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Roland Sands Interview
Get to know the custom world's wonderkid
My first introduction to Roland Sands in person was at the USGP in 2006. I was sitting in the Red Bull hospitality center when the building was suddenly enraptured with the raspy sound of a Proton KRV5 MotoGP engine coming to life outside in the custom bike display area. The engine sang in glorious, ear-splitting syncopation of exotic, highly secretive internals as the rear wheel was lit up in an extended standing burnout, resulting in a massive bluish white cloud of smoking rubber that filled the executive V.I.P. center with a dense, pungent fog of melting tire that had the entertainment bizz attendees cringing (Served them right for trying to pose as MotoGP enthusiasts for the day).
When the engine was finally killed, an appreciative roar rose up over the gathered crowd outside reminiscent of Romans cheering surviving Gladiators in the coliseum. The billowing clouds of tire smoke slowly dissipated, gradually revealing a young man sitting astride the sparkling green custom bike that was cradling one of Kenny Roberts Sr's GP powerplants. Sands was smiling slightly, with a kind of contented satisfaction. As is his nature he was quiet. Sharing the spotlight alongside some of the most revered custom bike builders in the business, his V5-powered custom creation had just spoken for him in tacit affirmation that he had, in fact, arrived.
In the custom bike realm – renowned for heated verbal jousts and inflated egos – the 33-year old former roadracing champion quietly goes about his business, detouring from conventional thinking and cross-breeding contrasting genres of motorcycling in one wonderfully strange metallurgical two-wheel marriage after another. Anyone who would squeeze a Proton V5 motor into a custom platform paying homage to the un-sprung glory of the boardtrackers of yesteryear in a beautiful aesthetic of new and old most assuredly is coming from a very unique perspective.
Six months after the fumigation of the V.I.P. center I find myself searching for the RSD shop in Southern California to meet the maestro himself. Getting closer to my destination I begin to envision the all-too familiar atmosphere that tends to permeate custom bike build shops. I imagine acetylene torches burning hot blue, cutting and hacking pieces of rusted iron, accentuated with the whine of grinding wheels and sledge hammers smashing parts into place. I half expected the prerequisite skull and crossbones adorning every paintable surface. Envision trashcans full of aborted attempts of hand shaping aluminum gas tanks and a team of pit bulls patrolling the perimeter of the razor-wire-topped chain-link fence. I should have known – based on the sano, immaculate work of this emerging craftsman – to check my preconceptions before I left home.
Pulling into the parking lot of the upscale RSD headquarters quickly assuaged any notions of this being a typical custom builder's digs. The parking spot closest to the front door is reserved, quite rightly, for the man in charge. The tasteful swirls of spray-painted graffiti, executed in a hip, tagger's discipline of street art, appropriately proclaim, "El Jefe (the boss)." Occupying the spot is a silver CLS55 AMG Mercedes.
Roland Sands Design (RSD) is a top-tier operation, sharing more in common with a race team's workspace than the aforementioned custom build shops. It stands to reason – Sands' first foray into two-wheel notoriety came in 1998 when he ascended to the AMA 250cc Grand Prix National Championship. This impressive background in professional roadracing drastically separates Sands from his peers, influencing every aspect of what emerges from the mind and hands of the likable Southern Californian. It is, in fact, this proven history of pavement experience that lends credibility to Sands' designs among motorcycle enthusiasts previously uninterested in the custom world.
Roland Sands was born and raised in a maelstrom of custom activity. His father founded Performance Machine, a premiere manufacturer of custom wheels and after-market pieces. Sands is well aware of the opportunity he was born into. However, it has caused him his fair share of unwarranted chiding and accusations of being born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Yes, he was born into the business, but he had to earn his chops. He did this by designing wheels, working full time even after he started roadracing in 1993.
When asked what drew him into the custom realm, Sands is quick to respond with a statement that politely broadens the accepted definition of custom.
"I've always loved interesting, well put together two-wheel machines, concept bikes, prototype bikes," adding, "I've always naturally looked at motorcycles and wanted to change everything about them. I'd look at a motorcycle and I'd think, 'Wow, that bike would be so bitchin' if only we could do this."
Sands' demeanor is one of a racer, not easily shaken, always listening and observing with great intensity. He slides back and forth between consummate builder, astute businessman, and, ultimately, Southern Californian, repeatedly breaking from his serious tone into a broad smile and laugh, eyes revealing a youthful mischief still very much alive and well.
