It’s a cold day in a backstreet in Stoke Newington, London. I’m stamping my feet to keep warm outside an old stables beside a line of handsome custom motorcycles – Harley Davidson, Indian, Enfield, Buell and Norton. From around the corner comes a tall, bearded figure in a leather jacket and jeans pushing another motorcycle into the yard, a boxy 1980s JAWA CZ. Despite some nice art deco touches around its engine, even a novice like me can see it is decidedly un-glamorous against the classic models slouching coolly on their stands.
“Well.” He says. “This is definitely going to be a challenge.” Then swinging a leg over and easing onto the saddle, he flashes a grin. “But nothing great ever comes easy, does it?”
Nothing great ever comes easy. That’s a universal truth right there. And it’s an ethos that founder and curator of BOLT motorcycles, Andrew Almond, certainly lives by. A few minutes among the shelves of amazing clothing he painstakingly designs himself or watching him and his head mechanic – Simone – putting their heart and soul into bike designs, and the dedication to detail and quality shines through. Individuality, respecting heritage, not cutting corners, putting in the hours, using great craftsmen, such things are non-negotiable in this workshop, garage, apparel store and gallery. It’s why BOLT has become the beating heart of the UK motorcycle and counter-culture scene.
As any self-respecting beer lover will tell you, it’s the same ethos at Budvar. Fiercely independent, still conditioning lager in the tank for 90 days, only brewing beer in the same town we have for centuries and using quality local ingredients that have earned us Protected Geographical Origin status – we know all about devotion, tradition, passion and doing things the right way. The perfection in the glass has always been the reward for going the extra mile.
Now to celebrate these shared values and vision Budvar and BOLT are teaming up on a new project called TRUE BOHEMIANS. The name is both a nod to South Bohemia in the Czech Republic – home of Budweiser Budvar – and a salute to that other well-known definition of ‘Bohemian’: original, nonconformist, outside the norm, creative and flying in the face of mediocrity to do things your own way.
Over the next three months Andrew and BOLT’s network of experts and craftsmen will take that boxy, black and non-too-beautiful Czech motorcycle and transform it into something extraordinary: a cool, stylish custom Budvar bike that echoes the shape and design of the classic Czech rides of the 1940s-60s. Inspired by Budvar’s brewing story and heritage, vintage bottle artwork and branding, the Budvar Bike will feature stunning design details: a fabricated frame; hand-painted tank artwork by one of the UK’s leading sign-writers; bespoke, hand-tooled leatherwork and even a copper ‘beer’ tank that echoes the iconic brew kettles and conditioning tanks from the brewery.
Once complete, the bike will debut at Bike Shed in London on the 25th May before Andrew undertakes another challenge: riding the custom Budvar Bike across Europe to the Budvar brewery in Budweis, Czech Republic.
Called Budweis or Bust, this promises to be a motorcycle road trip like no other. Along with a select group of riders and Simone the mechanic, Andrew will be plotting a course through the major European beer cities of Amsterdam, Bruges and the Czech capital Prague, before cutting down into South Bohemia. Along the way he will be stopping off for a Budvar in legendary motorcycle and counter-culture hotspots, such as Rusty Gold café in Amsterdam, where he’ll pick up riders who’ll join him all the way to Budweis.
Estimates have it at 6 days from London to Budweis, but Andrew warns that anything could happen along the way. One thing the riders can be sure of though is the warm welcome they’ll receive in Budweis. Glasses of fresh, unpasteurised lager tapped straight from the tanks will be raised in triumph in the Budweiser Budvar brewery cellars – an experience that aficionados and experts count among the greatest beer moments on the planet.
So as Simone wheels the JAWA CZ into the workshop and up onto the hydraulic platform to give it a once over, I catch up with Andrew, crack open a couple of beers and get the lowdown.
