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Racing to yesteryear: Palmer man makes motorcycle-building his art

Mike Dunham
Taig Hoeger removes the brake shoes from the rear drive of the 1974 BMW R90/6 custom cafe racer motorcycle belonging to Erik Christensen in Palmer, Alaska, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. The unit will have to be replaced. The men are members of the Northern Cafe Racers.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Erik Christensen works on pulling the rear drive from his 1974 BMW R90/6 custom cafe racer motorcycle in Palmer, Alaska, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. The 1975 Honda CB 400 F Super Sport belongs to Beau St Germain another member of the Northern Cafe Racers.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Beau St Germain, Taig Hoeger and Erik Christensen pull the rear drive from his 1974 BMW R90/6 custom cafe racer motorcycle in Palmer, AK on Saturday, July 19, 2014. The unit will have to be replaced. The men are members of the Northern Cafe Racers.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Erik Christensen works on pulling the rear drive from his 1974 BMW R90/6 custom cafe racer motorcycle in Palmer, Alaska, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. The 1975 Honda CB 400 F Super Sport belongs to Beau St Germain another member of the Northern Cafe Racers.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News
Beau St Germain, Erik Christensen and Taig Hoeger pose in front of the 1974 BMW R90/6 custom cafe racer motorcycle belonging to Christensen in Palmer, Alaska, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. The men are members of the Northern Cafe Racers.
Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

PALMER -- A big 1958 BMW R60 motorcycle dominates the waiting room of the Erik Christensen’s State Farm Insurance office in downtown Palmer. A bookshelf has been fashioned from a Honda frame. Along the walls and on desks you’ll spot pictures of bikes, logos and memorabilia.

“It’s a hobby that’s gotten out of control,” he said.

Out of control, maybe, but Christensen’s passion is turning out some beautiful pieces of machinery. It’s also turning heads in the international motorcycling community.

Christensen repurposes the components of older motorcycles to create one-of-a-kind road rockets that give him the ride he wants and look like sculptural art — a subcategory of bikedom called “cafe racers.”

“The cafe racers are like the United Kingdom’s version of our rat rods of the 1950s,” he said. “The bikers didn’t have much money after the war. They found bits and pieces of stuff and put them together.”

As a result, there was no defined “look” to the cafe racer design, though at some point looks started to count, earning the admiration of fellow racers. The handlebars tended to drop down and sweep low on the tanks -- lower than the headlights. But in general, the genre was defined by what Christensen characterized as “random, wild fabrication.”

Performance counted, too. No one’s sure how the bikes got their name. Some say it came from racing between coffeehouses in English cities. Others say it had something to do with putting a coin in a cafe jukebox, making a run and getting back before the song was over.

The concept — long since imported to America — has seen a surge in popularity in recent years as a new generation of riders revels in the creativity involved in imagining your own unique motorcycle, then making it a reality with your own hands in your own shop.

Christensen’s garage was packed with body and motor parts when he took a reporter on a tour last month. “I have 1 1/2 completed now and three in progress,” he said.

His pride and joy is another BMW, a personalized green 1974 R90. It’s been featured in full-color layouts in bike magazines BMW Motorrad and The Bike Shed.

A little excitement

Born in Ketchikan, Christensen said he’s always had a sense of adventure, and was drawn to parachuting and airplanes. He was a flight instructor and has flown commuter jets. But as marriage and fatherhood approached, he decided he needed to find a safer job. His father, who had the State Farm agency in Ketchikan, told him the Palmer office was available and he moved to the Valley in 2008.

Perhaps it was inevitable. “I’m actually the third generation in my family to be a State Farm agent,” he said. But while the business paid his bills, it didn’t feed his soul.

“I need a little excitement in my life,” he said, “a creative outlet to balance out the desk job.”

He did his first bike in 13 weeks, with the help of a lot of friends and what he called “garage beer parties.”

“I get a kick out of the networking stuff,” he said, “the six-packs, finding parts and talking with other people who are as interested in this as I am. And the Internet really makes it possible. From my desk here in Palmer I can connect with people around the world.”

The process of making a cafe racer is tedious. “To start, you have to find a good ‘donor’ bike -- and that’s not easy in Alaska -- and tear ‘em apart.”

The pieces are carefully inspected and stored in boxes, jars and plastic bags. The frame is cleaned up and given new paint. Where upholstery and rubber parts can’t be restored, substitutes must be found. And each of the hundreds of mechanical components is carefully inspected and cleaned. 

“I replaced every nut and gasket in the R90,” he said.

The learning curve was steep, but instructive. “I was doing stuff three or four times. I’d put something together and have to pull it apart again. Then we had to disassemble everything for painting.”

Some of the work has to go outside the garage. Christensen goes to the Palmer Machinery Co. The 1930s-era plant is like a museum of Alaska industry, with drills and grinders and sanders that pre-date anyone who uses them nowadays, equipment salvaged from the Jonesville Mine and the original Eklutna Power Plant and war surplus material from military bases.

The gear may look dated, but it can do tasks that aren’t commonly performed at modern shops. On the day that Christensen walked through last month, Monte Goodrich and Thornton DePriest were working on the engine block of a Ford Model A.

Bikes and dads

As he became engrossed in his hobby, Christensen scoured the Internet for information. He found a lot of sites dedicated to the eye candy of the machines, but “nothing that morphs cafe racers and Alaska,” he said. He found that odd, since “Alaska is on every rider’s bucket list.”

So he started the Northern Cafe Racers Facebook page. As of last month it had 21,000 likes. It’s a way to share information and photos with the small club of cafe racer fans in Alaska and the much bigger international fellowship. It’s also a way to promote clothing with the Northern Cafe Racers logo.

“I sell a whole lot of T-shirts,” he said. 

Christensen’s passion is also spinning off videos that celebrate not just the glamour and physicality of the racers but the process of building them, a process that has taken on a family dimension. It may not be what he expected, but it turns out that working on motorcycles — unlike double-checking insurance paperwork or flying a commercial jet — is something you can do with your kids.

There are a number of the photos on his sites and in magazines that show Christensen with his daughter Olivia and son Aksel, who twist screwdrivers or watch with wonder as their dad works on an engine. A new Web video titled “Don’t Say, Be” will celebrate fatherhood as viewed through the prism of cafe racer construction.

“It isn’t just about making a bike,” he said. “It’s about a legacy, time I share with my children. Long after I’m gone, they’ll remember the motorcycle they built with their dad.”

Another video, “Beards & Beamers,” will feature 10 riders, including Christensen and members of the national motorcycle press, as they take BMWs from Willow to Valdez, by ferry across Prince William Sound and through the Whittier Tunnel. Sons of Winter Productions plans to film it in September.

Christensen’s current project is another BMW, this one on the “theme” of “The Great Gatsby.”

“Every bike has a different theme,” he said. “I want this one to conjure up images of the 1920s -- lots of money and ostentation, an undercurrent of mobsters and ambition."

The "Gatsby" bike will feature whitewall tires, scaled-down BMW kidney-bean grilles, art deco lines and an oversize headlight taken from a 1933 Chrysler.

“I’m waiting for one item from a guy in California,” Christensen said. “But when it’s done it’ll catch people off guard. It’ll be a real show-stopper. It will look very old, but totally unique.

“It’ll take me a year to get it done.”

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