The first foray into cutting and chopping was in 1995. Maintaining a flourishing racing career in the gritty, handlebar-banging action of the 250cc class, Sands took possession of a used Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 and started tinkering. The bike was transformed into an old-school flattracker, and then morphed into a drop-handlebar roadracer. And thus the seeds of Roland Sands Design were planted. But for the time being, roadracing occupied a good deal of Roland's time and energies. His talent and devotion was rewarded in 1998 with the AMA 250cc GP Championship. In the ensuing years the demands of racing and the requisite injuries (32 broken bones) began to take a toll. Sands realized he just wasn't having as much fun doing it as he used to, ultimately leaving the sport in 2002.
By this time Roland had ascended to being the top, and often only, designer at Performance Machine, transforming his hand sketches for custom wheels and various aftermarket pieces into beautiful, must-have machined billet aluminum accessories. This was when his custom bikes truly began to emerge with impressive regularity.
"Motorcycles are the most pure form of design in the world, apart from architecture..."
Sands' machines all bear a distinctive signature style; an amalgam of traditional custom flair with reasonable, functional geometry, wrapped up in streamlined aesthetics – no doubt influenced from his ingrained racing perspective. At their core, Sands' custom creations are alluring works of art, flexing their metallurgical muscle in imposing displays of inspiration. The young builder has had his share of superlatives thrown at his machines, mostly praise in awe of the flow and distinct character that manages to emerge from each creation. Each radically different, yet at the same time embodying the unmistakable touch of its creator.
"I've been building the same basic style of bike since I first started," Sands offers up. "I don't want people to look at my bikes and go, 'Oh, wow, that's wild looking.' I want people to look at my bikes and go, 'Damn, that's cool, I want to ride that.'"
The mandate is paying off. Over the last few years Sands and his team have presented a string of impressive custom-built, bespoke machines that defy traditional custom thinking and design. "I'm a fan of certain people in the industry," Sands says with genuine respect, "but I saw this big gap that no one was doing anything in."
The ensuing press and notoriety led to the formation of Roland Sands Design, perhaps better known under the badge RSD, which now graces every piece of rolling art coming out of the SoCal shop. It was an essential and smart move, capitalizing on the rapidly growing popularity and industry buzz to promote the company's line of aftermarket parts and accessories.
"The customizing portion of what we do has helped to open up many people's eyes to what we're capable of," Sands says in regard to RSD. "I do have an opportunity and I'm going to make the most out of it every single day," he says with the kind of conviction that took him to that National Title.
Sands admits he never envisioned anything like this. In fact, only in the past few years has he grasped the impact of what he's doing. In a field traditionally marked with erroneously inflated egos and dubious attitude and temperaments, Sands politely trespasses on the arena, a refreshingly affable, approachable man. When asked about his growing celebrity, Sands responds, "It's a trip, dude."
A large part of the RSD operation, aside from the artistic creation of new rolling art to showcase their wares, is the marketing and branding team. Sands is quick to give credit where credit is due. "I have a really good group of people that I work with. Everyone here (at RSD) really believes in what we do, so it makes it that much easier."
The relatively young company employs equally young people possessing a very disciplined work ethic, understanding the bigger picture and what they need to do in order to build out the RSD brand. "I'm not out there actively trying to sell motorcycles to people. I just don't think it's a business model that's a smart way of doing business," Sands says. "We build bikes to develop product lines." That's quite a statement coming from a man who admits, "I used to think that running without a plan was the coolest thing."
Being invited into the inner sanctum of RSD, (after signing a non-disclosure agreement), we pass through the lobby where a number of custom bikes are on display. The machines, easily recognized from the copious pages of edit they've garnered, possess a level of celebrity, like movie stars lounging poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Among them is the KRV5, which had shredded its rear tire at Laguna Seca. It was almost like seeing an old friend. As the entrance to the shop is approached, it takes a second glance to realize the official writing on the door reads; R&D - Racing and Destruction. Well, boys will be boys.
Back in the racing saddle?
Like any former racer, Sands isn't completely out of the picture when it comes to throwing down. There is talk of Sands getting back on a 250cc for a wild card ride at the Indy round of MotoGP later this year. Currently seeking key sponsors, Roland's eyes light up a little at the prospect of getting back out there and mixing it up with a new crop of racers. His only trepidation seems to be in the reality of getting into a serious training regime to get ready. He's quick to point out that he still kicks it up enough at various track days and tests to know he can burn some decent laps.
"I still ride. I know how to get up and go." He follows that up with a contemplative, "For me to go out and get ready for a 250cc GP race is going to be pretty heavy - I've got to cut a lot of stuff out of my life."
