City cruisin' on retro wheels
At a swap meet in Seattle in 2003, Neil Fairall came down with the “cruiser bike sickness”. The source of the illness was a 1959 Schwinn Jaguar in a cherry red that was faded from the sun. It had whitewall tires and chrome fenders. It came with a speedometer and a two-speed hub, but it was missing the rear rack and faux gas tank. Although Fairall had been an avid mountain biker for over 10 years, he admits that he has barely touched his mountain bike since catching the cruiser bug. The 30-something, who works as a props master in the local film industry, now spends most of his spare time collecting vintage cruiser bikes. He admits that he’s had a hand in spreading the “cruiser bike sickness” throughout Vancouver.
He and others like him seem to be having some success. According to numbers supplied by the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, nationally there was a 40-percent increase in supplier-to-retailer cruiser bike sales in the first three months of this year compared with 2009.
Fairall, who’s also known as the Cruiser Bike Kid, owns 40 vintage cruiser bikes built between 1939 and 1965. Having owned over 200 vintage bicycles since 2003, he has been a major distributor in the city. In fact, Fairall has so many bicycles that he’s had to resort to storing them in locations all over the city and beyond: in a friend’s old barn, in local restaurants as part of displays, in pubs and bike shops, at a friend’s house on Vancouver Island, in storage areas used by the local film industry, and in the garage of his house in East Vancouver. Fairall favours bicycles with original parts and paint. He loves the patina of older bikes, such as a touch of rust, paint that’s been faded by the sun, or wear on the gas tank from the motion of legs pedalling.
“If you find a cool, old bike, odds are you’ll never see another one like it. I’m just a purist: I think it’s blasphemy to separate pieces from it,” Fairall explains.
He’s spread his love for these bikes by informally coordinating a vintage-only cruiser ride, which takes place every year at the end of June, and last year he started the Vancouver Wheelmen. This club is for owners of vintage bicycles 1969 and older who want to find vintage cruisers and keep their bikes as original as possible.
Fairall’s bicycles are in use all over the city—he knows for certain that 40 of his refurbished bicycles are currently being ridden. He repairs and searches endlessly for parts for these vintage bicycles, mainly as a hobby. His bicycles are so authentic that they’ve been featured in films such as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and the soon-to-be-released Frankie and Alice, as well as McDonald’s commercials and country-music videos. Renting them to the film industry, he explains, has simply helped him to further justify his obsession: it allowed him to purchase more vintage bicycles.
Fairall was first introduced to the cruiser bike scene in Vancouver by Rod Kirkham. Kirkham is fondly known as the “Pappy” of cruising, as he was the first person to bring new and vintage cruisers to Vancouver from the U.S. in the late 1980s. This laid-back bike mechanic started regular cruiser rides throughout the city by accident: in 1992, he celebrated his birthday with a few friends.
“It was my birthday and I used to own my own shop, called Mountain and Beach Bikes”¦and we just had read in a magazine about somewhere in the States, this town or whatever, had been doing these cruiser rides,” Kirkham explains. “We thought it looked kind of fun. A couple of us had bikes, so we went to Stanley Park and had throwing egg contests and riding two-by-four contests.” It’s now known as Pappy’s Birthday Ride, and Kirkham led the way around Stanley Park for his 54th birthday at the end of May with about 80 cruiser riders participating, despite heavy showers. Kirkham’s ride is just one of many annual cruiser rides, many of which attract hundreds of people with new and old bikes.
While Kirkham and Fairall prefer vintage bikes, they acknowledge that they aren’t typically available in local bike shops. In order to enter the cruiser scene, they begrudgingly acknowledge that it’s likely best to buy a brand-new bike, as most major bike manufacturers make a cruiser model.
Since Kirkham led the way with sales of new cruiser bikes in the late ’80s, he has seen a steady rise in sales of the bikes. He points out that new cruisers can be inexpensive, and that over the last 10 years he has seen more and more cruiser customers at Ride On, where he works. One of the major cruiser bike shops, Ride On has sold about 250 cruiser bikes every summer in the last decade, Kirkham estimates.
Julie Bischoff, co-owner of the Denman Bike Shop, which specializes in cruiser bikes, estimates that the store has seen an annual 20-percent rise in cruiser bike sales over the past few years. Bischoff says they’re seeing cruiser bikes become more popular with couples who want to spend time together doing something active. Their popularity, she believes, is linked to Vancouverites’ desire for individuality: with a wide variety of paints, styles, and customizable options, “It’s an opportunity to express your personality.”
With the rising popularity of both vintage and “new school” cruising in Vancouver, Kirkham and Fairall encourage riders to explore the city. Fairall points out that although the Stanley Park seawall is thought of as “cruiser heaven” for its flat, paved path and panoramic views, “in the summertime it gets so busy that it’s hard to enjoy riding around it, so we’re finding other routes or we’re doing it at night.” He encourages riders to consider cruising beyond the seawall, using the SkyTrain to access areas such as scenic routes in Richmond and the Central Valley Greenway, for instance.
Fairall seems driven to spread the love for cruiser bicycles all over the city. He’s even been working on his own family. Four years after he bought the cherry-red Jaguar, he found a matching girl’s bike in the same colour and vintage for his wife. Last summer, he bought the children’s version in the same colour and vintage as well. Now he has to wait for his daughter to be “vintage enough” to really catch the “cruiser bike sickness”: she’s only two years old.