Early Sunday morning not long ago, on a southern stretch of Western Avenue, it was shaping up to be one of those days where the colors seem scrubbed bright and washed clean. Ronnie Wilson was sitting calmly at a picnic table in the center of 39th Street Park, a blockwide spread of burnt grass necklaced by battered chain link. All around him, various members of the Elite Bike Club were hard at work, oiling up ostrich-skin banana seats, polishing mirrors, dusting thumbprints off long and graceful handlebars. The sounds of Al Green, Nelly and Missy Elliot rose up from various speakers and tangled in the warm air.
It was four years ago that Wilson, quietly sitting on his porch in South-Central, glanced up and caught sight of something he'd never seen before, a glittering and high-chromed work of art spinning up the street on two black wheels. It was a "lowrider" bicycle, a gleaming and polished product of imagination and elbow grease. Wilson was mesmerized.
"I remember thinking, 'That is just about the coolest thing I've ever seen,' " he says, with a dreamy look in the eye. "And I said to myself, 'I want one of those.' "
Now, nearly half a decade later, Wilson has his lowrider bike and a whole lot more. He is the founder and president of Elite, a loosely organized club of fellow lowrider lovers who share his passion for the creatively customized, ecologically sound means of transport.
"I wanted to start this club," says Wilson, "for the most part because I thought it would be a good time."
Elite consists of roughly 50 members, the bulk of them 30 to 50 years old (although there are a few grandkids/honorary members, and one rider in good standing who is pushing 79).
Despite their age, Elite members mount their bikes with the enthusiasm of kids cruising the neighborhood just a few hours post-training wheels.
"They say you're once an adult and twice a child," smiles a thin and handsome man known as "The Professor," "and we're definitely playing with our inner child here."
Out on the grass, Elite is strutting its collaborative stuff. A woman gracefully straddles a violet-hued bike, its handlebars decorated with a wreath of colorful fabric flowers and a stack of small stereo speakers. Next to her, a little boy is riding an impossibly tiny gold bike in slow and meditative circles.
On the other side of the park, a man is standing proudly beside a shiny blue number that sits low to the ground, a graceful curve of polished chrome hugging the back of its plush velvet seat. At first glance, this sweep of metal of looks like ornamentation, but on closer inspection one can make out words formed in the chrome, a swooping and perfect cursive, which spells out the phrase, "Baby, you got me all twisted up!"
Another bicycle parked close by utilizes the same method, only this time the message reads, "All eyes on me."
And the fact is, on the days Elite members meet and ride, all eyes are on them. They are king of the streets, the kind of people brave enough to abandon expectation in favor of a whimsical defiance, a "cool" created on their own terms.
"When we ride," says the Professor, "it's a powerful thing. We ride all the way to Griffith Park, all the way to Venice and it doesn't seem long at all, because people are smiling and people are waving and we're together. So the time passes fast."
Suddenly, a late-'70s Chevy van zooms into the parking lot, blasting a lost Donnie Hathaway track at full, half-distorted volume. A tall man hops out and slides open the doors to reveal a shag interior filled to the brim with custom bikes. With an enormous grin, he introduces himself as "Mark the Barber," and begins to lay each bike out on the grass as if it were a small and delicate child.
"I have 18 of these!" he says proudly.
It can cost anywhere from $250 to $2,500 for a customized show bike, which means (despite the Professor's words) that Elite membership is more than mere child's play.
"We do this because it make us feel good," explains DeWayne Parham, Elite's main organizer and Wilson's second in command, "and because it makes other people feel good. But it's not just about the fun."
For Parham, or "Mr. P," as he is better known, organization is an art form. He runs Elite as a tight ship, and doesn't put up with any misbehaving. For him, this is the very serious business of enjoying oneself, of being part of something bigger than you and appreciating the camaraderie without taking advantage of it.
Elite membership ($25 to join, $10 monthly fee) comes with responsibility, and the key word is "respect."
For Mr. P and the others, Elite is more than a monthly bike ride, more than an outlet for the imagination or a decent way to get some exercise. It's an identity, a way of being yourself and finding yourself, all at once.
This becomes wonderfully evident when Mr. P clears his throat, glances up into the morning sky and begins to read the Elite oath, the text of which he penned.
Other members of Elite gather around a picnic table as he speaks, their heads bowed in something like reverence.
"We are unique in our style and expression," Mr. P says firmly, "through our strength and the sweetness of harmony. We are unique, with higher hopes for humanity. We are intelligent achievers, we are the fist of champions, one fist raised among many, we move in progression.
"We are Elite Bike Riders, and we make a difference."
Jessica Hundley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elite Bike Club
Where: 39th Street Park at Western and 39th St., L.A. group rides in Dec. 6 Watts Parade.
When: Group ride, 9 a.m. Dec. 13; next meeting 1 p.m. Dec. 20.
Cost: Custom bikes range from $250 to $2,500.
Customizing: Manny's Bike Shop, 400 E. Rosecrans Ave., Compton, (310) 632-4868, or www.loficustoms.com.