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Roland Sands design/RSD Black Beauty test: super chopper

Classy as well as cool

It’s hard to think of two kinds of bike more radically different one to another than a chopper and a Superbike, the Arctic and Antarctic of Planet Motorcycle. Yet if there’s one man capable of blending those two polar opposites into one combined package, it’s Roland Sands - and that’s exactly what the Los Angeles-based fusion chef of Custom cool has done in creating his award-winning Black Beauty, winner of the second-place Sponsor’s Choice trophy in the Modified Harley class sponsored by the Motor Company itself at the prestigious AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building, staged at the USA’s massive Sturgis Rally in South Dakota. Only second place, though? That’s because Roland beat himself, as well as all the other contestants, to win First Prize with his radical Bu-hell – a Superbike that thinks it’s a chopper, whereas Black Beauty is a chopper than thinks it’s a Superbike. Pretty schizy, huh?

Black Beauty is indeed a radical example of two-wheeled schizophrenia, with its thinwall, spliced, ape-hanger handlebar festooned with Performance Machine/PM Contrast Cut hand controls, guiding a skinny PM Assault 21-inch front wheel shod with 120/70 Dunlop Elite rubber via raked-out Kayaba upside-down forks sourced from the ’08 Suzuki GSX-R1000 parts bin, mounted in black-anodised PM Contour triple clamps. There’s a similar mechanical oxymoron at the rear, where behind the hand-tooled leather seat created by Mauricio at Aztec Custom Cars in L.A., sits a fat 195/65-17 hand-cut Dunlop KR108 road racing slick mounted on a six-inch Assault wheel hung on a curved TIG-welded Gregg's Customs 4130 chrome-moly single-sided swingarm, modified by RSD to pivot in the stock Harley-Davidson Softail frame. For beneath the refined glitz of this black-and-gold SuperChopper is a pimped-out stock ’03-model Harley Softail, that got turned into a bike with a split personality by Roland and his guys at Roland Sands Design/RSD in the space of just a few weeks, after he was invited to let his imagination run riot in building a bike for one of his clients.

“I had a customer who just said he wanted “something crazy”, so I decided to give him the baddest chopper I could build,” says Roland with a smirk. “I’m proud of all the stuff we do, but I really, really like this bike, because everything a chopper ought not to be, it is. A lot of people have hit on me because they thought I was, like, dogging choppers by building this - but Black Beauty represents to me everything that a chopper should be, even if maybe not to other people. It’s absolutely minimalistic, really lightweight, all stripped out - there’s nothing on there that doesn’t need to be there. You know, a lot of people think that building a chopper means basically chopping the front up to rake out the forks, and leave the rear half alone, but we did it the other way round. This has stock geometry, and the wheelbase is standard Harley Softail – maybe even a bit shorter with the upside down forks. What other people would change, we left alone - because it works. And the rest of what we DID change was because of aesthetics, like the single sided swingarm and stuff. Which is what makes this bike so cool.” Black Magic.

For Black Beauty is an apt title for the result, even if Roland declines to reveal what he fee he charged his client for creating this show pony. But, given that RSD has a starting price of $130,000 for a full ground-up custom-built motorcycle with handmade frame, you can work it out for yourself, seeing that they used the stock Softail chassis. Nice work if you can get it - and RSD is on a roll, now with 11 full time employees who laboured all day and a good part of the night to get Black Beauty born in time, completing it barely in time on July 29, before wheeling it out of the workshop and into a truck for the 1,400 mile drive to Sturgis, presenting it to the judges exactly three days later. “It was cool to get the Sponsor’s Choice awards from Harley-Davidson themselves, because that showed they appreciated what we’d done,” says Roland, with the air of a kid who’s been given a credit mark by his schoolteacher. “We really pushed to get the bike done for that event and make sure it ran OK - we worked our asses off to finish it. I think there were three or four sixteen-hour days in a row in there, because we wanted to make sure that all the details were right. Rodney Aguilar especially made it happen – Rod has been working with me since ’05, and he’s just a scientist of metal fabrication. We look at things together, talk it over, then I design it, and we figure out together how to get it done. We may fight and squabble about how we’re get there, but he makes it all possible. I’m very hands on with each new build - if I need to go out there and shape stuff, I can do that so we get things where they need to be. But, the real detail work, he nails all that stuff.”

Those Superbike forks and the massive rear tyre are visually linked by the beautifully shaped RSD Custom three-gallon fuel tank so intricately painted by Airtrix artist, Chris Wood. That, and the corresponding beehive oil tank hung out in front of the motor, as well as the battery box, motor mounts, one-piece taillight, footrests, exhaust silencer and covers, plus many other detail parts all come straight from the RSD catalogue, allowing any customer with a stock Softail Harley to convert their bike to something similar. They’re even available over the counter from Parts Unlimited and Drag Specialties dealers across the USA, so Black Beauty is as much a showcase for RSD’s catalogue as the two-wheeled work of art it assuredly is. 

But it’s one thing to assemble the parts, quite another to make them work, and matching that fat rear tyre to the Gregg’s single-sided swingarm, while installing a chain-drive conversion for the belt final drive, and doing the reverse in replacing the triple-row primary chain with a 1⅞in Gates belt that, to max out ground clearance, is relatively narrow by Custom standards, took some dexterity. “We really had to cut stuff and twist it to shift the swingarm over, because we needed to keep the standard chain line,” says Roland. “We wanted to keep the bike balanced, because we needed to make this thing handle really good. When you move the chain line out, you offset the primary and the bike weighs heavy to the left - but we didn’t want to do that. To stop the chain hitting the primary, we had to modify the hub carrier setup to shift the wheel over to the left, which meant we ended up putting our own rear brake caliper on it instead of the one the Gregg’s swingarm comes with. It was a lot of work to get it back to being centred.” 

