Where Bikes Go to Die

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of ev­ery other old in­dus­trial build­ing off the Av­enue. The con­demned wait there while their pa­per­work clears. A mot­ley crew of Ves­pas and Kawasakis and Hon­das with caved-in fair­ings and twisted forks and dan­gling mir­rors. Thread­ing his way through the tan­gle is Greg Sus­sex, the pleas­antly smil­ing ex­e­cu­tioner of thou­sands of mo­tor­cy­cles.

Tri-county Mo­tor­cy­cle Sal­vage in Ven­tura, Cal­i­for­nia, stretches through a hand­ful of build­ings, two lev­els, and an old school bus. Broad awn­ings shade an end­less col­lec­tion of fac­tory head­ers with at­tached muf­flers. Grass grows through head-high stacks of spoked wheels and crum­bling tires, and a gen­tle breeze through the rafters taps air­boxes against each other with the hol­low clat­ter of dry bones.

Sal­vage op­er­a­tions like Tri-county are rare and get­ting rarer. To­day you’d prob­a­bly stum­ble into busi­ness with Sus­sex on ebay, or you might reach him by phone. “Guys try 15 num­bers be­fore they find a place that’s still in busi­ness,” he laughs. Even if you walked in—like I did when I was a col­lege stu­dent try­ing des­per­ately to af­ford the parts I was sand­ing off a long-suf­fer­ing 1988 Honda Hawk—you still wouldn’t see the good stuff. There are in­sur­ance man­dates and fire codes that keep the pub­lic from pok­ing around the li­brary stacks of de­ceased ma­chines. Cross­ing a flex­ing cat­walk be­tween two-story stacks of ’90s bike tanks and ’80s speedome­ters, those poli­cies seem unusu­ally sen­si­ble.

Per­suade Sus­sex to show you the back rooms and you’re greeted by moun­tains of the fa­mil­iar but in­dis­tin­guish­able. It’s like see­ing friends of your par­ents on the street. Here and there is a bright color. The baby blue of a Vespa. The pur­ples and whites and greens of a cer­tain era of Kawasaki. Let your eye do the driv­ing and it grav­i­tates to things you know. A stock DRZ ex­haust. Beau­ti­ful In­ter­cep­tor fair­ings. Rein it in and look for de­tails, and what you find can be more de­sir­able.

Seem­ingly per­fect pieces of a Du­cati Paso. RD tanks. CR125 en­gines and whole shifter karts wait­ing to give them a home.

Mo­tor­cy­cle writer Kevin Cameron once de­clared an or­ga­nized work­bench the sign of a dis­or­ga­nized mind. He meant it as a hedge against pret­tily painted out­lines of wrenches on peg­boards, an en­cour­age­ment to­ward thought and prac­tice rather than dec­o­ra­tive neat­ness. When you see the in­side of Tri-county, you won­der if Sus­sex has the most or­ga­nized mind of all.

At its peak in the ’90s, Tri-county was buy­ing and dis­man­tling about a bike a day. It seems like an im­pos­si­ble vol­ume un­til you see the triple clamps hung feet deep on long racks, or the neatly or­ga­nized forks that fill cub­by­holes that stretch from floor to ceil­ing, or the dirt bike fend­ers that nes­tle one into the next mak­ing yard-long rain­bows of lurid color.

“Find a buyer and ev­ery $30 trea­sure is im­por­tant, a nudge keep­ing one more mo­tor­cy­cle on the road and the doors of Tri-county clogged with derelict ma­chines.”

The yard made per­fect sense here in 1986. Not so long ago, Ven­tura Av­enue was all oil patch and in­dus­try. Shell struck it big up the Av­enue be­fore the war. There were re­finer­ies and miles of drilling rigs. And when the boom started to cool and the re­fin­ery shut­tered, and smaller op­er­a­tors shipped off to Texas or Alaska, lit­tle shops like Tri-county filled the gaps and made a home.

If there’s sense to be made of the sprawl, it’s pri­vate. Sus­sex counted on help dis­man­tling his ma­chines, but this week, and the last and the next and maybe more, he’s work­ing alone in the stacks. And, per­haps be­cause of it, there are places where the forces of cap­i­tal­ism have over­come the forces of or­der. Gold Wing blocks have been shifted to the floor in the ef­fort to mine some­thing from them, and then left to form a kind of throm­bo­sis in the path of fur­ther com­merce. A shop­ping cart laden with heads and valves and other im­por­tant things will travel that far into the stacks, and no fur­ther. And then it will ac­quire a layer of things set aside for later. And, even­tu­ally, Sus­sex will bend his lean frame over this clogged artery and peer into the dark­ness with his flash­light and have to do the math, whether find­ing a $15 or $30 part is worth at­tend­ing to those hours of de­ferred or­ga­ni­za­tion.

It’s painful see­ing all those good things bound up. Know­ing that ev­ery starter mo­tor and car­bu­re­tor sold is a hedge against the steady creep of new con­dos up the Av­enue. Find a buyer and ev­ery $30 trea­sure is im­por­tant, a nudge keep­ing one more mo­tor­cy­cle on the road and the doors of Tri-county clogged with derelict ma­chines. Stop find­ing those buy­ers and the scrap man will pay cents on the pound for that pre­cious metal, all day long.

You’d think there’d be a big score laid away in those moun­tains of parts. CBX ex­hausts and other un­ob­ta­nium. Sus­sex is quick to dis­abuse that no­tion.

“I wouldn’t still have the stuff that’s worth some­thing. I’m not go­ing to be here in 30 years, right? So, I just look at how to max­i­mize prof­its for the next seven years, you know.” That means ebay, on­line listings in this, the most ana­log of places. “We kind of had to rein­vent things, and this is go­ing to be the last time I rein­vent it. Next time things need chang­ing, I’ll be gone. I’ll have to be done.”

To­day the bay where Tri-county drains, guts, and fil­lets bikes is dot­ted in the oily re­mains of a Du­cati Su­per Sport.

“We got it from a guy that was al­most killed on it,” Sus­sex says as he steps around the en­gine. He’s tall, lanky. Made for fit­ting down the crowded aisles, for stretch­ing his spi­der­like legs over stacked cases or half-packed boxes. “I don’t hear the sto­ries, I don’t usu­ally want to hear it be­cause, well, there’s a lot of bad sto­ries, you know?”

A bit of melan­choly fades his smile. “Some­times you can’t help but hear it, you know? ‘My son was killed on this thing,’ or some­thing like this. Some­times you know the ac­ci­dent, you know the guy.”

It’s mo­tor­cy­cling. It’s dan­ger­ous, and some­times del­i­cate, and you’ve been there too, and you do know. And for an un­com­fort­able minute, it’s quiet and weirdly re­li­gious, the rows of en­gines and fi­nal drives in deep shadow, and the soft, dusty, oily floor a me­chan­i­cal cat­a­comb around you.

Then the phone rings and busi­ness crowds out the mood. Sus­sex pulls a cord­less from a sparse tool belt where it lives with his flash­light and hunts off into the dark­ness.

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