I brushed the late November snow from the seat of the 40-year-old blue, white and orange Raleigh racing bike and peddled it slowly through the back streets of the city. The city I had tried to adopt as my home and the city I was soon to abandon. In my two years of existence in Copenhagen, it was only in the last month that it made any sense to ride at a steady pace on a cold, grey winter’s morning.
I rode toward a garage tucked away out of sight on the industrial strip of Upslandsgade on the island of Amager. The garage was home to Wrenchmonkees Custom Motorcycles. I’d quit my job, forfeited a visa and bought a plane ticket back to Australia. It was all sadly settled and in a final effort to have not wasted two years in Denmark, I had arranged to spend my final month getting my hands dirty — under the pretence of brushing up on my skills for a motorcycle trip through the eastern states of Australia. The truth was, I already felt comfortable around motorbikes but after three years in a sort of self-imposed exile, I felt as estranged from myself as ever.
I did however have a vague notion that before a prodigal son returns home he is supposed to have reached a sort of understanding of the world and his place in it. He’s supposed to have been humbled by the follies of his youth and return a man. Having failed thus far to cultivate anything that could be considered wisdom, maturity or even manliness, here I was asking three men who had never met me to teach me what it meant to be them.
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Per, Nicholas and Lars spend most mornings answering emails and hunting down parts online, something they tell me takes up far too much of their time. I gave them some space and took the chance to wander around the garage in an attempt to play it cool and not skip straight to the motorbikes like a dizzy schoolgirl. I picked up their copy of the recently published book The Ride: New Custom Motorcycles and Their Builders. I flicked impatiently to the pages devoted to the Wrenchmonkees, “If there’s one company that symbolizes the style of the new wave custom scene, it’s the Wrenchmonkees,” it read, “their motorcycles are raw, simple and pure — the legendary Danish design aesthetic applied to two wheels, and roughed up a little.”
The bikes featured on those pages seemed restless behind me as, just meters in front of me, their masters sat behind the glass window of an office. It was impossible to reconcile the gloss of those pages with the patina of the bikes perched behind me or to hear the carefully chosen quotes in the thick Danish accents that had apparently voiced them. There’s a certain romance inherent in motorcycles and building them seems to come with its own brand of gritty glamour. Here the stress was on hard work, long hours and little to no financial reward. And they saw fit to remind me of that fact as often as they could.
They had met people like me before. Apprentice hipsters, bike bloggers, backyard mechanics and keyboard critics. We all wanted to understand what made Wrenchmonkees and their creations so magnetic, how they had exhumed a motorcycle culture buried beneath the chrome and fluorescence of Californian garishness and return it to the practical, unpolished beauty of bare metal — an expression of motorcycling in its truest form. In truth, we all just wanted to understand what makes them so effortlessly cool.
Nicholas has the calm demeanour that you would expect of a photographer who skateboards, builds motorbikes for a living and has a Labrador with a red bandana around his neck (named something between Bear and Beer, I never quite caught the name). He has the Wrenchmonkees look down pat; in fact with the clothing side of the business being his other pet, he is the Wrenchmonkees look. As with most Danes, the second he speaks he has the gentle, helpful and approachable nature that contrasts sharply with your initial and more superficial impressions brought about by their effortless style and inherent good looks.
He explained my first task and I listened attentively. I had to cut lengths of steel for shipping crates for the bikes that were on their way out. “Do you have any other clothes?” he asked, suggesting I was perhaps a little too well groomed for the task he had in mind. I told him I didn’t and that I had expected to get a little dirty. He wasn’t convinced and gave me a brand new pair of bright blue overalls to keep me clean and to mark me as the amateur I was. I would have been mortified had he known how much thought I had put into what I had worn and that the black button up shirt had been bought specifically for the occasion.
