I’m not sure if Roland Sands has always had an air of rebelliousness about him, but I saw it in the early 2000s when I first photographed him. By the time he was building Glory Stomper in 2004 for Biker Build-Off, there was a side of him that wanted to identify with the outlaws in those 1960s biker flicks—like Dennis Hopper’s Glory Stomper for which the bike was aptly named. And true to his irreverent spirit, after Roland picked up a wrecked Harley-Davidson Softail at a motorcycle junkyard early in the show, he speedily backed his pickup behind his shop and slammed on the brakes. The big touring bike flew off the truck-bed and crashed to the ground. That’s how the build started, and it just got wilder from there.
So how did a 30-year-old that had only been building bikes for a few years get invited to go up against Arlen Ness, the “Godfather of Choppers”? In 2004 when Biker Build-Off was filmed, Arlen was already 65 and had 45-years of building bikes under his belt. Roland was 35-years his junior, but motorcycles were coursing through his veins. The matchup of Arlen and Roland was like pitting two dynasties against each other, the House of Ness vs the House of Sands, or perhaps we should say the House of Performance Machine.
Roland’s parents founded Performance Machine 4-years before he was born, and he basically grew up in a shop. He got his first bike (a Suzuki RM 50 dirt bike) for his 5th birthday and this eventually led to a 9-year racing career that was capped with an AMA 250GP national championship title in 1998. At Performance Machine, he starting sweeping the floors at 14 and worked his way up through the ranks, eventually becoming the Director of Research, Development, and Design.
The custom bikes Roland built prior to Glory Stomper all had a look, but they were more a product of the times. Glory Stomper represented a career shift toward the race-inspired style Roland has continued with to this day. It’s about riding fast and having fun on performance built custom machines. And it’s not only rooted in Roland’s personal experience, it goes back to the roots of custom motorcycles, to when purpose-built race machines were being put together in the early 1900s. As I see it, form followed function and the first custom bikes appeared on the scene.
Glory Stomper was different from the get-go. For starters, it was powered by a Harley-Davidson Twin-Cam engine at a time when Evos were standard-operating-procedure for bike builders. Then there’s the fact that so many of the customs being built back then were mostly bolt-on/bolt-together creations, but that wasn’t going to be the case here.
The project Roland envisioned was at least a 3-month build, so to make it work within the Biker Build-Off timetable allowing only 3-weeks from start to finish, he put together his “Dream-Team”. Johnny Chop (RIP), Wink Eller, Tom Foster, Brett Marshall, and Lyndel Berry were called upon and stepped up to the plate. Additionally, there were many others that helped with the project. What was in Roland’s head was going to take a lot of energy and expertise to get done.
The Dream-Team’s Wink Eller of Bonneville Salt Flats fame was key at relieving a good bit of stress. He handled the engine work for which he is so renowned. He balanced and blueprinted the engine, installed ported Edelbrock heads and replaced the cylinders and most of the internal parts with S&S product. You can see very little of the original Softail was kept. Only bits and pieces of the frame were retained for the finished bike that had a 35-degree rake, 2-inches of stretch in the backbone, and 1-inch added to the down-tube. The stock swingarm was scrapped for an entirely custom beautiful piece. Ohlins shocks replaced the stock rear ones and their forks were installed up front.
The fuel tank is a defining piece on this bike, and so a lot of time went into this with Johnny Chop fabricating the lower half out of steel and Roland working his magic with the billet piece on top. The ribbing Roland machined into it is echoed throughout the bike. Jeff Decker picked up on it with the oil tank he cast back in Springfield, Utah, as Roland continued the theme with the exhaust tip on the 2-into-1 pipe along with the ignition and valve covers he designed. (Those covers were how Performance Machine introduced Roland’s highly successful contour line.) There were many other one-off parts that made the bike work, but one of the more obvious was the shapely air cleaner Roland fabbed and tied in so well with the tank. Then there were the necessary parts that had to be fit—like the rotor, brakes and controls. But they not only fit well, they put new meaning into “off the shelf” considering they were literally working in the PM shop!
After the bike was completed, it was shipped to Puerto Rico where Roland and Arlen, with lots of friends to support them, rode around the island for several days before the final vote. This event was such a big deal, both Arlen Ness and Performance Machine shipped their 18-wheeler rigs to the Puerto Rico to support the cause! (Imagine what that was like to drive on some of those smaller island roads!)
That last day of the Build-Off was fun and exciting, especially with “Rebel Roland” out on display. Somehow, while there was a lot of hoopla around his burnouts, a very respectful Roland showed the utmost reverence for Arlen. At the end of the day, Roland lost out on the popular vote, but in the long run, this was for the best. Roland became a star through this TV show and went on to be voted “The Best New Custom Bike Builder” by his peers. Within a year, he split off to found RSD (Roland Sands Design). And then in 2006, he returned for a second Biker Build-Off against his good friend Jesse Rooke. (This time Roland came out on top.)
The beauty of Glory Stomper is seen in both its design and detail. I believe it to be as fresh and relevant today as it was 17-years ago, which is why I included it in my “Heavy Mettle – Motorcycles and Art with Moxie” exhibition. This Sturgis exhibition focused on builders that have withstood the test of time and the builds that they are most known for. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, not only was this custom pivotal in Roland’s career, this bike was also inspirational to a whole new generation of custom bike builders that followed in Roland’s wake. We are still feeling its impact to this day, and for this… hats off to Roland.