Motorcycles are pure symbols of freedom, the most California things on the road — outsider, uninhibited, unorthodox and freewheeling. Sure, the Midwest has Sturgis and Harley-Davidson, two indisputable giants in motorcycle culture. But California’s motorcycle culture is in a class of its own, steeped in iconic images of McQueen, Dean and Newman playing speed freaks on their Triumph Bonnevilles; taunted by the tyranny of the Hell’s Angels; and immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s strange and terrible saga of the infamous motorcycle gang.
Southern California, with its cheaper warehouse spaces, good weather and winding roads, has seen a recent boom in motorcycles and the freaks who love them. This surge in motorbike popularity has led to a proliferation of independent customs shops in Los Angeles, among them the DTLA-based Spirit Lakes Cycles. In the fast-growing custom bike scene, Spirit Lake has won coveted awards like the Best Cafe Racer at the VVMC Rally and was recently featured as a builder at the inaugural Outlier’s Guild Custom Motorcycles Show alongside celebrated vets like Michael "Woolie" Woolaway and Dustin Kott. Spirit Lake began in the unlikeliest of spaces. “When I was working for a car company, I was building bikes but I couldn’t build them at work. So I’d make parts at work, take them home, wheel them into my little one-bedroom apartment and assemble my bikes in my kitchen,” recounts Brian, who studied transportation design. Ken, the other half of Spirit Lake Cycles, came from a background in vertical integration and online content. The two met at a car meet, getting together with other motor-wonks to discuss aftermarket treatments for their own cars. Brian recalls, “I was working for a big company doing aftermarket fabrication for cars, and the owner there was super into bikes. He had a crashed Ducati and he was like, “Hey, do you want to mess around with this?” The two became fast friends, and Ken soon picked up Brian’s love for motorcycle customization. “We would buy bikes and do modifications to them that we liked, and somebody would want it. We’d sell it because we’d want to buy another bike that we fancied. We’d end up usually making money on the bike and it snowballed from there,” explains Ken.
In the time since Spirit Lake Cycles first started, the Los Angeles bike scene has changed a lot. Not only has motorcycle ownership grown in the past five years but its demographic audience has shifted upwards to include riders with a penchant for customization and the disposable income to afford it. “Before it used to be a lot cheaper bikes – like older Hondas, older BMWs. The crowd has changed from guys who are just trying to make stuff run and look cool, to guys to have a little bit more money and still want the cool look but also want a reliable thing,” they explain to me. “It’s shifted from Hondas to Triumphs to Harleys, and now it’s come back to the European stuff. It goes in waves.”
What distinguishes Spirit Lake Cycles from the seemingly endless array of L.A. customs shops is a strong creative point of view and a firm commitment to craftsmanship. “We do a lot of fabrication, metalwork, metal fabrication that other people don’t do. We’ll just tackle weird stuff. Most shops will just bolt on stuff. It’s not really custom. We do a lot of building stuff from scratch,” Brian describes. “Something that didn’t exist before,” adds Ken. They are also acutely aware of the hallowed connection between riders and their bikes. For the uninitiated, there’s a relationship between motorists and their bikes that’s not seen as often—or felt as deeply—between car owners and their vehicles. At Spirit Lake Cycles this is not only understood, it’s respected. “Most people don’t take a brand new car and send it to somebody to have them mess with it. But we get new bikes all the time. They just bought it, they don’t even ride it. They don’t want to ride it stock because it’s not their bike.”
There’s a part in Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where the author describes test riding a friend’s bike that was the same make, model and year as his own, only to find that the two bikes felt completely different. Pirsig in all his metaphysical glory begins to ruminate on the cumulative experiences of these machines, writing, “Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it.” Ken and Brian’s combination of design and execution reveals the personality of each bike that enters their shop. Their dedication to quality craftsmanship has added them to the next chapter of California’s storied romance with motorcycles and the freaks who love them.