Since it premiered on the Discovery Channel back in the fall of 2002, the hit television show Biker Build-Off has become the barometer for what's cool in the chopper world, defining the hottest new trends and turning underground cult builders like Billy Lane, Indian Larry and Russell Mitchell into world-famous TV stars. If you've seen it before, then you know that Biker Build-Off is a chopper program to the core, typically favoring mile-long, old-school choppers built by guys who would rather piss on a live spark plug than be caught dead playing with sportbikes.
What does it mean, then, when the 2006 season premiere Build-Off is won by a decidedly unchopperlike bike named "No Regrets," which is turned out with such signature sportbike components as an hlins Superbike fork, low clip-on handlebars, roadracing slicks and a streetfighter-inspired flyscreen? It means that the mainstream custom motorcycle world is being turned straight on its head, and the guy doing that inverting happens to be someone very well known to Super Streetbike readers. Roland Sands, the 31-year-old national champion roadracer, confirmed sportbike freak and burgeoning chopper legend, is the leader of this new world order. Inspired by his unique background in the motorcycle industry, Sands is pushing custom motorcycle design in radical new directions with his relentless mashing-up of sportbike and chopper styles to create a new breed of performance-oriented, sportbike-inspired customs unlike anything the motorcycle world has seen before.
Don't bother trying to categorize Sands' creations--even he resists that urge. "I don't like to think of them as choppers or sportbikes," he says. "They're just cool f*cking bikes that I want to ride. I appreciate the beautiful craftsmanship and artistry that people associate with choppers, but I also want a bike that I can ride hard, like a race bike, that really hauls ass." It's almost inevitable that Sands would begin building custom motorcycles like this, given his unique upbringing and diverse experience in the motorcycle industry. Sands is the son of Perry Sands, owner and founder of Performance Machine, the well-known aftermarket firm that manufactures some of the world's finest wheels, brakes, controls and other components for custom motorcycles of both the chopper and sportbike varieties. Sands virtually grew up in the PM shop and has worked there since age 14. "I didn't have a choice," he says. "My parents put me to work early to keep me from getting in any more trouble." Sands started out sweeping floors and at one point or another held almost every job available at the company--including assembly, sanding and polishing, and even designing wheels--eventually working his way up to his current position as Performance Machine's director of R&D and design.
While he was busting his design chops in the studio at PM--Sands has no formal design training whatsoever, it's all been hands-on learning--he was also mastering the art of riding sportbikes very, very fast. Sands' father was involved in motorcycle racing from the beginning, but it wasn't until Roland's 18th birthday, when his parents gifted him with a one-day class at Keith Code's California Superbike School, that he got serious about dragging knees. From that day on, Sands says all he wanted to do was roadrace. Sands doesn't do anything half-assed, and his foray into roadracing was no different. Instead of starting simple, he went straight into 250GP racing on a Yamaha TZ250--a purpose-built, two-stroke racing machine that is one of the most challenging bikes to master. And master it he did--Sands won his first novice 250GP race at Willow Springs Raceway in California and never looked back, enjoying a nine-year professional racing career at the top of the AMA 250GP ranks, including winning the national championship in '98.
Sands ended his pro racing career in '02, after serious injuries (including a broken back) and a lack of motivation caused him to lose interest. "I just got over my performance on a motorcycle being the only thing that determined how happy I was," he says. "I didn't want to be controlled anymore by how fast I went on a motorcycle." At the same time, he was also getting started as a custom bike builder and beginning to channel all the energy that drove him on the racetrack into building and fabricating one-off custom motorcycles. In fact, Sands finished up his first frame-up custom, the well-known "Whiskey Tango," just days before his final race in '02. On the surface, this path hardly makes sense. No two bikes are less alike than a 250GP racer (with a tiny, taut chassis and high-revving two-stroke motor) and a custom chopper (with a massive, slow-revving V-twin engine and stretched-out stance), but the lack of similarity was part of the attraction, Sands says.
Building customs, it turned out, was the perfect cure for his race-instigated burnout. Sands wasn't always a chopper fan. "I was such a purist--I mean, I raced 250GP bikes, nothing is a more pure race bike than that. And I remember thinking, F*ck choppers...f*ck anything that didn't perform," Sands says. But working full-time at Performance Machine, Sands couldn't avoid choppers--especially since he was working side-by-side with West Coast Choppers' Jesse James, who was also a Performance Machine employee when he started making bikes. Building race bikes had given Sands formidable mechanical and fabrication skills, and building custom bikes was a logical outlet for those talents. But even from the beginning, it was clear that Sands wouldn't be building typical custom bikes. Even his earliest bikes like Whiskey Tango, though they were clearly choppers in spirit, showed obvious sportbike cues like inverted forks and oversized, race-inspired front brakes.
