At the Clarksville Schwinn and Fitness bike shop in Indiana, soaring gas prices mean booming business, says storeowner Bob Peters.
“Everybody’s bringing their bikes in, getting them fixed, talking about riding to the store, talking about riding back and forth to work,” he says.
Business here is up 22 percent from this time last year and the increase has led Peters to hire three more full-time employees. He says the demand for bikes and parts is exceeding supply, leading to delays of orders.
Across the river, some people are making their own bikes and decking them out to express themselves. In Old Louisville’s Brick House Community Center, Seed Mellerweller Morlocki is looking through a backroom where bike parts are everywhere. Morlocki is here to help visitors fix and assemble bikes.
He has built five bikes and had another 15 in various stages of construction when his home — an artists’ haven called the Lava House — burned down in January. Some were tricked out with different parts to make them taller or longer. He calls them self expression on wheels and says anyone can personalize a bike.
“It becomes an extension of yourself and you can just do whatever you want to it,” he says. “There’s people with pearl covered baskets, and there’s people with raccoon tails on their bikes. Some people put like some horns on there. Any colors, any paint you want. It’s just really easy just to make it art itself.”
Last summer, a group of his friends and friends of friends, many with their own self-styled bikes, regularly rode through the city. Morlocki was part of it.
“So, we put on some crazy costumes and then we go throughout the city grabbing as many people as we can and then we started having regular meetings to ride,” he says.
This group calls themselves the Louisville Bike Goblins. They weren’t on a Critical Mass ride, where bikers take over the streets and often block traffic. Last year, they often rode to destinations for a purpose. They volunteered for several river-clean up projects.
Most Bike Goblins share the same values. They shun commercialism for artistic self expression. They talk about self reliance and building cleaner and more supportive communities.
Molicki says there were few negative reactions from those who saw the group on rides.
“Most people would just smile, you know, like the circus just went by,” he says.
While the Louisville Bike Goblins is not a highly structured group, others with similar values have established themselves in other American cities. Some even have written philosophies and manifestos. There’s Chunk 666 in Portland, Oregon, and the Rat Patrol in Chicago.
“Part of the gestalt of the Rat Patrol is this notion of genuine autonomy and so they build their own bikes. They don’t want you buying bikes and sort of entering into that consumerist culture that they don’t like,” says Harry Wray, a professor of political science at Chicago’s DePaul University.
Wray is the author of the “Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life.” He’s ridden with the Rat Patrol, whose members make home-made bikes of all shapes, sizes and colors. It also calls itself an anarchist organization, but he says it isn’t so menacing on the streets.
“Whenever the Rat Patrol cruises around the city, it always evokes a sense of wonder in people. They love seeing them,” he says.
The popularity of stylized bikes has crossed over into the art and commercial worlds. Last week’s Bicycle Film Festival in New York City included an art exhibit of bikes at a downtown gallery. At last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach an adorned bicycle sold for $35,000. And the fashion house Chanel has produced a limited edition bicycle that sells for a cool $12,000.
Riding around downtown, Thalon Hubbell looks artful on the bike he made himself with its black frame and bright yellow and pink wheels. This bike courier has had several jobs working with bikes, but he wants to use his experience to launch a creative endeavor.
“I’ve decided that I think I like fabrication best and I hope to have a career in building bicycles, perhaps even here in Louisville,” he says. “I’m hoping to have a company started at the beginning of next year.”
Hubbell’s plans might not mesh with the ethos of Chicago’s Rat Patrol, but they do illustrate a common phenomenon — that underground movements evolve into pop culture and are seized for a commercial interests. But does the commercialization of tricked out bikes trump art? Not if you agree with Andy Warhol, who said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”