The Sunday best: Dirtbags

The best bikes are sometimes the worst
Published August 23, 2011

Don’t confuse it for anything but religion. Come the first day of the week, weekend waning, out comes our Sunday best. The parade around Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside, California comprises the ordinary, the extraordinary, and every motorbike in between. I’m there to sort the best.

Look for this article to recur every time I photograph something magnificent in the hills. These photos come from August 14, a beautiful Sunday afternoon typical of the Bay Area. Cold on the coast, boiling in the mountains. But something atypical prowled the hills. The Dirtbag Challenge was on.

I’d just grown bored of the samey display in front of STP and wandered into Alice’s lot. As I caught a glimpse of a parked-up hooptie, a raucous clatter from around the corner of 84 shook the lot and a dozen dirtbags rolled into view, riders wantonly flicking throttles for riotous whoops of un-baffled exhaust bark. I cringed, anticipating a lawless group of troublemakers as the pack stormed the lot and parked up their motorcycles with a worrying disregard for the machines. One rider tossed his bike in the bushes, another propped up his pile on a block of wood.

I was right about the lawlessness but wrong to worry. The Dirtbag Challenge riders flaunt law with their steeds, but that’s sorta the point. The event limits participants to a grand in expenses and a month in build time, encourages general dirtbaggery and results in all sorts of Franken-bikes that don’t bother faking street legality.

Unsurprisingly, the invention broke

Some of the dirtbags were just filthy bikes coated in unsavory paint jobs, but others tried a bit harder for their title. Loose wiring and makeshift seats were common, as were mismatching Japanese brands. The most attractive bikes were both built by a father and son duo, clearly homemade custom jobs but really quite handsomely made.

Which is more than I can say for one Hondawasaki, which would’ve been sufficiently hideous with just its lavender tank and beer keg seat. Its builder didn’t stop clubbing with the ugly stick. He grafted three-foot-long handlebars onto the forks, jacked up a secondary bicycle seat to match them and then equipped the bike with training wheels. To operate the clutch lever and rear brake from such heights, the builder devised a terrible system of hand-operated bars tall enough to reach from the comically high seat. Unsurprisingly, the invention broke. The builder blames Stage Road and described riding the bike thusly as “frightening.” I can imagine.

The lot departed in the same organized frenzy that brought them. Terrible smell.