JJohn Ryland wasn’t born to motorcycles. He found them late when a friend from work insisted he throw a leg over a Suzuki DR650. It was February in Virginia, long, cold weeks from spring’s warm days. He had a wife and kids and a 9-to-5 at an advertising agency. He got his license, bought a pile of projects, and started his first build. He was 40 years old.
“That was eight years ago,” he says. “The first one was a Yamaha XS850 Triple, and I wanted to put the gold fork on it.”
He laughs when he says it, his sharp eyes narrowing behind his glasses. Of everything that has happened since—getting laid off at the height of the recession, starting a custom-motorcycle shop on a whim, building bikes for actors and television shows, and now producing his own videos in-house—everything started with that gold fork. That bike and Ryland’s subsequent builds helped usher in an age of Öhlins-equipped customs, machines inspired by the detail-obsessed work of builders such as Wrenchmonkees and Deus. Work Ryland shyly calls “alt-moto.”
“Those guys were just doing their own thing,” he says. “They were choosing to be subtle where other people were choosing to be outrageous. You had to take a close look. That was alt-moto to me. It wasn’t just stock stuff, it wasn’t just adventure riders or sport-bike guys who just want to go as fast or far as possible. It was this kind of thoughtful, cool little alternative to the rest of the thing.”
Ryland and Classified have traded in an alternative view of what a custom motorcycle should be, a view that has traditionally included fat tires, bare metal tanks, and, of course, that gold fork. The bikes, built across some 17 different platforms, are all striking and unique despite a cohesive aesthetic, simultaneously modern and nostalgic. In 2015, Classified caught actor Norman Reedus’ eye, which eventually led the shop to build a trio of bikes for the actor’s character, Daryl, on The Walking Dead.
It put the company’s work in front of millions of eyes, including people who never thought twice about a motorcycle.
“I realized one day that we’re basically entertainers,” he says. “We build bikes and have some customers, but people treat what we do like entertainment. They review it. There are venues for it. Everybody goes and checks it out and gives their opinion as if they bought a ticket for a movie.”
Ryland also realized that most of the successful shops from which he drew inspiration in the early days do more than shill custom bikes. They sell apparel or sling coffee. They rely on an alternative revenue stream to keep the lights on. That’s part of the reason why the old brick stable that Classified calls home now serves triple duty, with the bike shop downstairs and a full video and sound studio upstairs, all geared toward producing high-quality videos on the bikes and the skeleton crew that mans the shop. And, like the motorcycles themselves, the short films are good-hearted and quirky, deftly defying categorization, but widely appealing.
“With the show, we’re looking at that as a way to do something we’re proud of that has to do with motorcycles and highlights what we do.”
In some ways, it’s Ryland returning to a skill set he left behind eight years ago—storyboarding, writing, and creating a visual concept from start to finish. But he couldn’t have leaped straight from his office at the ad agency to his work on the Classified Moto video series. He and the rest of his crew had to spend the years scraping and digging, building bikes, and putting their stamp on the riding world.
“I’m so used to working on instinct. I’m always relying on ‘it feels like we should do this’ or ‘stop this; this isn’t going to go anywhere.’ I feel like what happens is, when you’re in that position where everybody’s looking to you, and they know you’re just kind of winging it a lot of the time, you feel this crazy pressure to perform. I end up feeling a lot of weird pressure in this business that’s supposed to be fun and
soul nurturing and things like that. I’m stressing so hard because people are giving me leeway to do what I want to do. The weird stuff that we do around here or the weird projects we take on, none of it makes any sense, but it all kind of makes sense in the big scheme.”
Classified’s most recent effort, Junior, is a perfect example. A tweaked Honda CT70 with a penchant for lofting the front wheel, it’s a bike most hardcore builders would simply leave in a shed to rust to death. But there’s a joy in it, one that makes you want to go out and wrench or ride yourself. Ryland says that above the gold fork and bare metal, that’s Classified’s ethos: reminding the world that bikes are fun, and despite all the reasons to the contrary, they’re worth the ante.
“I feel like we’ve sort of always proudly said we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, and part of that is disarming. I don’t know which way you’re supposed to do it. I just really like the way this looks or I like the concept of mixing these things together.”