Saturday, March 27, 2010

My story

Well, I have put it off for quite some time, but I suppose it’s about time I told this story since a number of you have actually asked about it several times now…and I see no reason not to share it now.
This is the story behind the photo that is the header for this blog.
That nasty, ratty, beat old chopper being slid in the gravel by some dirty skinny hillbilly is actually my old XS650 chopper, and me.
That bike, and specifically that photo played a tremendous role in the evolution of my thinking about rigid frames, choppers, performance, crashability, weight, and the whole attack chopper philosophy in general.

So let’s go back in time a bit… about 10 or 12 years… back before the XS650 chopper craze, before people even cared what they were. Back when people could still be heard fighting about wether or not they would be caught dead riding a Jap chopper.
Back when you could go for years without seeing a jockey shift setup and everyone thought you were Charlie Manson insane for running one.
(This is pre-Jesse James guys.)
Back when CB750’s were still heavy, and a pain in the butt to work on… not the “uber cool, totally hip and with it” bike to chop up.
(It’s ridiculous you know… those things are SO heavy and not worth the effort… let everyone else have em… go find a nice light motor that makes better power and has a non-leaking set of carbs!)

Now during this time, I was heavily influenced by old 70's and 80's jap choppers, and I had been bombing around and a lot of long Honda CB750 choppers.
My father in law and I had started collecting CB750’s and all the leftover 70’s parts we could manage.
And we managed a LOT of them for while. We had about 10 bikes and a MASSIVE amount of parts between the two of us. We were still collecting when the word got out that CB parts might be worth something since there was these two guys going around rounding up all these old chopper parts.
All of the sudden all the parts dried up.

So while I was slowing down, I had some time to think about my next project… now some time earlier I had come across a magazine called Iron Horse.
Iron Horse was a hardcore underground chopper magazine out of NYC and was known for having real gritty, nasty awesome choppers mixed in with a lot of the crap that ended up getting printed to fill the pages and to sell magazines. Most of these cool choppers that caught my eye were from NYC and were being labeled as NYC style bikes. Typical of NYC bikes was short front ends, lower bars, rigid frames, jockey shifts, light weight, and lot’s front brakes. The emphasis was on what works, what keeps you alive in New York and how to make it really rockin while still living to ride again the next day.

It was all about aesthetics for me then. Nothing else mattered. I ran spool hubs, rigid struts, 16” over front ends, 16” rear rims, 21” front rims, heavy parts, forward controls, huge tall heavy sissy bars. Pads that ran the whole way up… tons of 70’s action.
Living in Nebraska, I don’t have to worry a lot about handling if I don’t want too. ( OR SO I THOUGHT!) Sure, I can find curves, but I don’t have to drive on any nasty, winding roads unless I chose too.
But, that isn’t to say that traffic, and city riding didn’t get a little on the scary side once and awhile.
For the most part my only motivation for building a bike was looks and looks alone. I never even gave performance the slightest thought.

Also about this time I started reading articles in Iron Horse by a guy named Flynch.
Flynch was all about performance first and aesthetics second. He insisted that a chopper WORK and not be some stupid worthless bike that you only used to ride to the bar and back. He insisted on looking back at the birth of choppers....from their evolution from bobbers.
After a lot of reading about this NYC style, and Flynch’s influence I decided to try to build a nice working, short rigid and see what it was like.

But by this time I had come to realize that I hated the CB750 motor. I hated the weight, the carbs that never stopped leaking for longer than a week, the dry sump, changing the spark plugs, having 4 of everything and just about everything else about it.
Sure I liked to look at them, and everyone kept telling me how important they were historically, but you know what?
I didn’t care.
I was looking for something better.
My father in law had acquired an XS650 in some of our dealings, and he was telling me one day about how nice it was to work on… so I took it out for a spin, and realized that I really liked the fun motor… and I liked the two plugs out where I could get at them.
I crawled underneath it and saw how easily I could remove the started, and that was all it took.
I was in.
This XS650 was what came out of my experiment.

