“Mission Damn Near Impossible..” by: Mike Seate

“I need a good café racer for under $7,500,” was the request from “Café Racer” TV’s Executive Producer, Chet Burks. The man had a plan to present the bike as a door prize at Discovery HD Theater’s rebrand to Velocity. The network has been pumping up “Café Racer” like a supercharged dragbike and this would be a great way to give something back to the folks that make it happen. Sure, there are a few machines in the Café Racer magazine stable that we could be persuaded to release for that kind of money – and let’s face it – when you’re infected with the custom bike building bug, garage space is always at a premium. We gave Chet a better idea – “Buy a stock Triumph Bonneville T-100 and we’ll do it up in the three days we have left before the launch party.”

As magazine people do when faced by deadlines, we make promises, then decide later if we can actually meet them. Usually, we do. For this project, I needed to muster the troops–fast. The stock Bonnie was located at Atlanta’s WOW Motorcycles, where a low mileage, 2010 model was found with only 1,500 miles on the clocks. The shop promised a 48 hour delivery to our Pittsburgh-area garage, which left just enough time to call in chief tech and road tester Blake Kelly and his sidekick, Zac Leroy, a man who can do things with vinyl that even its inventors never imagined. The wacky, and quite controversial, H.N.I.C. Racing Ducati 999 custom sportbike that I’d once built in the pages of Motorcyclist Magazine – yes, the one with KFC, Trojan Magnum and Miller High Life livery – was Zac’s idea and he’s since delivered several more sportbikes and café customs decorated in funky, irreverent decal kits.

The Bonneville, upon spotting it, would require a different approach, Zac and Blake decided. “Pipes, bars, decals, a seat cowl and some attitude should take care of everything,” Blake said, wasting no time tearing off the excessive parts that adorn Triumphs owned by riders of a certain age and disposition. Passenger pegs? Who needs ‘em? Chrome grab rail that adds more weight than a lead brake disc? Off it went along with the quieter-than-a-baby’s-fart stock exhaust system. Along with the removal of the factory installed center stand, we’d managed to tear about 40 pounds from the bike in just over an hour. The good folks at Triumph’s Georgia HQ were eager to help out with the project. They hooked us up with a lightweight two-into-two Arrow full exhaust system and a groovy little gloss black seat cowl from a Bonneville Thruxton model that transformed the stock T-100’s lines. Blake popped off the clunky stock rear fender and canned it along with the D.O.T. turn signals; in their place came a tiny (but still legal, honest) aftermarket LED strip light and mini indicators. Thruxton rear shocks, which offer two inches more rear wheel travel than the low riding Bonnie units, were bolted in place. This alters the rear ride height of the bike for sharper turning.

Up front, Zac got busy disconnecting the factory O2 sensors that are a royal pain for every customized fuel-injected bike builder to deal with. The mystery of the project? We thought all Hinckley Bonnevilles were issued with fat, one-inch diameter handlebars, but this one came rockin’ a set of 7/8” buckhorns from the factory. Lucky for us, we had several pair of cheap, swap meet clubman bars lying around the magazine’s workshop and, with some expert rewiring help form Blake, fitted them easily into place. Zac conjured up a very natty vinyl sticker kit for the Bonneville consisting of a set of CRTV logos for the tailpiece and a checkerboard trail leading from front fender down the gas tank and over the seat cowl. The kit changed the look and attitude of the entire bike and required no painting, powdercoating or hassles. Cool.

Looking at the clock, we’d invested about four hours in turning a stock, ordinary roadbike into something we’d be proud to park outside the Rock Store or Milwaukee’s Fuel Café. But this baby was headed to her big prom night in front of Discovery’s bigwigs. Could she hold her own in a room full of exotic Lamborghinis and Porsches? More on that later…

