Gravel Ridge Choppers

Viking, Minnesota

Rural Reflections Radio

It was cold last Friday, too cold to start my old tractor. I drove my pick-up to Dale Nelson’s farm near Thief River Falls, MN to buy some hay to feed that day. My dreams of cattle feed came true and then were replaced by steels dreams bent and forged in Dale’s shop. Dale’s brother, Dana and a few friends stood next to several "chopped" motorcycles in various stages of assembly. I was about to be introduced to Gravel Ridge Choppers.

My image of a custom motorcycle shop is a garage located in the industrial park of a large city. Tall evergreens, Black Angus cattle and cavernous hay sheds disguise what’s really occurring behind closed doors. Dana Nelson, Dan Maki and Dale Westerlund combine efforts and talent to make a motorcycle their motorcycle. The basis for each cycle is a Harley/Davidson engine and frame, already a unique machine.
Springer front forks, new gas or oil tanks and a new paint job can take "off the shelf" in a whole new direction. I was very impressed that in a mail order, warehouse world, these three take the time to fabricate fenders and even gas or oil tanks. Hammer, anvil and a welder coupled with sweat and time make art from sheet metal.

When Dale told me about Gravel Ridge Choppers, I assumed this was less a business and more a group of friends having fun. A greasy "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" who talked about motorcycles and waited for warm weather. All three of these guys have metal fabrication or construction talent from full-time jobs they now plan to parlay into a business. New construction starts this summer at Dana Nelson’s place for a permanent home for their business. I’m glad they will carry the rural feel of their current adoptive home to the new digs. I drive by the proposed new location daily and last summer Dana’s brother dug new corners for the fence that will hold the Angus cattle that most motorcycle shops fail to feature. Many motorcycle builders out-source most fabrication and painting and then just assemble the parts. The motorcycles I saw last week were born and painted in the shop. It’s like the difference between seeing someone make cookies at home or buying them wrapped in plastic. I like home cooking and these motorcycles are fresh from the oven. It’s also a chance to touch history as you rarely find an old-time blacksmith. These guys aren’t shoeing horses or building wagon wheels but they’re still heating and forging and making steel into something special.

A quest for hay ended as a tour of a new business in a blossoming field. Choppers and customized motorcycles have gone the way of tattoos in becoming more mainstream and accepted. Bankers and doctors join others who enjoy the freedom of the road. People who enjoy cycling that much incorporate into their lifestyle and wish to express themselves with a customized bike. That’s where Gravel Ridge Choppers comes in, bending and shaping steel into personal expression. The Angus cattle they share space with are more than happy to have them, let’s just not talk about the leather in the motorcycle seat.