In the intervening years, Sand's own bikes have evolved to represent a style that is utterly original. Looking at the four bikes featured in this article, you'll find them nearly impossible to categorize. The massive V-Twin engines and smooth, flowing bodywork scream chopper, but the sportbike suspensions, wheels, tires and aggressive, streetfighter-ish stance and styling connect immediately with the sportbike world. Ask Sands about bikes that have blown his mind recently and the list, as you might expect, is exceptionally diverse: "The Yamaha MT-OS [a naked streetfighter-styled concept bike] is gnarly. [Chopper builder] Roger Goldammer's bikes are insane. And of course, any MotoGP race bike, especially the Ducatis." Clearly, Sands' mind operates in many motorcycle modes, and, like all great art, his creations are just a pure expression of what Sands sees in his mind.
His bikes are just a natural progression of the custom bike evolution, Sands says. "Choppers--everyone's got them now, so let's go to something different," he says. "What drives me is creating what I see in my head. It's just a product of where I've been and where I come from. It doesn't have anything to do with anyone else--it only has to do with my experience in life and with bikes." And while many chopper builders remain conservative and afraid to branch out into other types of bikes for fear of alienating their core customers, Sands has no doubt that the custom bike world is ready for something different. "I see a lot of guys, particularly sportbike crossover guys (and every day there's more and more of those), who are really into my bikes," he says.
"Motorcycles are strange, because people adopt these personas that are tied in with their particular style of motorcycle," Sands says. "Their association with that persona doesn't allow them to appreciate other styles of motorcycles. For me, I don't have a moto-persona tied to me. I don't adhere to the purist roadracing vibe anymore, and I'm not some leather-wearing chopper guy. I'm a motorcyclist. That's what it's all about. If I can make crossovers happen and open people's eyes, I'm gonna do it."
As brilliantly conceived as a bike like "No Regrets" is, Sands tells us that he's just getting started. "I don't think you've seen everything yet, not even close," he says. "People say [they've seen everything] whenever things get crazy, but there's always another direction to head off in. I'm just getting started. Now that I've got my own thing and I'm not working in the confines of PM so much anymore--oh, my God--you're going to see some sh*t." By "his own thing," Sands means his new business, Roland Sands Designs (RSD), which he is in the process of launching. RSD will do independent design work and consulting for the motorcycle industry, as well as design work outside of the industry as other opportunities arise. Sands will operate RSD on his own and out of a dedicated facility while concurrently maintaining his duties at Performance Machine.
One of RSD's first jobs is also one of the most exciting--building a one-off custom motorcycle around one of roadracing legend Kenny Roberts' Proton V5 MotoGP engines. Talk about the ultimate combination of chopper and sportbike style and technology! This wild hybrid was actually Kenny Roberts' idea--he had seen Sands' first Biker Build-Off episode and his "Glory Stomper" custom, which gave him the idea of commissioning Sands to build a custom bike around one of his 195-hp, four-stroke, V5 MotoGP engines. Roberts delivered to Sands one V5 motor to use for the custom, plus a complete Proton MotoGP racebike for Sands to blast around the LaPalma drainage causeways "just for inspiration."
"Like an MV Agusta but with one more cylinder and 5000 more revs" is how Sands describes riding the Proton race bike.
Sands hit the drawing board and came up with a wild concept for Roberts that was inspired by '20s board-track racers (the original sportbikes) and utilized inverted forks and other signature sportbike and MotoGP race bike cues to create a radical custom motorcycle utterly unlike any ever seen before. Although the bike was still in the fabrication stages when this issue went to press (as you can see from the photos), Sands did provide us with a top-secret concept drawing of what the bike would look like when it's done. "The Proton custom is such a cool opportunity to do something totally different--something that's never been done before," Sands says. "It's just going to tweak people, especially these MotoGP purists. Getting this bike done is going to be huge for me." Sands says that the 195-hp, 300-pound special will be a fully functioning bike, too, and he's even thinking about trying to set a land speed record on it. "Think I could hold onto it at 200 mph without a fairing?" he asks. For Sands, there is no such thing as a rhetorical question.
Many of Sands' plans for RSD are more realistic. "I'd like to do some crazy-ass bike kits," he tells us. "For instance, take the V-Rod, put a twist on it, and then sell it as a kit afterwards." He's also thinking about some sportbike-based kits, rolling-chassis kits that utilize a readily available inline four powerplant. "I'd build a frame for the Gixxer motor, or whatever the most-crashed sportbike is--maybe a frame that accepts a couple different motors with some different brackets... It would be a totally plug-and-play option, though--just put in the motor and go. Guys could have a 160-hp, totally badass little chopper for just a few hours of work."
Sands says that the motorcycle world is ready for more bikes like this, especially the younger riders who are coming into custom bikes from the traditional sportbike world. "Kids don't care what kind of bike it is; it doesn't have to be a Harley to be OK to them," Sands says. "They just want to go fast and look cool." As long as those kids keep coming up, Sands will be right there to push them along. "I see it as the natural progression of custom building," he says. "What I'm doing is trying to push it, take it out of the Harley realm and make custom bike building something people realize they can do with any kind of motorcycle. Just pushing it."