How island surfers shaped the modern-day beach bike
According to local lore, Galveston’s surfing culture changed the entire cycling world.
Jeff Nielsen, owner of Island Bicycle Co. in Galveston, loves to tell the story.
“In the ’60s, surfers didn’t really have the best reputation,” Nielsen said. “They lived to surf — and that was about all. Holding a job or owning a car wasn’t really a priority.”
Because of this lifestyle, surfers — coast to coast — generally scavenged for transportation.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the bicycle industry began introducing lighter bikes with multiple speeds, hand brakes and narrow tires. Surfers soon found the older, heavier bicycles leaning against dumpsters free for the taking. The discarded bikes, with sturdy frames, balloon tires and kick brakes, worked great for getting around the sand and saltwater. Thus, was born the term “beach cruiser.”
And it is right about here when a frustrated surfer in Galveston changed the world.
“So one guy, after having trouble carrying his surfboard on his bike — the board kept banging on the low-rise handlebars — came up with an idea,” Nielsen said. “Walking into the bike shop on Broadway, he asked them to put a pair of the then new high-rise handlebars on his old bike.”
Fast forward to 2015, and beach cruisers, particularly those with high-rise bars, are some of the hottest bike categories. Ranging in cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, the style is now the go-to bike for millions of people around the world. And according to bike fans, the popular high-rise look was born in Galveston.
Nielsen gave me an opportunity to ride just one example — a modern version made by Felt Bicycles, a California manufacturer. While known for professional and high-level bicycles, the company periodically builds short run bikes of special interest. The one Nielsen shares with me is one such model.
Built specifically for energy drink company Monster Energy, this model is a surfer’s dream bike. Handlebars gently rise up to comfortably fit at shoulder level. An oversize leather seat embossed with a skull and roses invites you to invest a few hours. Oversize whitewall tires accent brushed aluminum wheels, demanding attention from everyone within a quarter mile. This is, essentially, one bad boy of a ride.
Pressing down on the oversize pedals, the lightweight aluminum frame easily moves forward. What surprises me is how comfortable the riding position proves. With arms elevated to shoulder level, the center of gravity follows along. As opposed to a standard cruiser bar, in which the bar height is relatively flat and draws your weight forward, the Galveston-inspired high-rise bars take on an entirely new flow. Sitting up and relaxed, you can’t help but feel a kinship to Peter Fonda in the classic film, “Easy Rider.”
Yes, a great cruiser can get between your ears.
For the next 10 minutes, I ride along the water enjoying my newfound coolness. My top speed approaches an estimated 4.5 mph simply because I can’t imagine who would want to rush such an experience.
Pulling back into the parking lot, I discover my temporary coolness evaporating under the hot afternoon sun. The special cruiser comes to a halt with a soft touch of the kick brakes. Sadly, my temporary detour into a world accompanied by a twisted soundtrack of the unholy marriage of Jimmy Buffett and Steppenwolf, comes to an end.
Come to think of it, no one should be too surprised this all started in Galveston.