There is a sweet spot where skateboarding and motorcycles converge. And these guys know how to hit it just right.
‘Four wheels move the body; two wheels move the soul,’ said an unknown sentinel of the open road. But for a growing diaspora of renegade riders, skateboards and motorbikes have more in common than it seems.
“Have you ever ridden down a sidewalk at sixty miles an hour?” exclaims Lee Bender, a former pro skateboarder and custom-bike builder from Indiana, now based in San Francisco. “Curb cuts are just as fun to wheelie off on a bike as they are to crack ollies out of on a skateboard.”
Bender is proof that the ‘urban guerillas’ documented by Dogtown photographer C.R. Stecyk III in the 1970s have evolved. No longer confined to backyard pools or sidewalks, those wild, resourceful rippers now also ride two wheels; louder, faster, armed with motors, they continue what Stecyk called the “everyday use of the useless artefacts of the technological burden” – only backed by a gas tank.
“The feeling of doing what you want is what was so intriguing as a kid with skating, and again as a young twenty-something-year-old getting into bikes,” explains Bender, who had to put skateboarding on the backburner after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2007. “The freedom, the mischief, the adventure; taking choppers off road, onto sidewalks, into fields, on trails and jumping up and down the hills of San Francisco is what’s so addictive. It’s about splitting lanes on the freeway at eighty or ninety mph, while in a pack, where everyone’s jockeying for position and you’re feeding off each other’s energy. The key is finding the right people to ride with.”
This adrenalin-fuelled camaraderie rings of another time. Hunter S. Thompson understood and captured it in 1969, writing, ‘Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death,’ in his famous book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Motorcycle Gangs. Like skateboarding, thundering down the road on a motorcycle feeds the urge for exploration and unity; the simple pursuit of boundless adventure.
“There are more tricks to do with skateboards,” says Bender, “but with bikes, there are further locations to reach. Who’s going to skate Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado? No one. But I’ve been there on a bike. […] ‘Freedom’ is a cheesy way to describe it, based on what the masses have heard/seen regarding bikes, but it’s so true. You do what you want, go where you want, as fast as you want.”
Max Schaaf, a legendary pro skater who kept vert skating alive and kicking like a mule through its darker days in the 1990s, sees in bikes and skateboards a shared foundation of personal freedom. He admits he loves charging down the road “like a swarm of fucking bees,” but finds meaning in solitary moments, too. “I’m way too good at being alone. And that’s why I like the motorcycle,” says Schaaf, who owns and runs customising shop 4Q Conditioning in Oakland, California. “With skating or bikes you’ve got to fuck up a few times,” he says. “You’re not going to have some dude really teach you how to do a trick, he can’t do it for you. […] You go for it, you fuck it up, then you learn from it and keep going. […] That’s why I still skate and why I still love skating. You can’t fucking fake it.”
Scott Pommier, a skateboarder, biker and photographer from Vancouver, speaks of a similar necessity for personal drive. “What ties the two things together, is that you get good at skateboarding by putting hours in by yourself,” he notes. “Everyone sucks when they start skateboarding. There’s just no way around it. And the same is true of mechanical skill. The people I know that have gotten really good at fabrication, painting and building motors, they’ve all had a fearless approach. They’ve all made a lot of mistakes, but they’ve come away with confidence and knowledge.”
Customising a bike, chopping it down or taking it all apart to build something new from the ground up, is, for many, as much a part of motorcycle culture as gripping your deck is a part of skateboarding. In the two lies a fundamental mechanical challenge; the DIY slug of persistence, progression and eventual triumph. Schaaf, however, is wary that modern trappings may dilute this process. “A lot of the time in our culture, you can just say ‘I’m a fucking rocker.’ But there are no proving grounds,” he says. “A lot of people who say, ‘Sick bike!!!!’ on Instagram, can barely say ‘Hi’ and shake your hand in real life. I think that’s kind of the difference now. My generation, and generations before, had to learn to take care of themselves, how to travel, how to get out of town. You had to learn how to talk to people. If there’s a kid two towns away that has a mini ramp, you had to make friends with him.”
Schaaf admits he doesn’t hate the internet or social media and considers them useful tools, and yet, in his eyes, online identities can never replace real life: “There are a lot of people now who have just put themselves into bikes or skating and put on the beard and the vest, a new costume. No one knows who they are, or where they came from and it’s too bad because I think that’s where the do-it-yourself attitude is getting muddled.”
While this new all-powerful, inescapable and often incoherent information age has made it easier than ever to gain the know-how for damn-near everything, it can also be a distraction and a platform for impersonal communication; the breeding ground for a sort of bedroom, costume culture of mannequins with a script but no skills. Getting your hands dirty, working on and building boards and machines is part of the pure, gritty solace people like Schaaf, and countless devoted others, find in both worlds of wheels.
“You know how easy it is,” says Schaaf. “You wake up, you make a phone call, you check your e-mail, you worry about bills, about your chick, or whatever it is. You get further and further outside your head every day. When you’re on the bike, looking at the road, worrying about people pulling out in front of you, paying attention to pot holes and making it run right, you have no choice but to be right there, right then, and to pay the fuck attention and enjoy the moment […] that’s what’s exhilarating. Sometimes, just kick-start the bike and go.”