Andrew Almond, BOLT Motorcycles
Motorcycling is an ever-evolving culture and I wanted to create a new type of store that resonated with the current scene of motorcyclists emerging in London. At the time there was a new wave of custom culture taking shape using relatively affordable vintage motorcycles and along with it came new types of riders. What appealed to me was the accessibility and creativity it inspired. The scene grew globally and at that time there was not a place for it in London. Traditional motorcycle stores held little interest for me; they essentially stocked practical garments that lacked the style and quality. I wanted to curate a store that brought together items that reflect the styles of clothing I wanted to wear, proper leather jackets, vintage inspired helmets and independent motorcycle owned brands. There was also a need for a social space as riding bikes is as much about hanging out with friends and building communities. I wanted to create a space the progressed the scene, to host events and exhibitions and champion the scene as well as the rich cultural heritage that preceded it.What about the space here?
The building had always been on my radar - a Victorian stables that had somehow avoided being developed, standing alone like a lost piece of history, in contrast to the development around it. From the 50s to the 70s the space was home to the Duguid Borthers, who built café racers and made motorcycle fairings as well as running a garage. It was great to situate BOLT in a building that had such heritage and to build upon its legacy. The cobbled yard allows us to host events and the building has the space for the store and garage. And that's still the heart and soul of the business, it keeps our hands greasy.Where did your passion for motorcycles come from?
I had ridden motorcycles initially for practical purposes in my early twenties when I was working in rural Mozambique. I would use a little Honda to travel around the villages, covering hundreds of miles a week along dirt tracks. These journeys were filled with adventure; breaking down and fixing the bike was a daily occurrence and always led to meeting new people. I loved the freedom it gave and the experiences it led to. Since then I have ridden motorcycles around India, Asia, Mauritius and it is always my preferred means. You see the world differently from a motorcycle. They take you places that you might usually miss and inevitably get you into situations that you never expect.
People have been customising motorcycles since they were invented, tweaking them for extra performance or to suit personal style. A custom motorcycle is like a made-to-measure suit, it should fit the rider and the style of riding that its intended for. It is also a means of self-expression. Not everything has to be practical. A custom motorcycle should reflect the style of the rider and embody their personal aesthetic. While I can appreciate show bikes as a form of art, a motorcycle has a purpose and - for me - the two have to work together.They've taken off in the last few years, what's sparked that?
The current revival has been driven by relatively affordable old motorcycles being re-imagined in a contemporary style. It opened the doors to a new breed of riders with a make-do attitude. It was no longer a case of how much expensive show chrome you could afford and rather it championed inventiveness and style.What's important to you in a bike build?
First, and foremost, the bike should work! It sounds obvious but many builds fall short on the mechanics and if it doesn't work it is nothing more than an expensive ornament. It has to be individual too. You can take inspiration from others but it has to have your personal touch - it should feel unique. In my opinion people need to take more risks. It's easy to recreate someone else's work but building something unique takes creativity and vision.
All the apparel has to embody the beliefs of style, craft and workmanship that we appreciate in our custom motorcycles. Above all, my passion is for great design and production. The people and the processes as well as the products are really important to me as these ensure authenticity, which is essential in any counter culture.What inspires the fashion side?
I launched our collection of BOLT apparel as I wanted to create pieces driven by a belief in superior workmanship and quality. I work a lot with people employing traditional crafts such as leather tooling, hand chain stitching, letterpress and hand paint. Involving artistry connects the item to a human; you can connect the item back to the person who worked on it. It's not some faceless means of production. I create garments to be cherished, hardy enough to last for years and which improve with use. Many of our influences come from the past but we are not a retrospective brand; we want to remain innovative. I appreciate a timeless sense of style. Our leather jackets - for example - draw from a classic 50s style but we remade the patterns to fit a contemporary fit, longer in the body, a slimmer cut and with short collars. We also use the latest technologies to make garments fit for purpose. Our new jacket uses dyneema, a fabric 12 times stronger than steel which provides protection against abrasion.
Yes. My favourite has long been the Budvar Dark, which balances the strong flavour typically associated with stouts with the freshness and lightness of lager.The bike you have for the project is a JAWA / CZ.
There was really only one option for the Budvar Bike, it had to be a JAWA, a classic Czech design. Originating from Prague and starting production in 1929 they grew to exert a huge influence in the motorcycle world. By the 50s they were exporting to over 120 countries and new overseas factory were introduced in India. With typically small capacity engines, they reflected the economies of their time providing an affordable means of transport. They really stood out in racing though, coming into their own in Motorcross and Speedway.What are your plans?
