By Fish
Photos by Fish, Justin Martens & Max Klein

You know the Dirtbag Challenge, right? The SF-born phenomenon is now in its 15th year, and there’s even been a New York version. Recent years have bought forth evolutionary changes: builders were previously restricted to one month of build time and a $1,000 budget, including the cost of the bike, but last year the budget was increased to $2,000, and this year builders got two months and $2,000 to build a non-Harley chopper.

With that additional time and money, there are more challenges. An overnight camping trip was added last year, meaning that instead of a simple morning run, bikes had to be able to carry a bedroll and some staples. No chase trucks, no support team. This year, the camping trip was extended to two nights and 300 miles of riding. Still no chase truck, and no artisan cocktails awaiting you at the campsite. Self-reliance is the underlying theme here. You’re responsible for your own food, shelter, safety, and sanity.

Poll Brown is the mastermind behind the challenge, an idea born from a drinking session during which the custom motorcycle scene of the time was discussed. Big buck chopper shows were at their peak, inspiring Poll to comment that the same thing could be done faster and cheaper.

The original premise was $500 and two weeks. That netted four completed builds, three of which ran. As the event has matured, that number has increased, often seeing 10-25 builds, with an after party of 1000+ onlookers at its peak. For 2017 there were 12 builds present, and while there were a couple veterans in attendance, first-timers comprised the bulk of the crew.

That is what makes this worthwhile for Poll and company: getting people to stop staring at Instagram pictures of custom bikes and inspiring them to build their own. Adding the campout was a move intended to make Dirtbag more about the build, and add some exclusivity to the event—only builders get to join the ride.

This year’s expanded ride is a step farther in that direction. CityBike invited itself into tagging along on the campout but we of course weren’t allowed to bring Vancy Drew, so my $2,000 Craigslist Buell Ulysses was pressed into service to follow the Dirtbags. The Uly may have been a bit out of place with its tamale-cart sidecases, but I wrapped my sleeping bag in a garbage bag to fend off potential ambient moisture—not exactly real-deal Dirtbag, bedroll on the bars, but not Touratech catalog material, either.

The weekend started at Turk’s Shop in Hunter’s Point, San Francisco, a fitting industrial backdrop for the assortment of home-built machinery on hand. Collections of derelict cars and motorcycles hinting that these bikes could have been born from the carcasses surrounding us. As I arrive, one of the Dirtbags is already seeking use of a welder—not a promising start. Poll is happy to oblige, and Justin Martens is assisting the builder with the mission-critical task of repairing a broken sissy bar.

I use this time to examine the bikes. The builds for this year include two XS650 choppers, one in fitting gold glitter paint. A Suzuki Savage-based build catches my eye for a moment before I see another Savage-based bike, this one re-powered by a 1000cc I4 engine. The stock brake sends a small shiver up my spine. I’m no stranger to underbraked machines, but I don’t long for the days of drum brakes.

A few paces away from the crowd of traditional-ish choppers is Julian Farnam’s EX500-based dual sport. The Spondon-esque steel frame, laser cut, TIG-welded brackets, cast-off Öhlins snowmobile shocks and ultra-sano build quality are a stark contrast to the back-alley bastard-bikes. Julian is no stranger to Dirtbag, and this level of craftsmanship and design is standard for him. One problem, many solutions.

Departure time nears, but Poll’s bike isn’t even within sight. He makes a quick announcement that he’s behind schedule, but he’ll be getting his shit together shortly, and soon the “Copper Chopper” comes into sight, non-working lights and all. A sticky carb float needle means gasoline is dripping from the overflow vent on the carbs. Stepping out of “observe and report” mode, I walk over and shut off the petcock and tell Poll of the leak. He’s not exactly concerned, and after a bit more bustling, expertly lashes his bedroll to his bars with a length of cord. I glance at my Rok Straps and luggage, bemused that we’re both on the same trip.

