I’m convinced there are three kinds of bike builders – the transactionals (made up word), the gear heads, and the artists.
The transactionals build for money. Building anything for anyone as long as they’re paid. Design isn’t as important as finishing a bike that won’t come back to bite them or the new owner in the ass.
The gearheads are problem solvers. They want to know they can strip down an old bike and rebuild it making it better than it was in its original form. Function and safety beat out design and chances are they’re going to look to the potential new owner to tell them what they want.
The artists do it because they can’t help themselves. The end doesn’t justify the means, it justifies the reason and the intent. They add soul to that amalgamation of metal, plastic and rubber we call a motorcycle.
The two guys who comprise Blitz Motorcycles – Fred Jourden and Hugo Jezegabel -- are artists, who also happen to be gearheads. And that’s a combination that adds up to a whole lot of soul.
Fred Jourden of Blitz Motorcycles.
Hugo Jezegabel of Blitz Motorcycles.
I had an opportunity to talk with Fred who was vacationing in Los Angeles, while Hugo was in the south of France closer to their home base in Paris. Both were doing the civilized European thing of taking off most of August while those of us in the States continued to work. (Note to self, move to Europe!)
Thankfully, Fred’s English was better than my French will ever be. Turns out he’s a fan of American football, and his introduction to riding mirrored that of lots of American kids any time in the last 50 years.
“When I was growing up, my dad had a little Honda ST70. I was attracted to it because my dad had it and it was very 70s like. After I got my motorcycle license, I started riding vintage Vespas. I liked the lines and thought they were one of the most beautiful bikes.”
A Honda ST70 that might be close to what Hugo learned on.
Okay, so maybe riding old Vespas isn’t the most American gateway to motorcycles, but that Honda ST70 is probably familiar to riders on both sides of the pond. But just like most riders, small eventually gives way to something bigger. Even in Europe where roads, cities, and highway systems may not be conducive to big bikes.
Fred admits to an unexplained love and appreciation for anything old. Look at the bikes Blitz builds and you’ll see why, but more on that later.
“When I went to look for a new bike nothing appealed to me. Everything looked the same. I wanted my ride to be very unique to me. I had seen the BMWs in older French movies and liked them. But it took me a long time to find the R 50/2 I have now. But I bought it because it was a bargain. The guy who owned it had a wooden leg, so I thought it wasn’t going to be around very long.”
We both agree that whether a rider thinks about it or not, how you look on your bike matters. And Fred liked the way he looked on that old Beemer.
“The relationship between a rider and his bike is like a cowboy on a horse.”
Yeah, he said that. Which sounds more interesting in a French accent.
Fred on his first Beemer, he named it Green Hornet.
Before there was Blitz, Fred worked for a French Internet company. He was riding the Beemer to and from work and enjoying the fact that being on a bigger bike meant people could see him. But his co-workers started planting ideas in his head. Like how could he ride an old bike. What if it broke down on the way to a client meeting? It was all about creating potentially awkward moments if the bike gave out and kept Fred from being where he needed to be.
So, Fred enrolled in a mechanics course so he could learn to fix the damn thing and shut down the negative comments.
“My dad and I had remote control cars, so I learned how to work on small engines. I tried to find a course and finally went back to school to study mechanics. For a year, from 6 to 9 p.m. every night, I went to school. I was so excited to learn. It was fantastic. I bought a vintage Royal Enfield and completely restored it. I brought it back to life in 2005. It was like a lightning bolt hit me when I finished. I created this!”
Fred stayed at the Internet company for five more years, but started building bikes for friends for free. They’d provide the bike and the parts, Fred would do the work. Then came Hugo.
“I met Hugo a bit after I took that mechanics class. He was rebuilding Vespas and also had a landscape business. He wanted me to build a bike for him. But I said, ‘what if we go into business together instead.’ So we did.”
There’s a funny story behind how they settled on the name Blitz Motorcycles. It goes back to Fred’s love of American Football, but with a bit of a detour.
Originally, they wanted to call it Dikes Bikes, but they didn’t know that ‘dike’ was a derogatory term for lesbian. When they found out, they decided to go a different route. So, Fred remembered his initial exposure to American football watching it on a friend’s TV and hearing George Eddy (an American sports commentator) explain the finer points of the game to an unknowing French audience. Fred remembered the term ‘blitz’, proposed that as a new name to Hugo, and once they confirmed its meaning, they became Blitz Motorcycles.
