Machine Dreams

Words: Ann Donahue
Photography: David Harry Stewart

Roland Sands makes the most sought-after customised motorcycles in the world. Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke ride his bespoke bikes. We uncover the secrets of his California workshop.

Motorcycles have always served as shorthand in pop culture: the person riding one was an iconoclast, a guy who knew that part of his charm was that his leather jacket was dusty and sun-baked, and he didn’t give a damn if mothers looked at him askance, because their daughters were looking at him in a much more promising way. 

roland sands

Sands is an award-winning designer and founder of Roland Sands Design.

Recently, however, that image has morphed into something beyond the Marlon Brando archetype. The epitome of cool is no longer just anyone who hops on a motorcycle. The machine itself has become a medium for style, a place to make an aesthetic statement.

One of the main forces behind this evolution is Roland Sands, a motorcycle designer and customiser in Los Alamitos, California. Sands brings an artist’s eye to his machines – he is known for his clever, intricate creations that nod to both nostalgia and technology. With a team of 15, he installs custom retro design elements like vintage headlights and air cleaners on motorcycles alongside cutting-edge carbon-fibre parts. Recently, Sands has expanded into lifestyle goods for the wannabe rider in all of us: kick-ass oxblood leather jackets, gloves that pay homage to Peter Fonda’s Captain America in Easy Rider. 

And if gravel rash scars give one gravitas in the motorcycle industry, Sands, 40, has those, too. He’s a former AMA 250GP National Champion, which gives him first-hand experience of how form can impact function. This authenticity has become his calling card. Motorcycle manufacturers including Ducati, BMW, Harley-Davidson and KTM have commissioned Sands for custom builds; his individual clients are a too-cool collective from the worlds of sport, music and film: Ryan Sheckler, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis, Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke, among others. Rourke and  Sands explore their love of motorcycles in one of the segments in the newly released film On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter. 

Here, Sands talks to The Red Bulletin about the melding of man, machine and manufacturing – and the mayhem that is the undercurrent of it all.

Custom KTM Bike Honors Legacy of Kurt Caselli

Off-road motorcycle racing legend, Kurt Caselli, is a rider who won’t soon be forgotten. After a tragic accident while racing in the Baja 1000 in 2013, Caselli left the world all too soon. Together with KTM and Red Bull Media House, Roland Sands customized a 450 KTM motocross bike to honor Caselli’s influence on riders worldwide to be auctioned off with proceeds benefitting the Kurt Caselli Foundation.

THE RED BULLETIN: On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter reveals that there’s no such thing as a stereotypical motorcycle person. Do you think that’s true?

ROLAND SANDS: Yeah, and at the same time, to ride a motorcycle you need to be able to accept a certain amount of risk, and I think a large part of the population probably doesn’t do that. Maybe we’re all willing to take a measured risk. 

When did motorcycles go from being a hobby to being a career?

My dad, Perry Sands, was a pioneer in motorcycle aftermarket parts in the 1970s, and he always pushed me to work hard. As a kid I spent a lot of time at the workshop doing all kinds of jobs, and I got to a point where I was over it. I wanted to do something different than work on an assembly. I quit and got a job delivering pizzas, but ended up getting too many traffic tickets, so they fired me. I think at that point I decided that a creative approach was what I needed to stay interested in the business, so I asked for my job back. He was nice enough to rehire me and dropped my pay.

How did you start racing?

When I was 18 years old, my dad took me to a road-race school and I loved it. I ended up going pretty quick and something just clicked for me. I really enjoyed the sense of accomplishment, the mental fight, overcoming challenges. I can’t remember all the injuries I’ve had, but I’ve broken over 30 bones. Little bones, big bones, sprains, concussions, broken back, crushed liver, ribs, lungs – just stupid stuff. 

roland sands

Sands can add his personal touch to any kind of motorcycle imaginable—from Harleys to motocross racers.

“TO RIDE A MOTORCYCLE, you need to be able to accept a certain amount of risk.”

How much of that was doing dumb stuff and how much of that was racing?

The broken bones are probably half and half. Skateboards and dirt bikes contributed to that number for sure.

When did you retire from pro racing? 

roland sands

“I’ve broken over 30 bones —little bones, big bones. Half was racing, half was doing dumb stuff.”

I quit racing in 2002, when I was 28. I’d put 10 years of my life into it. When I left I was quite depressed. I didn’t realise for a year or so how fortunate I was to have another direction open to me, and then product design and building motorcycles more than filled that hole. Racing is performance-driven – you’re only as fast as your last race. It’s temporary. As a racer I’d always felt a little incomplete, like I was searching for something more permanent, and I was lucky to have found it within design and the motorcycle culture. 

When did you realise you had an interest in designing motorcycles? 

When I was 16, the first time I designed something for my dad, around the time that I lost the pizza delivery job. I’d been sketching bikes since I was a kid. I designed a motorcycle wheel hand-sketching in 2D, then I learned a bit of 3D while I was racing. I started 3D modelling with software. I think we were one of the first aftermarket motorcycle companies to use 3D modelling extensively. It helped us create a unique and progressive style that I still use today.

Ten years ago, you appeared on reality TV shows in America, including Biker Build-Off and Build Or Bust. Do you think those shows helped popularise custom bike builds?

You know, that’s a mixed bag. Reality TV exposed a lot of people to motorcycle customisation, but also taught people that motorcycle customisers are idiots. It’s entertainment versus education. People want to be entertained. They don’t essentially want to learn, but they think they’re learning, which TV is good at. They think they’re being entertained and educated at the same time, when it’s really sucking the souls from their bodies. 

But surely appearing on those shows helped expand your business? 

At the time it was the right thing to do for me. Doing those shows positioned us as a pioneer for a new style of bike building, but also it made me look like an idiot. Like, “Yeah! Let’s go crash a motorcycle for fun!” I would do it differently today.

roland sands

Sands gets to work on a BMW R90 at his workshop, with help from head fabricator Aaron Boss.

Do you see yourself as a control freak?

I work with a lot of talented people, and my job is easier because I can depend on them. I exist to make sure things don’t get f–ked up. I’m the creative filter, so anything that leaves this shop I have to get my eyes or my hands on. 

How do your celebrity deals work?

It’s different with everyone. We did a project for Brad Pitt and I didn’t talk to him apart from the first time we met, and we never released the bike to the public at his request. With Mickey Rourke, it was very personal and we got to know each other. I think the bike helped him connect with his brother, who was a big bike guy and he really looked up to. With Anthony Kiedis, it’s been really cool. We first met at Jay Leno’s place, where we got to see all these amazing vehicles together, so I got a true feel for what he liked. He writes a lot of his songs on his bike, so I feel this extra responsibility to deliver him something he’s going to love. 

Now your bikes are considered art.

As an artistic focus, I think motorcycles are unparalleled, because there’s so much you can do with them. Not just building them but riding them, being a part of the machine and just dedicating your craft to the art of two wheels. I mean, it’s not a car. You have to connect the dots, and it’s all exposed to the world, even the rider. It’s truly design, function, fashion and form that all get smashed together into this creature that you ride. 

Do you test everything yourself? 

I don’t feel comfortable shipping out a bike unless I’ve tried it out first. If there’s ever a question about the way we’re building something, I always ask myself, “Would I jump on this bike and ride it?” If the answer is no, we change it.

Do you ever think to yourself, ‘Damn, I really want to keep this one?’

Every time. 

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12 2014 The Red Bulletin

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