When I read his words several years ago, one admission on Roland Sands' old website told me everything I needed to know about this young master builder and '98 250GP champ. According to his bio, the one-time heir to the Performance Machine dynasty went to high school with Cameron Diaz. I happen to love motorcycle racing and high-dollar trim, so I've been a fan of the man since his star turn against Arlen Ness on Biker Build-Off. I can't remember whose machine won that made-for-TV docudrama, but I'd like to think it was the red-headed racer from Long Beach.
After building a name for himself on AMA podiums from coast to coast, Roland hung up his leathers in 2002 and focused his talents on the R&D department at PM in Cypress, California. Roland's custom bikes looked nothing like the iron pterodactyls coming out of OCC and other shops of the day. These speed machines featured high lean angles, aggressive steering geometry and slippery ergonomics. Ducatis and V-Stars make strange donor bikes, but Roland makes them work.
When a sport-bike magazine ran the cover line "Choppers are Dead" in association with an article on one of Roland's TV show bikes, The Horse magazine used the opportunity to take cheap shots at someone they considered a soft target. Roland explains:
"The Horse gave me two pages of hate slaying me for a bunch of (shit). My comment was aimed at the Iron Horses and OCC's of the scene. What most people had come to know as a 'chopper' had been hijacked by TV producers who quickly ass-fucked the cool right out it. To me a true chopper is something that's been stripped, made lightweight and built up by your own hands. It's not a bike you bought out of a catalog, nor is it something with a long front fork and a 300 rear tire that's covered with as many skulls and spiderwebs as you can throw at."
Roland's comment my have been taken out of context, but true motorcycle enthusiasts heard the man loud and clear. So too did a good number of Hollywood action heroes and at least one Middle Eastern prince. At any given time, there's at least one project at RSD getting the six-figure facelift from Roland's scalpel. On our visit, Sands and company were fabricating bodywork and installing a custom turbo on a 2012 V-Rod, because Harley's Porsche-powered street dragster just isn't fast enough. Tucked away in another work station was Mickey Rourke's Twin Cam project in gleaming gold and black ano.
Glamorous though it may seem, celebrity bike building isn't the cash cow many people think. Roland understands this, and that's why RSD has diversified into product design and consultation for the motorcycle industry at large. "I don’t consider myself to be a celebrity bike builder. Some of our company's biggest advocates have been the OEM's. We’ve worked with Yamaha, Triumph, Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Aprilia, KTM, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Victory, Toyota and a few others. There’s also a large list of product manufacturers whom we've teamed up with, including Dunlop, PM, Vance and Hines, Spy, Bell and others." Motorcycle-industry leviathan MAG Group licenses the RSD name and commissions RSD to design products for a variety of manufacturers within their portfolio.
Early last year Roland's eponymous design studio hosted its grand opening in Los Alamitos, California. The RSD musuem, performance apparel boutique, design center and fab shop is Roland's crown jewel, and one that features his artistic touch everywhere you look. Inside you'll find everything: RSD apparel; vintage and high-tech motorcycle engines; a revolving showcase of bikes for friends, customers and vendors; lavish work spaces; and of course a vast array of Roland's personal street bikes and vintage motocross machines.
Haters may be quick to deride RSD as little more than the well-decorated tree fort of a poor little rich kid. How those people choose to express their jealousy is a personal matter. When Bill and I visited RSD on a workday, Roland dropped everything to shoot the shit for over an hour. You don't have to like turbocharged V-Rods, Cameron Diaz or Mickey Rourke to recognize Sands' talent, but you have to respect anyone who pours as much blood, sweat and treasure into a young business as Roland does.
21 Questions with Roland Sands
Name: Roland Wayne Sands
Age: 35 if I round down
Business name: Roland Sands Design
Town: Born and raised in Long Beach, CA. My shop is in Los Alamitos
Coworkers: my sister Summer: products; Rodney: design and fab; Aaron: fab; Cameron: development; Kristina: store; Roger: general manager and apparel design; Ted: apparel development; Joe: film and graphics; Andy is our woodsman/music guy and Karl’s the artist
Riding buddies: Bell, Bondo, Rodney, Cam, Schmity, Cernicky, Hoover and my Dad. I tend to ride MX more then I ride on the street these days. Fewer cops
First time on two wheels: My dad says he rode me home from the hospital on a Harley, but I think he's full of shit. First time riding myself I was four on a Honda 70
First hand-built motorcycle: Ground up where I built everything was Whiskey Tango—an Evo with a neat Kosman frame. I finished it the same event I retired from racing: Laguna Seca, 2002. I finished second in the national and hung up my sliders and started building more bikes. Before that I did a pretty radical sporty flat track/road racer in ‘96 with an upside-down fork and 17-inch road race wheels. Andy (RIP) from HES did the heads. It was a really fun bike and it hauled ass. I sold it a few years later so I could buy a new TZ to go racing
Earliest two-wheeled adventure: Riding on my dad’s gas tank when I was like two. He used to take me for rides on his Moto bike at Canyon Lake. It wasn't too long before I was smashing his chin with my helmet, that's when he got me my own bike. I still remember him looping out with me on the bike. My first real ride on my own was at Saddleback Ranch. I ran into a telephone poll and I broke my arm. I was five
Most recent two-wheeled adventure: We just did a pretty cool little film project where we did some flat tracking at an oilfield in Long Beach. Riding side by side completely sideways on Harleys with your friends is pretty amazing. Before that Bell, Bond and I took a few friends who’ve never ridden before out to the desert. It was very cool to see three first-timers so stoked
Current stable of bikes and projects: I have a pretty stocked stable. Most recently I picked up some great old MX bikes: a ‘73 250 Husky in really nice shape and a ‘74 Honda Elsinore. I also got a ‘73 Montesa trials bike for 600 bucks that may turn into a project. We’re finishing up a 200-hp turbo V-Rod and we may be doing another Desmo tracker out of a wreck. I also have a crashed 999R that's ready for a new life. Sporty bodywork racer is being finished up as well. We stay busy
Tool I wish I had but don't: A good planishing hammer. A CNC mill would be nice, too
Tool I have but wish I didn't: A shitty loud air hammer you can hear from three blocks away
Heaven on Earth: Wheelies on the beach in Mexico, fast smooth roads with lots of corners and no cars or police, cold beer (I'm not brand specific) and my beautiful woman who has just prepared spinach lasagna even though she hates cheese
Proudest moment: Winning an AMA 250 GP championship and retiring with all my fingers and toes
Darkest secret: I need to have a few in me before I get into that
Deepest fear: Running out of ideas
Biggest regret: Can't think of one
Reason for being: Taking ideas from concept to reality is what gets me up every day. The creative process, working with a group of people, struggling, fighting, and coming up with a solution. It's all part of the game and it keeps things exciting. That and scaring the shit out of myself on a motorcycle or more recently a snowmobile. It's like snowboarding with a motor
If I lost my right arm: I'd use my left. I think it's called the stranger.
Thanks: My parents who gave me a rock-solid foundation and my crew at the shop who continue to do amazing work and make me look good while I'm fucking off
Roland Sands Design