Wheels for swingers

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Ryan Beers rides his bike down a stretch of Sepulveda Boulevard in Culver City with the front wheel on top of the curb and the rear wheel down on the street.

It’s a neat trick that’s impossible for a normal bicycle but a breeze for this oddity called a swing bike. And San Diego entrepreneur Beers is intent on reviving it.

“I had to rub my eyes. It is almost like a horse sidestepping,” Shel Coburn said as he watched Beers’ tricks. Beers has the ability to not only turn on a dime, but to circle one.

Beers is one of the founders of Americas Bike Co., a San Diego start-up that has reinterpreted the short-lived, banana seat, chopper handlebar swing bike of the late 1970s as a modern beach cruiser.

“It spices up the boardwalk and makes a regular bike seem boring. It really attracts a crowd,” Beers said. The 27-year-old former BMX bike racer, with the help of silent partners, is investing $1.2 million in the business, which also includes a line of classic cruisers.

In a standard bicycle, the rider can go only in the direction that the handlebars turn. However, a swing bike has a hinge on the tube that connects to the seat. This allows the rear end of the bike to move independently from the front.

“It allows you to dodge things in the middle of the road, ride on two different levels and do all sorts of wild things,” said Shepard Bassett, an Olympia, Wash., resident and one of the many swing bike fans who congregate on the Internet.

Bassett still rides a version of the bike he made as a teenager in the late 1970s after seeing television advertisements for the original swing bike.

“I still ride my bike every chance I get,” said Bassett, 46.

Beers, the former manager of a San Diego bicycle shop, got the idea of bringing the bike back after seeing someone ride an old Sting-Ray-style swinger along Pacific Beach two years ago.

“We sat down and designed a more ridable, functional swing bike that would be a cruiser, and we made sure they were durable,” Beers said.

The bicycles are manufactured at a factory in China. They retail for $349. Beers sells the bicycles online at America’s Bike Company and through seven dealers on the West Coast, including WheelWorld Bicycles in Culver City and Woodland Hills.

“Its cool and styling. We are getting a lot of looks and people are testing them,” said Mike Moore, manager of the Culver City store.

Moore said the first buyers will be people looking for something trendy to ride along Southern California beaches.

Enthusiast Bob Hufford, a Springfield, Mo., computer programmer, said the original swing bike sold for about $100. It came with instructions for organizing slaloms and obstacle courses as well as teaching riders to do tricks such as the famous curb ride that Beers executed, and, of course, the wheelie.

Hufford said the early bikes disappeared in the late 1970s, done in by a wave of bicycle safety consciousness. “I think because of the inherent danger of this type of bicycle, dealers were probably freaked out by it,” said Hufford, who maintains a website devoted to the bicycle style.

Mothers, he said, probably were concerned that their children would crash while trying to accomplish some of the tricks.

The hinge on the seat tube makes the bikes less stable than traditional bicycles, Hufford said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has not examined the new cruiser-style version sold by Americas Bike Co., but spokesman Scott Wolfson acknowledged that bikes rank among the top products for recalls and malfunctions.

He also noted that the commission advocated the use of bicycle helmets. None of the bikini-clad women or other riders in Americas Bike’s promotional materials and Web videos wear helmets.

Other companies have ridden down this road before, trying to bring back swingers, but failed because it was too small a niche, Hufford said.

So far, Beers’ company has made about 600 of the bikes and sold fewer than 100.

But the swing bike is just one of his product lines. Beers expects Americas Bike’s better sellers will be its classic-style Rasta line of cruisers decorated in Caribbean yellow, red and green with painted marijuana leaf accents along with a soon-to-be-unveiled line of cruisers in college, fraternity and sorority colors and logos.

Swing bicycle fans Hufford and Bassett hope Americas Bike succeeds. “I am glad they are manufacturing the swing bike again,” Hufford said. “People will find that they are really fun to ride.”