“And The Wind-Up..” By: Mike Seate

For a series just working its way through its second year, I’m often amazed to find the wide and disparate range of people who dig Café Racer TV. I’ve had little old grandmas approach me in my neighborhood grocery store to gush about how much their sons and grandsons enjoy the show and I always appreciate the unexpected surprise when some guy in a suit and tie rushes over to my motorcycle in a parking lot to tell me that he’s planning on building one just like it- only faster, of course- because he’s seen café racers whizzing across his TV screen every week. OK, there is a downside to becoming more recognizable to the public-at-large; if one more person mistakes me for professional stunt rider Jason Britton – who happens to be a good six inches shorter than and a decade younger than, myself- I’ll burst a blood vessel. That said, one of the cooler and most memorable experiences to occur during the current season’s shooting schedule happened last spring down in Florida where we had a chance to check out a Philadelphia Phillies pre-season game and meet some of the players. I used to frequent a pub near my Pittsburgh home that catered to members of the Pittsburgh Pirates who played nearby and the players often stepped outside to se me off, asking endless questions about my custom café racer. So it was no surprise to see how many of the Phillies were Café Racer fans. We got a blast out of talking clip-ons, rearsets and ton-up tales with the team’s manager Charlie Manuel who told us he never misses an episode, while some of the team’s top talent, including ace pitcher Roy Halladay got a chance to sit aboard the custom Harley-Norton hybrid special built by Alan Bernard of Florida’s Santiago Choppers. After filling in members of the team on the Norley’s impressive performance specs, we tossed some sports analogies at the players, explaining that the 1200cc Norley could travel about 50% faster than Halladay’s 90 MPH fastball. While shooting the breeze with several team members including Cole Hamels, groups of Phillies fans drifted over to check out the motorcycle and it was a gas to overhear them guessing what sort of machine it was.

What was a shocker came later when several players learned that the motorcycle – which appears in tonight’s episode of Café Racer TV – would be auctioned off to support the Curing Kid’s Cancer charity. Several pulled us aside and explained how much they’d like to add a custom café racer to their toy collections, but they did so out of earshot of team manager Charlie Manuel as Major League Baseball forbids its players from riding motorcycles while contracted to play. One player, who shall remain nameless, told us that he already owned several high-performance sportbikes and a few cars capable of approaching the double-ton mark, but if the men in the team office found out, the bikes would have to go. “I plan to build me one of these the week after I retire,” we were told more than once, a statement that provided a rare insight into the world of professional sports. Sure, it must be great to throw a 90 MPH pitch and make tens of millions, but me? I’d rather have my motorcycles, risks and all.

– Mike Seate

Cafe Racer TV Week 5 – Rain, rain…

This week, we’ve been working feverishly to complete a few segments for the show that are near and dear to our hearts. The foremost is a piece we shot at London’s Lewis Leathers, known as the oldest and most respected leather motorcycle gear manufacturer on the planet. That’s no trite distinction as motorcycle gear has to be stylish, durable and capable of taking the sort of punishment that gives rodeo clowns nightmares just to survive, let alone for most of a century as has Lewis. The shop is run by Derek Harris, one of the coolest cats we had the pleasure of meeting during our extended world tour. Derek is a quiet, soft-spoken type but has more arcane and fascinating facts stored in his noggin than most. He can drop science on the history and development of motorcycle gear for hours and never grow boring, and his insights on how leather gear worn by early aviators evolved into the same motorcycle jackets we wear today is, well, you’ll have to catch the TV show for his side of the story.

The main man who turns dead cows into protective gear at Lewis is Hiro, a Japanese expat who visited London a few years back to see a Rocker reunion rally and ended up not only staying on board, but landing his dream job, cutting patterns and designing jackets for Lewis Leathers. Hiro and Derek invited a few of their riding buddies to our shoot at their London headquarters and we were pretty thrilled to hear the pop and roar of a dozen of so vintage café bikes echoing off the sandstone walls as the pack approached.

Tales from Road Week 5 of Cafe Racer TV
Their presence turned out to be a cool addition to an already bitchin’ story, and the fact that the skies decided to spend this spring day pissing down rain like it was late fall only added to the ambience. British bikes and English rain- what could be more right?

Well, what really ended up striking us after standing outside and getting drenched for a few hours was how the British rockers had no problem riding for hours on their classic café racer in an absolute downpour. It didn’t seem to matter whether their machines had (typically) faulty Lucas electrics and beautiful, polished alloy bodywork or whether the breeze was enough to give Cold Miser a case of the chills; they just kept on keepin’ on, weather be damned. Classic bikes here at home tend to be venerated, cloistered things of beauty, taken our and ridden rarely if at all and only in the most perfect weather conditions. We’re frequently offered private viewings of classic and antique café racer collections by people who’ve seen the show, but to be honest, we nearly always decline. Why? Because it’s a lot more fun, in my humble opinion, to check out a rider who’s willing to give his rare, valuable classic a full day’s run, in whatever weather, than stand around gawking, in a stuffy, museum-like setting, wondering why some fully-rebuilt and completely capable old bike isn’t out being used in the manner the builders and designers intended..

Tales from The Road Week 5 of Cafe Racer TV
One of the more seasoned riders, DJ The Rocketeer (he also works as a rockabilly DJ) explained that, yes, riding in the rain can be a pain, but with weather far wetter in the British Isles than it is here at home, motorcyclists learn early on that if they want to enjoy biking, they’ve got to learn wet-weather riding skills, Ma Nature aside. “It eventually always stops raining,” he laughed, “even in London,” water dripping from his helmet.

