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In depth chat with Roland Sands with his thoughts on the 2018 Harleys
Roland Sands on the Custom Motorcycle space and Motorcycle Design

MCNews.com.au recently visited the L.A. workshop and sales office of Roland Sands Design. Despite being pushed for time, the 43-year-old was particularly forthcoming with his views on various subjects. He also allowed us unfettered access to his office and workshop to shoot photos, while help illustrate this insight into Roland Sands, and the firm he heads that bears his name.

Roland Sands in his California office - September, 2017
Roland Sands in his California office – September, 2017

What do you think of the 2018 Harley-Davidson range and the dropping of the Dyna platform?

“For anything like that, especially a bike, it’s a departure, people have to get a feel for it, have to get their hands on it and have to ride the bike. In time they’ll find it’s a better bike.

Roland Sands road raced for nearly a decade and won the 1998 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship
Roland Sands road raced for nearly a decade and won the 1998 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship

“And when it comes to the custom market, as the custom market always does, it deconstructs that thing, and builds it back up. It makes something new to the market, to inspire Harley to potentially bring models to the market, maybe more in the vein of what people were hoping they would bring.

Roland Sands - Lots of 70s custom cues here
Roland Sands – Lots of 70s custom cues here

“But man what a strong offer, it was crazy to see that many motorcycles, I was blown away. That one thing was so polarising, that it almost took attention away from what I thought was one of the cooler bikes, the Road Glide, one of the most beautiful bikes Harley has ever introduced.

2018 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide
2018 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide

“I’ve ridden the Fat Boy and the Fat Bob, the front end was something else. The width of the whole thing to me is a little out of proportion, but the bike works really good. I enjoyed riding it. It’s quick. We’re going to work on a Fat Boy shortly.”

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

Where do you find your main business is from?

“I’ve been selling motorcycle parts since I was 16, but we started Roland Sands Designs in 2005, and have just been grinding away at it. It comes from events, motorcycle builds, parts, a little bit of everything. It’s been finding projects which would help grow the brand, and help to bring people to motorcycling.

Roland Sands Apparel
Roland Sands Apparel

“That’s what I’ve been focusing on this year, how do we get more people on motorcycles, how do we introduce new people to motorcycles, how do we take the racing to people, instead of getting people to the races.

Roland Sands - An Indian made purposeful
Roland Sands – An Indian made purposeful

“October 14th we’re going to throw a race in Bolsa Chica on the beach. There’s a really cool beach culture, there’s a parking lot and a concert venue right there, we build a flat track in the parking lot, a race course and a drag strip.

Roland Sands - Sporty Harley
Roland Sands – Sporty Harley

“It’ll be a small event, with only 7,000 people and it’s a first year event, but we’ve got some great sponsors, it should be fun. It’s going to be more grass roots, it needs to be bright and fun, riding motorcycles, with people just coming out to ride bikes and race all weekend.”

Roland Sands - Lots of interesting pieces adorn both the workshops and offices of RSD
Roland Sands – Lots of interesting pieces adorn both the workshops and offices of RSD

What about your two-stroke GP background, the class you were most successful in, winning the AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship in 1998. Do you get out on track on a machine like that these days?

“I haven’t ridden a bike like that since 2002, my last National, I’ve still got the bike, just as how it came off the track in 2002.

Roland Sands - The racey and the retro
Roland Sands – The racey and the retro

“Flat track is a totally different deal, I went from two-stroke GP bikes, to Harley-Davidson customs. I mean I’d still love to go back, and I still have a few flat trackers. I ride motocross and a bit of everything now. I like to do it all, with motorcycling you don’t have to do one thing, you can do a lot of different things.”

Roland Sands road raced for nearly a decade and won the 1998 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship
Roland Sands road raced for nearly a decade and won the 1998 AMA 250 Grand Prix Championship

With designing do you prefer sketching and scribbling or do you put some metal together and check what it looks like? Or is it mostly computer based.