That design statement of a 21-inch front wheel carries a full-floater 11½in PM custom brake disc matched to a radially-mounted four-piston PM Contrast Cut caliper, with the 8½-inch Gregg’s petal disc on the rear hub gripped by a PM Nero caliper, also four-piston. This brake package needs to perform, to haul down a chopper with performance worthy of a sportbike, thanks to the tuned Harley TwinCam 88B motor from Wisconsin-based power house Küryakin (www.kuryakin.com) based just across the Mississippi River from Minneapolis, which supplied the ready built-up motor Sands’ customer had specified. Topped by gold-anodised RSD Nostalgia rocker covers and featuring diamond-edged cylinder finning, this good-looking power package also delivers, with 120bhp at the back wheel thanks to the Küryakin cylinders, heads, pistons, valves and camshafts, while those ported, flowed cylinder heads fed by a single 45mm Mikuni carb, breath through a one-off 2-1 handmade exhaust made by RSD. “This bike f***ing rips!” enthuses Roland. “It has 120 horsepower, it weighs under 450 pounds, so it’s probably the lightest Softail around, and it’s just a handful. It’s a badass rider. I love it!!”

With a build-up like that there was really no option but to take this pony for a ride, just to see if it really was that contradiction in terms - a chopper than handles. First off, though, I had the chance to observe it up close and personal from the hot seat of the RSD Bu-hell, following Roland aboard Black Beauty as he carved a way at high speed though the afternoon Los Angeles traffic of the Artesia Freeway, en route to his private test track located in the eerie post-industrial surroundings of a giant SoCal Edison powerhouse out near Long Beach. Weaving in and out of traffic, splitting lanes in a way American bikers can only do in California with all the aplomb of a former AMA 250GP road race champion, confirmed that the improbable über-chopper was just as agile and easy-steering as the Öhlins-equipped once-a-sportsbike I was following it on. Hmm – maybe this unlikely package actually works…..!

Those first impressions were confirmed on track at Circuito Sands, although of course the single biggest obstacle to convincing yourself that Black Beauty doesn’t come from the Dark Side in terms of handling, is that mile-high ape-hanger handlebar that delivers the look of a genuine ‘Frisco Chopper. This is in fact improbably comfortable, providing an ultra straight-backed riding stance without too long a stretch to reach the grips. But there isn’t as much of a sense of control once you start slinging the bike around, as on the conventional pair of clipons that the upside down Kayabas would be more used to wearing, or even a flat-track derived handlebar like on the Harley XR1200, plus feedback is minimal from the front tyre if you start trying to keep up turn speed. And you risk being blown off the back of the bike at the very high velocities that the Küryakin-tuned V-twin motor will invite you to attain – just hold on tight and remember to grit your teeth when you’re In the Wind, even if speeding anywhere at more than 80mph for more than an instant rapidly becomes tiring.

 

Yet that’s not enough to diminish the unlikely appeal of this blend of opposites, once you’ve reached low down to the left and grasped the gnurled knob behind the rear cylinder base, rotated it rearwards (clockwise) a click to switch on the ignition, then another turn more to fire up the engine. The wall of sound from the 2-1 exhaust exiting behind your right leg is lusty and throbbing, though minimal vibration reaches the seat, ‘bar or footpegs thanks to the dual counterbalancers in this Softail application of the motor, in spite of the engine being mounted rigidly in the frame. Black Beauty leaps forward with each gearshift when you crack the whip by twisting your wrist even just a little harder, and – well, yes, Roland, it sure ******* rips…..!

But thanks to that rear tyre which at 195/65 in size is relatively narrow by Custom standards, Black Beauty actually goes round corners pretty well, within the confines of the stock H-D Softail chassis geometry. But with a tighter wheelbase and less trail than stock thanks to the shorter upside down forks, it doesn’t understeer too badly, and especially doesn’t sort-of collapse into the apex of a turn, like any powercruiser with a rear tyre north of 250-section in width, will surely do once you lean it more than about 20 degrees from vertical. It’s no use pretending that Black Beauty steers like a Ducati – of course it doesn’t, but then again neither is it too much of a handful, unlike so many other truck-like Custom bikes. The Progressive Suspension rear shocks damp well and give good ride quality, and will let you use enough of the rear tyre to get even the tucked-in primary case scraping on the ground – although you need to lean it over a surprisingly long way before that happens. Still, much more than I ever expected it would, the RSD SuperChopper meets the objective its creator set himself when he came to build it. It handles! 

But, maybe most important of all, it also looks dead cool, scoring high marks in the Hey-Look-At-Me 101 class exam. Not quite a perfect score, though, according to the man who made it. “It’s turned out spot-on to how I wanted it to be, but there’s always a regret, always something that you wanted to do that you didn’t get round to,” says Roland wistfully. “I’d drawn a rear fender hugger that wrapped up over the swingarm, and just because we didn’t think that we could make it look good, we didn’t do it.  And now I wish I had – it just looked so clean sitting there, but it was like, a you-need-to-know-when-to-stop kinda thing. So we didn’t do the hugger...”

Still, hugger or not, Harley-Davidson’s decision to present Roland with both the winner’s AND second place trophies for the Sponsor’s Choice category at Sturgis surely gave Roland a lot of satisfaction. “It was really good,” he says. “That was why we participated - because Harley was going to be there, and we wanted to show support and be part of what Harley was doing. We consider ourselves to be one of the finest V-twin Harley customisers, so it was great to go there and get that recognition. It was really nice, a feather in the cap.”

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