Flight of fancy
No shake, no rattle… just roll
One look at the fantasy-art profile of the Athena Chopper from Big Bear Choppers and you might reasonably speculate that it’s the work of some weird alien being who set down on a mountaintop high above some weird place like, say, Los Angeles. And the funny thing is, you’d be right—at least technically. Big Bear Choppers mastermind Kevin Alsop is, after all, from Australia, and he’s plenty weird and we say that in a good way, having yet to meet an artist of any consequence who isn’t. And his company is indeed sited high up in SoCal’s San Bernardino Mountains in the idyllic burg of Big Bear Lake, where Alsop and his wife/partner Mona have grown their business from a garage shop into an industry-leading kit-bike concern, and then into a cutting-edge production custom bike manufacturer.
That’s the backstory on Big Bear Choppers as a company, and there’s also a backstory that goes with the Athena Chopper model, so named in memory of Athena Aspiotes. She was the daughter of BBC employee Mike the Greek Aspiotes, and was killed in a car crash in December of 2005 at the age of 16. The basic design of this bike was initially created in March of last year to compete in the Discovery Channel’s “Bike Build-off” series, where it proved a winner. From there the design was morphed into a pair of production models—both the Chopper shown here and a pro-street model. While certain details had to be revised for public consumption—the jockey shift had to go, for example—the basic creation with its outrageous bodywork and cyber-mantis chassis architecture survived intact.
If ever there was a motorcycle that looked like a dedicated fashion exercise without pretensions of real-world riding capabilities or civilized ride quality, this is that bike, which is why it’s all the more impressive when you saddle up (or down, actually, considering the 19-inch seat height), fire up, hit the highway and motor through the gears, and discover to your dismay that there’s something clearly missing, here. And that something is vibration. There’s not a bit of it detectable at any engine speed.
Alsop tells us that vibration control is the top engineering priority at BBC, and virtually every nuance of chassis engineering and motor building takes that priority to heart. Alsop gets downright evangelical on the subject, and earnestly ticks off all the many measures taken to keep the buzz to a minimum. That mission starts with the motor, which is a 100-inch S&S/BBC unit—dubbed the “SMOOTH”—with a 4″ bore and stroke. Referred to as a “square” motor because of those matching specs, the benefit of that arrangement is that the inherent vibrational qualities of a long-stroke V-twin are avoided. That’s just the beginning, however, as BBC then keeps the compression ratio down to a relatively sedate 8.5:1—the same as a stock Evo motor. The cam profiles and timing are likewise formulated to reduce valve-closing speeds, thus reducing top-end violence and noise while emphasizing torque production (and producing something on the order of 110 ft/lbs, we’re told). The objective in all of this is optimal performance and minimal vibration in the 2,500–3,000 rpm range where most of the motor’s work gets done.
Vibration control considerations extend also to frame construction, where BBC employs stout 1.5″ tubing with a 0.25″ wall thickness in the bike’s backbone, and 1.125″/0.16″-walled tubes in the other frame members. All fabrication of BBC frames—as well of the front ends and sheet metal—is done in house utilizing state-of-the-art CNC machines and TIG welders.
And then there’s the proprietary BBC primary case, in which both inner and outer cases are made of forged aluminum with a structural strength reportedly twice that of conventional cases, and an unsurpassed vibration-absorption capacity. That’s what we’re told, anyway, but we can’t personally vouch for that for two reasons. The first is that the model we tested had been outfitted with an optional open-belt primary. The second is that we experienced so little vibration on this bike that any less vibration attributable to the forged cases would not have been discernible as a practical matter.
The admirable emphasis on well-mannered functionality that BBC brings to the bike’s powertrain doesn’t find its way over to the frame geometry and ergonomics side of the Athena, obviously. As is always the case with uber-cool custom architecture, there’s a Faustian deal to be struck between what looks totally bitchin’ and what works best. And while it’s apparent that BBC has put a lot of thought into the Athena’s ridability, there’s only so much you can do with 6″ of stretch in the backbone, another 6 in the downtubes, 10″ of reach in the front forks, and a seat height comparable to that of a Big Wheel. You can, for example, put 6 degrees of the front end’s 46-degree rake in the triple trees to minimize flopping tendencies, and you can give the rear-suspension section—the so-called Devil’s Tail on this bike—some massive strength. What you can’t do is eliminate the feeling that results from the bike’s essential profile, which is the feeling that you’re sitting way the hell away from the front tire. Extremely long handlebar stems keep basic operating posture comfortable, but subtle operator inputs on the bars tend to get somewhat lost in translation on the way to the front axle, and slow-speed handling in traffic can bring dicey moments. Also unnerving until you get accustomed to it is that drive chain stretching from the Baker RSD 6-speed to the rear sprocket/ rotor. There’s a gap in the chain guards positioned just about exactly where the chain on your wallet wants to dangle. So get a shorter wallet chain, or, better yet, put your wallet in your left pocket.
Other than those complaints, the Athena is remarkably rider-friendly, using Harley-style hand controls, respectably sized mirrors that don’t buzz, and a small but legible BBC/WirePlus digital instrument module. The bike tracks confidently on the open road and swoops predictably through the sweepers, and with the aforementioned utter lack of vibration, the miles pile on effortlessly. The list price on the Athena Chopper is $32,900 assembled by BBC, or $24,900 as a kit bike.