Roland Sands - BMW Concept Ninety
Roland Sands – BMW Concept Ninety

“It’s a little of everything, if I’m selling a bike or have an idea, I’ll have it all rendered out so we know where we’re going. Most of the time I’m down there working with my guys working out how to put everything together.

Roland Sands - Digital Designer Screen
Roland Sands – Digital Designer Screen

“We’ll mock stuff up, we’ll put pieces together and work to get the silhouette right. Trying different parts like a front fork, or a tail section or a fender eliminator, or wheel sizes. Custom bikes are all about getting the bones of the bike correct, and then putting everything on, all the pretty stuff, after that.

Roland Sands - An array of different custom tanks
Roland Sands – An array of different custom tanks

“If the bones aren’t correct then you won’t have a good bike.”

Roland Sands - TZ Yamaha frame is beautiful in its purposeful simplicity
Roland Sands – TZ Yamaha frame is beautiful in its purposeful simplicity

What about electric bikes, do those serve your passion?

“Yeah for sure, I had a blast when I rode the Harley LiveWire, and I had a chance to ride the Alta, that thing is mad. They built a flat tracker out of that thing, and a super moto out of it. I rode it on the street and it’s hard to keep the front wheel on the ground.

Roland Sands Workshop
Roland Sands Workshop

“Anything that gets the blood going, and the throttle hand twitchy. The fastest bike at Pikes Peak was an electric bike, that says something.

Roland Sands Office
Roland Sands Office

“I think aesthetically you have a whole new set of parameters to work with on an electronic bike. It may not at its core be as beautiful as a fuel motor, but you’ll be able to come up with something completely new.”

Harley-Davidson Livewire
Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Are there any new metal finishing techniques or any processes, 3D printing, or anything you find yourself using more these days?

“We’re using a lot of different techniques to get our products to where they need to be quicker. 3D printing is a huge part of that. There’s also new stuff and finishes we’re working on, but I don’t want to talk about until we’ve got it on the market. But we’re always exploring new ideas. Customers are always evolving, in what they like, and the style that they like.

Roland Sands Workshop
Roland Sands Workshop

“We came out with our Black Ops finish (Link), so whether we have different colours like that, it’s a matter of giving people unique things. Then when they build a motorcycle they can do something unique no one else has done. You just don’t want your bike to be the same as the guy next to you. You don’t want to be on the exact same bike and looking at each other.

Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel - Sturgis 2016
Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel – Sturgis 2016

“So it’s cool to be in the position where we can give people those options.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands – Digital Design

Where’s the inspiration come from, for the new designs?

“Sometimes it’s just as simple as sitting down with the new bike, like the new Harley, and we’ll sit down and we’ll look at that motorcycle, and see what we want to do to it, and what we can modify.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands – An interesting mix of old and new in this custom chopper

“We’ll pull parts off it, we’ll start deconstructing it, and then we’ll say, what can we do to make it a better motorcycle, more fun, aesthetically better. Harley have always done a great job of providing a platform for customisation.

Roland Sands Workshop
Roland Sands Workshop

“I think this one will provide a better platform than most, it has this really simple architecture, once people get over the swingarm, it’s a single shock swingarm bike, it’s going to work. Once people get over that and figure out how to construct some things to go on one… that’s what we do.

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

“I’ll strip the bike, look at the architecture of the frame, look at how the motor sits in the frame, look how the swingarm lines up with the top of the frame, the shock placement, the geometry of the frame.”

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

Talking about the engine and styling for an electric bike, how do you approach that?

“I thought the LiveWire was a pretty cool execution of it, but I like how they did use some cues to motorise it, I mean if I was going to design one from scratch I would try and make the electric motor part of the design rather than just covering it all up. But it’s all getting started.