With bikes re-welded and bedrolls tied on, the pre-ride speech is given. Poll doesn’t mince words: he’s out for a ride, we’re welcome to follow. Should we find ourselves in conversations with law enforcement he’s not likely to concern himself, and breakdowns aren’t high on his list of concerns. Again, no chase truck or support vehicles. No one’s likely to be left in peril, but the group isn’t going to spend all three days on the side of the road to repairing your haphazard build. We’re reminded to ride our own ride, because we all have directions and we should be capable of getting to the designated stops and campgrounds: “If you need to be led the whole way, this probably isn’t the ride for you.”

We tear out of Hunter’s Point, Poll leading us on the outskirts of the city at a pace somewhere between a Harley Owners Group ride and a Sac2Bay stunt ride. We stop for fuel in Mill Valley, where Poll decides that he does need to address the steady drip of fuel coming from his bike. He makes a stop at a friend’s shop for float needles, and we head north on Highway 1, one of my personal favorite roads. The washed-out section at Stinson Beach means we detour over Panoramic Highway, settling into pace back on the coastline north of Stinson.

In Tomales Bay, Poll announces he’s getting a sandwich for dinner, a reminder to make sure we have food sorted as well. The one thing I didn’t load into my cavernous side cases was food, so I heed his advice and get myself a French dip.

The next leg is only 25 miles—44 minutes of travel according to Google. With two of the bikes lacking functional lighting systems, it becomes a race to the last meetup point: a fuel station in Jenner where we’re told to fill up our tanks and get beer. Really, what’s a campout without beer?

As I’m leaving the fuel station, I spot Justin Martens’ XS650 chopper on the side of the road, tools out. The electrical system is dead, but blessedly simple, with one switch in the entire bike. Justin has expertly torn into it and is bypassing the 30+ year old switch as I roll up. He also discovered a loose ground, raising uncertainty to whether the switch is bad. Before I can grab the multimeter in my sidecase—ADV bro!—Justin is re-assembling the bike and preparing to kick. Magically, the XS returns to life.

The campsite is two miles away, at the end of a gravel road. I pitch my tent in approaching darkness, lay out my bedroll, and fold my ‘Stich into a pillow, then unpack my actual pillow from its travel bag.

I keep this last item low key as I am the only one carrying such luxuries.

I emerge from my well-appointed corner of the campsite to a properly-built fire and celebratory atmosphere. I wouldn’t call it a party, but we’re having a damn good time and this is our first opportunity to get to know each other. The mix of occupations is varied: a few blue collar guys with construction and carpentry backgrounds, one veterinarian, one lawyer, and even an architect. Dirtbags come from all walks of life.

The campsite is secluded enough that we’re visited by some wildlife. As lights seek out the rustling in the bushes, the visitor is first identified as a fox, and the quote of the evening comes out: “You can get $10 for a fox pelt on eBay!”

The fire consumes all the wood we’ve gathered, and we retire. No alarm clock, no scheduled departure time, just sleep. I almost feel a little guilty as I rest my head on my pillow stack, burrowing into my sleeping bag. I’m not the only one in a tent, but a few guys are out under the stars in the 40-degree night.

Morning brings the frightening discovery that there is no coffee, adding a sense of urgency to breaking down this caffeine slave’s camp. It’s a “pack it in, pack it out” site, so the Buell becomes a pack mule, the night’s evidence loaded into a bag that we strap to the bike.

The gravel road out is on my mind and I set out with an aggressive twist of the throttle in order to get in front of the pack. My ego overrides my talent and I enter a turn too hot. I look for an escape, and my options include a ten-foot cliff, so I decide to lay ‘er down. The bike ends up with the rear wheel over the edge of the road, perched on my left sidecase, front wheel in the air. I’m adrenaline-rushed, so picking the bike up is easy. As the pack rounds the corner, I’m throwing my leg over the bike and checking the shifter.

I almost got away with it.

We regroup on pavement, head north to a planned breakfast stop five miles up the road, but still-single Suzuki Savage has a very leaky carb. The group splits, the bulk headed to breakfast in Guerneville. I join a few others who stay back with the wounded Savage. Nothing like a roadside repair to follow a crash, right?

