February 3, 2014

by Don Stefanovich

Denver Bike Night riders gather in Civic Center Park.

Standing on just about any given street corner on a Wednesday evening during the summer in Denver, CO, you are likely to witness to one of the finest phenomena the Mile High City has to offer. A festive, seething throng of costumes, flashing lights, and plastic party cups floats by in two-wheeled, balloon-tired glory, literally stopping traffic and turning heads.

Now in its eighth year, the Denver Cruiser Ride?which rebranded itself as Denver Bike Night this past May to be more inclusive?attracts upwards of 2,000 participants on a weekly basis throughout the summer with a different theme for every week inspiring the costumes and accoutrements.

?This is the ?On Switch? for summer in Denver,? organizer Brad Evans said in an interview with 303 Cycling News.

While it’s one of?if not the?largest organized ?cruiser? rides in the country, it’s not alone.

On the heels of the Old Spanish Days Fiesta in Santa Barbara, CA, an estimated 3,000 take to two wheels for the Fiesta ?Hangover? Cruiser Run every August. The 30-mile party that began as a small group of friends attempting to mix exercise with a hungover beer run to Isla Vista 34 years ago has grown exponentially over three decades and remains unsanctioned, yet is tolerated and monitored by law enforcement.

Now in its 14th year, New Belgium Brewing Company’s Tour de Fat has turned into a traveling two-wheeled extravaganza, visiting 12 cities annually and donating proceeds to local bike-centric non-profits. The event kicks off in each city with?you guessed it?a cruiser ride.

?We set the tone in the beginning of being pro-bike, not anti-car,? says Michael Craft, senator of Tour de Fat non-profit relations. ?Being entitled, righteous or condescending about riding a bike turns more people off than on. We try to remind people how fun riding a bicycle is.?

New Belgium builds custom cruisers every year. After working for New Belgium Brewery for one year, employees are given that year’s cruiser bike.

Similar events of varying scale have cropped up in cities such as Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Bend and Colorado Springs. Even PeopleForBikes? hometown of Boulder has a ?Happy Thursday? Cruiser ride that rolls year round.

?You don’t have to have an expensive road or mountain bike and all the gear to be a bicyclist, you can just be someone who likes to ride a bike,? says Craft of cruiser rides? growing participation.

Bikes play a huge part in the company’s history and culture; its most popular beer is named after the curious comments co-founder Jeff Lebesch received while touring breweries in Belgium on a mountain bike in 1989, where locals had never seen someone ride a ?fat tire.?

?We cyclists have a history of subdividing where cruiser rides are all-inclusive,? says Craft. ?They bring us all together.?

But the ballooners don’t stick strictly to the city streets.

A number of off-road races and rides pay homage to the original Repack?arguably the most influential event in mountain biking’s history (more on that later)?occur around the country. And while the urban cruiser rides encourage but don’t actually require participants to use a specific bike, events such as the Coaster Brake Challenge in Van Nuys, Calif., are pretty specific. Cruiser frames are recommended, but singlespeed bikes with coaster brakes are mandatory. Tempe’s Cruiserman Triathlon isn’t picky when it comes to brakes and gears, but a cruiser frame is a must. Show up to the Tahoe Cruiser Classic or the Cruiser National Downhill in Flagstaff with a modern mountain bike and you?ll be jeered off the dirt.

Coaster Brake Challenge in Van Nuys, CA.

A cruiser, by definition, features ?balloon? tires, an upright riding position with swept-back handlebars and a stout steel frame. Cruisers are built for comfort, not for speed.

So, why are these heavy, seemingly impractical two-wheeled tanks still so popular when many more performance-orientated options are available for both on and off-road riding?

While the rolling flesh parades and drunken off-road rallies may not be exactly what Ignaz Schwinn had in mind in 1930 when he hired motorcycle engineers to design a new breed of bicycle, they are lasting proof that the visionary had a firm grasp on one of a bicycle’s most critical features?fun.

Attempting to revitalize a bicycle market struggling from the Great Depression, Schwinn set out to improve not only the performance but the look of existing commercially available bikes. With a name making clear its heritage, the Schwinn Motorbike rolled onto the scene with fat tires, a beefy frame, sweeping lines and unmistakable style. They were durable and affordable and soon other manufacturers were producing their own cruisers, making it the most popular style of bike for the next two decades.

As lightweight, geared European ?racing? bikes?or road bikes as we know them today?became increasingly popular through the 60s and 70s and BMX racing evolved, cruiser sales sharply declined. But two groups would breathe new life into the abandoned ballooners during the 1970s.

A 1935 Schwinn Motorobike.

Southern California surfers found they made fine transport along the coast, and a group in the hills of Northern California’s Marin County found the heavy-duty frames and fat tires of 1940s Schwinns readily available at garage sales were much better suited for off-road use than the so-called racers.

The latter soon began modifying the ?clunker? frames to accept road gears, BMX handlebars, motorcycle brakes and suspension to gain an advantage in the infamous Repack race, so named because the original coaster brakes of the old cruisers they started with had to be repacked with grease after each run. The mountain bike was born.

But it is perhaps the former group that can be credited for the cruiser’s original likeness surviving to this day, particularly with the rolling party crowd, as the cheap, sturdy bikes were just as at home barhopping along the California coast as they were carrying longboards to the break.

Today, cruisers?whether it’s a true clunker from the pre-war era, a custom chopper or a department store special?are playing just as vital a role in getting people back on bikes as they did in the ?30s.

?While it’s impossible to predict what it will eventually become, it is our belief that Denver Bike Night will become a city-wide campaign that encourages individuals from all walks of life to ride bikes,? writes Evans on DenverCruiserRide.com.

And as group rides like Denver Bike Night and New Belgium’s Tour de Fat expand, the kind of bike you ride matters less and less. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a worthwhile lasting impact beyond the party cups and hangovers.

?Cruiser Rides can offer a sense of safety to folks that don’t necessarily ride on the road every day,? says Craft. ?The more comfortable folks get riding with a group, the more likely they are to venture out on their own and start commuting.?

All kinds of bikes are welcome at most cruiser rides.

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