Drive along Chinden Boulevard in Garden City and you'll see a slice of Americana, a fast food joint here, an adult video store there, tattoo parlors, Army/Navy surplus, new and used RV lots and motorcycle businesses. At one of the many garages that front the boulevard, owner Jerry Williams is building a motorcycle designed for one mission, to climb a hill. More specifically, he is building it to compete in the Big Nasty Hillclimb this weekend.
Like some mad scientist taking a part from there, a fender from here, a brain from that cadaver, Williams-like Dr. Frankenstein-is creating something from scratch. The body of a CR 125 motocross bike has been disassembled and modified into a custom frame has practically been rebuilt to take the engine of a XS650 Yamaha road bike. The two-stroke engine-a monster heart inside a fragile and lightweight body-has tons of torque, producing an extremely loud, long stroke, hopefully giving the right amount of power to push this bike up the 460-foot hill.
"A custom like this is a unique creation," said Williams who referred to the competition as one with "no rules, no guidelines... whatever works."
Looking at a bike customized for hill climbing, you wouldn't necessarily imagine you could ride it on a horizontal surface. Picture a motocross bike with a huge engine stuffed inside. The back wheel isn't where it is supposed to be, swing arms from where once was the rear axle stretch the length of the bike about two feet. This lowers the center of gravity, a necessity for optimum hill climbing.
Even the back wheel looks a little different. On a hill like the Big Nasty, with lots of soft dirt, a paddlewheel is important to get traction. It literally scoops the dirt and soft sand and propels the bike forward. Watching riders go up a steep hill, it looks as if they are barely hanging on, the bike threatening to launch itself into orbit from underneath them. The bikes are loud, mufflers removed to conserve weight, and the dirt flies in great arching clouds, scooped by the paddlewheels.
It is a spectator sport for sure. Sometimes the riders can hang on, other times the bike veers off and crashes. If the safety crews don't hook the bike to prevent it from tumbling back down, spectators get to watch a crash. While it seems very dangerous-and it is somewhat-hill climbing is less injury prone than motocross racing because of the safety crews, similar to rodeo clowns who are there to protect the riders by getting the rampaging bulls away from them. "When a bike falls," says Williams, "the number one thing is to get away from the bike."
Williams has been working on the hill bike for quite some time, getting it ready for the race. He said he has about three to four months of labor into it already and, when interviewed by BW, still had three weeks to go before the race. The bike was still in pieces around the garage at that time and, predictably, quite a few more hours would be needed to get it ready.
He knew what he was getting into. He bought a bunch of equipment-careful not to let on exactly how much when his wife walked into the garage-just to build this bike. He's been stripping the frame down, a piece here, a piece there, to lighten the whole bike. Weight is very important. A hill climber has to be strong enough to push the rider up the hill, but light enough to ride on top of the dirt and not sink. So exactly how much does a custom job like this cost? While you can build it cheaper if you do the labor, Williams said that you could do it for between $5,000 and $7,000.
Although he has ridden competitively before (and won a few too), Williams said he isn't building the bike for himself. He's going to have his grandson Jason Ambroz ride it. "It's a little too big for me," Williams said. "It's a bike that will tax you and we need someone who can handle it."
Jason just might be the right young man for the job, albeit a little nervous about riding a bike with a swing arm (extended axle), which he has never done before. Although he has competed in hill climbs-having won one of his first competitions-he's not sure what this bike will do. He hopes to have it ready to practice a little with it and is concerned about the rock ledges and deep powder at the top of the hill last year. He understands that this bike may take a couple years to get used to but hopes this year to at least qualify and make a little money to build another bike.
The Big Nasty Hillclimb is August 19-21 in New Plymouth. See BW Picks on page 16 for details about the event, or visit www.bignastyhillclimb.com.