Inside Revival Cycles, Where The Only Rule Is Quality Craftsmanship
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Alan Stulberg, founder of Revival Cycles for a few years now. I first got in touch when pictures of his builds started circulating online around 2012 or so and I just fell in love with the attention to detail these guys were displaying. Every centimeter of these bikes was fussed over in a way I hadn’t seen before, but not only did they look killer, they were remarkably well engineered to the point where you’d regularly catch them doing high speed tests at COTA.
I caught up with Alan a few days ago and asked him to tell the whole story, from start to finish of how Revival came to be.
Ted Gushue: Start from the top. How did all of this begin?
Alan Stulberg: I spent the first 10 years of my adult life mostly searching for approval. I was essentially trying to find something that cemented me as legitimate in the eyes of society. In late 2007 I was working for a corporate software company, making great pay and feeling like I had things whipped. Suddenly, without warning, I get fired for pissing off the wrong people. At that point I had eight motorcycles, a kick-ass Porsche, and a crumbling life. After pondering my options and wavering need for continued acceptance, I pulled the rip cord, broke up with my super negative girlfriend, sold seven motorcycles, and took off for Europe for six months on my last remaining motorcycle.
I rode aimlessly following my instincts and came back with this solid idea: “I’m going to start up a motorcycle shop,” primarily because that’s what I was doing anyway, working on my bikes, and I didn’t want to go back to the corporate world and get a job searching for approval ever again.
So I just started the damn thing with several plans in mind of how it could work, but simply following instincts again. I had the name Revival. Had the idea of becoming a motorcycle builder, but more importantly I just had the bug of modifying every single thing I owned. Nothing around me seemed to fit and I was driven to build.
I read this book called Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. It helped cement my own ideas of myself, meaning that the whole book is essentially predicated on the idea that the entire culture of our country has moved away from working with your hands because there’s no respect and no prestige to being a tradesman. Working with your hands has just gone out of fashion. The whole book is built on the fact that maybe that’s not a good thing for everyone. Maybe working in a cube all day long on abstract concepts and thoughts, software, wherever the fuck it is, that has nothing to do with anything you built with your own hands, is unsatisfying. I embraced that. It was so true for me. Keep me in a box under fluorescent lights and I die inside a little every day.
I took this realization and headed off on the path of creating the business, culture and tangible products that I simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Revival was born. A Revival of embracing my trade and the pursuit of physical creation.
TG: What was the motorcycle cultural landscape around when you started Revival?
AS: Actually, when I decided on the name “Revival” in 2008, I didn’t know of anything like my visions. What I envisioned was a company that embraced motorcycles, working with your hands, architecture, and high-end curated cohesive design in all forms. At the time, I definitely wasn’t really a part of the motorcycle world even locally.
Meaning, even with all the bikes I had, I only hung out with two people that rode and built bikes like I did. I didn’t go to the rallies, didn’t go to the shows, and I sure as hell wasn’t looking at anything online outside of Craigslist. I didn’t really know of anything other than my small window of exposure. Then I started Revival and started to clue in and see what was out there. It may have been 2011 before I even found out about brand-focused companies, meaning I already had the mentality that I was going to focus on design, both graphic and of course mechanical, and built this thing that combined an interest in all these things without any formal training or role model to consider.
Then of course, I started to see through the online world in 2011 that there were others out there in the realm of motorcycles that saw the potential we did. But to me there was still this huge chasm between the reality TV American Chopper dudes and the type of cohesive tasteful design and real handmade and truly engineered design and machines. Welding Snap-On wrenches on the side of a big red spec-built chopper for Snap-On to promote their brand made zero sense to me. Where was the soul in that?
Then of course my thoughts evolved, and I began to focus in on what I wanted Revival to be instead of what I didn’t want it to be. There were several other young guys focusing on putting cool motorcycles in their coffee shops to sell T-shirts, merch and beard oil, but we wanted to be different. We started our shop with $5,000 and two guys that really just wanted to build amazing motorcycles that were well beyond our abilities at the time. Some brands out there pay people to build motorcycles for them to develop their brand and sell T-shirts. We sell T-shirts so that we can build motorcycles and develop the two-wheeled culture well beyond its previous limits and pre-conceived notions of bikers.