A quick clean out of the float needle seat solves the Savage’s fueling issue, and we head south toward 116. We wind along the Russian River—my first time riding this very scenic route, and I’m glad of the reasonable pace, which lets me take it all in.

We catch the group in Guerneville, and we’re a sight to see: twenty-plus camp-fresh bikers in a mom-and-pop small town diner.

I gear up ahead of the group, departing early in hopes of getting pictures of the group as they pass. The timing doesn’t work and I end up riding the next leg solo, through the fringe of fire-ravaged Sonoma County. The ever-present airborne fire-fighting equipment and hint of smoke is a stark reminder of what’s happening just over the hills.

I head towards Hopland on 101 and catch the group in Cloverdale, where a KZ750 has holed its case. Actually, the bike didn’t do it—its builder failed to secure a strap, which found its way into the chain and wrapped around a lug that mounts the sprocket cover. No auto parts store to be found, we scrounge some flexible repair tape with an “As Seen on TV” logo on it. It’s enough to keep the bike from spewing oil all over the rear tire and on the ride.

Our destination is Hopland, where we’ll pick up a small group of riders that couldn’t make the Friday departure. A doable goal so long as we keep our cargo straps securely fastened.

The short stint up 101 is painless and we find ourselves at Hopland Tap House in time for lunch and a good rest before the intercepting riders show up, time filled with laughs, a little bit of graffiti on the temporary wall in the Tap House, and a bit of impatience as we wait for one more build bike, a previous builder, and another associate to join us.

When the group arrives, there’s a great reaction to what instantly and affectionately becomes known as the “Dickbike,” the only two-up bike on the ride, and also the only bike with a penis attached to, not just riding on it.

Our last stop on Saturday was at the intersection of Highways 29 and 20. Time to fuel up and procure whatever dinner and beer would be needed. I make room for a couple cases on the Buell after deciding on canned corned beef and smoked oysters for dinner.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

At the turnoff for the last four miles of dirt leading to our campsite, a 400cc Honda twin with an already- failed electrical system succumbs to carburetor troubles, with darkness approaching. After some discussion, we park the bike at the bottom of the hill. I ride up and drop my cargo, come back for the builder and his gear, and the bike can be fixed tomorrow. Having already tested the Buell’s off-road prowess at Bungee Brent’s Backroad Bash, I was excited to haul ass up the dirt forest service road and drop my bags and topcase off, even more enthusiastic about the ride back down, and even back up with a passenger.

When all riders were accounted for, I started to set up camp as talk circulated about towing the wounded Honda up the hill. A search for a strap yielded no results, so the next idea was to go down to the bike two-up on the Buell with a shitload of lights and tools. I opted to hand the bike over to Justin Martens, so he loaded up a victim and took off down the hill, another rider following.

Thirty minutes later, the rider returned, asking if I had a tire pump, which I did not. I did have a can Fix-a-Flat and a plug kit, which I sent down the hill. So much for the rescue bike. The dreaded can did its job and the Buell returned. I checked the pressure, a whopping 15psi. I added the rest of the can and got to 18psi. Good enough, or so I thought. I sent Justin back down the hill.

Around the same time, an airhead rider by the name of Moose departed back to SF, having not intended on camping out. This was quite fortuitous as the Buell had succeeded in completely losing the bead on the rear tire. On the upside, the 400 Honda had been repaired. Justin proceeded to ride the Honda up the hill using a taped-on flashlight and headlamp for illumination, at enough of a pace to break the right footpeg while jumping.

The next task was to try to re-seat the Buell’s tire. As luck would have it, a couple of dirtbikers camped nearby had a bicycle pump. Hilarity ensued.

The countless attempts at rapidly pumping the tire up to seat the bead were predictably fruitless. We tried to use a ROK Strap to hold pressure, but it simply couldn’t hold enough tension and we were afraid to use the old starting fluid and match trick, due to the high fire risk.

