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Motorcycle Cities, Lisbon Pt. 1

Motorcycle Cities, Lisbon Pt. 1

Turbo Lover.

Follow Jonathan Wieme once more as he journeys through his favorite landscape, the city. The Motorcycle Cities adventure continues, immersing you in the colorful eclecticity of the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

Landing or arriving in a city – for the first time, as well as when returning – is always a special moment. I wonder if there will be things I recognize. Whether I'll quickly be able to find my reference points. Or whether I'll get lost in the grandeur. What vibes will I feel? Is it similar to any other city I know? Will the desire to get to my destination right away overtake my ability to just enjoy the moment of arrival? Can I just let this enthusiasm and adrenaline last for a while?

At least that's what I thought when I found myself in a taxi on my way to my apartment in the heart of Lisbon, a good twenty minutes' drive from the airport – sitting in the middle back seat so that I could see the road well and stay focused. The road is not particularly attractive, but the rhythm is there. My concentration is already waning and I start to focus on the driver's playlist. I'm intrigued. 

It's not bad at all, consisting of ‘80s and 90s sounds. Guitars, high-pitched voices, and drums come hell or high water. Not what I would have expected to hear in a Portuguese taxi. These are some of the classic heavy metal songs I'm hearing. I identify them without being aware of it. There's ‘Bleed’ from Angel Dust. And then next, these words… “I'm your turbo lover, tell me there's no other. I'm your turbo lover. Better run for cover… Turbo… Turbo… Yeaaah… That's cool.” Judas Priest, ‘Turbo Lover.’ Coincidentally (or not), I had my white T-shirt with ‘TURBO’ written on it in black. This is it... This is the welcome. I signal to the driver that the tunes aren’t bad. Smiling, he increases the volume. Welcome to Lisbon! 

Check out the ‘Turbo Lover’ Judas Priest video on YouTube. It's monstrous and full of bikes. Motorcycles have always been part of the Judas Priest image. If not on stage, then in a video, or wherever.

Hello, Mr. Portugal

My guide, if I may say so, for my first three to four days here in Lisbon is Manuel Portugal – that's right, that's his real name. When you talk about a contact person or look for one in the motorcycle scene in Lisbon, or even in Portugal, you often, if not always, hear the name: Manuel. I can't count the number of people who had said to me, "Aaah, it's good you know Manuel, that's the starting point you need.” Like the center of a web. 

"Aaah, it's good you know Manuel, that's the starting point you need.”

Manuel is primarily a photographer. Mainly in the motorcycle and automotive sector. But he's also co-founder of the Lisbon Motorcycle Film Fest – an annual festival of long and short films dedicated to the culture and the world of motorcycling. He's also the editor of the motorcycle magazine, REV, and a musician in a band. In short, the ideal person to introduce me to the motorcycle scene in Lisbon. Well, I can confirm that now. For me, he's been more than just an ‘ambassador’ of the motorcycle scene in Lisbon. I couldn't have wished for a better host and fellow traveler.

Words are not enough to thank Manuel for his time, his energy, and all that he shared with me during my stay. But this energy and human warmth was something I felt from all the people I met in Lisbon. Is it related to the city? The citizens? The motorcycle world? Whatever it was, it was there, and I am grateful for it.

Before coming, I'd had a lot of preparatory discussions with Manuel so that he would understand what I was ‘looking for’ here. The goal was not to make an inventory of garages, of motorcycle builders, but to try to share with you a culture, a spirit, being a ‘world-of-two-wheels’ traveler. He did that for me. I hope I can properly translate this well enough to share it with you.

Enough with the emotions... I arrive. I settle in. I drop off my suitcase and I go to meet Manuel who is waiting for me at the National Museum of Coaches, known locally as the Museu Nacional dos Coches. 

Well, he's not waiting for me at all. He's there to work because this is the first Distinguished Gentleman's Drive, or DGD, gathering. A stylish drive in an antique car towards Cascais, a rather mundane seaside resort 30 kilometers away, is on the agenda. The DGD is the four-wheeled version of the DGR – Distinguished Gentleman's Ride. It's a worldwide association that supports the Movember movement. Funds are raised along with awareness of men's physical and mental health issues such as prostate cancer and suicide prevention. A noble cause that deserves to be supported and, more importantly, highlighted.

