Custom Bikes in Spain

Highway Of Dreams

They’re unique, look chic and make you want to hop on a motorcycle: custom bikes. The designer Karles Vives takes ABOUT TRUST on a tour through the mountains of Spain—and explains the special joie de vivre of an easy rider.

Text Tino Scholz  Photos Carles Carabi

Want to know what a mountain sounds like? You just have to speak with one of the locals living near it. As with the Garraf Massif on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. For many a year the locals have had a description for the sound from the area. Loosely translated: Garraf rumbles. And it can be heard every single day.

Like on this winter morning, with the main road still bathed in the golden light of the rising sun. Nothing can be heard, at first, but as each second passes, it gets louder. Engines roaring, two motorcycles whiz past the sunrise, high on a plateau with a spectacular view of the glittering sea. Then it gets quiet again. The two riders take off their helmets, put on their sunglasses and look towards the eastern horizon. Both say: “The sound of a motorcycle is like a symphony to the ears.”

Karles Vives and his friend, Dani Rodriguez, ride up here with their motorcycles quite often to tour through the area together—as do many of their fellow Spaniards. They belong to a growing number of custom bikers, riders of personalized motorcycles. Today Karles is planning to subject his new tires to an endurance test. The annual Custom Bike Tour through Morocco, which he organizes, is looming on the calendar, and everything needs to be perfect.

The Garraf Massif offers the best testing conditions, with paved roads alternating with dusty dirt roads, crater-like potholes with earthen mounds, and steep ascents. “We’ll meet in the café—it’s the only one along the road, you can’t miss it,” Karles calls out as he and Dani put their helmets back on and roar off down the road across the rolling hills, the sunrise at their backs.

Karles not only rides custom bikes, he also designs them. He is one of the most sought-after designers in Spain, fulfilling his customers’ dreams of that very special motorcycle. And he still rides the very bike that was the one that started his career back in the day—a BMW R100 that he modified to his heart’s desire without ever having even changed a brake pad before in his life. This, his first custom bike, was so good that specialist media published articles about it. Then Karles started getting calls from potential clients. Alongside his day job as a creative director in the advertising industry, he began transforming other people’s motorcycles. At some point he thought to himself: Why don’t I focus completely on motorcycles? At that, his brand, Bespoke Fuel, was born.


Today he’s on his own motorcycle, tooling up and down the roads in the Garraf Massif: through dense overgrown forests, past gorges that open up onto breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. But Karles and Dani are too focused on their riding to really pay much attention to the beautiful views of the natural landscape around them. They’re riding as if the road will never end. As Karles says, “I really only notice my motorcycle: braking, steering, that’s my world.” It’s interrupted only occasionally by a little oncoming traffic. There are hardly any cars, mostly only the roar of other motorcycles. Original factory models, but also a few custom bikes.

The trend toward customized motorcycles, retro designs in particular, has been going on for a while and, according to expert opinions, will probably continue to grow, particularly in Japan, the United States and also European countries such as Spain, Italy, France and England. Firstly, this is because many motorcycle manufacturers have recognized the trend and are offering more and more of their own components for customizing. Secondly, because there are increasing numbers of workshops where manufacturer-independent specialists are refurbishing bikes.

In the United States, for instance, Roland Sands is one of the customizers to the stars: his clients include Brad Pitt, Mickey Rourke and snowboarding icon Shaun White. The Australians of Deus Ex Machina set this trend rolling at the start of the millennium and are still popular today. The Spanish El Solitario—the hermit—is so exclusive that almost nobody has his contact information and he only modifies bikes if he can establish an emotional relationship to them. Karles Vives from Barcelona is known as a preeminent designer. Pedro García, his colleague from Madrid, says: “A new workshop of dreams is being set up every day right now.”

In Karles’ dream workshop things are busy on the evening before the tour in the Garraf Massif. The workshop is located a bit off the beaten path in a rear courtyard in Barcelona, close to the former Olympic Village, not far from the beach. Three motorcycles sit enthroned on hydraulic lifts in the large space, with a sales shop in the next room. Karles and mechanic
Claudio are working on a Harley Davidson. They’re putting on a new saddle, a bit lower and a bit wider than the regular one. The song “Easy Rider” by Iggy Pop is playing on the radio in the background. Karles is humming along.

“Our customer will be guaranteed to attract attention with this machine,” he says, pushing the saddle into position. That’s the main reason most people ride a custom bike. “It’s about being unique—particularly in this day and age. Ultimately globalization ensures that I have clients from Australia, Germany and Italy. But it also makes it possible for us all to wear the same fashions, eat the same foods and shop in the same shops. Customizing is a countertrend that emphasizes the special.”

