2012 Dirtbag Challenge Biker Build-Off

A Day Among Dirtbags

By Ed Milich, Photography by Rebecca Hinden

“Look out, Dad. Tire cloud at 12 o’clock.”

We strode quickly to avoid the sour fog of stale, atomized rubber billowing toward us from beneath a ratty XS1100. “Cough… cough. Cool, huh?” It would be the first of many burnouts that November day. Despite my many misgivings, I brought my 70-year-old father—a municipal judge and retired Air Force Lt. Colonel—to the Dirtbag Challenge anyway. He was in town from Ohio for just a few days, and our time together was limited. Plus, I figured he’d enjoy hanging out with the Dirtbags more than touring some dusty museum or seeing a silly art deco bridge.

For the uninitiated, The Dirtbag Challenge is San Francisco’s annual lowbrow biker build-off. Entrants display homebrew hotrod bikes created under these constraints: One month build time. $1000 budget. Bikes must be rideable. And, as the organizers stipulate, no Harleys. Craftsmanship and creativity are emphasized over cubic dollars. The construction culminates in a beer-soaked party in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood, where burnouts are elevated to an art form.

According to Chief Dirtbag Poll Brown, the first DBC was held in 2003 with just four entrants and 30 attendees. “It started as a reaction to a certain reality TV show where the bike builders spent more time arguing than actually building their overpriced, barely rideable choppers,” Brown says. “We wanted to prove you could build a really cool, fun and functional bike on a working man’s budget.” The party has since become a San Francisco institution. For 2012, there were 29 bike entries and thousands of spectators.

The Dirtbag Class of 2012 truly distinguished itself. While a few bikes still looked salvaged from the bottom of the bay, the majority were competently constructed and a few were truly awesome. Julian Farnam’s cleanly executed Yamaha RD400 chopper earned him a Coolest Bike award and the admiration of the Dirtbag horde. The RD’s intriguing leading-link front end and stylized swingarm demonstrated Julian’s design chops and fabrication skills. Similarly, Kyle Maibes’ nicely done black-and-silver Yamaha XS650 showed what results from hard work, a tube of Simichrome, and a few cashed-in favors from a paint guy. The bobber’s sculpted tank, clean lines, and sparkling finish distinguished it from lesser Dirtbaggers. Casey Miller’s 1980 Suzuki GS1100 was another nicely done, budget tire burner. This Baddest Bike award winner’s lace-look crimson paint complemented a classically chopped, stretched and raked frame. Its minimalist exhaust system was about as subtle as an air raid siren—too hectic for daily driving, but it perfect for a Dirtbag clarion call.

Dirtbag regular Turk displayed two previous creations. His FZR600-powered steel behemoth (see Me & My Bike, Dec. 2012) is a massive, enigmatic beast, inspiring passersby to contemplate the magnitude of the machine required to bend its massive main frame into shape. His XT550-engined lowrider, on the other hand, was svelte and minimalist, and noteworthy for its butt-scraping, 18-inch seat height. Turk’s primal, masterful marvels are much more fun to ponder than any cookie-cutter, $50,000 chopper.

Guido Brenner’s three-wheeled, Moto Guzzi-powered Morgan-mutant caught our attention next. Brenner was busy smoking the rear tire when we approached; based on the acrid organic aroma filling the air, he was probably smoking the clutch, too. This Guzzi V50/Ford Model A mash-up earned the Founder’s Choice award, selected by Poll himself. “They obviously don’t give out awards for maturity,” Dad noted sagely.

Brown echoed my impression: “What really struck me this year was the build quality,” he said. “Sometimes the bikes are so cobbled together it’s comedic, but the overall craftsmanship this time was outstanding. Everyone seemed to take things very seriously. The 2012 builds are dangerously respectable.”

The crowd was a raucous, diverse blend of San Francisco hipsters, colors-wearing bikers, Aerostitched commuters, and sundry other two-wheeled weirdoes. Local garage bands provided the three-chord anthems occasionally heard over the redlining motors and tire blowouts. According to Brown, there has only been one fight in a decade of Dirtbag parties, and it was probably staged for the TV crew in attendance. Dad noticed, too. “For such a gruesome-looking group, they’re pretty well-behaved.”

Brown's favorite part of the event is the mandatory ride. "We used to require bikes just run the length of one city block. We expanded that to 120 miles, now, and I think it's benefitted the build quality. For me, the high point this year was charging up Tunitas Creek Road. When I got to the top of the hill and looked around at our pack of homemade café racers, I had a grin a mile wide. No money in the world can buy that feeling." There is no chase truck. Bring your own tool kit. It's all part of the fun.

The Dirtbag Challenge has evolved over the last five years that I've been paying attention. Hose clamps, zip ties, and gaffer's tape are being replaced with actual fabrication and craftsmanship. Brute force has given way to finesse. Call it a Dirtbag Renaissance. It's pure proof that you don't need lots of money to have fun on a bike.

Dad enjoyed himself, too. After the third or fourth burnout, I actually saw him smirk. Before he got all respectable, you know, pops wrenched on heavy trucks and tooled around Northeastern Ohio on a Harley "45" and a Whizzer. And I concluded correctly that he'd appreciate this mechanically mischievous yet fun-loving event. Now even Dad is down with the Dirtbags.

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