I cut steel for four crates — 12 pieces at three different lengths. It was a simple task and one no doubt designed to test my patience, my willingness for drudgery and my grasp of basic arithmetic and power tools. To this day I have no idea how I fucked up such a simple task so quickly and so expertly but let’s assume that in the excitement I measured incorrectly just the once which assured the inaccuracy of any and all measurements that followed. I managed to hide my mistakes and I worked diligently, only pausing to greet Lars as he poked a beaming grin around the corner of the garage.
“Welcome to custom motorcycles,” he yelled over the wail of the angle grinder…CONTINUE READING
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Photography by Kenneth Nguyen
As well as having a name straight from the Danish Book of Baby Names, Lars is tall, solid and bearded. The man’s a proper Dane. A Viking. Not the skinny sets of leg you’ll spot in Kødbyen on a Friday night struggling under the weight of their own cheekbones and scarves. No surprises, he’s as nice as they come too. He’d spent some time working in Australia and like most Danes, had seen more of my country than I had. He asked me to cut lengths of metal tube for the DIY custom seat kits they sell through their website. Again, not a great deal of skill involved but after measuring a dozen or so times, I thought I could use the time to think. I quickly discovered you don’t want to drift off while operating ancient machinery donated to a motorcycle garage. I say ‘donated’ and so did Lars. It seems it had actually been left there by the previous occupant and been reclassified ‘donated’ rather than ‘abandoned’.
Lars explained the eccentricities of the machines. They sounded like grumpy old men, quite literally at times. As well as the emphysemic metal splutters they let out at any sign of having to move, if you forced them or pushed them too hard they gave up on you. A cutting blade came loose a few times so I steadied the pace and listened for their geriatric objections. I mentioned to Lars that I couldn’t seem to get the guides to hold a measurement but he already knew. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s approximate. This is custom motorcycles,” he reminds me with that same grin.
His ‘Philosophy of the Approximate’ sounded like something he expected of other people rather than anything he had chosen to live by. It was an easy assessment to make as you ran your eyes over the bike he had built by himself now sitting in the garage (and tattooed to his own chest). Persuading a fuel injected 2005 Triumph engine into a 1954 Norton Featherbed frame takes dedication, patience and technical mastery, not the heavy handedness he seemed to imply. Not being an original Monkee, Lars took care of a lot of the wiring on the later bikes. It should be noted that anyone who enjoys working with the electronics of motorbikes is either a perfectionist or a sadist. Lars I suspect is for most parts the former.
The boys break for lunch together. The mezzanine kitchen and dining area above the garage was certainly no Noma but the food and the atmosphere was distinctly Danish. Dark rye bread, boiled eggs, aquatic life of some sort, remoulade and plenty of other unexplained Danish condiments. If my lacklustre description of lunch hadn’t made it clear, I’ve never been much of a ‘foodie’ and as we all switched mercifully to English, it seemed we all agreed that food isn’t the main focus of any meal.
I have few friends that enjoy them like I do but I knew motorbikes were something I could speak comfortably on. I had hoped this two-wheeled confidence wouldn’t leave me as I sat across from someone who was instrumental in shaping my perspective of them. Per speaks carefully and with a certain seriousness, another clue that these “raw, simple, pure and roughed up” motorcycles he’s known for may not just be happy accidents of dirt, patina and dints but a gifted mechanic’s thoughtful exercises in aesthetics.
Among other things, we discussed the press attention that made two Danes in a freezing little garage the darlings of the new-wave custom motorcycle scene. More specifically, we discussed the stinking pit of mediocrity (my words not Per’s) that is the comment sections of online motorbike blogs and why, unlike some builders, Per and the Monkees exercise their right to remain silent. With popularity comes criticism and Per seems no stranger to the idea of tall poppy syndrome thanks in part to the Danes and their Law of Jante (another story entirely). He became surprisingly animated as he said that he of course read the comments, but as his frustration grew, he cut himself short with more diplomacy than I felt necessary. “Some people should just know when to keep quiet,” he concluded. I hoped he wasn’t talking about me.
