Boise's DIY Bikes Hit the Streets 

Riders craft custom rides

Sonya Lenzi is a prolific builder of custom bicycles.

Patrick Sweeney

Sonya Lenzi is a prolific builder of custom bicycles.

When Don Clark rides his custom-built prone bicycle, it's pretty much assured that he'll receive more than a few double takes from passersby on the Greenbelt.

Rather than sitting on his seat, Clark rides with his body pitched forward at a slight incline inches above the road, his body resting on a khaki-colored inflatable bag.

"My intention was to make a faster bicycle and a smoother bicycle," Clark said of his unusual design.

The result is a profile that reduces wind resistance and a system that increases the power generated by the rider's legs, propelling the bike at speeds up to 30 percent faster than the same rider could achieve on an upright frame.

Despite its exotic appearance, the only part of Clark's prone bicycle that differs from its more staid counterparts is the inflatable bag; and, while it's far from the only custom-built bike in Boise, Clark's design is a case study in the myths surrounding bike building and the relative ease with which a commuter, cruiser or even a mountain bike can be constructed by practically anyone with a budget, a few parts and a set of hex wrenches.

"All it was, was conventional frame-building supplies," he said. "It's exactly what bicycles have always been."

So far, Clark has built three custom prone frames at a cost of between $2,000 and $3,000, not including components, but said that if he were to mass produce the bikes, their retail price would be within the range people pay for traditional custom bikes--between $1,000 and $10,000.

Clark hopes to sell his prone bicycles, but said he feels American cycle culture marginalizes alternative designs as expensive, frivolous and dangerous. He's quick to point out, though, that because of a low center of gravity and long frame, prone bicycles are more maneuverable and brake more quickly than their upright counterparts.

"You build the fastest bicycle on Earth but nobody takes it seriously: It's a novelty," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of people I ask to try it out say, 'No, I'd die.' Nobody will ride it."

Bicycle building doesn't have to be a pricey affair. Mobile bike mechanic Andrew Little, who has constructed hundreds of custom cycles, has assembled bikes for as little as $200 to as much as $8,000.

"Basically, the sky's the limit," he said.

Many of Little's customers come to him with salvaged or custom frames, looking to fit them with brakes, gear cassettes, derailleurs and other components that can range in cost between a few shekels to bank-breaking. The appeal of high-quality bike parts and aesthetic considerations is high enough that Little said it can be hard for a first-time builder to maintain a budget.

"You can add custom paint, all kinds of stuff," he said.

The most important question he asks anyone interested in a custom build is what the bike will be used for. This is a primary consideration for builders because it determines the kinds of parts needed to build a bike, the applicability of the frame, maintenance issues and how to realize the project affordably.

So-called "fixies"--bikes without escapement mechanisms on the back gear, which causes the pedals to turn if the wheel is spinning--have six moving parts, fewer than any other kind of bike, and require less maintenance. They're difficult to ride uphill, but are ideal for use in town.

"It's really hard to destroy one completely," Little said.

By contrast, mountain bikes need much more maintenance. Dirt and grease glom onto vulnerable parts like chains and disc brakes, resulting in wear and tear, and after each ride, the pneumatic shocks need to be pumped with fresh air.

According to Little, building bikes can be relatively simple with a little know-how and the how-to guides, but the process can be technical, and it pays to consult with someone who has built bikes before building one's own.

"The more I learn about bicycles, the more I realize I have to use reference materials on a daily basis. It's like a friggin' Zen garden, in a way," he said.

It's a process that can be intimidating, but that hasn't stopped one of Little's regular customers, Sonya Lenzi, a prolific builder of bikes. In her garage are five cruisers, which she has named Minerva, Athena, Aphrodite, Diana and Cherry.

Lenzi's love for bikes began as a child riding her lime-green Stingray, but it wasn't until college, when she lived with a boyfriend who built his own bikes, that she took an interest in constructing one of her own.

"Our living room was this bike contraption area," she said.

She built her first cruiser--Athena--in 1998, when she returned to Boise after college. The front wheel had been irreparably damaged, the paint was chipped and the components were ruined, but Lenzi loved the frame and its teal color, and bought it from the Idaho Youth Ranch for $25, ultimately spending another $100 collecting parts and building the bike.

"I try and add on new componentry; it just dresses up the bike," Lenzi said.

The most expensive bike Lenzi has built is Cherry, which has its titular fruit emblazoned on the tubing, courtesy of Little. All told, she spent $250 buying parts and building up from the frame.

An interior designer, Lenzi has achieved a fusion between her bikes and her passion for aesthetics.

"Design has always been part of my life," she said. "I wanted things to have a nice flow."

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