It's a cold and crappy January day in West Knoxville; too cold and crappy to think much about motorcycles. Unless you happen to be in a particular heated shop, where two evil geniuses are examining the skeleton of what may be their magnum opus. Even without paint or motor or rear wheel, this thing looks scary fast. Long and low with an Indian-style leaf spring front end, it's a custom bike in the style of the dread 1920s boardtrack racers. Cycle Stop owner Tim Miles and technician Chad Busby have been working on it all winter, and check welds and angles and grinds for the thousandth time. They are justifiably pleased with what they see.
"We're building this one kind of bullet-proof," says Miles. "We're going a little extra heavy duty on all our welds because the client we're making it for does ride them. He will take it to Sturgis or wherever. A lot of guys will sink 30 grand in a bike, but it won't make it around the block without shit falling off."
Busby explains that the two-piece tank and rear fender are currently at a painter's shop. The client chose a 1928 Model A Niagara Blue—a color that most would call gunmetal blue—that Busby says is very subtle and suits the design. ("I'd be pissed if someone was admiring the flames and didn't even notice any of the blood sweat and tears I've got in this thing," he adds.)
"We're hoping to have it all back together in time for Easyriders," Miles says. The regional motorcycle show and expo is less than two weeks away. Miles shrugs and acknowledges the fact. "I know. And you know how painters are."
Cue kick-start cough-and-fire sound effects. Cut to Saturday, February 7, 8:45 p.m. Knoxville Convention Center, when Brandon Chapman, the client to whom Miles referred earlier, is called up on stage to accept his trophy; boisterous high-fives and rebel yells among the Cycle Stop contingent. Fade to black.
You have probably gathered by this point that Miles' painter, Knoxvillian David Moore, came through. Chapman's custom boardtracker, built from scratch by Cycle Stop, won Best of Show at Knoxville's Easyriders show. (As this story came together for press, the bike was in Columbus, Ohio at the Easyriders National Competition, where it came in third.) The bike is notable for many reasons. But perhaps most importantly, it illustrates the capabilities of the Cycle Stop crew—a laid-back lot who in just five years have built a rep for making the impossible seem easy, and for making killer custom bikes that are reliably ride-able. In addition to the boardtracker, six other Cycle Stop bikes took trophies at Easyriders.
Building bikes and a family
By the time he committed to building his boardtracker, Brandon Chapman was well-seasoned as a rider and as an owner and connoisseur of custom cycles.
"I knew a guy who had just started a shop up in Norris," Chapman recalls of his first plunge into the world of customizing, years ago. "He begged me to let him turn my Sportster into a chopper. It didn't go too well. He blew my engine up. It was supposed to take two months and took six months. And it cost twice as much as he said it would."
The custom bike scene in and around Knoxville has a lot of the same positive and negative traits as a large family. If a rider's unhappy with his bike, people know. And some of them care for different reasons.
"The bikes we build," says Miles, "we want you to ride them. We want you to have a good time. We've built a couple long choppers. When you're young, those are fun. But as you get older you realize that you really just want to ride. Now all of our choppers are short rake, nice and light. They handle real good and they're just fun bikes to ride.
"It was tough starting out. But it's all word of mouth. We did no advertising. I've been in the area for 12 years and that's all I've done is work on bikes. I've worked for a lot of shops around here and my customers follow me. I never wanted my own business, to be honest with you. I kind of got pushed out on my own. So here I am."
When they make the feature film about Cycle Stop, Tim Robbins is the most obvious casting choice to play Miles, who's quick to smile, self-deprecating, and treats the bikes in his shop with the casual, caring air that Alan Alda's Hawkeye lavished on his MASH patients.
"Tim called me up and told me he had half a bike's worth of parts," Chapman says, explaining the beginnings of his second custom bike. "I wanted to make a boardtracker then but basically couldn't. It became a bobber."
Chapman says that a springer chopper was not really his style. But he built it in memory of his father who had always wanted one.
"I rode it to D.C. in 2007 for Rolling Thunder," says Chapman. "I woke up the next day with black hands, swollen to twice their normal size from all the vibration.
"I built it for my dad, but it's not really what I wanted. It was always meant to be a second bike."
Which brings us to the boardtracker, which is exactly what Chapman wanted all along. Boardtracks were originally called velodromes in Europe. They're like the steeply banked oval tracks where Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce watched bicyclists race in Paris. It was only a matter of time before yahoos got the idea of putting cars and motorcycles on those tracks. The problem was that spectators lined up around the rim of these big wooden bowls, and just about any high-speed mishap often meant multiple deaths.
