Excess Baggage

Baggers went from disregarded black sheep of the motorcycle family to leader of the customized two-wheel world.

Story: Michael Crenshaw

A brief history lesson: Baggers weren’t always popular. Hell, they were even despised within the younger, more outgoing, flashy, reckless motorcycle crowd. “Geezer glide” was an easily swapped name given how the younger generation saw them: Grandpas rode them. Harley-Davidson’s versions, with 18-inch wheels, leather-wrapped saddles and huge fairings, weren’t cool—choppers and bobbers were. The tipping point came because of two reasons: The Hells Angels started to ride baggers due to their rubber-mounted frames, which offered smoother rides over the long haul. And two: Harley’s Evolution motor, introduced in 1984, became heralded like the Chevy 350—bulletproof and fully customizable—giving way to a platform that by 1990 had all the kinks worked out and, more than 20 years later, offered one of the perfect platforms to customize.

“Everyone’s going to baggers now,” admits Richard Wright of Richard Wright’s Chop Shop. “I do 15 baggers for every one chopper, and the crowds differ now too; you have lawyers, doctors and even kids in their 20s that said they’d never have one [riding].” There are differing opinions on when the bagger scene really came into public space, but now, with 26-inch wheels being the norm, it’s definitely here to stay for a few more years.

With baggers, the canvases are much bigger than your normal chopper or sportbike: bags, lids, fairings and even windshields can be painted, with endless audio options available for whoever the creative mind behind the build can conjure up. Dave Withrow, publisher of Urban Bagger and former publisher of Truckin’, describes the scene as being akin to custom car culture: “We saw Suburbans get hot, and we saw them go from the soccer-mom car to the guy who would slam them to the ground or raise them high. Baggers were the same way. They were the old-man bike for years, when everybody was concerned about looking cool and didn’t care if they were comfortable.” An epiphany came across the motorcycle world like the snap of the throttle, with riders asking what they could do to be comfortable while riding the streets yet still maintaining the cool factor. Baggers were it.

Though riders have been customizing baggers since as early as 1998, the last year and a half has seen the market explode with bigger wheels, more outlandish rakes and dollar amounts that will make some custom cars look like kid’s toys. The problem with baggers taking off so early was the lack of aftermarket support. After seeing the swing from chopper to bagger, the aftermarket started obsessively pouring R&D funding into baggers. “The younger generation likes that you can put TVs on them, cargo space, put your girl on there with her stuff—and of course the big wheels get everybody’s attention,” Richard explains.

This outpouring of aftermarket accessories has led to 30-inch wheels that will run you up to 15 grand. Automotive wheel companies are even getting into the mix, like Lexani and their own motorcycle wheel lineup, Lexani Motorcycles. Mixed reviews run rampant on baggers running wheels that big, oftentimes accepting that 30-inch wheels are just show bikes. Some think the 30-inch wheel is pushing the boundaries of what can be done, while John Shope of Sinister Industries has a different opinion. “I heard someone’s making one [32-inch wheel]. Unless someone’s making them and they have to have it, I would build one. The 30 to me is already too big. The 26 is great; the 30 to me is goofy, and I’ve done more than anybody,” he adamantly says.

So the 32-inch motorcycle wheel is the next progressive step, right? Dave explains that tire technology isn’t there yet, and if a DOT-approved tire was widely accepted, there might be something bigger; however, he doesn’t believe it will “fly.” But there are differing opinions throughout the industry, which keeps the natural progression of customizing alive and healthy. “I always said that on a 30, and I wouldn’t do them for the longest time,” Richard notes. “But I had to keep up, so I did one, and now we have five of them. I see them stepping up to a 32-inch before long. As long as you do the frame right—cut it and rake it—you can ride at 95 to 100 mph with one hand.”

Bigger is better when it comes to who and what is winning the shows. “Now if you don’t have stretched bags and at least a 26-inch wheel, you’re not going to win a bike show,” Dave admits from experience.

The big show winners are sometimes $100,000 bikes (depending on their particular class), starting off life as a never-before-ridden 2013 Harley straight from the dealer, whose first destination is the custom shop. You also see a population of chopper riders—who can’t sell their bikes due to the fact there’s just no market—bringing in their bikes to be converted. “Guys are bringing in their bikes—they’re still choppers, but they want the big wheels on them,” Richard reiterates.

Demographically speaking, bagger clubs and riders are some of the most diverse groups in the custom world. “It’s a multicultural thing,” Dave explains. “It’s a 50-year-old farmer in Omaha and a 40-year-old black man in San Francisco, and everything in between. It’s a nationwide trend, and what you do see is when one guy in the club does something [like a modification or theme], almost every guy in that club does the same thing.” Geography plays a part in how guys express themselves too. While Florida and California might be doing 30s all day, the Midwest might still be riding on 18s or 20s, but their painting might be next level.

In the end, however, the scene has made transitions from cool to ridiculous—pieces of art that you can’t ride—but finding the right balance between being rideable and show winning is where the scene is trying to end up.

What’s next? John Shope predicts the scene will move toward the guys who won’t ride the shiny, loud bikes, and instead to the guys who used to ride bobbers. “I’m waiting for someone to start the trend. Paint it flat black and do a 21-inch wheel, and make a bunch of different parts for it. You would grab all those people that would never ride the shiny stuff. [Get] something scalloped, flat black, white walls, and [make] it bitching with all types of chopper parts that fit on the bagger.”

Until then, baggers will stick around for another few years and continue on their extreme path of monstrous moto modifiers. Big-wheeled bikes are here to stay, and their presence will be known.