With the name settled, they evolved a particular approach that has set themselves apart from other builders.
“On the moment we start, you cannot come into the shop until we’re done. If you don’t like the bike, we’ll build it for free for you. We start getting to know you. Find out who you are, what you’ve achieved in life. What mesmerized you, influenced you. We try to use these in the build.
For example, a young Brit came to us, very English buttoned up. But he also had tattoos. We got to play squash with him. We found out he wanted a very reliable bike, but we also learned he was born and grew up in Birmingham, England. Back in the 20s through 60s, BSA was in the same city. So, we started with a BMW and fitted it with an old chrome BSA tank. We made a tank badge and named the bike a BSW. When the guy came to pick up his bike, we told him, ‘this tank was conceived where you were conceived.’ He was speechless.”
Fred capped it off by telling the guy who made a living as a copywriter for an ad agency, “This motorcycle is like a pencil to write your own history.” Seriously.
There are several givens when you ask Blitz to build you a bike. They only work on carbureted engines, so no EFI. And they primarily use two-cylinders, but might occasionally work with singles. Expect to shell out between 20,000 to 25,000 Euros, or about $24,000 to $29,000. That will get you a ground up rebuild of a bike that is completely unique to you. Blitz will never build two of the same bikes. Fred and Hugo are artists and they stay true to their artistic integrity, otherwise, what’s the freakin’ point?
One of the Blitz Motorcycles Beemers.
“We had a really rich guy from Saudi Arabia ask us to build a bike for him just like one that was on our website. When we met with him, he offered to pay us $120,000 to build that bike. We told him ‘no’ because we never build the same bike twice. It was hard because we could have used the money then, but we don’t regret it. And the guy said he respected us for it and would never forget it.”
Giving up that kind of money was probably pretty nerve racking. But Fred has a story about a bike that went wrong that makes walking away from money seem tame.
“I tried to put a bigger engine from China in a small Honda. It looked very bad ass once it was done. I did a kick start and it worked. I rode it maybe 50 meters from the shop, but I started smelling something strange from the bike. I pulled up to a barrel I didn’t know was filled with gasoline. I pulled the seat off the bike and the air suddenly ignited a fire in the bike. I ran back to the shop to get a bunch of wet towels to put the fire out. I was by myself and kept thinking, ‘I’m going to be blown to pieces.’ The cause was a faulty new regulator. I learned that you have to test everything before installing the parts…and starting the bike.”
Yeah, that’s some scary shit, all right. But it didn’t deter Fred from building more bikes, every one of which he said is his favorite.
“Any bike is worth working on. I love the old Suzuki’s, Beemers, and really love the old Harley Ironheads. That’s the bike I’m working on here in Los Angeles and hope to ship back to France next year.”
An example of how Blitz mixes major elements of different bikes - a Suzuki tank on a Moto Guzzi.
As for the inspiration for each build, Fred admits that their builds are very organic, so ideas can come from anywhere, but typically it’s something in the owner’s background…like the guy from Birmingham. But he also credits the work of other builders like El Solitario of Spain, the Wrench Monkees in Copenhagen, and Go Takamine of Brat Style in Japan and L.A with showing them other ways to approach a build.
Talking with Fred, you get the sense of a true Renaissance man. Since I didn’t get to speak with Hugo, I can only imagine he must be the same. How many transactionals or gearheads would say, “We’re not just suppliers. We need to see the child in the owner. We need to touch that child and wake it up?”
Could this be their French upbringing? Possibly. But that’s pretty cliché. Then again Fred is a guy who has favorite NFL teams – the San Diego Chargers and the LA Rams – based on their logo design, even though he loves the game and the spectacle of it.
Giving a mechanical thing a soul the way Blitz does runs deeper than how Fred and Hugo may have been raised. You don’t acquire an artist’s soul. You either have it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you’re faking it. Look at the videos that make up some of the content on their site. They’re not the typical scenes of guys running around with bikes in the desert or empty urban streets late at night. The Blitz videos tell a story, even if the story may seem vague to some; like the one titled The Great Escape. Their content and their site have what some would call atmosphere…artistry is probably more accurate.
Fred, Hugo and camera crew on location.
When I ask Fred what advice he’d give to aspiring builders, his response is one more example of that commitment to artistic integrity. It’s neither practical nor transactional, it just is.
“Put your fears, happiness aside. Jeopardize yourself. Expose yourself. So, in the end you can own it. No one else.”
(Photos and video: Laurent Nivalle.)