So here you see what I started out with:
The rigid frame that my good freind built for me, I threw the starter away and made it kick start only, a MECHANICAL jockey shift-foot clutch set up that I built (because I hated any cable activated set up.), a 16” mag on the rear, 19” spoke wheel on the front, two factory single disc setups bolted on both sides of the wheels for a dual disc setup, coffin tank, sissybar, forward controls, full front fender with the factory double bracing, ect.
Not quite as light as I was shooting for, but it was really cheap, really fast and fun, stopped hard, super agile, handled AMAZING, had plenty of ground clearance, and was absolutely life changing.
It took about 5 minutes on that bike before I realized that I was never going to be able to be happy with a long bike again.

This was the first incarnation of the chopper, and I rode it like this for awhile. It was starting to bug me that it wasn't quite up to my own standards for the NYC style that I was shooting for. So I started to change things.

This is a little later I had started to experiment with the looks and the setup. I was changing handle bars on a 3-5 day basis now. I had a huge pile of old bars and would switch them all the time to see what worked the best. I ran apehangers of 3 different lengths, clubmans, dirt bike bars, drag bars, stock bars, you name it....I tried it.
With my jockey shift, and no wiring on the bars changing bars took me 5 minutes unless I had to switch to the long brake line for apehangers… then it was 10 minutes with bleeding.

It was about this time that i developed an addiction to stickers.
I couldn’t pass a sticker vending machine without popping some quarters into it.

I don’t have any pictures of it, but originally I was running a king and queen seat that was leftover from the glory days… then one day I was running to Kansas City and back and it occurred to me:
“This bike is so comfy… set up like this with taller bars… why do I need it to be THIS comfy? I can lighten it up a bunch, and still be comfortable enough to put some miles on… so why am I running it like this?”
I decided that the lazy boy seat had to go, and I started working on a seat of my own.
It turned out to be my favorite seat I have ever ridden on, and will always revert back to this style in any future builds. It was on the chop until the very end.
The fact that I had made the wheelbase so short and also insisted that the frame be a straight leg meant that the angle of the backbone was rather steep. So when you rode it without a seat, your tailbone would smack right into the fender. I solved that by building this little tailbone pad.
Lighter weight, lower center of gravity, better handling (because of the lower COG )less visual clutter. Looking better and working better all the time.
The lower center of gravity was a huge change that I had yet to realize up till that point.
Tom Rose has told me of the huge difference in riding his FXR on wet grass, before and after lowering his seating area dramatically and changing his center of gravity. Same thing happened with my Kawasaki Vulcan this year when I did the same. Don’t underestimate the difference a lower COG can make guys!

I was still running that heavy 16” mag. Headlights were getting switched around on a bi-weekly basis now. Anything that lit up went on my bike.
I had begun to experiment with the front fender… trimming it up, making it lighter, some weeks running without it at all.
Changed headlights and bars about a thousand times, lost the cap to my fake oil tank where I hid the electrics, and beat the snot out of it all over the place.
The motor kept pulling hard in this light package, the jockey shift setup was just as perfect as Icould have ever asked for, the brakes worked great considering they were just two sets of stock brakes bolted together.....did I mention that I had about 600 bucks into it? Mud, dirt and gravel were its daily appetite. Commuted on regularly, beat on continually.
I stared to ride it harder and harder as I realized that all the garbage I had heard about rigid frames being fragile where just that: Garbage.
I jumped railroad tracks, brake slid everywhere I went, and started to slide it a little here and there as I run gravel and dirt more and more often.
Everywhere I went I had more fun than everyone else. I never hesitated to ride it anywhere or for anything. Nobody liked to ride with me because I got all the attention everywhere we went. Nobody knew what it was, and nobody could believe that I shifted it with my hand. But it didn’t matter… everybody wanted to see it and know all about it.

I did experiment a bit with of the heavier items. All of the steel on the bike was steel that I had gotten from the tool and dye trash cans from the factory I was working for at the time. You could almost say this bike was sponsored by the American Tool company.
The foward controls were made from very heavy plate that came off of a German grinder machine.
I set about trying to make a narrower, lighter, higher set of controls to lose some of the German weight...and to make it work better.
Well it worked. And they had grease zerks too...and I cable activated the rear all was very slick and a big improvement... except that they didn't work at all.
The leverage was all wrong, I had no braking force at all and my clutch wasn't progressive anymore.
I was in a hurry to ride that weekend, so instead of developing them any further I just threw the old controls back on.
I know, I know...