Roland Sands Office - Family photos amongst the motorcycling bits and pieces - Roland's dad is a well known manufacturer of custom wheels since the 1970s
Roland Sands Office – Family photos amongst the motorcycling bits and pieces – Roland’s dad is a well known manufacturer of custom wheels since the 1970s

“People just want to ride motorcycles and do big miles. You get on a motorcycle and the last thing you want to worry about is if you’re going to get stuck out somewhere because you don’t have a battery charger. Until they can figure that out, it’s going to be difficult for anybody to make an electric bike.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Office

“I don’t really want to sit around for two hours and wait for my motorcycle to charge, and on a motorcycle it’s a bigger deal as you have a smaller battery. You don’t want to be saying I don’t want to ride hard or how will I get back.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Office

“So I mean it’s still a bit of a toy, for city bikes it’s perfect, get to work plug it in, get home plug it in, but if you guys did it, it wouldn’t make sense [for big miles]. At least until they have a huge breakthrough with batteries, which they haven’t had in a long time. I really hope they do…”

Harley-Davidson Livewire
Harley-Davidson Livewire

Did you have any formal design training.?

“No, I just grew up in a bike shop and around motorcycles, I worked in a machine shop for a very long time, so I understood how to make things. I watched my Dad build drag bikes, and sand drag bikes, and you guys know who Bob Correll is? He built a jet bike, and then a kite bike, and he could jump the bike with the kite, in the coliseum back in the day.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Office

“But I watched some really crazy stuff when I was younger, so I always had this bigger view of what was possible.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Workshop

Which of your custom bikes, which you don’t have any more would you most like to have back in your possession?

“Probably my first bike, a sportster flat tracker, I have no idea who has it, but it was clean frame, it actually had clip-ons on it, like a little road racer, 17 inch wheels, road race forks, carbon body work, I built it when I was 18. I’ll find it someday, it’s sitting in someone’s garage.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands – Flat Tracker

Working on any projects for any companies?

“We’ve got a few projects going on with BMW at the moment, definitely Indian projects going on, and there’s a lot of customer builds.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands – An array of interesting custom machines

Any famous people? I see Brad Pitt’s bike downstairs.

“Yeah, but I can’t possibly talk about them, some of my customers just don’t want that.”

Brad Pitt has been riding this Roland Sands machine for the last couple of years but is in for a freshen up with less chrome and more blacked out treatments
Brad Pitt has been riding this Roland Sands machine for the last couple of years, but the bike is in for a freshen up with less chrome and more blacked out treatments

Do you still have the pressure time wise as far as builds go?

“Every fucking day! Yeah we’re throwing this event and its turning into kind of a beast, so I’m dividing the days I have for meetings.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands – Modern Yamaha MT with some custom treatment and a Kenny Roberts theme

“I have customer deadlines and you need to finish bikes to make money, and you have to put the nail into the coffin. If you have a bunch of half finished products, you have no money.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Office

How many staff do you have on the tools?

“We have two designers, and everyone works on everything. I have a project designer who races as well. Two in the shop, one chief fabricator and a mechanic. It’s not a massive stack to be building the bikes. My design staff are constantly working on Indian or truck projects, and a bit of off road stuff too.”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands Workshop

Are you a designer or a mechanic at heart?

“My heart is a motorcyclist, I’d rather ride a motorcycle than work on it any day, but I get a lot of satisfaction from bikes. I’m on the phone, on the emails, doing everything I can to keep everything coming in. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else, I’m a pretty lucky guy. I have a lot of fun and meet a lot of cool people.”

Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel - Sturgis 2016
Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel – Sturgis 2016

Your thoughts on a design point of view for the MotoGP bikes. When you saw the new Ducati fairings, what were your first thoughts?

“You know it’s hard, because to see something in photos and not in person, I don’t like to comment. But seeing them on the race track and watching them win, they must work… I think it’s pretty wild, and I don’t mind building out of the box.

Ducati debuted a radical new front fairing design recently
Ducati debuted a radical new front fairing design recently

“Before they had these wings hanging off them, I wouldn’t want to get impaled on one of those, so the fact that they kinda connected it now, makes it safer.