In my opinion there are two completely different approaches to the industry. I think there are a lot of guys out there that are trying to emulate the lifestyle-brand focus first and motorcycles second, and that’s just fine, but they’re missing the mark. It’s not at all what I want to do. We don’t want to be a brand that pays people to do stuff to legitimize my brand. We want to be a legitimate company that builds amazing things, services, designs and builds incredible bikes, and then also offers more affordable products so that everyone can own a piece of what we’re here to do.
Regardless of anyone’s intentions or plans for our “industry”, I’ve been riding and wrenching on motorcycles since I was 5 years old, and I simply don’t think it’s possible to fake the 30+ years of passion that I put into this stuff every single day. The real will have out and I’m just pleased to be able to do what I love for a living.
TG: Talk to me about how you met Stefan your partner.
AS: I met Stefan in 2007. He was on a motorcycle tour with his friends, and when I say motorcycle ride, I mean they all had $700 piece of shit motorcycles. Some of them were free even. His aunt, who is a good friend of mine, reached out to me, and said, “Hey, my nephew’s in town with his friends on motorcycles and I want you to meet him blah, blah, blah”. I was concerned I was about to forced to endure several hours with weekend warriors on their big Harley baggers with satellite radio wanting to brag about their big adventure. Instead…I meet these young skinny smart guys with Mohawks and no money headed to Tierra Del Fuego, they were taking a year out of their life to do this thing and I’m gobsmacked and jealous instantly.
Here I’m sitting in my cube watching what they’re doing as their janky blog updates occasionally as they find internet and hating my life because I realized I wasn’t living and doing things I really wanted to do.
Meeting Stefan who was this kind of charming engineer with crazy ideas, I realized that there was this potential, because he was much more technical and mechanical than I was ever going to be. I rebuilt motors and chopped up and welded on bikes. This guy could CNC program a machine and build me a piece built to spec based on real engineering science, my approach which was just to try and make it look cool and not fall apart. In the middle grew this relationship and friendship and then, of course, partnership where I can draw a design on a napkin and he can make sure that it’s actually going to work better than anything I’ve ever seen. He’ll machine it and cut it out of bare nothing and turn it into something significant.
TG: He’s the yin to your yang.
AS: Without a doubt. It is kind of cliché, but totally true. Without Stefan none of this would be possible. He represents everything that is good and authentic and extraordinary in my life.
TG: Had you already built bikes pre-Stefan?
AS: Yeah, I was building bikes, but they were kind of hacked up pieces of shit. I was just yanking on stuff and cutting wires and building little side panels and putting seats and all the stuff. Very simple machine work, nothing too crazy. When Stefan joined, suddenly all the ideas and thoughts I had that I couldn’t truly execute on at first, we were able to actually cash the checks that my mouth had been writing. I’d been promising that I was going to do this stuff and build incredible machines, but just couldn’t do it without him.
TG: What was the first big project where you looked at this and you said, “Okay, this is real”.
AS: Probably the “Hardley” that we built. That didn’t really get completed until 2013 or so but we had started it in 2011. We took this motorcycle with 300 miles on it and told this guy we’re doing to do this simple build he wanted. He originally came to us and said, “I want you to build me a bike like this Deus bike,” which is this simple Sportster thing, that was chopped with cool graphics and exhaust and pipe wrap. In hindsight, that bike would have been super simple to just replicate.
I was like, “Yeah, sure, we can do it”. If I sent you a photo of the Deus bike this guy asked us to build, you’d understand why it’s hysterical, because we didn’t build anything even remotely close to what he asked us to build, because our imagination changed and grew. The guy asked us to build that bike but instead, we cut it down to nothing. I mean, it was a brand new, fuel injected motorcycle. We had it cut down to literally just a frame and a motor and a swing arm. It didn’t even have wheels anymore.
When you take a customer’s bike and basically destroy it, shit gets real really quick. We had that moment where we said, “Oh my god, what the fuck are we going to do? We can’t really complete this the way we want to, and it’s going to take another 30 or 40 grand on top of the ten he’d given us to make it what WE really want it to be”. Luckily the guy was a super cool young guy with vision, who said: “You know what? Give me a year.”
