Biking and American work shoes: at first glance these two don’t have much in common. The hi-tech biking world appears to contrast starkly with the craftsmanship of Red Wing Heritage. But appearances can be deceptive. For a few years now, a small, nearly forgotten subculture within the biking world has been enjoying continuously growing public interest. A world in which tradition, workmanship, and an eye for detail play a main role. And not in the least due to the stunning work of the Wrenchmonkees.
It’s the 60s of the previous century. Record racing, later named café-racing, is thought up by bored young working class bikers, hanging around the jukebox of the renowned Ace Café in London. In those days, a song (‘record’) lasted for about three minutes. Record racing meant that at the start of the record, you had to race to a fixed point and be back before the song ended. The goal was to break the magical barrier of 100 miles per hour (‘doing the ton’). If you managed, you were rewarded with the prestigious title of ‘ton up boy’.
To do the round trip as quickly as possible, you needed a lightweight motorbike. The guys took old Triumphs, BSAs, and Nortons and began stripping them down. Shields, indicators, mirrors, batteries, motor-horns; everything that wasn’t essential, in other words ballast, was removed. Then the metal saw cut into the remains. The front and back fenders were shortened and the gas tank dented on the sides, so that their knees could fit in snuggly. A smaller, hand-made saddle was placed on the bike and the handlebar replaced with handles attached directly to the fork, so-called clip-ons. Finally, the engine was tuned and the airbox replaced with loose air filters, and done was their rudimentary racer. Apart from record racing, they used these lightweight, fast, and maneuverable machines to speed from Café to coffee shop to truck stop. And back.Once the 60s ended, café-racers more or less slid into obscurity in Europe. Technological change, the fast collapse of the British motor industry, and the triumphal procession of the Japanese motorbike builders repressed the café-racer culture. Small groups of enthusiasts did still build and ride these machines, but only very sporadically. It became a fringe phenomenon of the biking world. In the last couple of years, however, café-racing has experienced a strong revival and racers can be spotted on the streets and squares more and more often. The one big difference being that back in the day, they rode almost exclusively English bikes, whereas nowadays it is mainly vintage Japanese and German ones.
One of the forerunners in this custom revival is the Danish chop shop Wrenchmonkees. In their workshop in Copenhagen, founders Nicholas Bech and Per Nielsen and their team build café-racers, customs, and trackers for customers all over the world. The special thing about Wrenchmonkees’ style is that the bikes often look anything but polished. A layman could look at one of the bikes and probably see nothing but an old, stripped down scrap bike. Whereas fans accept a several months’ wait and a steep price tag uncomplainingly, just to be able to ride an old-timer these guys have laid hands on.
Wrenchmonkees’ style is pure and no-frills. Founder Per Nielsen explains: “For us, craftsmanship is about setting standards. About exploring new terrain and not repeating ourselves.” This is not just an attractive sounding marketing slogan: every bike the Danish guys deliver has an unmistakable Wrenchmonkees signature, but you will never see the same solution twice. So even though they’ve already built roughly 75 bikes for their customers and themselves, the work will never become repetitive routine. “We love the fact that when a bike comes in and we start stripping it down, we really don’t know what it will look like when we’re done. We don’t make sketches and don’t use Photoshop. It’s just our clients’ wishes and our imagination taking it somewhere. Usually in the right direction.”
Nielsen tells us: “Aesthetics to us is about clean and simple design. When looking at our bikes and the products we use, we believe functionality is most important. So we think up solutions or designs that enhance the functionality, or ‘bring out’ the function. Pretty much like Red Wing.” Nicholas Bech adds: “Red Wing has an old and strong heritage, and the background they represent has always been involved in the industry and lifestyle that eventually has given the roots to the motorcycle culture and the gear used in it… It’s a brand that gives people the opportunity to own a quality, handcrafted product at a good price; this is something we can relate to and also practice ourselves.”