The wings seen on MotoGP machines in 2016

“Things are polarised now, and new things polarise people. BMW came out with this hood, and the hood and back of the car had this weird shape to it. People freaked out. Because people want to keep shit the same.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands

“A few years on, everyone’s looking at it and saying how much they liked it when it came out… Because by then people are used to it.

Roland Sands
Roland Sands

“I try and reserve a real partial judgement and let things marinate first, and let them become part of the culture or the scene. That Ducati is different, it’s wild, it may not be something you at first think is beautiful, but then you see it in action… I don’t hate it.”

Ducati debuted a radical new front fairing design at Brno yesterday
Ducati debuted a radical new front fairing design recently

Your work always seems to have a heritage, a constant reference to the past, is that how you see your own work?

BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage
BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage

“Yeah, I think the past is really important and I’m not one to duplicate the past, I try and take what I know from history and put it into our work.

A customer BMW project underway in the workshop
A customer BMW project underway in the workshop

“I always want to take it into account, what’s been done before, and a lot of people will say they are the first to do this or that, but everyone’s done everything.

Roland Sands - The famous Honda Mini Trail
Roland Sands – The famous Honda Mini Trail

“Some people do it better, some are creative and combine the right things. You take a café racer and a factory racer and smash them together and what do you get? What do they look like in your head? We make those thoughts a reality.”

Roland Sands - Everywhere you look there is something to see
Roland Sands – Everywhere you look there is something to see

The BMW R nineT that you did, the R5, were you hoping that they [BMW] might take that into production, or is it something you’d like them to, as that’s a big hole for them.

BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage
BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage

“It’s a huge hole for them, I’ve discussed that with them, but they’ve taken some different routes with their projects, with their bikes, but that bike as a cruiser, as a bobber, I think that’s a missing hole for them.”

A customer BMW project underway in the workshop
A customer BMW project underway in the workshop

What was it like working with Ola? He’s a custom bike person going way back… but BMW is so corporatised… Does it hurt the bike has been so corporatised for the mass market?

Roland Sands - BMW Concept Ninety
Roland Sands – BMW Concept Ninety

“It was awesome, but if you work with the OEMs that’s just what you have to deal with. We work with more of them than anybody. We do our best to bring a flavor to each of the projects.

BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage
BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage

“A lot of people say how do you work with so many of the OEMs, at the same time. I try and separate the projects, compartmentalised, for different consumers and different customers.

BMW Motorrad “Concept 101” - The Spirit of the Open Road.
BMW Motorrad “Concept 101” – The Spirit of the Open Road.

“I don’t know, it’s really fun, as we get to work with designers. I speak that language, and it’s one of the most interesting things you do, to come together and see a vision. It’s hard for them to do internally, to do what we do for them.

BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage
BMW Motorrad R 5 Hommage

“For the speed – we can build a complete concept bike in two months, if we get models and assistance.

Roland Sands - BMW Concept Ninety
Roland Sands – BMW Concept Ninety

“But they can’t do that internally, and they know that internally they wouldn’t be able to build the bike we come up with.

Roland Sands - BMW Concept Ninety
Roland Sands – BMW Concept Ninety

“Lots of the concept bikes never ran, but the concept R nineT was the first concept bike that actually ran [for BMW]. I said that’s the only way we’ll do the project, if the bike runs.

Roland Sands - BMW Concept Ninety
Roland Sands – BMW Concept Ninety

“We’ve only built one project that didn’t run, and that was for Ducati. That was the original Diavel, a full concept for them. We didn’t even get close to the satisfaction we got prior to that. I guess it rolls, but it doesn’t work…”

Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel - Sturgis 2016
Roland Sands Ducati XDiavel – Sturgis 2016

Have you been approached by Harley to do anything for them?

“We have been approached in the past, but recently, nothing. Crickets over there.”

Roland Sands - Every nook and cranny hides something interesting
Roland Sands – Every nook and cranny hides something interesting

What do you listen to?

“Recently a lot of Pandora… *laughs* I’d like to say I’m here DJing all day and drinking whiskey on the floor but I’m not…”

Roland Sands
Roland Sands
Roland Sands
Roland Sands