I said, “What do you mean?”
He goes, “Ah, I’ll have more money in a year. I’ve got this company I’m going to sell. In a year I can send you 30 grand and we’ll make it happen.” So…we stuck what was left of the bike on a gurney in the corner and let it sit. Literally to the date, a year later, a check showed up, that extra 30 grand, and we went back to work. Of course, over the course of these years, our skill grew as fabricators and as designers, so that although we re-imagined it a year ago, we now can actually make our dream designs on this bike become a reality. Sorry, that’s a long answer, but shit got real when we made promises to do things that we weren’t really ready to do, and all of a sudden had to learn how to do them at the highest level possible.
TG: So fast forward five, six years. You’re opening three dimensional experiential stores in major hotels in Austin. You’re traveling the world, hanging out with Jay Leno. Pretty nuts, man.
AS: Yeah, the big moment for me was the day I got the phone call about going to hang out with Jay Leno. It was 2011 and we were already building bikes, but someone said, “Hey, we’re going to go to Bonneville to set a land speed record with a Brough Superior”. To do that, they were going to ship the bikes from England directly to Jay Leno’s shop, who’s a friend of the brand, and we’re going to finish building the bike in three or four days, and then we’re going to go set a land speed record. So naturally I said, “You’re fucking kidding me. I’m in.” So we show up at Jay Leno’s garage as a team, there’s just three of us, and we assist in finishing this bike, and then of course we spend a week on the salt.
We set a World land speed record, got to know Leno incredibly well, and told him what we were going to do with Revival. That friendship grew and the connection grew and the imagination grew and then, six years after that happened, he walks into our shop in Austin, and after a shop tour and a long motorcycle ride together his exact words were, “I meet people all the time that say they’re going to do something. Whether it’s build motorcycles or reinvent the internal combustion engine, whatever it is. Rarely do I meet someone that actually exceeds what they tell me they’re going to do, especially when it sounds extraordinary in the beginning. Not only have you done it, you’ve exceeded my expectations.”
That was great. That was the moment. That just happened in April, where suddenly you realize that all this fucking hard work you’ve put in matters to someone. That it’s all made a difference, or an impression, or something on someone you look up to. We’ve been lucky to have that experience and moment with so many appreciative and praising people and it feels great every single time. I hope that never stops…it’s highly necessary when you’re slugging through the immense amount of work and effort this all takes.
TG: How many people are at the shop now?
TG: How many bikes a year are you doing?
AS: I honestly don’t know how many bikes we do. Major builds, you know the ones that are significant thousand man-hour bikes…Two. The mid-range builds, we probably do, restorations and custom changes, we probably do 10 or 15. Then of course, there’s all the smaller things that we do…countless. What separates us from most guys that build or repair old bikes is that we will work on anything. Specifically, the really rare stuff. The ones where you can’t actually buy parts.
To make it work the way that you need it to work, you’ve got to reinvent it, and you have to machine parts, you literally have to fabricate some of the parts that you need from scratch, and often you have to adapt other parts that weren’t meant to go on that bike. That means you have to relearn a whole new engine architecture and engineering and design, your electrical system or suspension geometry, or whatever. We really like the really rare stuff. For example, right now, we have four French bikes, all pre-war, downstairs, that we’re working on. Incredible challenges.
AS: French motorcycles are not exactly common. Meaning, prior to starting Revival, I don’t think I’d ever even seen one in person. Now you’ve got a Peugeot, a Rene Gillet and others and you’ve got a bunch of weird bikes in the shop that somehow find us because we’re willing to take these strange things on and stand behind the work we complete on them. We know our expertise will only grow as we take on the difficult ones.
TG: Very cool.
AS: I think specializing is really smart if what you want to do is put money in your pocket. If you only do Ferraris or only do British singles or you only do Honda four cylinder bikes, it gets into the efficiency of repetition. Because you’re focused on one type or make and experience fosters cost savings. Once you’ve learned it once, you’ve learned it. But we get bored fast with that approach. We prefer the really weird to show up.