This is where things start to get weird:
As you can see I had some philosophy changes in my bike building process.
I went with some friends to a bike show months before this pic.
On a whim I put it in the bike show and then stood around and pretended to know nothing and asked people what the heck this thing was.
I got it all. Knucklehead, pan head, triumph, Norton, BSA, and everything else in between.
No one knew what it was. That was fine by me.....but what didn't sit well with me was all the stock Harley Yuppies that loved it. (And who thought it was a Harley!)
I was sick. I was a bit of a class warrior back then, and really had fun harassing my Harley buddies about my 600 dollar junker that was cooler than their stock Dyna’s.
My bike was built to repulse them, and they were my biggest fans.
What to do?

I started by getting an old green plastic KDX 250 tank, run clubman bars, mount a oil cooler out front on a mount that is mounted to your top clamp, ( I planned on hooking it up, but never got that far) then add dual headlights from Tractor supply, drill about 200 holes in the clutch cover, about the same in the rear fender, switch to a spoke 18” rear rim for lighter weight, better handling, better acceleration, and some metal bear trap motocross footpegs so my feet would stop sliding off the pegs.
Again guys… this was before it was cool to run 18’s , clubmans or beartrap pegs… this was N-A-S-T-Y back then.
It was repellent.
As far as I know it’s still not cool to run a bright green plastic KDX tank on your chopper.
(It was lighter, held more gas, had a vented cap that never shook loose, and as I was to find out soon… crashed very well.)

Now, I want to go on the record right now and say that the clubmans didn’t work, and I didn’t like them at all.
I always needed more leverage than I had, and I was always hunched over too far.
I see tons of guys running clubmans, clip ons, or bars turned over in the clamps these days and I do not want to be one of the guys who influences somebody to run them on their chopper.

Weeks later I was riding with a couple of bikes and my sissy bar finally snapped off.
This was where I stopped to bungee cord it back on.
You can see here I had started to write things on my seat pan with a sharpie. Some days I would write things like “choppers suck!” or a verse from a Tom Waits song depending on where I was going.

As you can see… I took my motorcycles very seriously.
20 minutes later, I was chasing the GSXR and CBR you see in the background and target fixated on a curve and went off of it and down a short grassy hill … I was going ok, keeping it upright, but when I saw a ditch coming fast… I locked up the rear brake to hard and couldn’t counter steer enough with the bars… it went out from under me and we slid for a long ways. I stopped before the ditch.
The clubmans slammed into the tank and spun in the clamps. The tank was completely unharmed.
My ribs took a big hit and I was pretty sore, but I got away pretty lucky.
The foot controls were pretty beefy, and torn into the ground without breaking. They did need to be bent back into place of course. Everything else was more or less ok.
After I got laughed at by the chick riding on the back on one of the bikes when I said it was my first real crash… (She races motocross) … I started the chopper up and rode the 50 miles back home.

I scraped off the grass, replaced the one broken headlight with a oddly shaped one so I had some nice asymmetrical action going on, and (foolishly) left the clubmans on it.
These shots are myself and a friend on the chopper from one of the Slimey Crud runs that I went to in Wisconsin years ago. I left the clubmans on a little longer since it was a café racer run and I wanted to fit in.
(that was a joke.)

I should also mention that the seat was still absolutely comfortable after all this time. I loved it.
People are such baby’s about riding a rigid. You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to ride a rigid… dude, I did it with no seat and my wife rode on that fender for miles and miles with no seat either. If a 95 lb woman can ride on that fender… you can ride a rigid framed bike with a seat on it dude. Get over it.
The rigid frame is not a torture device. You can tour on it if you want too. Most of you guys are not going to tour on it… so why are you worried about it?
Just ride it.

Sometime after the Crud run and all those sweet curves in Wisconsin… I got to hanging off my bike more… the lack of a seat and the low seat area allowed me to REAAAAALLLLY hang way off.

I’m not going to say it made me ride any faster… but it was REALLY fun.
And I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret:
I’m all about having fun on bikes. If that isn’t my primary motivator for riding or building the bike… I will be miserable.
Bikes have to be fun. And I have to be able to have fun on the bike or I’m not interested.

