Keep choppin'

Grease, guts, and glory power the 10th annual Dirtbag Challenge this weekend

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Photo by Kent Barnes

arts@sfbg.com

CULTURE It's 6:35pm in Hunters Point and Poll Brown is about to be late to a documentary about himself. The puckish man from South End, Essex, and a small crew of bikers are scrambling to fix a snapped throttle cable. This is a way of life for them: always under the gun, always fixing things, always a little behind. Like a rag-tag task force, they rip a cable out of one bike and marry it to another. There's not enough time.

At 7pm, after a hairy ride up the 101, lane-splitting between Google buses on Van Ness, Poll is inside the Opera Plaza Cinema for the premiere of Dirtbag.

"We had a bet — just between four buddies," Brown says in the film, with his gravelly English accent. "It got to be who could build a custom motorcycle for the least money."

And thus was born the Dirtbag Challenge, which marks its 10th year this Sunday with more rock music, BBQ, and custom motorcycles doing burnouts than is healthy for any person's ears, lungs, cholesterol, or psyche. The rules have changed a bit since 2003, but here's the way they currently stand: 1) build a motorcycle in one month; 2) spend less than $1,000; 3) no Harley-Davidsons; 4) the bike must complete a 60- to 100-mile ride.

The restrictions are designed to bring out the creativity and ingenuity of the builders. The first few years without the 100-mile ride rule attracted several very artistic bikes — some more sculpture than road-ready. (One year, a bike with a partially wooden frame went home in splinters.) As for the no-Harley rule, "the quintessential chopper will always be a Harley-Davidson," explains Poll. "No matter how bad, if a Harley shows up, it still might win."

Director Paolo Asuncion's doc chronicles the 2009 Dirtbag Challenge. "When we started, we were going to do 'This is about the industry'," he says. He went so far as to interview bike-building royalty like Arlen Ness. "But by the end of filming, all those high-dollar guys didn't really belong to the story we were trying to tell."

Overall, the film is a fun look at a unique subculture of motorcycling. By its end, you get a sense that the Dirtbag is more than just a biker build-off — it's an idea with a spirit behind it. Asuncion drives the point home with the final word of the film, which was met with roars of approval from the crowd: "This documentary was edited in under a month. And making this entire film cost under a thousand dollars."

After the screening, Brown says, "I'm blown away. It's interesting to watch something you've created have such a positive influence on so many people."

Pinky McQueen, longtime organizer of the event, has one honest critique. "I realize the movie was spotlighting the builders in particular, but as far as the [Dirtbag Challenge] party goes, there are so many people who selflessly put in countless hours for free to make sure the event [goes] off without a hitch."

A few days later, one such volunteer, Emily Wakeman, says, "The movie inspired me to just go with our skill set." With 16 days to go until this year's event, she and her friends have a running bike and are getting ready to mount a brake light in an old, mud-filled trombone — donated from the Great Guerneville Flood of '86.

"We've spent more money on beer than we have on parts," confesses fellow builder Shannon Jones.

In Bayview, master fabricator Turk is exactly $521 into his Yamaha-powered, side-car equipped dragster bike. He enjoys the educational side of the Dirtbag Challenge. "It shows that if you want to build a motorcycle, you can," he says. "If you don't know how, you can get help."

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