Today, for example…a 1903 REX showed up in the shop. I mean…the company who built this motorcycle went out of business a hundred years ago. To find parts or even an ounce of support for this is nearly impossible. Googling it doesn’t come up with much of anything. We know it was built in England and beyond that it’s simply more akin to archeology than your standard repair.
This means a real understanding of mechanics and engineering is needed to be effective in repairing it and a real sense of history and the respect of it is needed to complete the project. Going one step further, our mechanical interest does not stop at two wheels. Right now, we’re working on building a double overhead cam engine that was never finished. That means designing the double overhead cam head for a 1950s car prototype that was never finished. We ended up making the contact at Pebble Beach as he couldn’t find anyone that will make him an engine out of nothing. We’re willing to take on the challenge and build it properly with respect to its history.
TG: How do you scale an operation that’s so specialized, like what you’re doing now, without becoming a lifestyle brand to finance some of these projects?
AS: I’m okay with becoming a lifestyle brand. I’m okay with people wanting to emulate what we do or wanting a piece of what we do by buying our T-shirt. But to scale it, I don’t know.
TG: Essentially what I’m asking is, how do you make this thing big without selling out?
AS: I don’t think you can. What’s that line from SLC Punk! where he says, “Dad, you fucking sold out,” and Dad goes, “No, we didn’t. For the record, we bought in”. I think there’s some truth in that. If you don’t sell out, then what the fuck are you doing? If you’re not selling something, then how the hell are you living? I think there’s a lot of prideful guys that build amazing stuff in their garages by themselves with an angle grinder that no one’s ever heard of. They’re struggling and they don’t have much money and they don’t really have anything to sell because maybe they don’t believe what they have is worth selling or they don’t want to take a chance and put it out there.
That’s great and I’ll respect them and their work, but at the end of the day, I want to live and I want to go where I want to go and travel and eat a nice meal every once in awhile. That means I have to have something to sell and something to market. I’m okay with the idea that we sell something. Not necessarily just do it for the craft. We do it for the craft, but there’s a difference between using the diffusion products to finance the builds you want to do and using the builds to legitimize the diffusion products.
No matter how big we get, we will still have a workshop. We will still be making cool machines. Even if we have $50,000 Haas five axis CNC machines. We will still be trying to stretch the limits of what that machine will allow us to do and the material and the suspension and then engineering behind it. We will still be trying to stretch it out there.
TG: Tell me about the Handbuilt Show.
AS: The Handbuilt Show was born out of timing. Obviously they built the world-class Circuit of the Americas race track here in Austin, Texas. They announced Formula 1 was coming to Austin, which was mind-blowing, since we’re not exactly the mecca of motorsports. When it finally got built and they announced they’re going to do MotoGP there too, which is of course the highest level of motorcycle racing there is. Based on that, as soon as they announced they were doing it, I decided I wanted to do a motorcycle show in Austin during MotoGP weekend.
Instead of just showing high end, million dollar technological marvels, I wanted to show lower end, hand built, garage built customs made by both professionals and by home builders, and putting them on the same level, because the same amount of heart goes into both bikes.
This event grew from a few thousand people that first year, and now we’re going into our sixth year. 35,000 people are coming to it at this point, everything we’re told is that that weekend there are two things that you must do: The Handbuilt Show and MotoGP, and that The Handbuilt Show is a hell of a lot more fun. That’s pretty damn high praise, considering we’re talking about a $50 million event out at Circuit of the Americas and a couple of guys hanging outside of a garage.
That I’m looking at growing again this year, with a much bigger scope, and hopefully that show will end up travelling to different cities.
TG: Very cool.
AS: We want to celebrate the guys that are not doing this to try to be cool or accepted as part of some club. The truth is, we’re all just fuckin’ nerds, and that’s design nerds, art nerds, photography nerds, motorcycle nerds. We are fuckin’ nerds. Getting to go further with our interest into this nerdom is the best part of doing this for a living, because otherwise we’d have never had the time or money to do it, if someone else wasn’t paying the bill for us to educate ourselves on this stuff. I couldn’t surround myself with all the books and all the people and all the learning that we’ve been able to do. That’s the biggest part of our entire culture is accepting the fact that we like to study and learn from each other. That’s it.