Did you see the 1965 film Flight of the Phoenix? It’s the adventures of a group of oil workers who crash their cargo plane in the Libyan desert. To fly to safety, they build another plane from the wreckage. It’s a good flick, and pretty realistic — famed stunt pilot Paul Mantz died during filming. Any gearhead will identify with the struggle to build something just good enough to barely get the job done.
The closest thing the motorcycle community has to Flight of the Phoenix is San Francisco’s Dirtbag Challenge, now in its 13th year. The rules are simple: build your bike in 30 days, don’t spend more than $1,000, and no Harley-Davidsons. The icing on the cake of custom-show unorthodoxy: To qualify for the judging, contestants must first ride their creations 100 miles.
It’s no surprise that this is not a custom hot-rod show. It’s not an event where you eat hotdogs while strolling along row after row of shiny, chromed, stretched-out showpieces with expensive paint, custom parts, and hand-tooled leather. This is about celebrating all kinds of enthusiasts, enthusiasts with mechanical aptitude ranging from NASA to nada. The process is chaotic, as is the resulting event.
Nobody knows when the event will be held until an email is fired out announcing the date 30 days prior, starting the clock. Participants can revive old projects and solicit donated parts, but they can’t spend more than a grand on the bike. It’s not like Price and Waterhouse are going to come in and audit but event organizer Pol Brown and the other judges will know if you’ve been cheating.
As you may expect, the result has been some of the most dangerously unrideable deathtraps known to motorcycledom. You will see things that would give an AMA event official a massive aneurysm. Motorcycles with steel utility poles made into frames, tricycle contraptions with barely functioning brakes from a 1932 Model A Ford, or a double-decker CL350 that I won’t post a photo of because you’ll accuse me of photoshopping it (yes, it finished). Chopper builders are criticized for building unrideable showboats. Dirtbag builders revel in their machines being comically unrideable.
Take my good friend Alan Lapp, a man who is so into comfort and practicality that he owns many, many pairs of overalls and what may be California’s largest collection of Airhawk inflatable seat cushions. He enlisted the help of his friend, an inventive fabricator, and designer named Julius Farnum and built his oddball contraption, a DR650-powered thing with an alternative front suspension. It’s as close to unrideable as you can get and still be rideable, reported Al. His bike is bizarre, tough on the eye and so loud and impractical it might as well be an ornithopter, not that Al needs any more ideas.
Another approach to the Dirtbag is to do something really horribly wrong but in a cool kind of way. Justin Martens lives just north of San Francisco, in pastoral Marin County, where he works as a maintenance guy and handyman. “A guy I was working for said, ‘Oh, I have these old KTMs, they’re just sitting in my backyard.’ I got all three for $50.” One of them was even running, although anything will “run” if you spray enough starter fluid down its throat, in the same way you can reanimate a dead frog by wiring it to a car battery.
Anyway, the next step in building a chopper is to make it as unrideable as possible. To that end, Justin found a neglected Yamaha Radian in a local motorcycle salvage yard to get a street-oriented front end and chopperesque gas tank. For the back wheel, the KTM’s stock aluminum swingarm would do the trick, but to get the requisite hard-tail experience, they replaced the monoshock with a steel pipe. I like this kind of engineering, as it requires no understanding of math, physics or engineering principles of any kind. Bonus points for using leftover wrenches for the exhaust bracket and seat mount. The rear knobbie is a relic from the Bush administration (the first one), and when I asked about the age of the inner tube, Martens kind of shrugged and mentioned the tire has two bead locks and is badly out-of-balance, which doesn’t have anything to do with the inner tube but informs the questioner that this line of inquiry is futile.
Team KTM finished the 100-mile ride before the judging, but that’s a miracle by any measure. There just wasn’t a lot of de-bugging before the event — the 30-day timeframe makes that hard — and Justin found his creation to be a handful.
“When I started it up, I realized this was a horrible, horrible idea,” recalled Martens, a few weeks afterwards. “It decides to run well, and then it doesn’t, and you never know when that’s going to happen, so it’s kind of dangerous. It revs out of control, even if you pull the spark-plug wire. So I kept a cup in my pocket [to put over the intake and kill the motor].”
The lack of engine braking surprised him as well, and the 40-plus horsepower two-stroke’s powerband was never known for being user-friendly. And motocross gearing may not have been the best choice for a street ride. “I’m riding it 60 mph and it feels like it’s going to explode… everybody’s passing me.” When I tried to take the bike for a spin around the small airport industrial park where Martens keeps his projects, it refused to start, and I’ve never been so happy that a bike wouldn’t start.
At the judging, Justin cleaned up. Not because his bike is beautiful (it’s not) or particularly innovative, but because nobody thought he could finish, or even get the bike started for that matter. Because of this heroic feat, the judges awarded him three trophies: “Sketchiest,” for obvious reasons, “Gulu,” which is kind of like Sketchiest, except it goes to the craziest rider, and “The Jake,” which goes to the bike that looks like it shouldn’t have finished but did anyway, and I think this could just as have well gone to Al or finisher Alfredo Gonzalez, a man who apparently feels that electrical tape is structural. The gathered Dirtbags, both participants, and spectators, also voted Justin the coveted “People’s Choice” in honor of his heroic ride.
In my years of moto-journalism, I’ve heard and read a lot of harsh criticism (incidentally, Martens himself is the harshest critic of his bike, calling it “retarded”), and I’ll probably read a lot more in the pit of despair that will appear below this story. But my hat is firmly tipped towards Al, Justin and everybody else who participates in the Dirtbag – and similar events – because they understand that motorcycling isn’t about having the flashiest, or fastest, or most expensive, or rarest. It’s about committing to going out there and doing something that nobody else would do.
That nobody in their right minds would want to do it is beside the point. If Jimmy Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine and the rest of the crew of the Phoenix had been rescued before the film’s final moments, they would have wanted to fly their contraption anyway. What will you fly away in today?
Gabe Ets-Hokin accidentally won an Academy Award for best sound editing in an independent foreign documentary in 1987. He has so far successfully resisted efforts to retrieve the award for the actual winner.