Dirtbag Challenge Shows What Two Wheels, a Wrench and Your Wits Can Do

Dirtbag Challenge competitors take their motorcycles to task over the Golden Gate Bridge. (Heidi Zumbrun)

In a San Jose auto shop, gold sparks dart as Felicia Chen cuts a metal motorcycle seat to size with an electric hand saw. She’s part of a team competing in this year’s Dirtbag Challenge, an annual motorcycle build-off based in San Francisco. Chen's team has been working tirelessly, using every spare moment to build a home-built bike. “Dirtbag delirium dude,” Chen says. “Two hours of sleep.”

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Felicia Chen fabricates a custom motorcycle seat for the Dirtbag bike she's helping build. (Tiffany Camhi)

The competition, which is now in its 13th year, began the first week of November via a social media announcement on the Dirtbag Challenge’s Facebook account.

“Three-and-a-half weeks ago we started collecting parts and planning,” Chen says, who has been competing in the event for three years. “For us that’s pretty much standard; we’ve always just had our bike and kind of just winged it.”

The bike itself, built out of a salvaged Triumph motorcycle, is a beast. It features lots of parts that were either custom-made by the team or pulled off of other motorcycles. Basically, it’s a "Franken-bike." The team has come up with some clever ways to make the thing run, like attaching skateboard wheels to the frame.

“It’s to keep the chain from hitting the frame and slapping around too much,” team member Aaron O'Brien says. “Around here, we call it uncommon sense.”

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The silver beast, nicknamed Bertha by the team, features unconventional motorcycle parts like an ammo can, a Nalgene bottle and skateboard wheels. (Tiffany Camhi)

It's not called the Dirtbag Challenge for nothing

Competition co-founder Poll Brown says the Dirtbag Challenge is open to everyone -- if you are prepared to use your wits instead of your wallet. And the competition demands all the wits you have.

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“You have one month to build your motorcycle, you can spend up to $2,000 and you must come on this ride which is going to be at least 200 miles,” Brown says.

This is not easy, and the rules, unsurprisingly, tend to scare many would-be Dirtbaggers off. Motorcycles are complicated machines. People can sometimes spend years fixing them up. Many bikes, both used and new, cost well over the competition’s paltry $2,000 spending limit. And just one loose screw or engine misfire can spell disaster on the road.

“We don’t call it the Dirtbag Easy,” Brown says. “We call it the Dirtbag Challenge for a reason.”

Riders hit the road

On the first weekend of December, after a month of building, six competitors put their machines to the test: a 300 mile-plus overnight camp-out ride from San Francisco to Mendocino National Forest and back.  

After some fits and starts on my Yamaha, I meet up with the Dirtbaggers in Calistoga. The ride is beautiful, but at times rough. Headlights stop working, a weld breaks on one of the bikes, and then there's the four-mile long dirt trail where I get stuck in the mud.

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Competitors help a fellow Dirtbagger fix a broken weld on his bike on the way to Deer Valley Campground in Mendocino National Forest. (Heidi Zumbrun)

Many of these home-built choppers aren’t built for dirt roads, including the bike Chen and her team built. There’s only a four-inch clearance between the bottom of the frame and the ground. But miraculously, that bike and all the others make it through.

Though the group somehow manages to lose group leader Brown on the muddy trail. He rolls into camp about 15 minutes after everyone else. Later, around the campfire, we chat about what happened. “Well, he drives really fast and the road is really bumpy,” competitor Justin Martens says. “And it was dark.”

In the morning after tightening loose nuts and bolts, we’re all ready to head back to San Francisco where hundreds of Dirtbag fans are waiting for our return.

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Co-founder Poll Brown leads the Dirtbaggers back to San Francisco on his own home-built bike. (Heidi Zumbrun)

Zen and the art of Dirtbagging

But after the beer is flowing, and individual riders win titles like "prettiest bike" and "sketchiest chopper," it's easy to forget the countless hours of planning, building and tinkering that go into this feat.

Chen says the challenge has taught her to be more resourceful. “If it’s broken, you can fix it," Chen says. "And if something doesn’t work, you can make something that will."

Brown says that is really what the Dirtbag Challenge is all about: developing the wherewithal to solve problems as they arise. “Struggle has value and adds value to something,” Brown says. “Don’t get me wrong; easy is nice. But to me that’s a little empty.”

And you can take it from this reporter, whose motorcycle got stuck in the mud only a few times, that pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone does make your final destination taste that much sweeter.

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KQED Reporter Tiffany Camhi taking up the rear while riding with the Dirtbag competitors. (Heidi Zumbrun)

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