Lunch was over with less sighing than I was used to and even I felt like getting back to work, regardless of whatever menial task they had lined up for me. It turned out to be measuring and cutting lengths of cable for the DIY wiring kits they sell through their online store. After bagging only a few kits and another lecture from Lars Kierkegaard on Approximatism (apparently from your nipple to your fingertip is a meter) I was ready for bigger and better things.
Either I had proven I finally wanted to get my new clothes dirty or they needed an extra set of hands because I started stripping down a Kawasaki z900 that had been waiting patiently in the corner of the garage. I’ve always been good at pulling things apart but putting things back together has never been a strong point. I seem to pull things apart with ravenous curiosity and no thought whatsoever as to how it might go back together or if it’s even worth reassembling at all. There’s always a leftover bolt or an odd fit or it’s altogether abandoned.
If you looked out the rear window of my Copenhagen apartment you would have seen a disassembled bicycle perched by the bins. There was nothing particularly wrong with it, I had pulled it apart to restore and never felt the need to put it back together. I think it’s probably still there, no one throws out a bicycle in Copenhagen. However, potentially compromising the structural integrity of someone else’s motorbike with an angle grinder is a daunting prospect and one I didn’t take so lightly. I was careful and it took me far longer than it should have and with more noise than seemed appropriate. As I showered myself in a glowing spray of metal, I thought I’d almost got what I came for.
I was finally surrounded by people who had passion, drive, vision and dedication. This is what I had hoped to learn, what I had hoped would somehow inspire me to better myself and something I could return home with. The more time I spent with them the more I knew I still had none of these traits, instead all I had was overwhelming envy. Envy for those who can make the decision to do something, to do it properly, to be devoted to it and see it through to the bitter end. Then start over. I heard Nicholas yell over the cutting and grinding of metal that dinner was ready. I stepped out of the clean blue overalls and lamented the fact that I probably couldn’t ride a half-built motorbike and that when it came to travel inspired lessons of self-discovery, I had perhaps left my run a little late.
As I sat down at the dinner table I felt an exhaustion I don’t think I had felt before or since. That exhaustion means there’s little I can tell you of dinner other than that it was textbook ‘hygge’ and again distinctly Danish. Hygge is apparently a difficult world to translate from Danish (although it’s originally Norwegian) but it’s somewhere between coziness, food, conversation and friends. It’s the warmth of shared human connection that pushes the thought of another long, dark and cold winter day from your frostbitten mind. In this garage, it was dinner and beer with people I’d just met and spent the day with, it was their friend Anders and his wife and kids who had stopped by the garage to cook a simple chicken soup for everyone. It was all of them laughing and speaking Danish and me being too tired to understand a word they were saying but still feeling entirely included. Hygge is being a part of something, it’s a deep sense of belonging mixed with that same strange sense of envy. It also wasn’t something I could take back to Australia with me.
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After dinner, Per was disassembling the engine of an old z750 up on a bench. He’d spent a lot of his life cleaning motorcycles and it still seemed like a pleasure, almost meditative. He placed a significance on the art of cleaning an old engine that I couldn’t appreciate. I had cleaned engines before and removing grease and grime seemed well within even my limited skills so I offered my assistance. As he explained the solvents to use, and passed me the brushes and the steel wool, Per seemed less than convinced that I was up to the task. He pointed to what areas to clean, told me how hard to scrub and where to concentrate and where to neglect entirely. I couldn’t help but imagine he was trying to impart wisdom in his own subtle way. That I was about to be Mr Miyagied.
I reached desperately for epiphanies on the importance of self-restraint and the limitations of sheer effort, to notice the details but not to obsess over them. As I clawed ever more desperately at the meaning of a life well lived, a life that took Per, Nicholas and Lars the entirety of their own lives to uncover, Per handed me a valve cover caked in 40 years of a hard earned life as a motorcycle.
“Just don’t overdo it,” he warned — as I wiped grease-stained hands on a brand new shirt.
Photography by Kenneth Nguyen