Beach Cruisers - Venice Beach, CA

Beach Cruisers 

YOU begin noticing them before you ever reach the beach: The opalescent baby blue cruiser with pink rims and whitewalls in front of the yoga studio on Main Street, its flip-flop-wearing owner removing her mat from its wicker basket. The matte black and solid chrome cruisers, draped with young men in mesh-back caps, clustered outside the local dive on Washington Boulevard.



EASY RIDES Cruisers, like these in Venice Beach, Calif., are ideal for flat areas.
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

At Windward Avenue an art girl in thrift-store couture pedalspast, a Paul Frank monkey mugging from her bike's shiny red frame. These days it seems beach cruisers catch your eye everywhere you go in Venice, even at the beach. 

That's saying something at Venice Beach, where people think nothing of seeing a man in a loincloth balanced precariously atop a stepladder as he attempts to charm a hydra-headed rubber cobra.

It takes more than a pink and purple Hello Kitty cruiser to cause a stir here. Or so the family out for a ride on four conspicuously detailed vintage cruisers appears to think.

The bicycles, styled like those popular in the 1950's - with fat tires that can handle sand, wide handlebars, cushy seats and coaster brakes - have been known as beach cruisers or just plain cruisers since the 60's and 70's. Schwinn finally came out with a model named the Cruiser in 1980. And for years they were fairly utilitarian. Some owners didn't mind their bikes rusting in the salt air. The worse they looked, the less likely they were to be stolen, the thinking went. And so, on boardwalks, campuses and studio back-lots across Southern California, the humble cruiser became a fixture. Now, flashy cruisers have become a fixation.

Bike stores in the area report a noticeable surge in cruiser sales in the last year or so. At many shops, they've become best sellers. Bike Attack's new bike boutique on Main Street in Santa Monica has sold between 100 and 200 each month since opening in January. Design is widely credited for the boom. "Before a few years ago, if you wanted a cruiser, you basically chose between the red or blue one," said Scott McPherson, manager of Helen's Cycles on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. "With the range of cruisers now available, many more people are buying."

The new bikes come in a dazzling array of colors and styles. Ten-coat paint jobs and flaring fenders are common. "I love the Hawaiian flowers and the butterfly on the seat," said Nancy Keller Bacon, 42, of Venice, out for a seaside ride aboard her gleaming new aquamarine cruiser. For baby boomers in particular, the new cruisers are the bikes they dreamed of as children. "The retro factor was the big appeal," Ms. Bacon said.

FOR some, cruisers are retro-chic, for others, nostalgic. Makers offer models reminiscent of old woody wagons or with names like Roadster. The bikes recall a simpler time, when cars, smog and sprawl hadn't seriously endangered the Southern California idyll of orange groves and endless summers. Cruising past sandcastles and surf breaks seems to return some of that.

"Getting out, enjoying the lifestyle, that's what it's all about," said John Michela, 41, of Valencia, whose family regularly drives the hour to the beach for rides on rare cruisers that he painstakingly restores. Today, his orange metal-flake Dyno Cruiser, with its motorcyclelike "tank," attracts many admirers.

Cruisers are uncomplicated, appealing to those overwhelmed by 27 gears and rampant technology. And they're comfortable: They have wide seats and, sitting upright, riders can relax and enjoy the scenery instead of bending forward uncomfortably. The Townie made by Electra is designed so that riders can always touch the ground yet still extend their legs when pedaling, a feature that attracts reluctant cyclists.

Cost often seals the deal. Though the Electra Townie is $470, other jazzy new cruisers go for as little as $129. Many cost around $250, less than a tenth the price of some fancy road bikes. At such prices, almost anyone can ride in style - which can be a source of amusement. "They're easy impulse buys," said Kitty Monsalud, an owner of Bike Attack. "Some girls see them as accessories, like a pair of shoes."

Not everyone finds that so amusing. "Surfing is so 'in,' " said Cybele O'Brien, 35, a surfer and a Venice native. The bikes "are just another prop for people affecting the lifestyle."

In the end, though, no matter why you glide down the beach or the street, standing on the pedals of a cruiser it's hard not to feel, well, a little like a kid again. Ms. O'Brien long ago attached a sparkly, battery-powered wand to her cruiser's basket: Even for skeptics, riding a beach cruiser can be magical.