Kyle “Horns” Hornbeck wheels his bicycle down the driveway, the raw metal frame glimmering in the reflection of his glasses as he leans down to admire it.
The high ape-hanger handlebars. Tires with flames imprinted in the treads. The burnt-orange patina that surrounds every weld point on the bike’s body. A welding aficionado, the 24-year-old Tempe resident says he wanted his first custom bike to be unpainted, to show off the handmade build job.
“It’s a rolling, living, breathing piece of art,” Hornbeck says.
The artist who built this raw beauty is Patrick Sukraw, a 23-year-old who’s turned a love of metalwork into a hobby and part-time job out of his modest west Mesa garage.
He’s one of several mechanical tinkerers across the country who’ve taken a cue from shows like “Orange County Choppers” and “Monster Garage” — shows where mechanics and craftsmen whip up funky, stylish new rides — and turned their workshops into one-man, do-it-yourself custom bicycle shops.
“It’s always been something I wanted to do,” Sukraw says.
It makes sense to translate the motorcycle madness of “Choppers” to the more pedestrian world of bicycles. Constructing a custom bike is dramatically cheaper, faster and easier on the back than building its motorized brethren. It’s more affordable for curious buyers, too. All you need to start your shop is a corner of the garage, a welder, grinder and tube bender — $2,000 or so, and you’re ready to roll.
For 2 1/2 years, Sukraw’s been running Pattybilt, his metal fabrication shop, out of his garage and selling to customers on eBay and Craigslist. He sells frames for $250 to $450, and complete bikes higher than that.
So far, Sukraw’s best customers have been local: members of the East Valley’s Sidewalk Kings & Queens, a club that bar-hops on bicycles (“A bunch of hell-raisin,’ pedal-pushin’ beer drinkers!” its MySpace page heralds). Sukraw built four bikes for club members, including Hornbeck.
Except for Hornbeck’s raw-metal baby, they’re curvy, colorful lowriders — the frames swoop into sharp points like three-dimensional pinstriping; the pedals almost scrape the ground (they’re used as the kickstands, too). Fat whitewall tires round out the retro cool style.
Steve “Swindel” Swenson, 28, had his Pattybilt powder-coated a metallic blue to match his Chevy truck. Last night, he slapped a couple of foot pegs on the back tire.
“So I can take a girl home from the bar on my bicycle,” he says with a grin.
“We used to order frames and switch parts in and out,” says club member Ryan “Ryno” Campbell, a stocky dude whose orange Pattybilt ride sports spring shocks, the most advanced pieces of tech on one of Sukraw’s bikes. “Then I met Patty and told him I’d make him a millionaire.”
Bill Irvine, 64, has been an avid biker for as long as he can remember, but he didn't start building custom bicycles until his wife suggested he get a hobby after retiring. (Charmon Tenney/Special to Get Out)
Not that all part-time bike builders harbor fantasies of turning their whimsical art into serious cash. It’s still a labor of love for most.
In north Phoenix, retiree Bill Irvine, 64, crafts crazy bikes on the cheap. In the realm of custom bike builders, he’s a well-kept secret.
A diminutive fellow with close-cropped gray hair, a beer belly, faded U.S. Coast Guard tattoo on his forearm and spindly legs jutting from hilariously small red cotton shorts, Irvine says everyone calls him by his nickname, Yoda — a nod to the pint-size Jedi master of “Star Wars.” (“I just don’t have green skin and big ears,” he says.)
If anything Irvine, a former competitive weight lifter, resembles fitness guru Jack LaLanne. He’s intense, alternately dead serious and playful, cranky and cute. And, he says, he’s a devoted fitness nut.
“Welcome,” he says, taking a drag on his cigarette and motioning into the garage. “This is my mess.”
Gym equipment pocks the floor. A side wall is decorated in busty pinup posters — with a picture of Yoda at the center, looking like the leader of a space harem. Near the opposite wall rest the scraps and fragments of what will become another one of his mad creations. Another experiment in mutant bicycles.
You need a hobby
In a side yard that’s akin to the Island of Misfit Bikes, Irvine pulls together scrap parts from his salvaged cycles — donations from people who hear what he’s doing and freely give their junkers, kiddie bikes bought from the Salvation Army for $6 — along with raw metal tubing and whatever else comes to mind, cutting and welding and spray-painting the pieces into freaky-cool contraptions that are a far cry from store-bought cycles.
Three-wheeled recumbent bikes with seats made from elementary school desk chairs and rear-wheel drive that makes them slide into turns on the pavement. Two-wheelers with frames set so high they feel like tall unicycles or sporting front forks as tall as giraffes. He’s limited only by his creativity, he says.
“I don’t like the traditional stuff,” Irvine says. “I like my mind to just” — he flits his cigarette hand in the air — “run away.”
Irvine got into custom bicycle-making two years ago, shortly after retiring.
“It took my wife three weeks before telling me to find a hobby. I was driving her crazy,” he says.
He’d learned to weld in the Coast Guard and he’d been an avid bike rider his whole life. “I decided to take a shot at building them.”
He sells bikes at yard sales and whenever people see him testing his creations around the neighborhood. Someone told him about Craigslist, and he started posting cryptic announcements in the “for sale: bicycles” category: “See the 'Streaker’ next weekend ... Be the first in your neighborhood to have one.”
Will Russell, 34, of Mesa and his family drove to Irvine’s a few weeks ago and fell in love with his bikes. Russell bought a kid-size recumbent bike for his 6-year-old son, Riley, for — shhh — a Christmas present.
“I was amazed,” Russell says. “I was afraid of what he was selling it for.”
Sixty bucks, actually. Irvine sells his creations for $50 to $75 His bikes are custom made to get attention. Phoenix couple Shay Alber and Gwynne Sullivan, both 30, recently bought a couple of bikes — hers a green, swoopy beach cruiser, his a yellow monster that sits so high he had to install foot pegs to climb onto the seat — and say they always turn heads when riding.
“I think they have genders. His is masculine-looking and mine, I imagine, is an old Schwinn,” says Sullivan, adding that they haven’t given the bikes names just yet.
“We’ve just been calling them the yellow Frankenbike and the green Frankenbike.”