I have travelled all over the world on motorcycles. I’ve ridden across Europe, in Indonesia, from Canada to Mexico, through downtown New York and across the country. I’ve ridden a chopper through downtown LA, through downtown Portland and through downtown Seattle. One of the places I haven’t ridden a chopper? Downtown Vancouver, BC, the city I live in, the downtown I can see from my house and the downtown my chopper resides just outside of.
The most uncomfortable place I have ever ridden a bike is in Vancouver. Not just because of the terrible drivers, but because of the police. Yes, I get it, my bike has no chain guard, reflectors or signals but I have all my certification for riding a motorcycle, have never been in an accident and have a shit ton of experience under my belt. The cops here don’t care though. They don’t care that we all have real jobs, struggle to pay rent each month, and are just trying to express our (expensive) creative counter-culture that is CHOPPERS.
“Ride Choppers or Fuck Off”
Tom Fugle said it best, “Anyone can ride a motorcycle but I feel like I’m riding a piece of art.” There is something to be said about riding this specific kind of bike and custom, old-school choppers are a sub-genre that is practiced in every corner of the world. The Vancouver chopper/custom scene isn’t huge, but it’s there and if you’re doing it here, you’ve got guts, have a shit ton of money, or are broke as fuck because of it.
Don’t get me wrong, Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been and I love living here. There are so many great roads, amazing mountain turns, cool people who ride and some seriously talented builders. I am a huge advocate for people to come to Vancouver to spend time, but if you are coming here on your custom motorcycle, it’s a totally different story.
I interviewed a couple of dudes who ride choppers in Vancouver while doing this article. Here’s some things they told me:
– “The biggest problem is the cops, specifically the cops on motorcycles. They target choppers. Give you a VI, tow your bike, rip your plate off and give you a lecture about front brakes.”
– “A cop told me to get my life together.”
– “A cop straddled the front end of my motorcycle at a red light and told me he didn’t have enough time, but when he sees me on the road again, he’s “gonna’ get me.”
– “I’ve been to court three times: one for not having a mirror on the correct side of my handle bars, one for my licence plate not being far enough off the ground and one for my pipes being ‘too loud,’ never anything to do with my riding or my safety on the road. If anything, my pipe ‘volume’ is keeping me safe.”
-The frustration is real and it isn’t just apparent on the streets. Since it’s not easy to find an affordable apartment in this city that doesn’t have a bed bug problem or a leaky roof let alone one with a garage, we all need a place to store our bikes, work on projects and make these babies run. Motorcycle theft in Vancouver is a huge issue as well so most of us living on the East side of town don’t really even have a choice but to rent a “secure” space.
I spoke to some other builders in Vancouver about their shop spaces. Here’s what they said:
– “Finding the right space is a pain in the ass. The economy is growing here in Vancouver and it’s getting harder and harder to secure property in general. If you find one, the rent is through the roof.”
– “Options are pretty low when you’re looking for a shop. Most places won’t allow welding and one place we looked at even said no motor oil. When we were looking for our last space, we drove around the city calling every warehouse space with a ‘For Lease’ sign. Most of which were way out of our price range.”
– “If we had to leave this space we would be totally fucked.”
– “Our options were slim to none, there’s not much out there that’s cheap or big enough to split with a bunch of guys. Security is obviously an issue as well. It’s impossible to find a place that has it all.”
The workspaces in Vancouver are hard to find, and once you’ve got something locked in, you’re always on edge that the rent is going to skyrocket or that the place is going to be torn down to build a condo. I talked to Tyler Lepore, one of Vancouver’s most talented and well-known chopper builders. He had been part of the original crew at the Clark and Francis shop, but decided to look for a smaller, more cost-effective space with a few friends. Tyler and the guys found a space a few blocks away and have been there close to five years, the rent increasing yearly. Although he uses the workshop for his fabrication business, the space is also shared with several other chopper heads, and a portion of the yard space to a gardening business. He told us that even in the winter, they have no heating system. “We have been saving, so this year we might splurge and get the gas hooked up to the furnace… be toasty for once, but I don’t trust the landlord. Each year he makes me resign a lease with a higher rental price and I’m scared one year he’s just gonna kick us out to sell the land since he owns the whole block,” said Tyler. When they originally got the space, the rent was $1,650 per month, there was no lighting, the roof leaked like crazy (still leaks, bad), and during the winter months, the shop floods with heavy rain. “Last week a rat stole our bar of soap,” Tyler added. The upgrades, lights and wiring, shelving/storage spaces are all done by the guys renting the space and still, the rent has gone up over $500 since they moved in.
The Hawks Nest is another example of the motorcycle garage spaces in the city. Located in a Downtown Eastside ally, it isn’t the safest place to store your most expensive items. Still, the members of the workshop pay a dollar a square foot with over nine people renting the space and even one person living in it. There are so many people coming in and out of the space that it’s hard to hide what’s down there. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other options for the tenants of the Hawks Nest and every time a space becomes available, there is a lineup of builders and bikers ready to jump on the opportunity to have a place to go.
Many motorcycle oriented store fronts that supported the motorcycle community, small local companies and where builders could pick up parts are now closed due to rising rental prices. There is a huge lack of affordable commercial spaces in Vancouver and because of the exchange rate, it’s hard to carry lots of brands that people want to buy.
A group of friends, builders and creatives that I’m acquaintances with call themselves the “Lions Speed Shop”. The crew builds frames, bars, controls, risers and pretty much everything you need to customize or build a chopper. They also have a painter in their crew and take on bikes from customers to help complete their custom motorcycle projects. They recently got their hands on a space passed down from friends which is also located in the Downtown Eastside. Along with the garage space came a commercial store front. They’re working on creating a space for motorcyclists to gather, buy parts, and become a community again.
– “Even though we’re a fabrication and paint shop, we also dig the vibe and lifestyle that is directly and indirectly associated with choppers and motorcycles in general. So, we plan to create a space where like minded motorcyclists can get whatever they need for their build and look badass doing it. There aren’t too many places in the city anymore where you can just ride your bike down to grab a coffee and shoot the shit with motorcycle buds – so that’s what we aim to provide. The store front will be open in the evenings, during the week and weekends so the working folk can get whatever they need. We will have a selection of our parts and other consumables like tires, tubes, gaskets etc. Vintage clothing, local jewellers, leather workers and whatever else comes our way.”
I stopped by their shop in the final stages of writing this article. They’re still in the construction phase so look for them in the new year and definitely next riding season.
All in all, the “custom” motorcyclists of Vancouver are making it work. I still see choppers flying up and down the streets, I still see new people getting into it and I see people getting back on bikes even after a huge ticket, after they’ve had their bike taken away or their garage space taken from right underneath them. Canadians are tough cookies and we don’t let things stop us. Vancouver is a beautiful city to live in and I appreciate every day that I am able to live in Canada and own the toys I own. Every counter-culture that is into such a specific genre has their barriers, but as long as we have members willing to stick their neck out and keep it going, we will survive. We will keep our garages, we will keep our bikes on the road and we will have a place to buy parts and gather as a community. No one is going to stop me from flying around this city on my chopper, we all know those bike cops are just jealous of our bikes anyway.
Thank you to those to contributed and helped with this article: Curtis Douglas, Blaine Connolly, Ty Collins, Tyler Lepore