Words by Jordan Latham \\ Photos by The Dirtbag Challenge
San Francisco has recently become increasingly polished. The influx of high-income young professionals has effected the farthest corners of the city. Fortunately, if there is one area you could call a hold out, it would be Hunters Point. Make a left off of 3rd street, head straight down towards the water and you you’ll find a dead end full of warehouse spaces serving as host to The Dirtbag Challenge. Refreshing proof the city of San Francisco is not quite yet all Pilates and decaf soy macchiatos. There is still an underbelly. There is still some edge.
Founded by motorcycle enthusiasts tired of the expensive flashy "Orange County chopper" competitions, the Dirtbag Challenge is unlike any other motorcycle building competition nation wide.
The duration is only one month, and though consistently in the fall, the start date is different every year. Once announced on Facebook (or “Facefuck” as their website calls it) the participants have four weeks to build a custom motorcycle with the budget of only 1,000 bucks. It must ride for the duration of a 100 mile loop. Not an easy task, but seeing as the competition has consistently had about 30 entry's every year for the past 13 years, it is certainly doable.
At 9am exactly one month after the challenge is posted, the machines arrive outside the founders warehouse to head out the Pacific Coast Highway. The rules are basic: stay together, be very attentive of bikes around you (remember they are liable to fail before the duration of the ride) and...NO Harleys. Because of the high budget, anyone can be a biker with 20,000 dollars and a Harley Davidson leather culture. Harleys are out. The spirit of The Dirtbag is represented by the wild creative minds of real people who are real enthusiasts. And the imagination applied to the process is truly impressive. People produce crazy looking 3-wheelers, rat bikes, sidecars and all sorts of chopper style creations. Not all the bikes last for the whole 100 miles, and there's no truck following with mechanics to assist. Sometimes parts come loose, sometimes motors give out. Make damn sure though, every rider wants to get to that after party.
Back at Hunter’s Point, starting around 2pm when the riders roll back in, there will be bands, there will be beers, and the freaks will be out to admire the mechanical artistry and take in the show. On average 4 or 5 punk rock bands are booked to grace the makeshift stage and play through the unreasonably huge speakers. If you hoped to hear yourself think, you're SOL.
When the bikes come in, the party begins, starting with burn outs. The smoke is so rubbery you can taste it, and the sound will replay a continuous rattling and roaring in your head for hours after it's over. Chunks of stripped off tire fly through the air, people cheer loudly, appreciating the genuine passion in the moment, raw bad ass experience of some 17 burnouts going on simultaneously, just feet from each other in a relatively small space.
Tail pipes are red hot and swinging all over the place. People dart in for photos, and try to dodge spinning metal radiating heat and black plumes, those photos better be good! Suffice to say, it isn't for the faint of heart.
With a 5 dollar donation you receive a red solo cup for whatever beer they're serving. You will drink it and you will like it, because regardless of what kind it is, the flavor will essentially be smoke and tires. The onlookers are comprised of every variety of punk rocker and gear head. No matter how bad your tattoos are there's someone here who’s got worse.
There are a variety of prizes doled out to the machines, including: Sketchiest Award, Coolest Award and the People's Choice. Rat Rods roll through, trying to find a place to park. Like their motorcycle counter parts, they're loud, they're custom and they're there to be admired.
After the prizes, the sun starts to drop, and the folks who aren't committed to getting wild head to quieter beer drinking holes. Those remaining to bring in the night are the drag racers, the guys who thought to bring a booze handle, the folks in it till the final drop.
San Francisco has always had the feel of being one of America’s great grimy cities. Great dive bars, tattoo parlors, strip clubs. North Beach has always been beautiful but seedy; the Tenderloin was notoriously disgusting and dangerous. Market Street had blocks of chess and dice players on the sidewalk, smelling bad and jeering at onlookers. The sailors and the gays throughout… San Francisco was the real deal. Over the past five years the big money tech industries have driven up housing prices and cost of living to the extent that the bar tenders and line cooks who were the gears to the machine, can't begin to afford to live here any more. The city has undeniably changed.
Events like the Dirtbag Challenge represent the remaining aspects of what's made San Francisco stand apart in America. A creative outlet for the people who build the machines, metaphorically and literally, the Dirtbag Challenge is a sight to be seen, an event not to be missed. A reminder of what makes San Francisco great.