The café racer, neo-retro and custom bike scene has had a huge revival in popularity over the past decade, with the nostalgic styling coupled with modern equipment proving to be a winning combination. But the scene isn’t just about bikes, it’s a lifestyle and community that everyone can enjoy, bikers and non-bikers alike.
So we spoke to the Founder and CEO of The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club in East London, Anthony “Dutch” van Someren, to learn more about the scene, what The Bike Shed is all about, and to find out his thoughts on motorcycling in the UK today.
From an online blog to The Bike Shed. Tell us about your journey.
I was a life-long biker and was becoming disenfranchised with the whole motorcycle industry focused on sports bike culture, with MotoGP and World Superbike technology being used on road bikes and being driven by nerds doing spreadsheets about fuel consumption. And I was on that journey. I had a KTM Superduke R and was about to buy an RC8-R – my fifth KTM – but I suddenly thought this isn’t floating my boat anymore.
I became infected by the whole re-emergence of the café racer and custom culture in 2009. It’s about engineering, lifestyle, design, and a whole bunch of other things, so I started blogging about that. Then in 2012 I sat down with a bunch of mates in a pub, and the guys from Untitled Bikes and Spirit Motorcycles, to discuss starting our own bike show that would have cool bikes, great food, great beer and artisan coffee, all the new gear that you can only normally buy online, there would be art on the wall from people like Conrad Leach, and Chesterfield sofas. So we did our first show in May 2013 which was free, and three thousand people turned up, and another in October 2013 where five thousand people turned up.
The shows got bigger and more popular, so we decided to open The Bike Shed Motorcycle Club in 2015, alongside the launch of the new Triumph Bonneville, as a permanent physical space on Old Street in East London. It isn’t just a space to look at custom bikes, it’s a café, restaurant, barber shop and clothing shop. The really unique thing is that we have 779 members, but you don’t have to be a member to come and enjoy it. It’s a great space and people love it.
The custom bike scene is about more than just bikes. Does The Bike Shed embody that?
What attracted me to the custom scene was its open and inclusive culture, and it broke the rules. You take a bike, modify it and quite often make it worse, but you do it for you. What custom does is break up the genres, because it’s ok to have an R1 with knobblies on and flat track bars. So what we really embody at The Bike Shed is the spirit of freedom and inclusivity which I think is captured by the custom scene. So we’re not about custom bikes, we’re about all bikes full stop.
What are the rules when it comes to building a good custom bike?
There are no rules. Be creative, be interesting, and be unique.
What are your thoughts on mainstream manufacturers jumping on the neo-retro scene?
We need to remember that without the manufacturers, there’d be no scene. The fact that they’re enjoying a resurgence in biking and they can take part is long overdue and great news for biking. So thank god they have.
I got into customising my bikes because there wasn’t a manufacturer building a bike that I actually wanted to buy. When you think about that, that’s horrendous. Now, manufacturers are building bikes I want to buy straight from the factory, which is amazing. And that means if you’re not an engineer or a custom builder, you can buy a really cool bike. Look at stuff like the BMW RnineT Urban and the Triumph Thruxton R and the Ducati Desert Sled, they’re awesome. We used to have to customise bikes to make them that good, but now they’re available for everyone to buy and enjoy.
It was the inaugural year of the Café Race Cup this year. Tell us more about the event.
It was about looking at what was missing for us. There are really cool events out there like Dirt Quake which are all about inappropriate bikes, but we thought ‘what about appropriate bikes, and where’s the accessible track event?’. I’ve always been keen on the idea of informal gentlemen’s racing where you don’t have to crash and you can enhance your skills. So the Café Racer Cup celebrates the genre that kick started the whole scene, and it was a load of fun. We held it at Lydden Hill in Kent, and there was even a guy who rode over from Belgium on a 250cc, raced it and got on the podium!
From a Mutt 125 to a BMW R1200GS, there’s a bike for everyone. Is the UK motorcycle scene the best it’s ever been?
Totally, we’re seeing a new golden era, which I think is down to two big things. Millennials live in a fake world, everything is virtual, we see the world through Instagram, and our friends are online and people who we’ve never met. But now people are being drawn back to things like vinyl, there’s a whole culture around artisan and hand built stuff, and there’s now this kind of rejection of the homogenisation of the world where everything is the same. People want authenticity, and biking is certainly very authentic and a very distilled part of that, because you have real experiences, real adventures, real community. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a sport, and it’s fashionable.
The other big phenomenon is that we’re about to lose the petrol engine, and European big city culture hates privately owned vehicles. Governments want everyone to pedal to work or get the bus or tube. So as the biking industry gets crushed to death and everything goes electric, in a way this is the last hurrah. In a world where our rights are being taken away and delivered back to us as privileges, biking is a big ‘f@*k you’ to health and safety and a big ‘f@*k you’ to fake experiences, because biking is real and allows you to live your life in the way you want.
What’s your favourite custom build you’ve worked on?
That’s a really difficult question. I like different bikes for different reasons. But I think my favourite bike of all time is the Triumph Bonneville T100 that I had. It was a brat style roadster and was built by Down & Out Motorcycles. It was a bike that I completely designed on Photoshop and sent it to the boys at Down & Out, and it was the perfect blend of custom and non-custom. It was a completely collaborative project working with what the Down & Out boys do brilliantly, plus what I wanted to do, and it became a real talisman bike for The Bike Shed and for the whole scene. It was great fun to ride, but I sold it and I really miss it, so I’m going to recreate it ten times better.
Finally, what’s next for The Bike Shed?
We want to open a space in Los Angeles. And next year we’re going to turn the Café Racer Cup and the Sunday Scramble (which we haven’t done yet) into The Bike Shed Festival which will be a three day event. We’ll also do a lot more collaboration projects with manufacturers, so we’ll make more gear and apparel so we can give people stuff that has great quality, style and value for money. And finally we want to get back to doing more bike building. I do my own projects, and people ask if they can buy them, so I want to work with companies we already know really well like deBolex, Racefit, Down & Out and so on to build accessible custom bikes for people to actually buy, own and enjoy under a Bike Shed sub-brand.