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Bike Zoo's Zest for Life

There's no short of imaginative puppetry with this bicycle troupe

By Ramon Martinez, Fri., Dec. 16, 2011

Bike Zoo participants ride their bike reindeer to the Capitol on Dec. 3 for the annual tree-lighting festivities.
Bike Zoo participants ride their bike reindeer to the Capitol on Dec. 3 for the annual tree-lighting festivities.
Photo courtesy of Ramon Martinez

Behind an unassuming corrugated steel gate on Austin's central Eastside, the Bike Zoo workshop is abuzz. On this day in early December, three young women, recent arrivals from the West Coast, known affectionately as the Oregonians, are spray-gluing strips of leather into the shape of animal ears and painting them white. "To match the reindeer," explains Jessie Von Curry.

Across the sprawling yard of the workspace, Mike Caballero and Grant Schauhut run along a 40-foot Santa's sleigh built atop a train of bikes. Connecting wires and lights while drilling antlers into white foam reindeer heads, they start and stop with impromptu ideas and spontaneous revisions. A guy by the name of Dallas, who turns out to have ridden his bike 2,000 miles to Austin, is taking quick directions from the man at the center of this bike-building orchestra.

Jeremy Rosen's straight talk belies what his incredible bike creations have become since starting the Bike Zoo in 2005. The nonprofit spends much of its time providing community outreach on the creative possibilities of bicycles. The zoo made its public debut in 2005 at First Night Austin, the now-defunct New Year's Eve event Down­town. Denizens of Austin during the last six years will most likely remember the zoo from its fully opposable 80-foot snake skeleton, pedal powered, like all of Rosen's creations, by a team of face-painted, costumed riders. If not the snake or its current residence with the cats on the G'Raj Mahal patio, then probably the flapping bat sign bike or the fluttering butterflies and kicking praying mantis bikes. Or maybe you saw the flatbed bike-truck pulling a live band?

Earlier this year, Bike Zoo packed up its gear for a trip south to Presidio, Texas, crossing into Ojinaga, Chihuahua, in a hilarious video made with the approval of the Mexican Consulate. A group of bike-riding Chihuahuan 10-year-olds, their families standing nearby in stunned amusement, seem to make clear what the political implications of international border crossings on community powered kinetic sculptures may be. But back at the shop off of Martin Luther King Boulevard on this December day, time is of the essence: The Bike Zoo is a centerpiece of the Capitol Christmas tree lighting event, one of an increasing number of public appearances on a growing list of calendar dates. "We've totally upped the standard," says Rosen of his group's growth from early roots as a cycle circus at the city's First Night events. The zoo has a stunning amount of homegrown energy and ingenuity, their creativity as massive as the creations and the place where they're made. "I've been here in this space since I was 21," says Rosen, explaining later that he's "just always been into building big, heavy bikes."

"Pedal, pedal, pedal!" cheers Caballero on the Saturday of the tree lighting, steering at the head of the giant bike snake, four guys from the University of Texas track team moonlighting as the snake's pedal power. Up front, Rosen rides Rudolph on a decked-out bike sleigh, and the holiday-themed creation fits right in as it guides the rest of the zoo down a decorated Old Pecan Street, better known as Sixth Street. The sidewalks become a shooting gallery, iPhones and PowerShots at attention. Soon people are running from the bars begging for rides.

Arriving at 12th Street, the Bike Zoo is well ahead of time, catching its Santa half-dressed on the Capitol lawn. Ask Rosen why he does it, and he succinctly responds, "For fun." No doubt about it though, even when Santa's sleigh is at rest and the bike snake is parked to the liking of the State Troopers, the Bike Zoo is at work. Peddlers break to get food and share water, while Rosen and Caballero throw on extra lights in the setting sun. "We want to come to your neighborhood and be at your celebration," explains Rosen, running off to check in with his Santa, who's now more Jerry Garcia than Kris Kringle. In the dusk, the Bike Zoo really comes to life, its lights reflecting off the bemused faces of people gazing as the different creatures zoom in and around each other at the foot of the Capitol.

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