Pro builders to regular wrenches

Custom trends on display at Germany’s premier bike show

by Marilyn Stemp

Posted with permission of Thunder Press, from the February 2016 issue.

BAD SALZUFLEN, GERMANY, DEC. 5–6—It used to be you could place a custom bike’s origins by its styling cues.

The distinctive looks of a British café racer, Bay Area bobber or Swedish chopper were recognized the world over. But like rock ’n’ roll and political campaigns, custom biking, too, is derivative and that’s never been more apparent than it is today. Proof positive was found at the 2015 Custom bike Show in Germany where creativity on two wheels was evident in full force.

As in the prior 10 years, the 11th annual Custom bike Show, promoted by a German magazine of the same name, happens in the not very centrally-located town of Bad Salzuflen at a less-than biker-friendly time of year, the first weekend of December. But these potential detriments have only enhanced the show’s popularity over time by keeping exhibitor and attendee costs low and providing a pre-season stage for companies and builders alike to reveal their latest work. Record attendance this time topped 32,000 over the weekend. That’s a lot of people at €14 each.

The magazine Custom bike, originally titled Biker’s Life in 1990, was relaunched by publisher Huber Verlag in 2005 and the show started that same year. Huber Verlag currently has nine titles and celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2015. It seems biker print magazines—and bike shows—are living large in Europe these days.

Framing Custom bike’s mission, Editor-in-Chief Katharina Weber says the magazine covers all brands, every style, garage and pro builders alike. “It’s the whole scene,” she said, except “no girls in swimsuits, no club colors, no politics.” Instead, Custom bike focuses on feature bikes and tech articles. A current series called “Show Us Your Garage” is especially popular.

The magazine also monitors
the technical controls that can affect street-legal status; most custom
bikes in Germany are likely not
legal. European builders regard their American counterparts as fortunate not only in having access to a wealth of parts, but also in being able to build with fewer governmental restrictions. That said, Katharina explained, “Under the hard conditions of these technical controls, they build very good bikes here.”

No question about that. Here at Europe’s largest custom bike event, every one of the 250 bikes in the show was worthy of its place, having been prescreened for acceptance by the editors from among twice that many candidates. Those ultimately selected came from large custom firms such as AMD 2012 World Champion Thunderbike, and No Limit Customs, a company specializing in V-Rod baggers. But plenty of smaller build- ers and even individuals also made the cut to compete in one of 16 show classes. Builders representing dozens of countries brought machines built specifically for this show. “There’s a very high level of craftsmanship,” said Katharina.

This intense sparring for top hon- ors is an indication that custom trends worldwide have shifted in recent times. Where U.S. builders such as Jesse James, OCC and Billy Lane once ruled trends, the new conventional wisdom indicates a flip-flop that’s putting European builders in the driver’s seat now. That’s especially true when you consider that the current showstopper in the U.S.—the big-wheel bagger—is barely a blip on the European scene except with a few specific builders
like Fred Kodlin. And that’s true not only at the Custom bike Show, but in Europe generally. Choppers are sparse, as well. “Most Euro riders want a pure motorcycle,” Katharina said. “And that is not a bagger.”

Meanwhile, steampunk cues are abundant and bobber styling holds strong, while matte finishes, faux patina and metal-flake paint remain popular. More than one exhibitor at the show specialized in performance and custom mods on V-Rods and Buells. That’d be an unlikely plan for success in the U.S.

According to Katharina, the European custom scene is healthy and growing, with builders emphasizing sportier styling and motocross cues resulting in scramblers, street trackers and other purpose-built machinery. It’s more common to see Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki platforms now, too, as these OEMs eagerly join the custom scene. And as you’d expect, BMWs are perennially pop- ular in Germany. Katharina points to BMW’s well-timed release of the R nineT as a model that hits the mark with its stripped-down roadster looks and forthright nod to the R90s of the 1970s. Naked bikes, showcasing hidden wiring and unadorned puddle welds that illustrate a builder’s skills, are prevalent as well.

Though the show bikes are the heart of Custom bike, there’s plenty more going on. The once-compact show now fills three halls with exhibitors including OEMs, gear companies, parts manufacturers and retailers, painters, and all the major European parts distributors: Custom Chrome Europe, Drag Specialties/Parts Europe, W&W, Zodiac and Motorcycle Storehouse. “What was interesting to see especially this year was the involvement of the big motorcycle companies,” said Katharina. “We had Yamaha, Kawasaki, Ducati, BMW, Horex, Victory/Indian and Harley- Davidson as exhibitors. Nice to see here in Europe how interested these companies are in our scene.”

What else? Since 2007 Custom bike has hosted an on-site build-off where two teams work back to back all weekend long on frame-
up customs. By Sunday at noon the bikes must start up and be ridden to the stage; a people’s choice vote deter- mines the winner. This year, a slick board tracker by Yuri Shif of Belarus beat out German builder Fabien Muller’s super-technical alloy beast by a mere seven-vote margin.

Live music, body painting, the Miss Custom bike contest, and bike giveaways kept things buzzing, too. And it’s Germany, right? So beer flows at bars inside and out, no matter the weather, perhaps contributing to the grassroots collaborative feel at Custom bike. It’s clearly a community, a meeting of hearts and minds equally zealous in the pursuit of biking nirvana. Friends gather, compare notes on current projects and look for what’s new. And there remains an appreciation for biking American style; several exhibitors promoted tours on Route 66 and other iconic destinations in the States, trips on many riders’ bucket lists.

If it’s on your list to take the pulse of biking across the pond, get to the Custom bike show. Not only will it enhance your worldview of motorcycling but it can also offer an eye-opening perspective on how people outside the U.S. live, work and play. 4