Rituals: Shifting Their Focus with the SoCal Klunkers

During pandemic’s worst days, avid cyclists gather to get out of the house.

Rituals SoCal Klunkers Biking Group Orange Coast Magazine 2

You hear them before you see them. An approaching rabble of hundreds of bicycle bells trilling, gears switching, chains clicking, boom boxes blasting, a steady downbeat.

“Scary racket,” to some of my neighbors. “Magical” is what legions of onlookers call them. They climb out of their cars to take photos and cheer on this undulation of bicyclists as if they were the Tour de France, which they most assuredly are not. For starters, they’re riding clunkers and cruisers.

Meet the So Cal Klunkers, a new group of cyclists who decided in the dark days of stay-at-home orders that there’s strength in numbers. They’ve met every Monday night since summer 2020 to cycle en masse for 15 miles throughout the neighborhoods of Santa Ana, Irvine, Anaheim, Orange, and other parts of central county. Rollout is 7:14 p.m., an area code most of the Klunkers proudly call home. Starting with a handful of friends who were feeling cooped up during quarantine, the Klunkers usually number 250 now. Everyone is welcome, and the rides attract all ages and skill levels.

“At first, nobody even knew each other,” says Robert Vasquez, a Westminster CAD engineer. “But my first ride, I was hooked.” Vasquez shows off his swing bike, which is full of tricks because he can steer the front and back wheels. (A 1970s invention, the swing bike was discontinued in 1978 but recently brought back by Americas Bike Company in San Diego). Vasquez is a leader of the safety crew, pulling up the rear of the group and heavily loaded with inner tubes, tools, inflators, and tire patches, along with first-aid items. Many owners of small bike shops donate supplies, and some ride with the Klunkers.

Seeing so many bikes approach might be more overwhelming than hearing them. They look like a hive full of bees migrating, one giant buzzing organism bulging in and out at the walls.

And the laughter. How long has it been since we’ve heard live laughter, not from a can?

Of course, not everyone is laughing. A few neighbors have expressed outrage on Nextdoor, along the lines of “What gives them the right” to block traffic. One complained she’d been delayed for a few minutes as the Klunkers passed through a busy intersection.

Normally the Klunkers stick to neighborhood routes, away from major thoroughfares. Several group leaders take turns mapping out routes away from major streets every week. But some intersections are hard to avoid.

“Things have changed. There (are lots of ) people now in Orange County,” Orange resident Eli “Pollo” Lopez says. “They’re always in a hurry. You know what, people? We aren’t living in Orange County anymore. We’re living in New York City now.” Lopez, who owns Shoreline Furnishings, shines his 1930 prewar Schwinn tall frame. It has been fully tricked out in purple with gold leafing, a custom creation by Felix bike shop in Gardena, whose owner rides with the Klunkers.

Klunkers cofounder “Big Frank” Peña of Santa Ana says safety is the group’s main concern, with skilled cyclists assigned to manage the crowd.

Peña rides a gorgeous Schwinn with blue tires and brown gum walls. “We do positive things for the community,” he says. “We bring families and kids out.”

The group also hosts an annual toy drive for low-income children.

Perhaps because of its name, the group first attracted a lot of bona fide clunkers (’70s-era off-road cruisers), and there are still plenty of those. But the group has evolved in the past year toward more upmarket, homemade bikes and specialization.

As more people took to their bikes during the early days of the pandemic, it was hard to find outdoor gear.

“You couldn’t buy a bike at Walmart or Target, even at the bike stores,” says Vasquez, who made his first swing bike and then later was able to buy one.

Many of the Klunkers started learning to build their own bikes, some of them doing their own welding. Most start with a Schwinn base and add parts from Santa Ana, which some con- sider the epicenter of the BMX world locally, with plenty of welders, bike manufacturers, painters, and parts for dealers to access.

Rituals Bike Ridding SoCal Klunkers Orange Coast Magazine

The real trick if you want to go is locating the Klunkers’ weekly routes. They are accessible only on Instagram. They meet Monday nights at parks and parking lots. Some of the purists gather an hour before the ride—trading tips, talking of powder coats and spokes.

I would not call this two-hour ride leisurely, though leaders tell me they try to keep speeds at less than 20 mph. Collisions are few, but they tend to happen in the center of the group, where there can be a bunching-up effect.

The ride isn’t for the weather-intolerant. Numbers drop significantly in the dark and cold of winter. But hundreds of these cyclists are ride-or-die types, having been soaked in pounding rains, buffeted by Santa Ana winds, and caught in lightning storms. The nights I meet them, it’s dipping into the 40s.

Similar rides are scattered throughout Southern California. Santa Barbara has a Schwinn group. Las Vegas had a ride that attracted 5,000 participants. Santa Ana has a second club, known as the 29ers, for their 29-inch BMX bikes. Anaheim also has its BLVD Toros, fixie road bikes. San Diego and Riverside have clubs, too.

The newly formed Klunkers might already be one of the largest groups. Varying their route every Monday night, they also change their “pit stops” at mom-and-pop eateries to support local businesses. One restaurant offers the cyclists dollar tacos.

For some reason, most of the real bike geeks are men. I have to look around to find a woman. Monique Gonzalez of Buena Park, who has biked with the group for more than a year, steers toward the parking lot exit because 7:14 p.m. is upon us.

“When you’re on your bike, you feel like a kid again,” she says. She disappears, laughing, into the darkness.

To laugh, to feel like a kid again. To learn how to make your own bike that is a piece of art. To ride among 8-year-old and 80-year-old fans. To feel safe on city streets, riding a bike at night.

I can see where the Klunkers could be a nuisance, but there’s something about them I love. I think it’s that they hearken back to a sense of small town that seems to be disappearing.

I also agree with those who think they could be a safety hazard. But I’d rather have bike lovers out there ringing their bells and lighting up the dark than some of the after-dark alternatives.

FIND THEM | @socal_klunkers on Instagram

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