A few weeks ago, MCN rode down to the south of France for a custom motorcycle and surfing festival. We can almost hear your sighs from here, but maybe - just maybe - there's more to this scene than meets the eye.
If you were to believe the under-breath mumbles of the traditional motorcycling press and paid heed to the comments underneath certain articles online, the custom motorcycling industry today is little more than hipster beards and junk bikes. Yet, something strange is occurring… Fringe events like Wheels and Waves - now in its third year and rumoured to have attracted over eight thousand visitors - are becoming the darling events of the industry, and with them they’re attracting much needed new blood to two wheels.
The economic climate and a host of non-typical influences are combining to do something for motorcycling that hasn’t been seen since the young adults of the 1990s noticed that if they left that scratched and snapped fairing on the garage floor it actually made their sports bike look more menacing; this was the birth of the naked. It was also the beginning of the slow death of the chopper ‘scene’ that had dominated custom culture up until that point.
Twenty-five years on and we have every manufacturer producing leary, super-naked machines. We also have an industry whose lifeblood - the riders - are getting older and whose marketing men are desperate for their next big ‘thing’ to push. Welcome then, to the new wave of custom motorcycling.
Set within the stunning vista of Biarritz, a French town as close to Spain as the cartographers will allow, this is now the third - and by far the largest - year of the festival so far. Born from an online blog, it started with just a few hundred people all using it as an excuse to drink, hangout and to talk about their bikes. By the second year, word had got around that it was an event worth exploring and BMW took it upon themselves to showcase their Concept90 in one of its first public viewings. So this time, the third - as they say - is a charm.
Bolstered by the appearance of a large peer last time around, Wheels and Waves now also sees subtle, display marquees from Royal Enfield, Ducati, Suzuki, Indian and Yamaha - who have brought all of their ‘Yard Built’ customised machines under one (canvas) roof for the first time. Sat amongst these big boys and the usual stalls of t-shirts, bandannas and poster prints, there is also one very British marque, Brough Superior; the pride of their display in the ‘Art Ride’ gallery is the new SS100.
Looking resplendent with its liquid-cooled, 997cc, 88deg V-twin engine - imagined by the French firm Boxer Design - this modern SS100 is a thing of wonder. A steel and magnesium frame seats proudly an eight valve, double overhead cam that - according to Brough - should be well capable of pushing 140bhp, depending on the customer requirements; in true custom spirit, many elements of the bike - including the ECU - will be bespokely tailored to suit the clients’ needs.
It feels odd quoting statistics and numbers at this juncture, because this is an aspect of the current ‘scene’ that feels distinctly conspicuous by its absence. Whilst conversations about numerous rides are many, they all tend to focus around the next modification, their next improvement; but they’re light on specifics. Discussions about suitable donor bikes abound, but there’s a sense of learned camaraderie and shared experience among the nodding, agreeable smiles that barely touches upon the ‘willy waving and chest beating’ of other, more serious bike meetings. But if performance is only a small part of the package, then this leads us cautiously onto the elephant in the room; style and aesthetics.
It’s true that there is a contingent here who have solidly bought into the biking as high-fashion lifestyle. Sleeve tattoos abound and the new vogue of waxed, pencil-moustaches are sported alongside skinny jeans that border on the obscene. But - as there are in most cultural movements - these are the extreme minority. These are the guys who have ridden in on hazardously welded, ‘bobber scramblers’ with the ground clearance of a cigarette paper and a turning circle as wide as the turn ups on their jeans. One suspects that these are also the fickle fashionistas that powered the recent, ‘fixie’ bike craze and whom will progress onto the next big thing before the custom, metal flake on their Ruby Atelier helmets has dried. Yet, beneath this glossy, magazine-powered veneer there persists something permanent and compelling; here is a crowd, of both sexes, from all social backgrounds and skewed very much under thirty-five years of age. This is the golden demographic that the manufacturers are desperate to attract. Enter the big guns.
‘This is a natural evolution from a Yamaha point of view’, says Shun Miyazawa, their European Product Manager. ‘We already started working with custom builders four years ago, then our main target was to show people that Yamaha were committed to the custom industry. Now, at these more ‘hardcore’ events it gives us a lot of inspiration and allows us to have chats with people about Yamaha bikes and to get inspired to see what we can do in the future. For me personally, I love seeing the bikes and riding with other people who feel just like me’.
So what is it about this new custom scene that is so appealing? It cannot be a coincidence that the world, market crash of 2008 segued perfectly with the small, but growing, market for cheap, thrash-about bikes like the Honda CB’s and Yamaha XS’s. Economics and social conditions always have a part to play in market accessibility and it’s true to say that when finance and cash flow were strong, so was the desire for brand new vehicles. As we moved into a world where new was always available and considered better, we - as a community - left behind our old ways. We stopped handing down family machines to our offspring and in turn they never found the joy and discovery of the weekend and evening ‘tinkering’ session. But now, post financial meltdown, things are different and this is evident on every street corner of Biarritz during the weekend.
On the Saturday, we ride in a throng of around five or maybe six hundred bikes through the winding hills of Jaizkibel in Spain towards the half-mile stretch of road that is to be used as the track for the sprint race later that day. I’m sat on a brand new Yamaha XV950 and despite my vague additions of a new exhaust system from Vance and Hines and a smattering of the Yamaha accessories catalogue, the bike feels out of place simply because of the copious amounts of plastic that run the full length of its guts. As I look to my left I see the jutting blocks of a BMW R80 and remember the words from Kevil of Kevils Speed shop - the Torquay based master of R80 resto-mods whom I spoke to that morning,
‘These old girls just keep going on-and-on’ he tells me whilst pointing to his latest build - an ‘Artisan’ bobber that’s stripped back to bare basics, artificially ‘dirtied’ with painted scratches on the tank and is purposeful departure from his more usual, clean style - ‘Simplicity and durability is what it’s all about. I had newer BMWs in the past but Once I had decided to go back to their raw, roots everything made sense. The air-cooled, two-valve, flat twin is just so nice and simple, and the parts are still readily available. Simplicity and durability is what it’s all about and people really respond to that’.