So let’s review the story so far:
My bike is cheap, and incredibly fun.
I never meet another XS650 chopper, or see one in the magazines.
I can count the number of XS650 choppers on the internet on two hands.
It is unique.
It gets lots of attention; it never breaks and is totally reliable.
It’s light, fast, handles great, stops great, has ground clearance, is kickstart only, and jockey shift.(which makes it WAY more fun and terrifies all the squares.)

Regular readers of my blog will realize what is missing in that list: Crashable.
Don't worry...I’m getting to that.

So here we are.
I know have realized the error of my ways, and am no longer running those stupid clubmans. I have switched back and forth between many more bars and realized that the best bars I have ever run… were the free stock CR250 dirt bike bars that were given to me by my brother every time he bought a new CR250 and bought higher bars.
They were wide enough for great leverage, and just the right height… and they were CHEAP!
(I had piles of them at this point!)

Which brings us to these photos…. my shop catches on fire.
The chopper was in it. The fire was put out in time, but the chopper was covered in soot, had a melted master cylinder, headlights, taillight, gas cap, grips and peeled a lot of my stickers off.
It was nasty.
So I did what any caring, loving owner/builder of a custom motorcycle would do:
I pulled it out, started it up, handed the camera to a friend and proceeded to try to flattrack it around the gravel to see if it would break NOW.
(Sooner or later it HAD to right?)

It didn't break. I tried. I must have dropped it 30 times. No damage.(Did I mention that the kickstand never worked? I had a bungee cord on it so that when you picked the bike off the side stand it would snap up. You can see it dragging in this photo.)

All of the sudden in the midst of all this it occurred to me:
I am dropping this bike over and over and nothing is breaking. The bike would land on its forward controls and keep most of the bike off the ground. The bars would take a huge hit and not bend.
The Jockey shift lever never touched down because of the controls. The 70’s era dirt bike beartraps were taking the pounding like a champ.

This bike had already survived potholes, and washboarded gravel roads, sliding , skidding, hole shots, a crash, a FIRE and now tons of drops and nothing had broken!
The tank was not dented, nothing was hurt at all… and so was borne the theory of crashability or WWMMD... however it wasn’t until years later when stunt bikes were born that it really developed farther.

Somewhere in this time I had developed an online friendship with Flynch (who no longer wrote for Iron Horse, or THBC ) who had inspired me so much with his writing.
At one point in time while he was writing Flynch had coined the term “Performance chopper” and it had stuck with me.
He and I spent a lot of time talking about choppers and bikes and through our conversations I became more and more interested in weight loss and higher levels of performance from rigid framed bikes.

I had decided I that I really needed to get serious about making my chopper more of what I originally intended it to be… a NYC style chopper… and not so much at rat bike. But I wanted to go farther now… much more than a NYC style bike… I wanted a real performance chopper.

This was in a transition phase and it wasn’t up and running yet, but I had put the apes on it for fun and was getting it cleaned up again.

I cleaned up a bunch of the soot, lost the heavy battery box, and fake oil tank that hid the wiring and mounted the wiring underneath the seat.
The forwards went, and I started to plan on making some mid controls with aftermarket titanium beartraps from a motorcross bike.
Also to go was my beloved jockey shift setup… man it broke my heart to take that off, but I wanted to do a lot more sliding and skidding, and I wanted more contol and didn’t want to worry about bending my shifter shaft with that bike shifter arm dragging on the ground.
I tossed the silly oil cooler that was mounted in the worst possible place… up high and over my front end… I removed the stock brakes which weighed in a whopping 22 lbs for 2 calipers and rotors, and got a single FZR600 full floating rotor and 4 piston caliper that weighed 7lbs to replace them (not pictured)
I planned on finding the smallest battery I could and mounting it down on the frame without a box, and trying to adapt a disc brake rear wheel off of a modern motorcross bike.
(let it be noted that now, I want a magneto and nothing to do with an awful battery.)
I was going to try to run dual 18’s or 19’s on it and flatrack tires.
The stock T pipes that I had been running we tough, but they were heavy. I had planned on running some sort of high pipe, nice and light. VERY light.
You see here that I had the stock gauges back on there, but that I was just messing around. I had planned on running a nice light computer on there.
The Trailtech Vector and Vapor didn’t exist then, but that is just what I was hoping to find for it.

This was the way I will always remember it: 385 lbs and ready to be finished up.
I never got it on the road again.
My wife lost her job, we fell way behind on the house payments, even though she was working 3 part time jobs to try to keep up.
We were about to lose the house… so I had to sell anything I could.

