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Story by Mike Seate | Photos by Manny Pandya | Café Racer Magazine Issue 82 (Aug/Sep 2022)
There’s no shortage of eye candy at Chicago’s annual Motoblot street festival, whether your preferred tastes run towards choppers, café racers, heavily tattooed young folks or even classic hot-rods. This year, chief organizer Larry Fletcher brought in motorcycle builder and event promoter Kevin Dunworth to create a new kind of custom motorcycle showcase, one that would present the best of the breed in a unique setting. The Valhalla Custom Motorcycle Builder’s Showcase was the result, with Dunworth scouring the nation’s motorcycle events to find two dozen of the most talented street bike designers working today.
“That was not an easy thing to do because if you go to Sturgis or to the Handbuilt Show down in Austin, you’ll see just how many amazing, talented builder there are,” Dunworth said. “I wanted to bring in people who could work well together, were really outside the box creative, and the kind of guys who would really push the envelope when it comes to what’s possible with a custom motorcycle.”
Not only were the 25 selected motorcycles competing for a walloping $10,000 top prize from sponsors J&P Cycles, there was plenty of other competition at the three-day festival. Motoblot’s Gasoline Alley custom show also draws in one-off motorcycles from across the U.S. and Canada, with prizes awarded for classics restorations, bobbers, café racers, and everything two-wheeled in between.
To set Valhalla apart, Dunworth insisted that each of the entry bikes was not only groundbreaking in design and mechanical creativity, but had to be full-on runners, capable of firing up and riding away. That all-important criteria is often neglected in an age when indoor custom events demand that motorcycles be drained of fuel, with batteries removed for fire safety before being rolled into the exhibit hall. Not at this event, Dunworth stressed.
“When I go to some of the bigger invitational custom shows, they say the bikes have to be runners in order to enter. But with the gas and batteries removed, how can anybody tell?” he asked.
The capability of propelling themselves down the road counted for 10% of the judging criteria, while the other areas making up the builders’ overall scores included peer judging by their fellow builders (15%), and finally a panel of judges (the remaining 75%). Besides the generous cash prize, the show — which was named after the fabled Viking paradise of Norse mythology — also awarded a coveted Gungir-Odin’s Spear trophy to the worthy competitor. Silly? Sure, kind of, but the motorcycles assembled for Valhalla were inspiring enough to create their own legends.
Take the gracefully stripped-down Harley-Davidson Sportster built by Texan Colt Wangler Lyons. The 1998 XL 1200 was an exercise in handcrafted simplicity, featuring sleek, minimalist aluminum body work and a set of original Morris Mag wheels from the 1970s. The part time professional rodeo cowboy with a name straight out of a western movie is a self-taught sheet metal fabricator who outfitted his Harley with some very clever bits, including an oil tank filled between the frame’s front downtubes “to keep the oil cool,” and wiring run inside the handlebars.
Not to be outdone in the less-is-more aesthetic was Terry Heydt, who re-designed a humble Suzuki Savage 650 single into a replica of a 1930s Crocker speedway racer. Truly outside-the-box and extremely challenging to transform from bare metal to functioning motorcycle, Heydt said the machine was fabricated almost entirely from scratch. “The frame, I built it using steel tubing while the girder forks are my design as well. The top triple clamp was initially CNC machined but it needed a lot of finishing work before it would function properly,” he said humbly. The triangular chromed steel gas tank and tall slender 21” rear and 23” spoked wheels give the bike a genuine speedway feel, as does the lack of a front brake and gauges.
Instead of relying on tried and tested donor bikes as seen at most custom shows, Valhalla attracted shops including Milwaukee Moto who tore into a decidedly unpopular Harley-Davidson Street 750 for its entry. Chief builder Dan Torres admitted to, “not really having a vision for the bike besides making it a whole lot cooler.” To that end, the water-cooled V-twin was subject to some radical changes with a complete rear wheel and swingarm from a Ducati 748 superbike grafted onto the chassis, and a Honda CB200 fuel tank carrying petrol. The fuel injection system is now concealed beneath the handmade aluminum seat hump. The machine’s detailing was just plain perfect. Torres said his 750 was built to be ridden daily and offered us the keys to prove his point. Now that’s something you don’t hear every day at a custom motorcycle show.
As the motorcycles rolled into the staging area in a variety of trailers and trucks, the builders brought them into the lot to the admiring comments of fellow competitors. There was no sign of petty jealousy or infighting; instead, the teams complimented each other’s handiwork, asking for details on various components and finishing techniques for hours. Many had been in touch during the months-long build processes and were seeing the complete machines for the first time.
Both builders and spectators were instantly drawn towards the wild two stroke repli-racer designed by youngster K. C. Elkins. The Kentucky resident took a basket case Kawasaki KX500 and seamlessly blended the off-road missile with a Kawasaki ZX636R sport bike using handmade carbon fiber bodywork and plenty of imagination. “I’ve done about 47 full, ground-up builds and it’s exciting to see what I can come up with,” said the former swimming pool installer.
There were some seriously talented old heads who made the cut as well, including Australian expat Craig Rodsmith whose imaginative re-working of an air cooled Ducati Monster M900 was a definite crowd pleaser. The two-valve Desmo engine had been shoehorned into a Ducati 748 super bike frame with a set of Ducati 1098 inverted forks steering the Italian mash-up. Out back, the 748 single-sided swingarm held a 17” spoked wheel from Keino Cycles while the mirror finish bodywork was all handmade, including the torpedo-shaped fairing. How fast was this seriously unique set of wheels? Well, despite installing a supercharger from an Acura car and a Nitrous injection system, Rodsmith actually didn’t know. “I’ve never had it dynoed and I don’t run any gauges so I have no idea how fast it is,” he said with a shrug.
The assembled motorcycles were staged in a large tent near the noisy Motoblot main stage where the machines managed to upstage the screeching punk rock bands, the troupes of lingerie-clad dancing ladies, and even the occasional fire-eater. Come Saturday morning, the organizers gathered the builders for a safety briefing on the day’s mandatory shakedown ride. Each of the bikes had to be fired up and ridden a dozen miles as part of the judging.
The owners, some nervous after having finished their show bikes mere hours before traveling to Chicago, managed to kick, bump start and button-launch their machines in time for the collective ride through the busy streets of Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood surrounding the Motoblot festival. Canadian Rob Chappell of Origin8or Custom Cycles was confident his 2008 Triumph Speed Triple 1050 was a go, despite having freshly completed the winter-long build the previous day. Chappell is a designer who digs a tough mechanical challenge, resulting in the British triple receiving not only a complete made-from-scratch steel trellis frame, handmade, angular aluminum bodywork and a box-section swingarm milled from billet aluminum and fitted with twin YSS shocks.
“This may be my only ride on the Triumph, as it was commissioned by a customer from Wales and he’s eager to take possession and have it shipped back to the UK as soon as the show is over,” he said.
In a cloud of exhaust fumes the deafening rumble of various types and sizes of engine all launching into gear at once, the pack roared off with members of the local Ton-Up Club providing escort along the pre-planned route.
Once the machines returned, the judges made a quick decision that clearly pleased not only the Motoblot crowd but the collective Valhalla builders. Swimming pool technician-turned-motorcycle customizer K. C. Elkins strode onstage to crazed applause to accept the much-ballyhooed grand prize of $10,000 cash and a five-fool replica Viking sword. With so much raw talent and the confidence of winning an international motorcycle building competition, Elkins is looking forward to a promising career in the custom motorcycle field.
Well, that and somewhere to park a Viking sword in his family garage.