Planet Chopper: A ride down south to remember
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The bi-national Planet Chopper motorcycle touring company uses the slogan “where Mad Max meets Easy Rider”; if you’re familiar with both movies it’s an accurate description.
When the inaugural New Zealand tour group, on a slow 16-day ride to Invercargill’s Burt Munro festival, turns into its first stop for the night, it arrives in an impressive phalanx of custom motorcycles.
Even a dedicated bike-spotter like myself can’t identify most of the machines on parade at Puhoi’s historic 1879 hotel. There’s the odd Triumph Bobber, a factory-made custom, and stock Harley-Davidson V-rod; but the rest could have enjoyed previous lives as props for the two movies mentioned in the slogan.
Tour leader Ben Van Leewarden leads the group in on a bike I initially think started life as a Victory (now a defunct American brand). Turns out that it’s Honda’s own chopper, the Fury, given a Victory Gunner-like matt grey paint job and an even more raked front fork.
There’s an obvious question to ask: why tour on choppers? Don’t those raked out front ends and suspension-free “hardtail” rear ends make riding for long distances less comfortable?
“We wanted to create a point of difference from other motorcycle tour companies,” says Ben, “and quickly found that with the groups riding one-off custom bikes [instead of identical machines] that it helps promote a different harmony amongst the riders.”
Indeed, shared hardships do tend to promote human co-operation, and the Irish representative among the Swiss, American, Aussie, and Mexican nationals riding the tour, Gavin Peacock, says that riding choppers helps keeps the diverse group together.
“It creates a different vibe as there’s no competition between us – we’re more inclined to look out for each other.”
Peacock’s personal bikes include a rare Ducati 999R, the fastest Japanese bike ever created – the Kawasaki ZZR1400, and a monstrous KTM 1290 Adventure. He’s obviously enjoying a change of pace on this ride.
Planet Chopper started when Ben and his father, Mark Van Leewarden, first met their American partners, John Devonshire and Wayne Cayton, at a motorcycle rally in New Hampshire in 2011.
John and Wayne had arrived on their own home-built choppers, and the two Kiwis eventually persuaded the Virginians to build a bike for them. That hardtail bike, called Kiwi Chop, and based on a 1981 Honda CB750 inline four, was the seed for the chopper touring idea.
“I was riding it and having so much fun, “ says Mark. “I thought: wouldn’t it be great to share this experience.”
The company now has 10 bikes based in the US, and 10 bikes located here after importing eight of John and Wayne’s creations for this first NZ tour. The US tours operate out a historic 1890 building in Woodlawn, Virginia, located near the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.
“It’s a great jumping off point for tours of the South,” says Mark.
I ask the two Americans that do most of the back-up mechanical support on the tours (including having a spare bike on hand if something can’t be fixed within 20 minutes), what’s the worst thing that’s gone wrong?
The group breaks into collective laughter about a tour to New Orleans, a comedy of errors about lost key fobs and freeway strandings.
“We didn’t get to New Orleans until 10pm that night, so we partied until the dawn,” says Gavin.
It doesn’t get much more “Easy Rider” than that.