The only things that I had that were worth anything were my bikes and my house!
I sold the chopper and the only running bike I had.
It was horrible, but at there was a silver lining… I sold the chopper to my good friend and mentor: Flynch.
The man who had inspired it in the first place. He inspired the bike, he saved my house when he purchased the chopper from me, and he inspired all the writing and blogging you see here. The Attack chopper philosophy and blog is all the logical outworkings of his “performance chopper” writings and what I learned from this chopper.
And beyond that, the only reason I ever tried to write anything at ALL is because of his writing in Iron horse.

Flynch has since done a lot of work to the chopper making it MUCH more of a Attack chopper than I had ever achieved.
He stuffed a hot motor in it, with some nice carbs, cut out those heavy axle plates a bit, cut off the passenger footopeg brackets, swapped on a ex-race front end off of an SR500 race bike with some GSXR brakes on it, mounted up a set of Protaper handlebars, and mounted up a different tank and fender.
He was working some mid mounts as well, but has decided to stop there.
He is an incredibly busy man, and only needs one working bike right now… and he has his FXR.
He has no time for projects so, he has very graciously offered to sell it back to me.
(Thanks man!)

(Here is the old KDX tank that he painted red)

(And then the later incarnation with the metal tank)

So, sometime very soon I hope… I can sell my parts bikes, work some extra hours, or win that lottery and earn some extra cash and buy the bike that started it all for me back… and finish the project once and for all.

Unless you guys want to send me some cash… every dollar helps!
Send all donations too: Bird’s Attack Chopper fund….. Ha, ha.


  1. Ben, you rule. Its cool to see the old photos, takes me back to BMBP days! Also cool Seeing the crud pics, thats the day I met you and your wife in person (I had the ratty old gs550...) Anyways, still up here getting into trouble with Aaron, getting ready for the crud run...
    Hope you and your family are well!!


  2. Hey Tom! Good to hear from you! Man, it has been a long time, hasn't it?

    You don't have to tell me what bike you were riding... I remember you dude!

    Glad you are still alive and kicking! Don't let all those cruisers run you off the road on the way to Leland, OK? Ha!

  3. Hey Bird!

    Awesome to read this extended version of your bike story, I originally read it on Flickr, love the bike the pics and philosophy, I have always thought the same way about bikes, it's cool to know there are other people thinking this way and treating it right.

    I asked a question a while back about running an xs without a battery, but all these 3 phase alternators I have found still need a battery attached, so I'm really unsure as to whether or not you can run an xs without a battery but if you have info on such things I'd be glad to know....

    Wish you the best of luck getting back on the gnarly bastard of a bike you used to have...she's still yours in spirit, hope it becomes reality...


  4. Yep, you can run an XS without a battery. It has been done before.
    You need a permanent magnet setup, instead of an excited field coil setup which is what they come with.

    Or you can adapt a magneto from something else.
    I believe I read once that you could use a Yamaha Banshee or blaster magneto on them... but it's been a long time since I read that.

    I would just hang out of the XS forums for a while and see what you can find.
    I know that is where I found the info... I will have to go looking again if I get some time!

  5. Here you go... look in here:

  6. Hey BEn, hope it's cool, but I linked your story to my blog (I share with Aaron and our buddy Dave...)

  7. excellent story, ben.

    i know about the financial crunch thing. last summer i was cutting costs and one thing to go was the comprehensive on my bike insurance. of course some dimwit runs me down three weeks later and i've never had the cash to fix my beloved cruiser. building an xs chop instead.

    when you get your bike back, shoot me an email.

  8. Heh... it could be awhile, having issues right now as a matter of a fact.
    I have a few side jobs lined up, some bikes to fix up and try to sell... if those work on then I might be onto something... otherwise, it could be a while still.
    Strange bills, job cutbacks, nobody is spending money like they used to, more exspensive health insurance, fewer hours... it all adds up to some bad money ju-ju.

    We will just have to see what the next few months bring!

  9. Your story and years of real testing on this project are inspirational. I cant think of a better example of KISS engineering. Your story has helped me make decisions for my DIY rigid, thanks!

  10. what a story!! it realy touched me , you should have that bike back!! whatever !! dr Ron