Taking Back the Real Custom Bike Culture

I have to be honest: I can’t seem to find the best way to begin this editorial, as I am oscillating between a derisive approach to the main idea and a more reserved one. However, mockery is too facile and leaves much to be desired when it comes to actually filling the empty (theoretical) space left behind it. Plus, I have no intention of actually making fun of anyone so I choose to tread the moderate path.
Basically, this week’s mental unrest came in the form of a thought on the custom bike culture. Now, I am not talking about the few awesome people who actually build motorcycles either from scrap or after hacking and sawing through their “donor” bikes. They are the real deal, the ones who deliver true custom bikes in which they put a part of their own soul. These motorcycles are more like a faithful representation of their creators’ personal vision, creativity, aspirations, dreams or, for that matter – nightmares.

With most of them being one-off creations, even though belonging to “families” and line-ups, these bikes are often tailored to their future owners’ wishes, thus receiving a hefty dose of individualism and a strong personal touch. Even more, since many of the parts used for these projects are made in-house, they also differ a bit.

If you want, they are not unlike custom hand-wound guitar pickups, such as the Fender ones crafted by Abigail Ybarra, also known as the Queen of Tone, the BareKnuckle Pickups ones. They are in a way identical, but utterly different in detail, and this is the real meaning of “custom.”

And this brings us to the so-called custom parts which are mass-produced and sold in the aftermarket segment. It goes without saying that the cruiser segment represents the most important market for such parts as, sorry to say this, these bikes are among the most bling-loaded two- and three-wheelers around. What is even funnier is how proud the owners of such bikes are and the way they insist on their “custom” attribute.

Obviously, I am in no position to tell these guys what they should be enjoying or not, because that would be way off the line. However, I can analyze this sub-culture and see how much consumerism is involved in it, and how this “stock custom” habit has been transformed into an institution, in the sociological understanding of the term. The real attributes of a real “custom bike” have been replaced by a fast-lane type of customization which has almost nothing to do with what either authentic custom machinery or classic bikes bring to the game.

Most of the things we can see now on the shelves of a dealership under the “Aftermarket parts” label are utterly impersonal and loading them on your bike doesn’t wash this away, doesn’t make them as personal and unique as some riders wishfully hope. Even more, most of these parts are made in China or similar countries whose custom cruiser culture is close to zero. Sure, it’s nice to save some money when getting gear and parts, but waving the American flag and bragging about riding an American bike while loading Chinese off-the-mill bling on the bike is a bit contradictory, I’d say.

Likewise, to what degree can one call his or her bike a “custom” one after loading a dozen of add-ons on it, and which look exactly like those on the bike next to it? To me this perspective is a bit depressive, I’d say. Getting the bike you want and bolting to it several things one deems as elements of the custom culture only to run the next day into another bike which looks almost identical is rather sad. In a way, it’s like a group of identical or almost identical motorcycles, loaded with the same aftermarket parts give or take, and all their owners being content with claiming “they’re all custom.”

Some would argue that only few riders have the technical skills needed to start chopping or welding stuff to their bikes and this is why they prefer to buy these parts. Well, I know this only too well, but many of these chaps aren’t in fact willing to even try anything. Surely, it’s way easier and quicker to pay the dealer a visit and get a cast eagle head for your front fender than to pay an airbrush artist to paint a nicer one on your tank.

Definitely, it’s a lot easier to get conchos manufactured by the thousands in the dealership than to actually search for authentic ones in your area or online. As for the tassels, it looks like those bearing the bike brand are “much more custom” than those a fellow skilled in working with leather would craft for you.

Seriously fellows, such a “customization” trend is only showing how much you stand in line, and is in a rather funny type of conflict with the “rebel attitude,” “independence” and all the other cheesy crap concepts the manufacturers speak of so lightly. Maybe it’s high time you turned your eyes towards the fellows who deliver authentic customization jobs for your bikes. The fellows who put real passion in what they are doing, and this shows up in the result of their work.

It will be more expensive than the cheap, perfectly chromed bumper you get for your all-new Indian, but you can explore other shapes and designs by simply talking with the custom builder… and train your own creativity while at it. It would be really great if you walked the extra mile into the real custom territory instead of settling for what your bike maker says is custom. How about taking back the real custom bike culture?
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