Oil in the Blood
“The bikes are the glue, what's fascinating is the stories”
Rider, racer, film director. Gareth Maxwell Roberts has quite a CV, particularly when you factor in founding father of London’s Bike Shed Motorcycle Club.
Fittingly, it’s here that we meet Gareth to talk about his new film, Oil in the Blood, a documentary about the custom-build motorcycle scene and the people who live and breathe the culture. Ahead of a very special screening at The Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Texas on April 13, we wanted to ask him about his love of motorbikes, the custom-build scene and, of course, the film itself.
First, however, despite being proud sponsors of the film, we were surprised to find out our ties with Gareth go back much further than we thought…
Gareth Maxwell Roberts: I bought my first Belstaff jacket back in the early 80s when I bought my first bike – an old vintage Vespa. I was a mod at the time and I needed something utilitarian and waterproof. I had that right up until about four years ago. It was so battered, I'd re-waxed it so many times. I’ve recently got the Turner jacket – I love it because I can wear it as a normal, casual jacket, but when I’m on the bike I just slip the armour in and I’m protected.
BH: That’s a good start! So, what does riding mean to you?
GMR: It’s unlike like anything else. The bike becomes an extension of yourself. It’s so physical in terms of how you control it. You use your own weight, you’re exposed, you’re out in the elements… I’m addicted. I’ve been addicted since I was a kid, since I was about 13 or 14.
BH: How did you get the bug?
GMR: A friend of mine got sent to Feltham Young Offenders Institution for a few months. He had a Yamaha RD250 – incredibly light, incredibly, fast. Anyway, his mum was so cross, she said, 'I’m gonna sell your bike – it’s not going to be here when you get back'. So he panicked, and asked me to look after it. The understanding was that I’d stick it in my dad’s shed, which I did, but I went out on it too. That really converted me to riding bikes.
BH: And what about your interest in the custom-build scene? How did that come about?
GMR: When I finished racing, I thought it was time to slow down. I thought I could get an old, classic bike. I saw a vintage Honda race bike on a trailer on the way to a meeting and thought it would be great to have something like that, but road legal.
So then I started searching around on the internet, this was about 2007… 2008. I started to find people who were customising really old bikes – old Honda CB750s and CB550s, which at that time were unwanted machines. You could pick one up on eBay for 500 quid in perfect working order and strip it all down to look like a vintage café racer bike, which I liked the idea of.
This culture was emerging just as Broadband was rolling out, it was the first time people were able to share high-resolution images on a blog site. People were blogging about what they were doing. Custom cultures had been quite local, but now it started to become global. I was finding people down in Surrey doing it, people in Tasmania who were doing it, people in Finland and Alaska… it was all over the world. There was this do-it-yourself culture emerging. I loved it.
BH: How had the scene been up till then?
GMR: Custom culture isn’t a new thing. Pretty much since the beginning of motorcycles in the early 1900s people have been fiddling with bikes. In the States there was outdoor racing. You'd go out into a field and go as fast as possible. They'd either buy a new Harley or a second-hand one, then strip everything off it to make it lighter. The culture grew out of that. Then in the forties, GIs were coming back from the Second World War and there was this huge surplus of war issue Harley Davidsons that you could pick up for nothing and strip down. At the same time you had the whole trials and scramble culture, predominantly in the UK with people like Sammy Miller. There weren’t dedicated trials bikes then, so they'd pull everything off to make them lighter, faster and more nimble.
BH: That’s a real dedication to function. When did the style aspect start to creep in, with the customisation making the leap to jackets as well as bikes?
GMR: It started with the café racers on this side [of the Atlantic], but in the States, it really started late 40s and early 50s with the emergence of biker gangs. A lot of those were ex-GIs. They were pretty bored when they came home from the war, got into bikes and formed clubs. That coincided with the birth of rock and roll, and style became intrinsically linked with it.
BH: The film seems to show huge diversity within the modern custom-build scene…
GMR: Yes! I can’t think of another subculture where you could find a 55-year-old bloke talking to a 21-year-old woman about something that they’re both interested in and knowledgeable about.
It really feels unique – and you see it all the time. You go to a show and there’s a really broad cross-section of people there. And they all have a set of common values that brings them together. I find it fascinating.
BH: It looks like you went to some incredible places. There’s even a scene with people racing bikes on ice! Where was that?
GMR: That was the frozen river in Wisconsin, the whole ice-racing thing is really interesting. It happens all over the world really, in the colder climates, especially in the northern Scandinavian countries, Russia, Canada and the northern Midwest in the US. You get six months of freezing-cold weather when people can’t ride, so they go on frozen lakes, roads and rivers.
BH: Is that as potentially as dangerous as it sounds?
GMR: I mean, if you’re an idiot, yeah [laughs]. They know what they’re doing. They go out and drill to measure the depth and there’s a certain thickness where it becomes safe. If it’s below that, you don’t go out. Having said that, when we shot that scene, our sound guy, who’s from Wisconsin himself, wouldn’t go out on the ice.
BH: How long were you filming in total?
GMR: Almost three years. I wanted the film to be a definitive document of this culture, at this point in time. So I was only ever going to get that by talking to as many people as I possibly could. The bikes are the glue in all of this, but what's fascinating is the stories. A lot of them touch on universal themes – obsession, addiction, individualism and culture generally. We did our first interview in January 2016, and we finished editing almost three years to the day from then.
BH: That’s a long journey – how has it been?
GMR: There’s obviously a financial element to getting the film finished. It’s an eternal struggle, and one of the reasons why it’s taken three years. Belstaff coming on board as partners has been really helpful. From the financial point of view, obviously, but they’ve been incredibly supportive as well. It’s a good association, because for years Belstaff were solely a motorcycle brand – you wore them to ride in. They’ve never forgotten those motorcycle roots and you can’t manufacture that history.
BH: Thanks for your time and the best of luck with everything.