That sort of attitude is something we just don’t see much of in the States, ad it’s the reason why some of these UK riders, male of female, could proudly attest to clocking five, ten and sometimes even 20,000 miles per season aboard their classic bikes. I thought of them when the crew returned home and I found myself dying for a much-needed day in the saddle while the clouds were gathering outside my garage. Press on because the rain always stops, eventually, seems to be the lesson learned, classic bike or modern.

Tales from The Road Week 5 of Cafe Racer TV– Mike Seate

Café Racer TV Week Four – Travel Tales

It’s been a couple of weeks off from our near-constant road duties producing Café Racer for HD Theater, and already, the memories of a year spent riding, wandering and working on a TV crew are starting to flood back. We were on the road for part of 2008 and 2009 and most of the 2010 calendar year, so it’s easy to forget some of the funny, weird and downright memorable events that occurred but, alas, did not make the final edit.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

One of the memories that causes me to laugh out loud involves our visit to East Sussex, England to the bucolic compound of Dave Degens, a man considered the godfather of the Triton special. Dave is known as a somewhat difficult man to get to know, and as one of my heroes- he did build a café racer in his garage that defeated the factory roadracing teams at the Barcelona 24-Hour Endurance Championships back in the day- expectations and apprehensions were high.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

Well, Dave turned out to be both accessible, warm and funny, traits that emerged even more fully when the shoot was over and we embarked to a tiny little 18th Century pub nearby. Dave regaled us with stories from 60 years of motorcycle riding and café building and his mates Eric and Steve kept our glasses filled and our eyes watering with various tales of life on two wheels. Dave explained that one day while serving in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in the late 1950s, he often challenged himself and his Triton to make the 40-odd mile trek from his military base to his London home in ever-quicker times. “One day, I roared through Trafalgar Square and there were all these people cheering and waving at me. I thought they were cheering for me and it turns out I’d written into the middle of a Ban The Bomb march, and they were all chanting slogans!

Even weirder was the crowd gathered in the pub that day- one fellow kept stumbling amongst the trio of parked motorcycles outside, stopping by occasionally asking questions to Degen’s crew whom he obviously knew. After watching the man down several high-alcohol pints in the span of just a few minutes, I asked who he was. “He’s the local taxi driver. You’d be smart to only ride with him before mid-day,” Degens said.

Ah, the British, they certainly know how to live!

Other memorable occasions came when Test rider Blake Kelly and I rode from London to Liverpool for a visit to this year’s Isle of man TT Festival. Blake had never visited this veritable motorcycling heaven, and after four TT’s, I figured it was time to share the magic with another dedicated enthusiast. The experience was, as always, amazing, with beautiful scenery, incredible, speed-limit-free mountain roads, friendly locals – many of whom drink like our friend the taxi driver- and more sportbikes than you can shake a radar gun at. Naturally, it pissed down rain for the entire 200-mile ride from London to the ferry port in Lioverpool, stopping only when we slung out wet exhausted butts into our seats on the boat.

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

The days at the Isle of Man are an incredible mix of doing laps along the 38-mile, 225-turn TT course, stopping for fish and chips at a quaint pub, a few more laps and then riding like mad to find the best vantage point for viewing the day’s races. Standing a couple of feet from a superbike roaring past at 170-plus MPH is one of life’s must-do experiences and even after five TT’s it still caused a chill down the spine. Blake was gobsmacked to say the least, and I was surprised to hear this former stunt rider and AMA racer proclaim, “you’d have to be crazy to race here. I’d never do it!” We saw a 3-D film crew making a film about the TT that’s said to be headed to Imax theaters sometime soon and it was a blast to meet competitors who all seem friendly and eager to mix with spectators- try that at a Moto GP round! On the way back, the skies cleared and we found a toll road going South back to London- we pegged the two Triumph triples at a steady 110 and after a few miles of getting into a comfortably fast rhythm, we were having the time of our lives as we diced with blacked-out turbo Bentleys who hogged the fast lane and whizzed past our motorcycles like we were in reverse. As we rode on, I noticed the distinct smell of burning plastic. Looking ahead at Blake’s Street Triple R, I saw that the bag he’d slung over his tail section had been cushioned by a hotel hand-towel which caught fire, roasting his luggage, and, if I hadn’t frantically signaled him to stop, his rear end as well!

Tales from The Road Week 4 of Cafe Racer TV

As we beat the burning towel and luggage out on the roadside, a British police car slid to a halt beside us- and the officer informed us, in typically polite understated tones, that we were in violation of British law, having stopped on a dual-carrigeaway. “You should have made it to roadside services before stopping,” he said flatly. Maybe his squad car had never been on fire at 110 MPH before…

– Mike Seate