Machine Dreams

Words: Ann Donahue
Photography: David Harry Stewart

Motorcycle customizer Roland Sands talks to The Red Bulletin about the melding of man, machine and manufacturing—and the mayhem that is the undercurrent of it all.

Motorcycles have always served as shorthand in pop culture: The person riding it was an iconoclast, a guy who knew that part of his charm was that his leather jacket smelled like dusty, sun- baked beef jerky, and that he didn’t give a damn if moms 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 customizer 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 his 15-person staff, he installs custom retro design elements like vintage headlights and air cleaners on motorcycles alongside cutting-edge carbon-fiber 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 the irony-fueled patriotism of Easy Rider’s Captain America. 

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, a designer with firsthand 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 sports, 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 new film On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, due out November 7. 

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. So maybe we are a certain type. 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, and he always pushed me to work hard. As a kid I spent a lot of time at the shop doing every conceivable job, so I got to a point where I was over it. I wanted to do something different than work in an assembly department. I quit and got a job delivering pizzas but ended up having too many traffic tickets, so they couldn’t hire 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, 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 of 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 dumb 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 leave racing?

roland sands

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

I left racing in 2002, so 12 years ago. I was 28. I’d put 10 years of my life into it. When I quit I was super depressed. I didn’t realize for a year or so how fortunate I was to have another direction, but slowly 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 realize you had an interest in design?

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

What I know about your field, I, regrettably, know from reality TV.

You know, that’s a mixed bag. Reality TV exposed a lot of people to motorcycle customization, but has also taught people that motorcycle customizers are idiots. [Ten years ago Sands appeared on Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off and Speed Channel’s Build or Bust, among other shows.] It’s entertainment vs. education. People want to sit down in their house and be entertained. They don’t essentially want to learn. But they think they’re learning, which TV is really 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 reality TV expanded your business for you.

At the time it was the right thing to
do. I watch the shows now and I’m like, “Holy shit.” It 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

At his customization garage in Los Alamitos, Calif., Sands and his crew build special bikes for motorcycle manufacturers as well as individual clients.

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 outside of 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 really 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 people think of them as 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. If there’s ever a question about the way we’re building something I always ask myself, “Would I jump this bike?” If the answer is no, we change it.

Do you ever think, “Damn, I want to keep this one”?

Every time.

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11 2014 The Red Bulletin

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