Keino Cycles Custom Harley Motorcycle, Blazing Saddle
Words by Sam Whitehead • photos by Bob Feather
Sure, he’s got a last name (Sasaki). So does Madonna. And Bono. And Sting. And Cher. (Well, maybe not her). But who cares? If you’re reading this magazine and the name Keino doesn’t ring-a-ding-ding in your skull, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this magazine.
Mr. Sasaki. No, that’s not right. Keino is known as one of the four major players behind the Indian Larry Legacy. The others (as you should be well aware) are/were Paul Cox and Bobby and Elisa Seeger. In 2008, Keino, Paul, Bobby, and Elisa split ways. No bad blood.
At that time Keino Cycles was born. But everything wasn’t always easy for our mono-monikered friend. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to this stunning bike in a moment.) After a somewhat charmed life growing up in Japan, riding small-bore machines, and being schooled by his dad, a motorcyclist, sculptor, and general craftsman, Keino shot himself across the Pacific to Arizona and attended MMI (Motorcycle Mechanics Institute). That’s when trouble began. But you’d never hear that from Keino because, despite his star status, he’s a remarkably humble, sharp-as-hell, soft-spoken guy. Essentially, face-to-face, if you don’t dig Keino, the problem is yours.
After graduating from MMI, Keino sent out a flurry of applications to various H-D dealerships. The one that picked him happened to be a now-defunct joint in Brooklyn, New York. “They told me to come for an interview,” Keino recalls. “I don’t think I understood. I thought that meant I had the job.”
So, feeling his place was secure (and, luckily, it turned out straight), Keino packed clothes, tools, most of his life, and old Shovelhead into a U-Haul and headed across country to New York City. “I didn’t know anyone there,” he says. “But I didn’t know anyone anywhere, and Brooklyn seemed a bit exotic — at least interesting.”
Given short funds, Keino chose a $70-a-week apartment in East New York. For those who don’t know NYC, East New York is about as rough as you can get. “It was super, super ghetto,” Keino admits in his charming way. “Hookers, pushers everywhere. Gunshots every night.”
And then there was the neighborhood bonfire. One bucolic evening, Keino met a friend at a bar. When he returned home, he saw flames and thought maybe his ’hood was having a celebration. Then he got a bit closer.
“My bike was on fire,” Keino says with total nonchalance, as if some pal had just picked a French fry off his plate. They #@&%in’ torched his Shovel! Welcome to New York! Or, at least East NY.
With that greeting behind him, Keino moved forward and eventually found himself at forgotten New York City’s Soho hotspot American Dream Machine. That’s where he met Indian Larry. “I didn’t know who he was when he introduced himself to me,” Keino remembers. “I was hired as a mechanic and I did everything. Sweep the floors — whatever. People think Larry showed me how to do everything. No. That’s not how it was. He and everybody else were busy doing their own $#!%. Larry was my great friend and my mentor. From time to time, he would come over and give me advice, and you had to pick up on that advice. Why is this happening? What is wrong? No answers. What do you think? If you worked anywhere near him, you had to think.”
Currently, Keino is working alone and not thinking at all. Stop! You know that’s a lie. Keino’s gig is now out of Red Hook (another rollicking NYC area), and he lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s also a wanted man — because he’s so damn good.
For instance, take a look at this bike. Take another look.
If you don’t immediately spot that singular, head-to-head, springer front end then your glasses need to be replaced with a telescope.
“I don’t claim I’m the originator of this style,” Keino says. “I have a collection of ’60s and ’70s magazines, and I’m sure people back in the day did it, but I haven’t seen it around lately.” Neither have I. Or, likely, you. “It was usually just one spring instead of two to make it super skinny. I know Ron Finch used to make a lot of single springers. I just love the tightness and skinniness of them, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of one spring, so I set two in line.
That way I get the best of both. I didn’t make it too skinny because if I did, then I couldn’t run a brake and whatnot. If it were my bike I’d run a spooled wheel and go super-skinny.
“I’ve had this idea for about seven or eight years now, and I finally just did it. But I’m not selling it to just anyone because I have a small shop, and I don’t want to be doing front ends all the time. I’d lose my mind. I like to work on all parts of the motorcycle. I don’t want to be known as the front end guy so I’m not pushing it. It’s an exclusive to the bikes I build myself.” The fact that Keino, with his good taste, would allow this ride to be called Blazing Saddles … well, let’s not touch that.
Back to the bike. It was originally inspired by Indian Larry’s iconic Grease Monkey. “The customer wanted me to do a replica and that’s when I told him that doing replicas doesn’t inspire me,” Keino cops. “This is my version of Grease Monkey. As much as I know S&S motors are very reliable, just as Larry, Paul, and I always did, I take them apart and put them back together, if only to keep educating myself. Sometimes, I discover something new and cool inside, and sometimes I see something that I think I could do better. I’m constantly learning.” Keino is self-taught. But he tips his hat to Paul and he gives it up to Larry. Huge.
And his business is on fire. Not his old Shovel. That’s already smoked. AIM
Story as published in American Iron Magazine.
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