Chapman explains his attraction, "It's the stance. It's the history. They didn't have brakes because of the weight. They didn't have gearing, they just had a belt-tightener. The harder you pulled, the faster you went. Eventually it was banned. You had these bikes made to go 100 mph and people were getting killed every time there was a crash."
Although boardtrackers are not unheard of these days, they remain uncommon. Chapman and Miles and Busby studied photographs and drawings. Rather than relying on any modern-day precedent, Miles and Busby approached the task at hand as if they were inventing the machine themselves.
"It all comes to you as you're putting it together," says Miles. "We didn't know exactly where the footpegs would go until we sat on it."
Busby, who did most of the welding and most of the reconciling of desire with reality, gives a rundown of what's visible.
"We had pretty much free rein on this as far as design and what we wanted to do," he says. "But you don't want to do anything too crazy. So you call the client in every now and then and let them tell you what they think.
"The frame is rigid. With the wheelbase and the riding position, it ought to be really comfortable. The frame is a production frame from an after-market supplier. Keeping with that early 20th century style, that front end is a copy of an old Indian leaf-spring front end."
The front end comes from Kiwi, a California-based company determined to keep old Indians on the road. "It's a proven design," says Busby. "They used that front end for years and years. Burt Monro's bike—the world's fastest Indian—had that same front end."
Much about the bike, however, is extremely unusual. While the elements themselves are not necessarily unique, their artful combination by Miles, Busby and Chapman is one of a kind. For instance, the clutch is only for stopping and starting. Shifting is accomplished by an electric actuator controlled by buttons mounted near the left-side grip. The rider can shift at full power by simply pressing an "up" or "down" button. There is no brake pedal. Both front and rear brakes are applied by a single lever mounted at the right-side grip. The rear brake gets a constant 100 percent when engaged, and a flow control valve in the brake line—hidden in the crotch of the forks—lets the rider adjust front brake pressure. (No, not while moving.)
The brakes connected to that single-lever rig are of a sort rarely seen. Rather than typical drums or a hub-mounted disc system, front and rear brakes use perimeter discs. Owner and builders say they work great. But they also have a distinctive look, somewhere between Mad Max and Richard Serra. They're one of the first things you notice about the bike from a distance. And Chapman says they're just one more example of Cycle Stop's superlative team effort.
Cycle Stop CFO Jennifer Krajcir and Parts Manager Stephanie Berggren both had bikes entered at Easyriders. Krajcir built her chopper herself, with help from Miles, at the Cycle Stop shop. Berggren rides what Miles calls a Chopster, a sweet modified 883 Sportster, that probably has a new front end in its future. Krajcir and Berggren run the shop and work magic from the parts counter. Suffice it to say that they have many fans.
Chapman explains his frustration with the typical parts counter, and compares that experience to Cycle Stop: "You go in for a rotor for a 1974 FLH. The guy at the counter looks in the catalog and says it's not available. I already looked in the catalog at home and I know it's not available. But I still need one.
"Jennifer and Stephanie are unbelievable in what they're willing to do for a customer. They're the only reason this bike got built. A lot of this stuff is unfindable. They didn't give up until they found it."
It should not go without saying that another woman also contributed to the creation of Chapman's boardtracker; his fiancé Sally. She covertly gathered information from Chapman and his friends about details he wanted for this bike, but was disinclined to order himself for one reason or another. She then passed that info, often along with the necessary funding, to Cycle Stop.
'We don't discriminate'
Now that the thaw is in the air, Miles and Busby (and technician Donivan Sonnier, late of Knoxville Harley-Davidson) have to get back to work. Cycle Stop's bread and butter is service, tunings and tires. After the first sunny February weekend in Knoxville, their parking lot went from just employees' bikes to nearly overflowing. Miles says custom builds are pretty much winter-time only.
But warm weather just makes the shop interesting for different reasons. Apparently, owners of unusual bikes take them to makers of unusual bikes for service. There's a KTM off-road racer waiting in line, a Guzzi bagger brought back from Italy by a serviceman, a couple sportbikes, and too many personalized big twins to count.
"We don't discriminate," says Miles. "We work on anything. Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda, BMW. We mostly specialize in Harley-Davidson."
Miles is a factory trained and certified HD tech. But operating outside of a dealership gives him and his staff lots of leeway that customers seem to appreciate. Low overhead combined with Miles' business philosophy allows the shop to have wrench rates well below many competitors. According to Miles, they have Knoxville's only Dynojet diagnostics booth not under a dealer's roof.
You can't really say there's no attitude at Cycle Stop. But you can say that it's a good attitude.