Tucked in the back of a bustling neighborhood full of modest white brick houses and two car garages is a house that stands out from the rest. As I step out of my car the whiff of volatile organic compounds from the end of a paint gun catches my nostrils. The freshly sprayed black paint coats the exterior of the home, while the hemoglobin red painted garage door weathers the storm of overspray. A hand waves me over to the back of the property where a tin roofed structure provides residency for multiple motorcycle projects. I’m greeted by the owner and illustrious bike builder, Rafik Kaissi.
Rafik’s outfit embodies his indifference to what main stream request. His combat boots, shorts and heavy gauge chains are exactly what he infuses into each bike build. Hailing from the war torn country of Lebanon, Rafik has made his passion of riding motorcycles into a lifestyle of building bikes he envisions. He starts with a simple thought that quickly turns into a sketch followed by up to 6 months of shop time creating it. Trying to keep up with pace is his Miller welder.
A large front and rear sliding barn door creates a breezeway with a cool wind channeling through. I immediately gravitate to a polished satin bike near the rear of the building. The bike proudly displays its 335 series front tire tucked below a non-conventional dual fork setup relying on a pair of top mounted dampers swiveling on a triangle base near the hub. The fuel cell is fabricated out of two big block valve covers with signature RK crown filler caps. Holding the rear swing arm up is an air bag suspension. Near the front of the building a retina burning arc occurs as Rafik joins two meandering pipes together forming the exhaust. The predator themed bike is near completion, its raw finish combined with a heated blue hue near every intersection displays his talent throughout the bike. I aimlessly wander around the shop taking in all the creativity before we move indoors for a full tour.
The garage plays host to his ultra clean static dropped classic truck and an inventory of daily ridden bikes that outline the perimeter. Each bike has a variety of ideas spread throughout them. Rafik tells me about one in particular appropriately named “Hot Rod” as a throwback to when gear heads would comb junk yards in search of better parts that weren’t available for production. The bike’s structure is primarily connecting rods, pistons and large chains welded together. In the background Rafik’s take on a street tracker, bobber and bagged creation all look on, waiting their turn for me to decipher their inner workings.
We enter the dark corridor leading to the main display area. The walls are covered in framed photos of a sheet metal widebody 1969 Camaro that was eventually sold to Axel Rose. As we make a left, the dark concrete ground turns into a teal stained concrete offsetting the charcoal walls. While my eyes are adjusting to the light change, the blurs of bikes slowly become the realization that I’m standing near two of the bikes I eagerly awaited to see: the RK Chain and RK Bearing.
The RK Chain is poised near a window illuminating the dark silver finish chassis with natural lighting. The frame is grafted from a Caterpillar heavy machine chain link that has been welded into place leaving the motor to hang below. The front suspension is created by leaf springs that are u-bolted directly to the lower fork leg. A vintage t-bucket style fuel cell replaces the once wearable backpack fuel tank. This might also be saving Rafik from a fiery death. The swing arm retains the chain link theme, but in a small pitch. The braking is provided via a parameter braking system.
Sitting in the opposing corner of the room is a circular carriage motorcycle. The large shell bearing was transplanted from the industrial world onto the motorcycle. The inner race cradles the V-Twin motor and swing arm, while the outer race maintains support for the saddle and front end. At the top, a scintillating gold Ohlin’s shock towers over the central section. A brace from one end of the Ohlins to the outer race and the other end connected to the inner race constricts the bearings natural desire to spin. The front and rear wheel axle shafts sit inside of a large exposed roller bearing.
The beauty of Rafik’s bikes is not the final outcome, but the process it takes to get there. His excitement with each build continues to grow as his formulates his next build. The thoughts layered in “what ifs”. The “what ifs” quickly transform on paper to become the “how can I” until he gathers all the materials before his hands and tools take over. I jokingly ask when he’ll do a big name motor build. A sharp reply of “Shit! I don’t have that kind of money!” ensues. You won’t see him thumbing through a catalog of specialty motors or chassis bits as he uses what is readily available to him. Rafik didn’t try to create a market for his passion, he let his passion take hold and the market came to him.
Literature and Photography: James Elkins
Edited: Kate Callard