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Collectors Wheel and Deal on Bikes

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ON a quiet Sunday morning on the industrial side of a Boston suburb, die-hard enthusiasts of vintage American bikes congregate at a makeshift ``showroom'' - a deserted parking lot.

Inside this barbed-wire space, a handful of serious collectors from across New England proudly display their bikes. Built between the 1890s and 1960s, the 120 models range in price from $5 to $5,200.

Wearing a long ponytail and a crinkled straw hat, event organizer Dan Fields greets visitors to the first annual Yankee Bicycle Show. ``It's a hunk of humanity stuck on bicycles,'' he says, looking back at the crowd with a smile.

Across the country, the buzz surrounding old bikes is broadening. In addition to swap-meet forums like this, where rows of (mostly) rusty clunkers are bartered and sold, bicycles are also beginning to show up in swankier spots like antique-car shows and auction houses. Exquisitely restored and spit-shined, these bikes have reached the status of art objects: One auction house recently sold a 1950s bicycle for $15,000. Three Bowden Spacelander ``originals'' (restored with original parts) were recently featured in the Hammecher-Schlemmer mail-order catalog for $15,000 apiece.

Bikes have been elevating to collectable status in investors' minds, says Bruce Burgess, assistant director of the Bicycle Institute in Washington, D.C., an industry-supported promotional group.

But the most passionate collectors are bike mechanics, former bike racers, and nostalgic adults. ``The discussion of value is of very little interest to these kinds of collectors,'' Mr. Burgess says. ``They get pure enjoyment simply from gazing at them and riding them. Their interest rests in preserving bicycle folklore and artifacts of a period.''

Burgess points to other signs of vintage-bike popularity: Just this past year, two dedicated individuals started small-scale bicycle museums: Pedaling History (the Burgwardt Bicycle Museum) in Orchard Park, N.Y., and the American Bicycle Museum (formerly Schwinn's corporate museum) in Chicago. They join the longstanding National Bicycle History Archives of America in Santa Ana, Calif., which houses some 30,000 bike manufacturing catalogs.

For all collectors, tracking down old bikes can be a long and slow journey. Unlike the well-established links among antique-car or baseball-card fans, bike-collectors' ties are flimsy.

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