Look past the thin, waxed cotton of the trend followers and what you find everywhere during this weekend are people who have discovered or rekindled their passion for motorcycling. And the queues for beer and barbecue food are the perfect time to stand and chat with those who have made a near ‘pilgrimage’ to be with similar, like-minded individuals. Stefan, a French hospital worker with a ruby-flaked Simpson bandit helmet slung over his shoulder tells me that he only learnt to ride after attending this event last year. ‘What was your first bike?’ I ask. ‘This is it!’ He exclaims, gesticulating somewhere over my head towards the thousands of bikes parked on the hill, ‘I renovated an old Yamaha XS650 because I thought it would be fun, and then realised that I couldn’t ride it’, he laughs, ‘Now I want to ride it all the time, I love my moto!’ I hear similar stories all weekend.
John, a mid-twenties Railway Engineer from London made the trip down with two friends whom he met over their shared love of motorcycles, ‘A couple of years ago we became friends because of bikes. It’s a really interesting scene, there’s no egos involved and it’s such a chilled weekend.’
‘We’ve ridden down and had an awesome time. The more you spend time on bikes, playing with things and learning about how everything works, you gravitate to this scene almost naturally. Everything these days is designed to last only a finite period of time, but these older bikes were built with different values. The atmosphere here is full of people congratulating you on giving something a go and trying to build something yourself.
You can’t deny that this is a growing scene and it’s great to see people like you down here actually paying it some attention. This isn’t a fad. The people in this arena now have all had to spend a good, solid period of time at least learning to ride and getting their license to ride. The majority of them will be bikers for life’.
Roland Sands is at the Yamaha ‘party’ where the Japanese firm are showing off his XV950 build. It’s a superbly executed, ‘street-tracker’ conversion of the companies new, ‘urban bobber’ and is a big favourite of the crowd, despite stretching the economic benefits to building your own by being based around a brand new, manufacturer fresh 2014 model. So how does he feel about the new interest of the big boys into events like these?
‘Man, I came last time and it was - like - a tenth of the size of this year, but it’s cool because it’s still just everybody hangin’ out. The thing with motorcycles is that, once you first get into them, you then find out if you’re really into motorcycles or not pretty quickly; that’s usually after your first crash. If you crash and you get back on, then you know for real.
It’s left to be seen what happens with this crowd, but I personally, love it and if you love motorcycles, why wouldn’t you just want to keep doing it; to keep riding! And look at it? This vibe around riding motorcycles. I don’t know what all of these people here would be doing if they didn’t have this shared passion. This is cool, no matter who you are’.
These are thoughts echoed by Sylvain Berneron whom I meet on Sunday, sat on a bench shading from the searing sun. Last year he was here in his capacity as the man behind BMW’s lauded Concept90; Roland Sands was the builder but it was this young french designer who first put pen to paper and sketched out the early strokes that were to become the seeds of the new, BMW NineT.
‘I started riding bikes when I was seven, in the motocross and I haven’t stopped since. This passion for riding kept me no the right track and if I wasn’t riding, I was drawing bikes. They’re my passion for sure and Wheels & Waves is full of people with the same love for motorcycles’. But what of the ‘new breed’ that have been attracted to the more fashion-led side of the scene?
'I have a friend of a friend who came to me asking for my professional advice recently', he laughs as we discuss the nature of design principles - for my sins I have a background in fashion illustration and advertising and occasionally I revert to type, 'He'd just bought a helmet and he wanted to know what bike would suit it. I mean… What the hell!? Who buys a helmet first before the bike?'
'There are some bikes here that you wonder just what were they thinking and these are definitely a fashion thing, like this one here’, he’s pointing to a particularly rough-looking, scrambler that’s been slammed down to minimal ground clearance, ‘What would you do with that? Nothing! These are opposite to how I think a bike should be. That’s not cool, it’s almost useless’.
‘Difference on it’s own is not cool. If you build a house with the roof on the bottom, it might look ‘wow’ but It’s going to be a shit house’. With Sylvain this isn’t just bravado, these is his design creed; form has to follow function.
His own bike - which he has on display - is a Suzuki 1200 Inazuma from the late 80’s, ‘I wanted a steel frame and I wanted something strong with a reliable engine, so no water cooling but with decent torque and power from an inline four rather than a 1000cc old-school japanese engine. It was this GSX 1200 inazuma or the ZRX1200, I took this one because I think it has the better looking tank.
The Bandit was a lot more famous but this one has a classic architecture going under the tank and I love it. I ride it on the road and the track and it’s a great compromise. It worked as I planned it on paper, I’ve had it a few years now and it does exactly what I wanted it to do. I still love it!’
Custom bikes certainly draw heavily on fashion and artistic influences, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t built to be ridden. And usually ridden hard.
As the Sunday draws to a close with the obligatory garage rock band and more beer, my thoughts wander towards the evenings world cup match. Yesterday, as I sat with Richard the Railway Engineer and his friends, picking at our hastily roasted chicken and some bread, the three tell me of their plan to tour Italy next year. This reminds me that there is a world cup on and I ask them if they know of anywhere good to watch the England versus Italy game?
'Fuck the football!' Nick exclaims, 'I'm here to ride bikes and chase tail. In that order!'
Ah, the exuberance of youth… It’s precisely what this industry is crying out for.