Both skateboarding and motorcycling are stomping grounds of sweat and blood, craft and utility, grace and aggression —something filmmaker Bruce Brown saw as ‘a certain brutal beauty’ in his acclaimed motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday. And among the ardent few leading the charge is Scotty Stopnik, a young, bespectacled ripper and punk rocker who, alongside his dad ‘Big Scott’ and brother ‘Turk’, runs Southern California’s surf, skate, punk-heavy bike company Cycle Zombies. “There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you kick that bike over for the first time and go blasting down the road, after you’ve put the last months, years, days into it,” declares Stopnik, “You brought something back from the dead, you created a breathing machine.”
Stopnik illuminates the draw of older machines. “When you ride an old bike you can feel the motor. You feel every little thing working, moving together like an old clock.” But most riders have little quarrel with newer bikes. “In my opinion, a guy who can skate a pool, then a ten-stair handrail, then switch it up and get down on a ledge is understanding skateboarding,” says Stopnik. “It’s not just one type of skating. And the same goes for bikes. I respect and appreciate all cycles. Going fast on two wheels is good no matter what.”
Like Stopnik, Schaaf is not only drawn to the pure feel and look of older bikes, but also to their simplicity. “I’m all about making something nostalgic, something with more history behind it,” he says. “I prefer old bikes because they’re so stripped down and simple. That’s the transmission, that’s the motor, and I want to do it.” One look at his 4Q 1947 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead says it all; raw and bare, with little more than the necessities, it retains humble class without hiding its scars and muscle.
Not all the old ideals and conventions have followed suit in the revival, though. Among those now charging on, also devoted to the iron horse, is Michelle Pezel, owner of the Antisocial Skateboard Shop in Vancouver and publisher of Idlewood, an all-girl moto-skate ‘zine. “I got my first motorbike about five years ago because our friend Dylan had one and was like, ‘Everybody needs a motorbike!’ I was never around them as a kid but I thought, ‘Oh whatever, it’s a cheap way to get around and I won’t have to drive my van with eighteen people in it all the time!”
She caught the itch straight from the get-go and embraced the solitary challenge. “Like skateboarding, you have to learn about it, where it came from and who’s doing it,” says Pezel. “You watch videos and you’re part of a community. You have to learn how to fix the bikes and work on them. You can make it run shitty, or you can make it run good. No one else is responsible for it.”
But it’s not just practicality that drew her in. “You’re building culture and you’re doing things that are exciting,” she says. “No one can tell you that it’s not good enough because it’s not about that. It’s good just to get involved and be a part of something that’s super fun.”
But how do the old guard — those beer-drinking, hell-raising, rebel pioneers of the open road — treat new blood? Predictably, naysayers and self-proclaimed purists abound, prodding authenticity and imparting knowledge. Stopnik was once malevolently asked, ‘What do Tony Hawk and David Mann have in common?’ Most bikers prefer shorter, harsher words. But he’s not put off. “It’s funny how people get so pissed at others who are having fun and not taking themselves so serious,” Stopnik muses. “The surf, skate and bike crossover got shit on at first […] but I ride because I truly love it. The feeling of stepping on your skateboard and going down the street, catching a wave in the water, or blasting down the highway on your bike is just one of freedom; no cares, forget about it all.”
In similar style, Bender lets it roll off his back: “What can you do? I just laugh at them. I’m pretty excited about the crossover; it’s two worlds I love and it’s two worlds I hate.” Pommier has other ideas on what may be riling the old guard. “Some people are into the fact there’s a new generation of guys carrying on the tradition. And then there are some people who resent it,” he says. “In the case of old bikes, there’s a practical side to the resentment, we’re all looking for the same old parts. So, there’s a question of scarcity, and of supply and demand with regards to prices. But I will say this, there are a fuck lot more panheads on the road now, that would have been rotting away in some dude’s garage.”
Though this crossover of boards and bikes is gaining commercial speed (check Harley’s 2010 Dark Custom ad featuring Heath Kirchart, Leo Romero and Slash, and now DC’s current Dirty Left Foot project) it’s still happily hauling ass underground where it matters. And the movement’s not just reserved for the truly American at heart. Copenhagen-based custom-bike builders Wrenchmonkees are at the core of the European scene. Similarly, but with a more clean-cut edge is Deus Ex Machina, based in Camperdown, Sydney. They’ve now given birth to a ‘Temple of Enthusiasm’ in Canguu, Bali, where the crew spend their days shaping surfboards, building single speeds and heavily chiselled motorbikes. Earlier this year they opened shop in Venice Beach, California too. Yes, just down the road from Dogtown.
Against this backdrop, riders can be found scattered in backyards and garages across the globe, welding, hammering and grinding away at stripped-down motorbike frames and building parts and ramps. Despite resistance from the old guard, this new generation of skateboarding motorcycle fiends, who are growing in number year by year, show no signs of slowing down or easing up. They continue to charge on through the racket, fuelled by the lure of sheer self-sufficiency. They are the kings and queens of the road and curb; of themselves and opportunity.
“Skateboards are a catalyst for individualism,” says Bender. “With skating, like cycles, you do what you want in every aspect.”