UNIK Motorcycles

Now that I'm starting to get my reference points, I can attack this crazy new day. First of all, I head out to pick up a BMW R nineT, courtesy of BMW Motorrad Portugal. Thank you, Béhème and Manuel. This allows me to lose myself in the city, to discover other aspects of it and, in particular, to arrive 'in style' at peoples’ homes. Exploring the city on two wheels is essential for me to soak up its atmosphere, culture, and people.

I leave B and M's with Manuel – him on his Harley, me on my R nineT. We head to the other side of town where UNIK Motorcycles is located and where I meet the founders, Tiago Gonçalves and Luis Costa. 

Browsing the net and looking for custom motorcycle workshops in Portugal, more specifically in Lisbon, you inevitably come across UNIK Motorcycles, if not to say immediately. You can feel the dynamics here, the desire to move forward, and to take a bite out of life. There's a lot going on there, in many different directions. I am curious to know more – to understand more about the directions taken.

Tiago met Luis a while back because he was a friend of his wife. In 2016, he was already working on small builds and other bike restorations before he started on a Honda CB250; which he customized with wooden parts – just for fun and to feed his passion. 

Having sold this build in less than two hours, Tiago convinced Luis to have a go at making a business out of it. They went on to buy two old BMWs and found their first customer. With no references, or any experience, they built their first Café Racer, named ‘ROCA’, based on a BMW R45. 

It exploded on the net and immediately gave them good visibility and a certain notoriety. They started setting up their business, and parallel to their motorcycle customizations, they also imported and sold small motorcycles from the UK, from Mutt Motorcycles. It was a hit and they sold 160 of these motorcycles within a year and a half. In their workshop, they developed this enterprise further and added more lifestyle to it by representing other brands of helmets, clothing, and motorcycle accessories.

This was so successful that they opened their own shop, dedicated to these products, known as U-DARE. Opening a shop in the middle of the pandemic in 2020, just a stone's throw from the LX Factory, was a daring move. Mutt Motorcycle has since been replaced by the Bullit brand, but the success is still there. This was underlined by the many deliveries of these motorcycles that turned up during our visit.

Today, a handful of years later, in a complicated period, they've managed to employ six to seven people who run the shop, the garage, the mechanical maintenance, and the motorcycle customizations. 

That's not all of it, but the workshop is calling me... The workbenches at the back are full of projects that are wildly diverse. There's a Guzzi waiting to receive its parts – a simple and effective customization. Opposite, a beautiful restoration is being carried out with freshly painted and chromed parts also awaiting their turn to be mounted on this Honda CL. And next to these first two projects, more ‘serious’ things are underway. A Benelli six-cylinder engine is being customized. In this case, it's a complete job. 

Everything is being revised, redesigned, (re)built... pure, hard customization. This has ambitions to be the most advanced job in the garage. Stay tuned... 
Next to this Benelli, we enter the Mad Max universe with a Kawa Z1000, of course, which will be gathering its inspiration – or even reinterpretation – from the Goose Bike. Curious. But in any case, things are going well. 

Last but not least, an old Yamaha two-stroke racing machine is also under construction. A good mix between restoration and customization, but also respecting the codes of the time. It seems that the owner is a famous former circuit driver. That's promising.

Their image is not misleading, they are indeed embracing many different directions, but in a good way. With a great deal of feeling and passion. With Tiago and Luis at the helm, things will certainly move forward. This makes me hungry and we go off to a small local café opposite their workshop – as soon as all the Bullit boxes have been delivered and put away, of course. 

Maria Motorcycle

Manuel and I take to the road again and use the opportunity to ride along the Tagus, known locally as the Rio Tejo, which leads us to the center of Lisbon. Here we have an appointment with Maria Motorcycles.

I think Maria must be the first garage or builder located in Portugal that I got to know, years ago, via an old issue of Café-Racer Magazine from France, I think. I don't know how many years ago that was, but a good seven or eight. They'd already found their style, a universe of their own that they managed to preserve and develop over time. A meeting of surf, sun, and chilling out.

