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Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009

Zen on Two wheels

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It’s 6:30 p.m. on a bone-chilling Monday night. I arrive at the Hi Hat Garage to meet up with Keegan Trester, a custom bike builder. Trester began “tinkering” on motorcycles in 2002 after deciding that he needed an outlet for his creative energy.

His first bike was a stock Honda Shadow VLX 600, which he later rebuilt into a bobber, a style of bike that was popular in the 1950s for its stripped-down aesthetics and “bobbed” off rear fender. In the bike circles in Milwaukee, however, Trester is known for his custom-built cafe racer, which won Best Custom-Built Cafe Racer at the Rockerbox two years in a row. Despite tinkering on bikes for only six years, his cafe racer has made it into Cafe Racer Magazine, a quarterly publication that specializes in anything hot and fast on two wheels.

It’s one thing to start riding motorcycles and being an enthusiast, and another to start building them. How did you initially get involved with motorcycles and building them?

My dad was into bikes before I was born. He tinkered around with that. I got influenced through that and being around a clan of people where motorcycles were popular. So, when I got out of college, all I wanted to do was ride. I took out an extra Stafford loan and bought a motorcycle with plans to rebuild it—thank you, Wisconsin, for paying for my first motorcycle.

How did you learn the trade?

I researched magazines, like Classic Bike, Horse Backstreet Choppers, which is probably the magazine that’s the most useful…and also through a lot of people in the industry. When you hook up with one guy who knows a guy who does powder coating and he hooks you up with another guy who knows how to do electric wiring… he scratches your ass, you scratch his, that kinda stuff.

Do you view working on bikes as more inspiring than just riding?

They both have their own thing, I guess. Sometimes I like working on them more than I like riding them, but then you get to the point where you’ve been working on a bike all winter and all you want to do is ride it, ride the piss out of it, beat it up and then next year you rebuild what you broke the year before. It’s a good release, something that you can bury yourself into. You just turn off the world and you’re into it. I thought, “Hey, if I’m going to ride them, I might as well learn how to work on them, and if I’m going to learn how to work on them, I might as well learn how to rebuild them and make them the way I want.” I’m big into the classic ’50s motorcycles. The Brits had their cafe racers and the Americans had their bobbers. They both have interests that I like—stripped down and fast; it’s just two different styles.

How fast can your cafe racer go?

My cafe racer has done a ton, which is over 100 miles per hour. I’d be categorized in the “ton up boys.” There’s a big discrepancy about saying “ton up club.” It’s not really a club; it’s just something you get by breaking a ton. Americans decided to make it a club for some odd reason, but the only cafe racer club is the 59 Club in England, the original cafe racer club.

What would you compare bike building to, or bike “tinkering”?

Putting a puzzle together. I was a geek growing up, building [airplane] models. That’s probably why I’m an industrial model builder right now. It’s something I like doing, but riding bikes to me is like the old days of skateboarding and snowboarding: You just let the road dictate your path; all you have to do is go left or right. Building is more precise. Things have to go together a certain way. They either have to go that way or they don’t work.

How do you feel when you ride?

I don’t want to give that bullshit excuse “freedom,” because that’s a given. You’ve got no windows, no doors. So, yeah, there is that sense of freedom. That’s everyone’s line. But, to be able to ride something that you took apart and went through every little nook and cranny and put it all back together perfectly, or as perfect as you think, and people say that they like it and give you props for building it—it’s gratifying. It’s a functional piece of art. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to blow a ton on it. It’s a moment that you have when everything is going by you so fast that you get lost in the moment. When you’re so focused, everything goes away, but you’re completely aware of what’s going on around you. You get in this mode where everything disappears and there isn’t a goddamn thing in the world that can penetrate that.

Photo by Christopher Bluhm