tried to challenge the overall structure of a bike. Why does it have to have handlebars? Why can’t you try to figure out a completely different way of steering the thing?
Metro Times: I love the bloody eyeballs on the handles.
Kyle: You ever had a Green Machine, the old Big Wheel? It had two joysticks for the steering. That was my inspiration for it. It was my favorite Big Wheel when I was a kid.
Bicycles and motorcycles, they all look the same. It’s all the same basic structure, and I wanted to see if I could kind of tweak that a little bit and see what happens. These bikes have absolutely nothing to do with aerodynamics. I think if I actually thought about what I was doing, I’d screw up a lot more than I do.
I had these three in Autorama last year, and I got a lot of very mixed reviews about them because they’re not shiny, there’s no paint on them, they’re not Schwinn frames with stuff crammed all over them. People had a hard time figuring out what to think about them. So this one [he points to parts on the floor], I’m adding a bling-bling factor, just to see what happens. This one’s gonna be painted kind of ridiculous, that crazy, super sparkly, 1970s-ish bass boat lime green with polished stainless steel.
Metro Times: Are they hard to ride?
Kyle: Well this third one, it took me about three or four hours in the alley here to get the hang of it because it rides completely different from a normal bicycle. It’s kind of like riding a two-wheeled unicycle on top of a basketball. But the other two, no, I ride them all the time. I feel like I made the 12-year-old in me very happy. I’ve got the bike I’ve always wanted when I was a kid.
Kyle let me ride the first bike he made. It felt just as if I was riding low in a huge stainless steel palm, cushioning every bump in the road. It was also like I was pedaling a two-wheeled time machine. As soon as you get back on the seat, push the pedals to a shaky start, adjust the wobbling until you’re flowing down the road balanced, it all comes hurling back to you inside the self-made wind against your face.
Anything is possible. No matter how adult-crusty-and-busy we get, bicycles take us to a place in time we should never allow ourselves to forget.Anita Schmaltz pops wheelies for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]