It's early March. Tender shoots are pushing through the soil, rabbits are stretching their limbs, and if you listen closely on a warm afternoon, you might just hear the gentle rumbling from a nearby highway that can mean only one thing: the Harleys have come out of hibernation.
In a cavernous garage on Nandino Boulevard, Darrick Stroud and Kevin Wiley of The Bike Shop are well aware of the approach of spring.
"Business has definitely picked up. Everybody's getting ready for Bike Week," Wiley says.
His and Stroud's business revolves around customizing and maintaining motorcycles. Spend a few minutes with them, and you'll quickly get a sense of how their work ebbs and flows according to the seasons and major events on the biker's calendar.
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Bike Week, which begins Friday, is an enormous, thundering annual rally in Daytona Beach, Fla.; some bikers would no sooner miss it than they would their kid's college graduation. (The average age of a Harley rider is now close to 50.)
Stroud and Wiley have been partners nearly seven years, but they worked together in two other local bike shops before teaming up. Stroud, 36, "grew up riding dirt bikes in the strip pits" of Western Kentucky and idolizing Evel Knievel; the parents of Wiley, 38, wouldn't let him near anything with two wheels and an engine. The pair met at the old Easy Riders bike shop.
Stroud had completed Harley-Davidson training in Orlando and was an employee; Wiley had flown the nest, bought a Harley and brought it to Stroud to work on.
"I was there a lot, and the owner finally asked if I wanted a job," Wiley says.
Later, they moved on to Hot Bikes. When it closed, the two jumped on the phones to get the rights to work on the bikes and brought their customers with them. For now, they work exclusively on American V-twins — Harley, IronHorse, Titan, Big Dog, among others, although they hope to expand to imports someday. They do all the work themselves, and that's partly why they've been able to survive, they say. Their interests complement each other.
"I like doing the performance work," Stroud says.
"I like the fancier stuff, like the paint, wheels, lowering the bike," Wiley says.
The latest motorcycle craze started between 2000 and 2004, Stroud says. He and Wiley opened their doors a year later and have survived conditions that brought down many shops and a few manufacturers. Big Dog went into foreclosure in 2011 and now deals only in parts and accessories. American IronHorse is out of business, and Titan has experienced rough times. But in their heyday, the companies made lots of motorcycles, guaranteeing plenty of work down the road.
A one-off contest
Most Harley owners these days don't fit the image of the tattooed rapscallion, Stroud says. They have respectable day jobs and a decent income.
If they ride with the "fine unwashed arrogance" of Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels, then they wipe it clean before heading to the office. Wiley and Stroud describe their customers as hard-working people with one thing in common, no matter what they ride: They want their bikes to be one-of-a-kind.
"Some guys want fancy wheels, fancy paint, some guys want bigger handlebars, wider tires, just to make it personal," Wiley says. Some guys with custom bikes want flames shooting out the back or a Gatling gun-barrel exhaust.
"It's all pretty odd when you think about it. I guess we've gotten used to it," Stroud says. "It's all about the cool factor, being bigger, louder, faster."
In early March, the big jobs that make up much of the winter work — the tear-downs and rebuilds and complete makeovers — are getting finished up. Only in winter are owners willing to part with their bikes for days and weeks on end.
"It's their baby," says Stroud. "If I ran a day care, I probably wouldn't hear from them as often."
Owners want to know when their baby's having its bags extended, its fairings painted, its heads ported and flowed. They want to know when the stereo's installed and the diamond cutting is scheduled. If the model is one of the older shovelheads, there can be a long wait for parts.
Romancing the wrench
Cubicle-bound 9-to-5ers often envy the work of those who bend metal and repair machinery for a living. Motorcycle maintenance has been explained as an activity of pure rationality by one writer-philosopher and extolled as a deeply satisfying vocation by another.
But take heart, those whose fingers get dirty only when clearing a paper jam: According to Stroud, "It all becomes work after a while."
For Stroud and Wiley, the real satisfaction comes when they see customers showing off their bikes around town. Stroud does admit, though, to loving the sound of a totally rebuilt motor the first time he starts it up. As Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wrote, "The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you."
Wiley and Stroud put in 60- to 80-hour weeks during the busy season, when there's a lot of motorcycle maintenance going on, but the environment is not exactly meditative; the phone rings constantly, and someone's always dropping in.
For customers, though, the garage can be a retreat. "In summer, people want to come look at motorcycles, talk, tell us their problems like layoffs, divorce ... It's crazy some of the stuff we hear," Wiley says. Because of the interruptions, they get their best work done in the early morning or after hours.
After Bike Week, the schedule of rallies and charity rides picks up fast.
"Every weekend in summer there's usually something going on. It's an excuse to get out on your bike," Wiley says. In August is perhaps the mother ride of them all, to Sturgis, S.D., where half a million Harleys roar together in a heroic symphony of sound.
For bikers who consider their engine's rumble akin to the voice of God, it can be a divine experience. Until recently, a smaller Sturgis, Ky., rally billed itself as "Little Sturgis," but "big" Sturgis had a little problem with that.
Stroud and Wiley help bikers prepare for the long rides but don't go in for that kind of thing themselves. Wiley, who rides a custom-built Big Dog, likes to go out with his wife on shorter rides. Stroud says he couldn't handle a cross-country trip after hitting the pavement a few times in his younger days.
Instead, he likes to plot a course on a scenic Bluegrass byway and set out on his custom hardtail (that's biker talk for no rear suspension) to go where the road leads him.
If occasionally he gets lost, that's OK. Even bikers bound for Sturgis could tell you it's not the destination, it's the ride.