Up until the past decade or so, Roland Sands was one of the best-kept secrets in the custom bike world as far as consumers were concerned. He’d been wrenching and fabricating for years, but the general public wasn’t really aware of that.
Industry folks knew him, though. He’s the son of Performance Machine founder Perry Sands, and he’d killed a lot of summers working at PM as a kid. That’s where he earned his stripes, from sweeping the floor to cutting, grinding, and the rest of the skills that go into making a great custom motorcycle creator.
Roland also spent years at the track cleverly disguising himself as a champion motorcycle racer by actually becoming one. Between 1994 and 2002 he notched 10 victories to his belt. During that time he not only put the lessons learned at PM to good use, but he built on them by wrenching on his race machines, especially when he first started out and didn’t have much choice.
It wasn’t until 2004 and 2005 that the riding public truly got to know Roland the Bike Builder. That’s when he created an awesome bike named “The Hardway” and then went up against Arlen Ness during the ’05 season of Biker Build-Off.
Shortly after that, he founded Roland Sands Design. Now he spends his days designing concept bikes, prototype iron, and custom parts that blend the disparate worlds of sport bikes and choppers in a style that’s true to his roots. Here’s what he had to say about where he’s come from and who he is.
HB: You started riding when you were very young. Did you race dirt bikes before going to Keith Code’s school or after?
RS: I raced stand-up Jet Skis for a little while, but I was shit at it. I was the smallest guy out there, and when things got rough I just kind of flew off the thing. I remember getting run over, and I smashed the side of my ski in and it almost sunk. That was the last time I raced a Jet Ski. I think my mom had a lot to do with me not racing bikes when I was young. My dad also, he was busy with the shop, so he didn’t have much time to take me racing. He was more into actually doing it himself, so we did a lot of riding in the desert and snow skiing, which was great. I didn’t start roadracing until 1993 when I was 19. Five years later I won the AMA 250 GP Championship, and then I retired in 2002. In the end there were too many injuries and too much effort for a small return. Racing is tough on you. When you’re serious about it, it’s your entire life; I figured 10 years was enough of my life to dedicate to one thing.
HB: Tell us about the learning curve while you worked at PM. I’ve heard you started sweeping floors there at age 14 and moved around the operation learning various things. Walk us through that process.
RS: I started working at PM when I was like five. I would assemble shim kits and these ejection [?] seat pieces. They weren’t as complicated as they sound—just like three pieces that threaded together with a rubber washer. I had a tendency to get in trouble, so I was always at the shop because my parents didn’t want to leave me alone for too long. While most kids were at the beach or having a summer, I was working doing every shitty job my dad could find. I would grind the pegs off the back of stainless-steel pistons for brake calipers on this massive disc grinder. I used to grind brake pads for fit, drill discs, drill just about anything. Grind steel brackets. Deburring, I use to do a lot of that both by hand and on the drill press. I got plenty of scars from jamming a deburr knife into my hand. I finally graduated to building parts. Wheels, calipers, master cylinders, discs, I got to build and understand everything. I started sketching and designing, so I didn’t have to go back to grinding and deburring. I think I was 18 when I designed my first wheel. I must have been 15 before my dad let me do much work on bikes, but when I did, I really got a good feel for what was possible. The cool thing is that I made enough money to buy my own dirtbikes and parts, so I always had a good dirtbike, and when they seized I could rebuild the motor. That was all I really cared about when I was a kid, riding my dirtbike. That was how my pop kept me in line. At the time, I was the only kid I knew with a work ethic. I still thank my dad for teaching me that.
HB: Who taught you to fabricate parts, weld, and so forth?
RS: I picked up a lot from just being around it. I learned to use a lathe and a mill when I started racing because I had to machine my own parts and fabricate stuff to get the bikes where they needed to be. When I started building bikes seriously I needed to be able to do my own gas tanks and shape sheet metal. We didn’t have anyone who could do that at the shop, so I bought a Ron Covell video, a bag, a hammer, and an English wheel and just went for it. For tubing we had a big steel plate with a 21-inch wheel mounted on it. We used it for bending tubes for frames. Although I was in a machine shop, building bikes pretty much stopped at bolting parts on the bikes and machined parts. Modifying frames and building sheet metal was all new, so I had to figure it all out. At the time I was working with Todd Silicatto. He was my chief racing mechanic, so we figured a lot of it out together. The Hardway was the result of that learning curve. It was my first fully fabricated ground-up bike. I also got to design most of the parts that we bolted on. Wheels, mid-controls, radial brake calipers. That was a fun build and a big learning experience.