To begin with, it was a group of friends, a motorbike gang, creatives, designers, surfers... And then, around 2010, in the same way you'd start a band, they started their project of creating motorcycle brands and a specialist garage. Nothing well structured, just going with the flow, wanting to construct their first build in order to realize the process of creation and manufacturing.

Today, two of them, Rui and Luis, whom I meet here in their workshop, continue to lead the music and have thrown themselves into the adventure full-time. At the beginning of this adventure, Luis immersed himself in mechanics, took courses, and developed his network of those people in Portugal who could help him with the mechanical process and manufacturing.

So, going back to that first build and first experience… They chose a Yamaha XS650 base. A fun bike to practice on. When it was released, it caused a sensation on the internet. They then moved on to a Kawa W650 and Triumph Thruxton, for themselves and their friends. Then came the first customer requests. Now, with their identity already so strongly developed, the requests they receive are often 'carte blanche' which allows Maria to reinforce, integrate, and convey their ideas through their customizations. Today, several dozen projects later, the client only sees the result at the end of the creation process, if not to say on delivery. A sign of trust between the client and the designers. This trust, and their reputation, are also reflected in their approach and the scope of their projects. Whereas, at the beginning, they used to customize about ten motorcycles per year, today they only take on two jobs per year. 

More advanced, more complex, and more exclusive. This also allows more time to be spent on their side projects – the clothing line, their partnerships, helmets, surfboards... and everything that revolves around the garage. It is above all, a creative expression. An expression that also had to be developed. After five years of developing a clothing collection they have finally found their cruising speed in this section of their business. And this section can no longer be considered a side project because, since COVID, it represents a major part of their income.

And if you're wondering where the name Maria Motorcycles comes from, the reach isn’t too far. Maria is one of the most common names in Portugal. Combined with the desire to avoid clichéd garage names, the fact that they had such a common, simple, country-related name pleased them. And they're amused by the smiles on people's faces; the effect of the unexpected and the surprise, when they tell them the name of their garage. Stepping outside of the ordinary by means of the ordinary.

There are no coincidences

A wonderful day ends over a beer. I tell Manuel that I would like to ride my motorcycle across the famous suspension bridge that looks surprisingly like the ‘Golden Gate Bridge’ and joins the municipality of Almada to Lisbon. The resemblance with the emblematic structure of San Francisco is not surprising. An American company oversaw its construction, in the early ‘60s, under the Salazar dictatorship. This bridge, initially called the Salazar Bridge, was renamed the Ponte 25 do Abril when the Salazarist dictatorship fell on April 25, 1974.

On the other side, you can see the gigantic statue of Christ. It is, in fact, a shrine to Cristo Rei overlooking the bridge and the city of Lisbon. In short, why not visit there now, we thought? It's sunset... Let's go.
As I crossed over, the feeling I'd had in Hamburg when I arrived there came flooding back to me. A certain chaos, the traffic, the beauty of the view, and the structure of the bridge. Complete with dozens of boats on the Tagus River and the sun giving the city its orange veil. It's hard to look straight ahead and stay focused on the road.

A few moments later, we arrived and landed on the other side. Lisbon was in front of us. The atmosphere more industrial, rougher, giving you the impression of being in Brooklyn with a view of Manhattan, but just as much of being in San Francisco with its magnificent red-hued goliath. 

We think about finishing this evening with a good, typical meal not far from there. But we hadn't taken Manuel's Harley into account. I hope he won't mind if I share the story of this minor breakdown. For argument’s sake, let’s not call it a ‘mechanical failure.’ The cylinder decided to lock itself in the ‘park’ position, which meant it was possible to start the bike, but not to switch off the lights. The only option, after some 'fiddling,' was to go home and disconnect the battery before it ran out. But, as if planned that way, our next scheduled visit was to David's Performance – a Harley tuner and specialist. There are no coincidences.

WORDS & PHOTOS BYJonathan Wieme

The man behind Motorcycle Cities. An independently published magazine that we just happened to stumble upon during a leisurely Saturday afternoon stroll through Antwerp.

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