Finally, a ratchet strap borrowed from the dirtbikers, combined with five sets of hands and shampoo poured around the rim did the trick.

We found the puncture, but my trusty Dynaplug kit had just one plug left—a do or die situation. With a little spit, the plug was inserted and the hissing stopped.

It took another 30 minutes of pumping to get the tire to 41psi, enough work to help me get a good night’s sleep. Who needs a party with that kind of excitement?

Sunday morning brought a different atmosphere. We divided up into a couple groups and packed up at different paces. I was thrilled to find my rear tire still had 41 PSI, but settled for a more subdued pace down the dirt road as I was carrying part of the Dickbike crew for the downhill.

Regrouping in Lakeport for one last breakfast, we burned up any spare time thanks to a bit of slow service at the diner. This might have burdened Poll a bit…

Rolling onward, the group got into a good groove, making reasonable time—until the Honda 400’s carbs started backsliding. As the pack rolled farther away, I followed the 400 at a reduced pace until it finally quit, about 20 miles short of Cache Creek. Some fiddling with the carbs and another push start got it rolling, and modulating the petcock would keep it running enough to move.

…until the left exhaust pipe fell off.

I dug around in my tool kit for wire to fasten the recently-freed pipe to the other, still-attached pipe. We were so close.

The little Honda had broken near a driveway where a local farmer was tending to some equipment. He approached us in a slow, unnerving way in his truck, then he got out and offered to help, claiming to have a couple dirtbikes himself. He attempted to choke the carbs by hand, trying to “suck through” anything stuck in the jets. While not exactly effective, it did get us moving enough to instill hope that we might make it after all. He offered to weld the broken exhaust back on, but time dictated that we politely decline.

The Honda died again a few miles later, this time simply out of fuel. The group was still at the fuel station, and we were just five miles away, so someone’s water bottle became a gas can, and enough fuel to get to the station was delivered. I followed the wounded Honda to the waiting portion of the group, topped my tank and departed for the party, hoping to be able to take photos of the arrival.

I managed to beat the group to the party on Treasure Island by about an hour, which gave me time to reflect on the event and how the partygoers had no idea what they were missing. The band was loud, the crowd was lively, but the feeling paled in comparison to the trip I had just been on.

Poll had mentioned during the Friday night campfire chat that there won’t be a party for 2018—if people want to party, they need to build a bike and come on the ride. At the time, I dismissed his statement as posturing, but by Sunday morning, I got it.

I had just lived a scene from a David Mann painting. I may not have had a bedroll tied to the handlebars of my chopper, but I knew why people would travel that way. For those three days, I was just a biker, a title I’ve never wanted to earn, but that earned meaning for me somewhere between fighting the tire on my Buell and picking up Honda parts on Highway 16.

I was at a loss for how to punctuate the weekend when the traditional burnouts started. While the hijinks were a bit subdued from the golden years at Hunter’s Point, Dirtbags did punish a few tires. I decided that Justin had earned the right to end the life of the TKC that had caused us all so much grief. I handed my Buell over to him again and he let loose with all the bike had, and in third gear, at 90mph indicated, the TKC80 that had tried to strand me on a mountain met its death.

Fortunately, the party was at Moto Guild, so I simply spooned on some new Bridgestone T30s and started a new, less-knobby chapter in the Buell’s life.

Fish rides a Harley, and now he’s gonna start calling himself a biker? What’s next? Overwrought custom motorcycles and tits on the cover, folks. See you at the bottom of the slippery slope.

5 Responses

  1. Eric

    Cool story. More photos of the participants’ bikes would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
      • Eric

        😬 seriously, though, it would be cool to see more of the creativity that goes into these machines. Really digging the weird snowmobile chopper mashup you guys have been featuring, too.

      • Surj Gish

        Well… stay tuned for this year’s coverage.

        In the meantime, hit the search field with “dirtbag” and you’ll find there’s a wealth of coverage and other stories about donor bikes and Dirtbag builders in our back issues. The vast majority of our old newsprint stuff hasn’t made it online yet. We’re working on it!

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