When we were kids, we all had balloon-tire bicycles. Then one kid got a Raleigh. It had skinny tires and a narrow seat and three speeds; it looked ever so exciting, and it was foreign to boot, which made it a sports car in our eyes. So we all cajoled our parents into pushing our old bikes into the basement and buying us racy new Raleighs.
But not John Stroh, the fat kid on the block. Fat John stood firmly by his Road-master, which had a wide, soft seat and a spring suspension, as well as those wide balloon tires. And he was made to suffer for it, heckled and teased that he needed all that cushioning because he was so fat. I joined in the tormenting of John Stroh.
I also secretly hated my Raleigh. Its skinny tires transmitted the bumps right up my arms to my teeth, and I was afraid to stand up and pedal, for when I did the gears would invariably slip and I'd be all but castrated on the crossbar. I would have swapped the Raleigh for a cushy Roadmaster in a minute, but of course I couldn't admit it; Fat John's retribution would have been merciless, and my father, who was out $56 because of my whim, would have locked me in the basement with my old bike.
Then I got older, and three-speeds became 10. Having had the Raleigh experience, I couldn't understand the attraction of 10-speeds. Just look at one: Outside of racing or flat-out touring, what is it good for? How many people use all those gears anyway? Those handlebars! Just try to tell me that 10-speed riders don't choke down screams of pain from their aching backs. Those tires! Why do you think tire pumps are standard equipment on 10-speeds? Those seats! My God, those seats! Why would anyone choose to sit on such a thing voluntarily?
These days I ride a resurrected balloon-tire Schwinn, '50s vintage (I'd have a Roadmaster if I could find one; they're coveted by collectors today). I bought it from Stan the junkman for $12. Its handlebars are longhorn-style, the seat homemade from foam rubber and duct tape; no stiff back or buns for me. I can ride over curbs with it—try that with your 10-speed—and I don't have to chain it up every time I leave it. I love to watch it fall over when I dismount and blithely walk away.
But as much as I truly love that old bomber, it's about to be retired, to be replaced by a cruiser. A state-of-the-art cruiser is the perfect bastard: a lightweight, multi-speed bike with balloon tires and a soft seat. These bikes are new, but are based on models popular in the 1930s. Cruisermania hasn't swept very far east from Laguna Beach as of yet, but if there's a sure bet in this world, it's that what's hot on wheels in Laguna today will burn up Altoona tomorrow.
Quite a few companies make cruisers: Cook Bros., Ross, Bassett, Torker—even Schwinn and Huffy. The cruiser heartland is the Orange County coastal area, where one of the oldest cruiser producers, Laguna Distributors, Inc., is located. "Old" in this market means six or seven years; and for the first four or five years the only Laguna Cruiser was a simple one, not much different from my bomber.
It is the Deluxe Laguna Cruiser that represents a technological leap. Virtually every metal component is alloy, including the handlebars, cranks, rims, hubs—down to the valve caps. Even the frame can be ordered in chromoly. The alloy is anodized in bright gold or blue or red, and, to use the lingo of Jamie the Laguna Kid, the fifth-grade towhead who is the factory rider in local cruiser-class dirt-track races, "It looks really radical." Indeed, a black Laguna Cruiser with gold-anodized handlebars and wheels looks as exotic as a John Player Lotus.
"If you live in California you've got to have all that trick stuff on your cruiser or you're not even close," says H. Allan Seymour II, a surfer and independent film producer from Capistrano Beach, standing next to his 10-year-old daughter's Laguna Cruiser. The seat post is well lubed, for he slides it up to fit himself for frequent beer runs to the corner market and trips to the beach to check out the surf. The next trick will probably be orange flames on the crossbar. "I've always wanted something with flames," he says, fairly leering at the bike as his daughter rolls her eyes.
The Deluxe model has caliper front brakes, knobby tires for off-road riding and is a three-speed with internal gears in the rear hub. The top-of-the-line Schwinn cruiser-type bike is a chromoly-framed five-speed called the King-Sting. It is like a giant motocross bike and is about 15 pounds lighter than the conventional cruiser. There are even 10-speed cruisers available, for diehards. Ten-speed cruisers are becoming popular in Crested Butte, Colo., where the riding is steep and the bicyclists are serious. A basic cruiser can be had for as little as $75, a custom chromoly 15-speed number for as much as $2,400.
A ride through the streets of Laguna Beach today will turn up cruisers galore. There is a father out pedaling with his baby strapped in the little seat behind him, a paper boy hopping curbs and skidding across wet lawns like a motorcycle flat-tracker, a kid popping wheelies up the street, the paint job on his cruiser pure road art.
Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, cyclists ride to work daily, unaware of cruisermania. They're too busy dealing with carbon monoxide and wayward taxis and delivery trucks—not to mention backaches and butt aches, for most of them ride 10-speeds. But there is no better example of a place where a good cruiser would blow a 10-speed out of the water—on safety, given its handling and brakes, on comfort, and even speed, considering the conditions.
It all seems obvious to me: Cruisers are destined to take over the world. They make too much sense not to. But then Fat John Stroh probably could have told us that 25 years ago.