Of Custom Bikes and Trophy Wives


Sideburn's Gary Inman on the co-optation of the alt. bike scene

The annexation of the most vibrant motorcycle sub-culture in decades didn’t take long.

Danish crew the Wrenchmonkees began to get noticed back in 2008, maybe the tail-end of 2007, but 2008 really. That, as far as I’m concerned, is Year Zero for the garage-built bike scene, as espoused by websites like Bike Exif and The Bike Shed – both launched after the Monkees started swinging.

To re-cap, the Danes modified cheap, old Japanese bikes using an open-mindedness of influences few had thought to mash together. Then they rode in the kind of streetwear that hadn’t been linked with sportsbikes. Crucially, because two of the original three Monkees were photographers, they shot their bikes in such a way that when put up on blogger, or the then infant tumblr, these modified bikes caught the eyes of a thousand disaffected motorcyclists. People, like me, who were desperately waiting for a two-wheeled counter-culture that didn’t have to involve American V-twins, Italian scooters or joining a club. Proper culture with art and photography and cross-pollination.

Headder_Rex_1 It’s difficult to overestimate the influence of the Wrenchmonkees (pic: Wrenchmonkees)

It also attracted the butterflies of creative industries, who hadn’t considered owning a bike until then.

The social media revolution delivered the message of the Wrenchmonkees instantly. There was no waiting for imported magazines – the only way hardcore bike fans used to be able to learn about other the bike scenes of other countries.

Bike blogs exploded, because you didn’t need to be a photographer or writer to attract fans. You just needed to be willing to trawl a hundred other websites to cherry pick someone else’s original creativity. Blog fed on blog. It was all free and instantly accessible if you knew where to look.

Blogs, now fairly passé in a scene that is humping Instagram like a randy Jack Russell, multiplied as quickly as bacteria in a petri dish and not only fed the scene, but created the monster. The biggest of all these blogs is Bike Exif, a website that rarely shows a picture of a bike in motion, just purely static images of bikes sat like ornaments. Go figure.

Before the Wrenchmonkees, there was an underground chop scene that would form something of a template – Dice magazine and the Church of Choppers blog proving their was an alternative to back patches, fat tyres, mullets, Saxon and/or Orange County Choppers. Concurrently, and since the 1980s, the Japanese mutated and created within their borders – the language barrier, strong currency and insular nature meaning their influence wouldn’t leach out until it was westernised by Australian magpies and those no-stone-left-unturned bloggers.

But by 2012 the Wrenchmonkees had been signed by Yamaha Europe to build a bike to tour the international motorcycle shows. Meanwhile, Kawasaki UK had approached British start-up Spirit of the Seventies (themselves Wrenchmonkee disciples) to do a number on the new W800 retro.

09213005_spirit-of-the-seventies-cafe-racer-w800 Renders can start on backyard computer screens and alter an entire industry pic: Spirit of the Seventies

A year later BMW Motorrad waded in, hoovering up influential, but decidedly leftfield, builders to modify their new naked roadster, the RNineT. Yamaha re-released the air-cooled single cylinder SR, again using a pool of itsy-bitsy customisation companies to help give the launch some cultural currency.

BMW and Yamaha sponsored Wheels and Waves, the archetypal beard-and-dark-denim love-in held in Biarritz, Triumph sponsored the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, and, as quickly as you could say ‘What do we get out of it?’ the alternative had become mainstream. Now big manufacturers are falling over themselves to get a slice of the scene.

And I’m not embarrassed to say, I didn’t see it coming.

As a documenter and participant in this scene, perhaps I should have, because it’s a perfect storm of 21st century motorcycling – creativity x struggling independents x social media’s free global marketing.

But is it all ‘jam tomorrow’ for the independents creating the interest? And if so, who cares?

For the first time since the British working class streetfighter scene of the mid-1990s – a sub-culture that spawned the definitive Triumph Speed Triple and every subsequent ‘hyper-naked’: Aprilia Tuono; KTM SuperDuke, Ducati Streetfighter… – it is motorcycle customisers, not solely racing or in-house design departments, that are leading development with their vitality. The crucial difference between the neo café racers and the streetfighters is the 21st century scene is clean-cut and affluent enough for boardroom inhabitants to relate to. There’s nothing illegal about the new scene. These people don’t look, or behave, like wrong ‘uns. They are ABC1s. Tasteful and urbane. The defining events do not take place outside a Midlands bike shop or on a wind-battered disused runway – but in hip, cultural magnets – Biarritz, Portland, East London’s Shoreditch.

100614top-i Ducati’s forthcoming ‘scrambler’ is a concrete example of the custom scene affecting the industry (pic: Ducati)

For marketing departments, desperate to find any growth in Northern hemisphere biking, it’s an easy sell. It’s all smart haircuts and expensive denim, an appreciation of art, architecture and photography, a willingness and the means to travel. The holy-bleeding-grail of target audience if you’re trying to shift ‘lifestyle’ products. And the bike manufacturers didn’t have to lift a finger for the scene to become so large they could no longer ignore its potential. What was an exciting niche is now a cliché. Inevitably. But – another question that only time has the answer to – is it a bad thing for ‘the scene’?

The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash – all counter-cultural icons and all on major labels. I upset a friend, the founder of one of the companies approached by BMW to build customs bikes, by wondering, in print, if they had become a trophy wife – the gorgeous, charming, interesting and much younger partner in an unequal betrothal. I won’t name the company here, because I don’t want to offend them again – I didn’t mean to the first time.

At the time I wondered if I’d take the money from a major manufacturer to be in a video cooing over a stock bike. My friends’ company didn’t get hard cash, but a couple of bikes and some travel expenses. They put thousands of euros of their own money into the project bike and delivered a two-wheeled two fingers. They thought I was accusing them of selling out. I wasn’t.

In my 18 years as a motorcycle journalist I’ve been given thousands of pounds’ worth of kit and helmets, and could easily have had twice as much if I’d wanted it – only needing to change the sentence from ‘No thanks’ to ‘Yes please’ before sending a reply. I even was given an ex-demo bike to tart up, so I’m certainly not immune to dealing with manufacturers, but I do know that some collaborations work, but many don’t. I personally got stiffed by one of Converse’s London agencies – asked to be part of some poxy project, I thought it might lead to something.

It did: a tiny bit of me dying inside.

Even then I signed up for more. Last summer Dirt Quake, the race event I co-organise, was held in the USA. Perhaps because it took place not far from Portland, a major American motorcycle manufacturer kindly agreed to send some cold, hard cash to help put on the show. Their money was well spent on creating a motorised pizza and the plane ticket for a man from Wigan to fly to the Pacific North-West to dress as British bobby and bemuse the assembled masses with his feckless commentary and incomprehensible accent.

I know. I sold out.

(Pic: Dirt Quake: Dustin Aksland.)