I really want to showcase the range of crafts that are at the heart of everything we do at BOLT. It is a great opportunity to utilise our network of collaborators for each aspect of the build, from a hand-fabricated frame to hand-painted design and hand-tooled leather seat. I'm not sure if I have ever seen a JAWA exhibited in a custom motorcycle show, so I really want to build something that changes people's perceptions. It's the ugly duckling story! The JAWA we have is a very utilitarian design but there is real beauty hidden within elements of its design, we want to showcase these aspects and create something truly original and stunning.
We're really only keeping the engine (which will be overhauled) and the wheels. The frame will be chopped and remade to a hard-tail design - this means removing the rear suspension in favour of a rigid rear-end. Being 6' 4 we need to adapt the frame to fit my proportions, stretching it out while being careful not to dwarf the engine which is just 250cc. We will custom make a tank, fenders and seat pan to fit, using vintage parts and following the styles of the 1930s JAWAs. The overall design however will be very contemporary, referencing the past but looking to the future.
Time is the challenge as this involves managing many different people working on different parts and ensuring it is all brought together on deadline. The other main challenge is building a bike that is both a show bike but which will handle a 1000-mile road trip, this is especially the case considering the small capacity two-stroke engine. Anyone with experiences of JAWAs will tell you they are best ridden with a tool roll in hand, so it will really be a test of our skills to make this bike fit for the journey.You mentioned using specialists on different areas for things like fabrication and sign writing?
We work with some of the best crafts people in their fields and this bike will really be a joint effort involving many of the BOLT Family. This is the fun part for me, involving lots of friends in one project, bringing together different elements in a distinct vision. Jake Robbins who traditionally fabricates impossible to find parts for early motorcycles will be handling the fabrication work. I always like to give Jake projects that differ from his day-to-day work; he is real creative at heart and has a great balance of form and function. We work with Jake Collier for our leather work and he manages the costumes for major films, making everything from hand-carved centurion breast pieces to the latest Marvel character costumes. Dapper Signs is a traditional sign writer with a distinct style who will hand-paint the bike.You visited South Bohemia and the Budvar brewery recently to get some inspiration for the build. What did you take from that trip?
It was great to get a sense of the area and the brewery. We took a chairlift up in the snow to the top of a mountain overlooking a medieval town. The landscape there is beautiful; the castles and architecture give South Bohemia this amazing timeless feel. Visiting the brewery was really enlightening too - far from the big commercial operation that you might expect. It felt more like a family business. I was surprised to find the things used to brew the beer, like the huge copper brew kettles, were actually incredibly beautiful. All these things come from an approach to brewing that hasn't wavered over the centuries, a belief in staying true to principles and techniques and in doing what it takes to create a beer of the best quality. I often feel that I put business interests aside in order to do things that I am truly passionate about, and it was inspiring to see that ethos at work in a large brewery too.
Yeah, it was great to get a visual overview of the history of JAWAs from the 1930s onwards.And what about the beer? How was drinking Budvar straight from the tank in the cellars in Budweis?
The experience of tasting the beer from the tank was a real surprise. I genuinely did not conceive that beer could taste that good. While the flavours came alive, it was the freshness that really amazed me. It was like drinking spring water! You could literally throw a pint down in one. During what I am sure will be a grueling journey, the idea of the running down to that cellar for a celebratory pint will be a big inspiration.
We're planning a route that avoids any major roads or motorways as the bike will not be able to cope with the high speeds. This is the exciting part: the road less travelled. I'm looking forward to passing through the towns and countryside as we ride our way across the different countries. Motorcycling for me is very much about friendships and I plan to stop off and show off the bike as we go. We will drop into fellow motorcycle stores Hermanus in Bruges and Rusty Gold in Amsterdam and hopefully pick up a few riders who will join us too. The main challenge will be not to blow the engine, running at high speeds for long times can be fatal for two strokes which prefer a more varied tempo. I expect the journey to be a real challenging but that is the adventure! It will not be easy, by any means, but the harder it is the better the first beer will taste once we arrive!So, are you looking forward to it?
Hell yes! To build a bike and then take it on a 1000-mile test ride, to travel across Europe to a brewery with friends, and to challenge myself along the way…what could be better?