The remark begs asking about his reputation as a bit of a party animal. Sands is discrete, offering up without apology, "My past is my past," adding coyly, "and my past has been as recent as last weekend."
The work area where the machines come to fruition is surprisingly tidy. Despite the demanding market and pressing deadlines, there is an air of calm. Parked here and there among the high-tech CAD milling machines and lathes, are motorcycles we've seen gracing magazine covers and winning various build-offs. In the case of the striking red bike with "No Regrets" painted on its tank in gold leaf letters, I recognize it as the bike Roland was invited to blast up the famous hill at The Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2006. Yes, the world is taking note.
The bikes are born from themes that emerge from their namesakes. The Glory Stomper, Race Rod, The Hard Way, El Borracho, The Stocker. Many, like the KRV5 (which Sands was somehow able to pry a factory GP engine away from the hands of "King" Kenny Roberts) embody design aspects from the boardtrack racers of yesteryear. Sands' fondness for the magical era of racing has been indelibly inked into his skin, screaming boardtrackers descending his forearm. The body ink is a work in progress he tells me.
Although many of the RSD motorbikes are laden with big V-Twin powerplants, they are casting the custom net far beyond the established boundaries of the custom world. The Race Rod is a good example of relatively unexplored territory, transforming a sedate H-D V-Rod into a sexy, aggressive motorcycle. As is the exquisite Ducati Hypermotard recently commissioned by Ducati North America. Before I saw this machine I would have thought there wasn't much you could do to a stock one. I was woefully wrong.
It's not until you wander through the main warehouse of Performance Machine next door to RSD, where the raw materials, the unflattering tubes of steel, angled blocks of billet and virgin wheel slugs, stacked twelve high, do you begin to grasp the transformation of these base elements into a rolling work of art. The uncreative might see just cold, formless, characterless steel. Sands sees possibilities. These are the brushes and canvases he utilizes to create his art. "I use a lot of different tools," says Sands, "from hand sketch to PhotoShop Illustrator to Solid Works."
All the work, ultimately, starts with sketches. They are everywhere in the design studio offices. Push pins holding pencil drawings of exotic ideas and concepts that will be turned into tactile, working, performance-oriented machines. The entire operation unfolds with uncanny synchronicity, based ultimately around these succinct designs. It appears there is little room here for free-form experiments. This is why everyone prefers to describe the company as a Design Studio, as opposed to a custom shop.
Driving the process is Sands' unabated passion for motorcycles, combined with his love of the artistic endeavor. "Motorcycles are the most pure form of design in the world, apart from architecture," he says with deep conviction. "What could be closer to embodying so many different styles and pieces of industrial design, in that you have to create a piece of rolling architectural work that functions, creating geometry, combining horsepower, and you have to link it all together in a drive and transmission. The thing's got to roll right and sit up straight and has to be balanced, and then on top of that you're adding a whole other flowing form which is all just basically sculpture."
Reflecting this fascination with architectural design and construction, when asked about influences, Sands surprises me when he names legendary architect Frank Gehry as a major hero. "I really look up to guys like Frank Gehry," Sands says respectfully, "who just create these sketches and go, 'Let's build this.' They create and actually follow through and build amazing things."
This is just one more aspect of Sands' awareness and respect for history. It's interesting that a relatively young man possesses so much knowledge and understanding of past eras of motorcycling and design. "Looking back at history," Sands says affectionately, "all the British café racers, what cool bikes those were. They were light, handled really well, and they looked really cool."
What is charmingly apparent is that Sands, either immune to the inevitable critics or hiding it in his unexpected gentlemanly demeanor, is that he seems to be sublimely unaffected by any negativity. He just motors ahead, moving onto to the next build that has found its seed in his broad and learned imagination.
Sands is a man in love with the process. Pull him away from the pressing concerns of business the rapidly expanding company is experiencing, let him dream and talk and think about the next drawing that is on the cusp of being rendered from cold bars of steel and raw slabs of billet aluminum, and he eases into that whimsical smile, considering the possibilities. Catering to his artistic leanings, Sands makes sure each day, after dealing with the requisite stumbling blocks of business, that he spends a few hours sketching, doing the thing he loves most to guarantee, "I go home happy every night."
The team's future goals are building the brand through superior aftermarket components and, most likely, venturing into partnership with an OEM to create specific RSD models. When asked what's on the boards, Sands' mouth slowly forms that slight, knowing, mischievous smile of his.