When you only have a MIG welder, an angle grinder, a small budget and you are up against strict vehicle registration laws, why would you even consider building a custom bike?
It was my last day in Latvia at the end of my summer vacation when Martins Komarovs and Dmitrijs Rabenau invited me to take a ride out into the country to meet two of their friends who have a shared passion for motorcycles. Whilst their bikes are not ground breaking works of art or design it clearly demonstrated to me that if you have a dream to build a one-off custom bike then you will always find a way to overcome any obstacle.
Yours truly with Dmitrijs Rabenau and Martins Komarovs
Janis Silins - 10 Years in the Making (so far)
Janis is a blacksmith by trade. He specialises in making historic replica axes for battle re-enactments. I asked him if he is building a bike when he is not making battle axes to which he replied, "I was building a bike". Evidently his project has been on hold for some time and when you understand the obstacles Latvian bike builders are up against, its easy to understand why!
Motorcycle registration is a big problem for Latvian bike builders as you are unable to register a bike with a custom built frame so only minor structural modifications are possible, unless of course you don’t plan to ride it on the roads or you undertake very expensive type-approval testing. So the more radical designs are built with a shear passion and desire to own a one-off creation.
Janis started building his bike about 10 years ago and the design has been evolving ever since. If he decides to change something then that’s what he does. He started off building his own frame but then he bought a simple frame design which he likes.
Janis joked that his bike is built from scrap parts. It has a DNEPR engine which he bought from a guy for 10 LATS (about €12 or $14). It has a manual advance and retard lever mounted on the handlebars. The front wheel is from a Czech, Jawa bike. The rear wheel is from a Zigula Moskvitch car and the handlebars are handmade from three separate bars welded together.
As well as the chopper-style, Janis also likes the British café-racer style bikes. But at this late stage, changing it to a café-racer may be a step too far!
Donor bikes are becoming expensive like in other countries. A secondhand Honda CB can cost €3000 - €5000 but it is still possible to find some good donor bikes in Latvia, which are not so expensive.
Janis's Custom Bike
Gatis Zeltins's Kawasaki Vulcan Custom Build
Another one of Martins and Dmitrijs's friends also has a long term dream to build a one-off motorcycle to his own design. Gatis started building his bike about a year ago. It is based a Kawasaki Vulcan 1500. Building his bike in a barn and not a fully equipped machine shop has required a lot of ingenuity. Armed with a MIG welder and a flex grinder, Gatis set about crafting several unique features on his bike.
He came up with his own design for the sprung seat, an important feature when you consider the condition of some Latvian roads. It will eventually be finished in leather.
A one-off design sprung seat
The foot-pegs with an integrated brake lever can be seen in the video. Gatis said he may introduce further changes in the final design. He is also fabricating a new straight through exhaust system. It has the original motor and so far he has only removed the heads to inspect the top end. He plans to do a more thorough inspection later but it should be a reliable lump.
When Gatis said he hoped to get it finished next year, Martins said laughing, "I would also like to finish mine next year". Martins has a similar project in progress and this may be the subject for another story. After our visit he told me that it had inspired him to resume work on his project so the next day he had worked until the early hours of the morning.
It was great to see their enthusiasm for bike building and these friends enjoying helping each other work on their bikes whenever they can. The next time I see a custom bike build, which has a few rough edges, I will be thinking about these builds. It's not always about how good your bike looks but how much effort and passion has gone into it that really matters!
Gatis's Custom Vulcan Bike
Latvian Bike Scene
Bike clubs and motorbike festivals are a very important part of of the Latvian bike culture. Given that Latvia is a relatively small country there are a surprisingly large number of bike clubs throughout the country. Wendi (pronounced "Vendi") is just one such club and has branches throughout Latvia. (According to wikipedia "Some sources claim that in the 13th century there were actual historic people called Wends or Vends living as far as northern Latvia".)
The biggest annual bike festival is the Kurland festival held in Ventspils. Bikers who have attended every Kurland festival since its inception proudly wear a badge for each year with pride.