HB: What prompted you to found Roland Sands Design? Why?
RS: At first it was about making a name for myself outside of PM. My dad was an incredible influence, and he taught me a lot, but I never felt comfortable in a manufacturing environment. Creativity and good design are more organic and fun outside of manufacturing, and I knew that. Racing helped me make a name and identity for myself outside of the company. Designing parts then building bikes showed me I could make a living with my creativity and hard work. In 2005, I did my first Biker Build-Off with Arlenn Ness. It seemed people were more interested in me personally than an aftermarket company building customs, so I named it RSD and started pushing my own name. With all the TV stuff happening, I naturally started doing my own thing, and my pop was fine with it as long as I continued to design the parts at PM. It was only like a year later my dad decided to sell the company, so I was like, “S—t, now I really have to do my own thing.”
HB: How much of the mechanical work did you do on your race bikes over the course of your racing career?
RS: At the beginning I did all of it. If I crashed it, I fixed it. I think that was my first experience with bending metal—fixing shit that was bent. I got a lot of practice fixing stuff because I crashed a lot. When I started doing Nationals I had to have someone help me at the track. A 250 GP bike was a difficult creature to keep tuned up, so you had to have someone focused on keeping the thing jetted correctly—change tires and all that. There was a lot of thought that went into keeping the bike right. When the weather changed and temp dropped, you could be three main jets off. You had to be a f—king weatherman to keep those things tuned. We’d have the carbs off the bike right until final call for the race so we could change jets. The last time I worked on the bike at the track was Daytona in 1997. I was assembling the front rotor, and a group of people came up to talk to me. Bolts weren’t tight, I forgot, then went out with loose rotor bolts. The bolts backed out and hit the fork leg in turn one at Daytona at 100-plus, and I high-sided on the front tire. Luckily I walked away, but it was that last time I wrenched at the track. I always worked on the bikes at home. I enjoyed it; 250 GP bikes are so easy to work on.
HB: Who would you cite as the biggest influence on your building style, if anyone? Why?
RS: I would say my dad, as he taught me to love everything about motorcycles. All kinds of riding from dirt to roadracing, dragracing, flat track, trail riding, just about everything. There was always cool stuff at the shop: sand drag Shovelheads, and blown alcohol Kawasakis, turbo-charged Hondas, and CR 500 motocross bikes sitting next to factory H-D flat trackers and Bob Corral’s Jet bike. Movie bikes and all kinds of weird stuff were floating in and out of the shop. I got to see a lot of history pass through that place.
HB: What inspired you to bring the racer/sport bike vibe to building custom Harley-based iron?
RS: While I was racing, I was designing products both for racing and custom parts for PM. It was natural to want to combine the custom and performance theory together, and for me it was the look I wanted for the products. When I got the opportunity to build bikes, I used the same theory. My perspective and experience were very unique, so the results were unique. To me it was about much more than just painting a number on the side of a chopper and calling it a race bike. It was about building a bike that worked good and above all was fun to ride.
HB: What, in your opinion, is the biggest mistake you see when someone builds a bike?
RS: It’s really hard to have continuity from the front to the back of a bike and get every piece right. I say that because I’ve gotten stuff wrong and still do. You see some bikes that you can dig parts of it, but then it goes wrong somewhere. Maybe the fender sits too high off the rear tire or the seat’s the wrong color. There’s no single mistake; it’s more of an ability to get the whole project right that’s the tough part. But for some, a mistake might be the thing they love the most about their bike because they did it themselves, so who am I to call someone out? I say f—k it. Roll with the red seat and 15-inch front wheel if that’s what you like.
HB: Do you have plans to sponsor a racing team of your own at some point?
RS: We sponsored Bill Warner, the first guy to go 300 mph on a sit-down bike. Unfortunately he died doing what he loved and crashed at 290 mph while trying to go 300 mph in the mile. He was a great guy and was seriously pushing what’s possible, and those are the guys I want to help. I always want to be involved in racing, but it’s hard to justify spending a lump of cash to sponsor a racer and pray you get a return, so I try to help them with things I’m good at like marketing, design, and connections.