No one forgets their first time. Mine was a pre-teen, mini-bike romp amid cow patties and fireflies. The second time was better: a cushy Goldwing with Malcolm Forbes and crew into Pennsylvania. Then there are memories of winding along Pacific Coast Highway atop a red-white-and-blue CBR1000, knees pressed into earlobes. Once I'd bought my first (and so far, only) bike, a Yamaha Virago 535, I'd learned the first lesson of motorcycles: It's about the feeling you get.
Orange County Choppers has capitalized on this phenomenon to become the monster trucks of the 21st century: mainstream, with 10 million fans worldwide. Promoters are banking on the Teutel family wooing crowds at the Spokane County Fair & amp; Expo Center this Friday through Sunday to the tune of $25 a head. The fact that the Teutels will feature their trademark theme bikes and more than 25 local custom jobs underscores the second lesson of motorcycles: It's about how they look (and sound).
OCC didn't invent the look. Designer bikes parallel the history of hot rodding: Just as they souped up their jalopies, returning World War II servicemen tinkered with, refabricated, and cut or "chopped" their Harleys. In the 1960s, patriarch Arlen Ness returned luster to motorcycling with his one-off designs and innovative aesthetic. Modern customs -- including OCC's -- emulate Harley's post-Shovelhead Evolution motor and the lean-and-mean look of pro-street and chopper styles. Even metric bikes (Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, etc.) are getting in on the custom market.
For OCC, customs had originally meant assembly and minimal fabrication. This alienated bikers and bike enthusiasts alike and belied Paul Senior's welding background. "The Snap-On bike was cool," said Harry Seccomb at Easy Rider Roadhouse's recent Thunder Thursday event, "but I'm interested in the machining."
Harry was one of several gentlemen I spoke with about OCC and the options available in custom motorcycling. Harry is contemplating building his own bike and was admiring the handiwork of Chuck Bassett, who built his custom softtail through CyborgCycles.com, a national catalog retailer based in Post Falls. Owner Ted Costa explains: "You can build the same-quality bike for less than half the price," such as a Venom from CustomChrome for around $20,000, not including paint. Satisfaction, including the ability to repair the inevitable, is another reason. As the Web site cautions, not every vendor is the same, and mechanical knowledge is essential. "It's not an erector set," Costa says. "One mistake could kill you."
Another drawback is paperwork. Although titling is slightly easier in Idaho than Washington, upcoming federal EPA regulations may make do-it-yourself customs a thing of the past for the average Joe. (Visit www.mrf.org for information.)
An alternative to building your own is opting for production customs, such as the Big Dog models carried by Roadhouse. (OCC has its own line.) These offer benefits of factory production -- warranty, service -- with the look of a custom, such as tricked-out wheels or striping.
Another custom option, says John Musante, is to buy an older model Harley and modify it yourself. "They're reliable and hold their value," advises Musante, a Harley mechanic at Schumate. After-market options are endless: exhaust, seat, even paint. (FYI, long fringes do not make you look cool.) Customizing, says Musante, makes your bike your own.
Spokane designer Chris Olson concurs -- and for a starting price of about $30,000, he can design a bike that reflects any rider's individuality. (Visit www.chrisolsoncustoms.com.) An example is "The General," aka the "Biffle bike," which Olson designed for NASCAR National Guard car driver Greg Biffle. Olson has three bikes in the OCC show, including "362436," which won Arlen Ness' kudos at this year's Auto, Boat and Speed Show. Olson credits OCC with opening up the industry "so guys like me can do what we do."
One key to expanding the industry, it seems, are the popular, sometimes improbable theme bikes. Another local designer, Ken Lupold, says that his proudest moment occurred when his four little girls held up the best-in-show trophy that his custom bike won at River City Rod Run this year. "Spiderman rides a motorcycle," he laughs. Lupold may be on to something, though: the future generation. Thanks in part to American Chopper, the show that launched OCC, motorcycles and bike-building have blended into mainstream culture.
That brings us back to Lesson No. 1: how motorcycles make you feel. For the gentlemen I talked to, that feeling meant knowing their bikes inside and out, even designing them from scratch. That kind of knowledge, imparted to customers, should make for better riders. It also offers the satisfaction that comes from building something yourself. Which brings us to our third and final lesson: Buying a motorcycle doesn't automatically make someone a biker. But then, to be fair, no one has to own a motorcycle to be a bike enthusiast. In the end, that may be the best thing OCC has given its enthusiastic public.
Orange County Choppers are at the Spokane Fair & amp; Expo Center, Friday-Sunday, July 28-30. Tickets: $49, weekend pass; $30 per day; free, children 10 and younger. VIP packages available. Call 325-SEAT.