Life on bikes

The custom bikes revolution: An introduction

The past few years have seen an explosion in the custom bikes scene. Often with a retro feel, often by guys with the trappings of a retro hipster lifestyle, these cafe racers, brat style bikes, scramblers, trackers and more are a far cry from the ‘traditional’ view of customisation, the chopper.

Built, not bought

It started out by guys building bikes in their sheds (and yards in the US, hence the term ‘yard built’).

It kind of makes a mockery of the term ‘built not bought’, seeing as these guys are now building bikes for other people to buy, but the true spirit is these built bikes are individual to the owner and as far from the production line as it gets.

That said, the major manufacturers are now joining in too, with collaborations and special editions aplenty.

The builders

The guys building distinct, often beautiful bikes quickly graduated from shed-built to pro builders. Roland Sands in the US, Kevin Hill of the UK’s Kevil’s Speed Shop and mega brand Deus Ex Machina from Australia have been around for a while.

But they are now joined by a new, much wider-ranging breed, a few of whom we’ve chosen as being a great introduction to custom bike building.

De Bolex CB750
De Bolex CB750

De Bolex

De Bolex aren’t actually French as the name might imply. With a cheeky British twist of humour, what seems like a nod to the classic vintage continental motorcycle companies of the early 20th Century is actually a chest-beating claim of superiority. Their bikes are indeed the bollocks. If you’re not a Brit, that means they are ‘quite good’.

They are probably best known for their CB750’s – a very popular bike with custom builders – epitomised by the super sleek Bonesheart series. But frankly every bike from the De Bolex stable is sleek – a low profile, prowling front end and colour schemes that prefer to quietly menace than shout.

Another key feature of a bike from De Bolex Engineering, which obviously we are going to struggle with here, is the sound. At the Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride a couple of years ago the roar of the DeBolex boys’ arrival on two of their bikes was a grinding, furious statement of intent: These bikes mean business.

Deep Creek Cycle Works

The Ducati at the top of the page is my favourite bike. Ever. Of all bikes, factory or custom.

Built by the massively talented Kris Reniers at Deep Creek Cycleworks in Belgium, it’s actually one of the more restrained bikes Kris has built. I actually tried to buy the Ducati a few years ago at London Bike Shed, but having given myself time to think about it overnight, by the time I got back the next day it had been sold… Gutted.

At the same show, Kris exhibited a BMW R100RS. Take a look at the way he hung the headlamp off the side of the bike. And the custom treatment to the shocks – the guy is out there!

More recently his BMW R1200R has really seen the Deep Creek name rise to prominence in the custom bike community. When I spoke to Kris at the Bike Shed event he was still working in his local factory during the day, building his incredible designs at night, buy desperately wanting to go full time.

That was just a year ago and now the word is he has a full order book for this year and next year is looking good too. He deserves it.

Both De Bolex and Deep Creek are typical of the new school custom bike builder. Beautiful, clean considered lines. Stunning paintwork. Trick bits and unexpected bobs. They are not alone, with seemingly a new shop coming on the scene every week.

Spirit of the Seventies

But if there is one shop, indeed one bike that, for me, epitomises what the custom bike scene is capable of it is the Triumph Gemini from Spirit of the Seventies.

Most custom builders ply their trade on classics from the 70’2 and 80’s – CB750’s, an endless procession of fettled BMW’s, CX’s, XS’s… And indeed SOTS have produced a good few of these themselves.

Spirit of the Seventies Gemini
Image Copyright: Spirit of the Seventies

Then came the Gemini, a collaboration with road and race bike engineers T3 Racing.

Using the donor Triumph Speed Triple 1050, well the chassis and engine, Spirit have produced not just a custom bike but a bike that could be adopted by riders who have never even heard of the custom scene.

To my mind, the most beautiful chassis in production is subtly clothed in equally elegant sweeping bodywork and a tank that that is surely one of the most beautiful to have sat atop a motorcycle.

Deep Creek’s Ducati aside, this is the bike I would happily sell a child for. At the time of writing, the plan is to release just 100 bikes in one of two specifications. The superbike version has my name on it. Unfortunately the waiting list doesn’t…

Not just bikes, but a whole scene to get into

The scene and the work of the hugely talented spanner monkeys behind it hasn’t escaped the notice of the big manufacturers, with Ducati, Yamaha and even Royal Enfield getting involved. From what was a niche a few years ago, customs bikes are now big business.

Fortunately, the scene is still very accessible with events like Sideburn Magazine’s Dirt Quake, the annual Bike Shed events, and the annual charity Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride event being great places to introduce yourself to all things custom bike.

More reading:

The Bike Shed

Anthony ‘Dutch’ Van Somerin is one of the godfathers of the U.K. retro-custom scene, having built what was initially a blog, thebikeshed.cc, into an empire that now includes an upmarket biker’s diner in the middle of London – complete with hipster barbers – and the eponymous Bike Shed events in London and Paris, where around 150 bikes are displayed during a weekend feast of bikes, burgers and beer. Heaven on Earth, those events.

The Bike Shed team are still very active online and it’s a great place to immerse yourself in the latest builds and bikes for sales.

BikeExif

Like the Bike Shed, Bike Exif is seriously nuts about custom bikes. Just without the burgers.

A key element in the explosion in interest in custom motorcycles is the quality of the photography of the bikes. If you are a pro bike builder, you simply have to have a beautiful gallery for each bike and BikeExif takes full advantage of this, running some very decent writing alongside.

Pipeburn

From Australia comes Pipeburn, run by two Sydney-based bike obsessives. Anyone who has written about more than 1200 bikes in just seven years is clearly well beyond ‘I quite like motorbikes’ territory.

Ducati 900s custom by CC Racing Factory
Copyright CC Racing Factory

I have to admit, when I visited their site to get the link I actually did an involuntary ‘phwoar’ when I saw the Ducati 900S from CC Racing garage. The pipework…

The guys’ output is running to nearly a new bike to drool over every day. But then, with the quality of bikes that builders are coming out with I’ve no complaints.

Get yourself sorted:

Tune into the websites above and keep checking in with our Facebook and Twitter feeds as we’ll be posting news of custom build events and shows.

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The Author

Ian Malone

Ian Malone

Ian is the Editor and a co-founder of Biker & Bike.

He is obsessed about bikes to the point that he often starts conversations with new people by saying, "Please don't get me onto the subject of bikes. We'll be here all day."

Inevitably, the next question asked is nearly always, "What bike have you got, then?"

He owns four bikes right now:

'78 Kawasaki Z650
'97 Triumph Daytona 955i
'02 Suzuki SV650s
'09 Yamaha R1

At any one time, only two of these bikes are ever working, as you can read about on our blog.