Karles is working on a Harley Davidson for the first time ever. His specialty is otherwise BMW motorcycles, particularly Scramblers. Scramblers are motorcycles that are equally at home both on and off the road, with significantly minimized designs. “We work on seven or eight motorcycles a year,” Karles says. “We need about two months per bike. It’s tremendously detailed work.”

A customer’s dreams get their start in his office, directly adjacent to the workshop. It’s a sparsely furnished room, with leather jackets on a coatrack, a computer, a pad of paper and a pencil. Karles starts drawing: body, tank, handlebars, tires. His talent is immediately apparent, something he brought with him from his time as a creative director. After two minutes the paper holds a complete motorcycle, at least a scaled back version, but the tank is larger than normal. “My next project,” he says.

It’s important to Karles that he’s a designer, not an artist. There are artists, of course, but they do what they want, damn the consequences such as safety and functionality. It’s a very passionate discussion in the scene at the moment: How much functionality can beauty handle? And when does beauty become a safety issue? “If someone wants more than what is safe and permissible, I won’t do it,” Karles explains. “I won’t risk a customer’s health. If I did, I’d have failed at my calling.”


He tells the story of Constance, an acquaintance of his who had her motorcycle modified in another workshop. As she was driving down the highway at more than 100 kilometers an hour, a modified part behind the back seat came loose and broke off. It almost crashed into the tire, which would have had disastrous consequences. But Constance escaped with just a bad fright. As she says herself, she’d consider very different aspects when selecting a designer today—safety would be first and foremost in her mind.

Karles has less and less time to go out for a ride these days due to all the work waiting for him in the shop. But when he does have time, he enjoys it to the fullest. As he does on the following day, in a nature preserve on the road to Sitges, a seaside resort. He and Dani are taking a break, eating bocadillos, the typical Spanish sandwich, and drinking coffee. They’re sitting in the warm, midday sun, chatting about their tours through various countries, and their big upcoming trip to North Africa. “Riding,” says Karles, “ensures a healthy balance between body and soul. It’s about freedom—the freedom to be boundless, but also the freedom to tune out and forget your everyday troubles. It’s a break from reality.” Dani, sitting next to him, nods enthusiastically in agreement.

Directly behind the café is where the best part of their tour begins: off-road riding. You go past sparse vegetation, over light-colored gravel, through deep holes that you see only when you’re right on top of them. Karles and Dani are testing what their equipment can take. They ride fast and hard for a bit, slam on the brakes, shift gears up and down, turn circles. They stop now and then to quickly coordinate the next stretch. They take off full speed down to the sea, with Karles almost overdoing it at one point: testing the brakes, he nearly skids down a hillside. Dani asks: “Is everything okay?” Karles flips up his visor and rolls his eyes. “What do you think?” They both laugh.

“When you have a perfect feeling on your motorcycle, you don’t have any problems driving such challenging stretches,” Karles says. “When you’re one with the machine. The sound of the engine, for instance, is the motorcycle’s voice. You can hear if something’s wrong with the bike. If you’re intensively involved with it, it’s your motorcycle, your baby. You’ve developed it and given it character. And if you take care of it, then the bike takes care of you so that you always reach your destination.”

Having arrived at the sea, Karles and Dani discuss their tour once again. They park their bikes and take a short stroll along the beach. The tires are good, but perhaps they shouldn’t unduly overtax them. Still, for Morocco they’ll be fine; soon it’ll be time to head off on the big tour with more than twenty other riders. Karles and Dani turn their gazes across the glittering Mediterranean for a few moments. The adventure already awaits them beyond the horizon.

But first they have to get back to Barcelona. This time they don’t take the mountain roads, but instead ride along the coast. It’s an unusually warm day during an unusually warm Spanish winter. A few sun worshippers are out on the sand. Karles could do that, too. There’s a fork in the road: to the left, the beach, to the right, the city. Karles turns right, towards Barcelona. There’s still a lot to do in the workshop.


Personalized motorcycles are usually unique—and thus the statutory regulations to prove a bike’s roadworthiness are accordingly extensive. “There are myriad provisions to comply with: for road and traffic licensing, for example, and various EU regulations and ordinances,” TÜV SÜD expert Lars Krause explains. “When which regulations apply also depends on the motorcycle’s first date of registration. It makes for a challenging inspection.”

A main focus of the checks is thus the permissibility of the changes as compared to the original state of the vehicle, particularly the exhaust performance, noise characteristics, and changes to the frame, chassis and lighting. Lars Krause always recommends consulting with an expert in the field. “For safety-related aftermarket accessories, for instance, you have to have corresponding documentation of certification reports in the form of a general operating approval or parts certificates.”