Choppers without borders
Custom-built bicycle club attracts creative fans from around the world
While the traditional Friday the 13th gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts was taking place in Port Dover, a celebration of two-wheeled machines of a different kind was taking place in Toronto.
The Chopaderos, a club for custom-built bicycle hobbyists around the world, descended on the city for a three-day meet and cruise, to check out the local sights and show off their creations.
?It?s the last real art of the street,? says John Brain, a member of the Ontario chapter. ?You can be truly creative and have something that nobody else has.?
Each Chopadero bicycle is customized to the taste of its owner, which takes place in varying degrees.
Some people build from the ground up to their own specifications. Others buy beach cruiser frames and snap on parts they find online or on their travels. And the option exists to buy a custom bike created by one of the other club members.
All of them share a deep passion for the creativity that custom bike-building affords, and for travelling with their creations to far-flung destinations to foster friendships with like-minded people.
Brain says the custom-bicycle hobby got a humble beginning in the garages of California in the 1950s.
?It started with young teenagers who weren?t old enough to have driver?s licences,? he says. ?Through their bicycles, they wanted to emulate the style of custom motorcycles.?
Brain first pursued the hobby himself in the 1970s, and it enjoyed success throughout that decade. But in the 1980s, it went through a period of sharp decline.
?Here I was, alone, working on these bikes,? he recalls. ?I thought, ?That?s it, this is the end.? ?
But the movement picked up steam again in the mid-1990s in the same place it began, in the garages of California, where the low-rider bicycle trend brought custom building back to the fore.
The gathering of North American enthusiasts in a more organized fashion got its roots about 13 years ago in Amsterdam, where the world?s largest bike-choppers meet still takes place each July.
A builder by the nickname of Fonda attended a meet there and, upon returning to his home in California, established the Chopaderos club.
The Ontario chapter shares a similar genesis, after four enthusiasts went to Amsterdam in 2006, met Fonda and other club members, and decided to bring the culture home with them.
Although the similarities to motorcycle clubs are impossible to ignore, the Chopaderos members insist their culture is different.
?It?s just a tongue-in-cheek thing,? says Trish Murphy of Toronto, who hosted the Friday the 13th cruise that took 45 club members ? hailing from the United States, France, Germany, Holland, Finland, Australia, and other locales ? through the streets of Liberty Village and Kensington Market, before culminating in a bike ride across the Toronto Islands to watch the sun set on the western shore.
Riders Wilma and Alex are a married couple from Holland. Wilma was born in Kingston, Ont., and the promise of a cruise with the Chopaderos brought her back to Canada for the first time in 32 years.
?The Chopaderos, and everybody who rides, accepts everybody,? she says of what makes bike chopper clubs different. ?It?s not like the motor groups where you have to be a part of something.?
Brain sees the difference from a more practical perspective. ?It?s probably harder to make a custom bicycle (than a custom motorcycle) because literally nothing is available,? he says. ?If you want something really great, you have to create everything.?
He would know. His copper-coloured, highly angular custom creation won first place in the newly minted Full Custom Bicycle Class of the competition at this year?s Toronto Tattoo and Motorcycle Show.
?Only your imagination and your wallet are a limitation to what you can do,? he says with evident pride.
The motivations members express for joining the Chopaderos and cruising with them the world over are as diverse as the people themselves.
Mitch from Ottawa got into the hobby for selfish reasons. ?I was a custom motorcycle builder all my life until about eight or nine years ago,? he says. He then looks down at his belly and gives it a pat. ?I said, ?I think I?d better put some pedals on one.? Then I ended up finding a whole bunch of people who were into it.?
Wilma says the passion evolves over time. ?It?s like an addiction, actually,? she says. ?At first, you?re just looking at the bicycles and all the special stuff on them. Afterwards, you go beyond that and it becomes about the friendships.
?It?s strange because we?re here on the other side of the ocean and we?re still with the same friends. It doesn?t feel like we?re away at all.?
An Australian club member, who would only introduce himself as Ancs, has 13 bikes in his garage at home and is in the middle of building two more. ?I should sell them, but I like them too much,? he says.
He was more forthright than the others in describing what drives his passion.
?Drinking and bikes,? he says with a laugh. ?That?s pretty much all we do is go from couch to couch around the world having good times on good bikes.?
Brain is able to look at his passion from the perspective of decades of involvement. Unlike in times past, his current outlook is brimming with optimism.
?I think meets like this show exactly how strong (the hobby) really is ? when you have this kind of intense international interest in what this is all about.
?It?s something that, once you get it in you, for some people, like me, it becomes a love and you cannot get it out of your system.
?It?s going strong and it?s going forward, and I can?t see an end in sight.?
- WH-CHOPADEROS28 12 june 2014. The Chopaderos, an international group of bicycle enthusiasts, meets for ride. In this photo, John Brain of London, Ont. KEITH BEATY/Toronto Star