By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The blaring Nickelback tune on the radio is barely audible over the clangs, bangs and whirrs. Under a big graffiti wall mural and posters of grinning porn stars, Roman Blum attaches hoses and fits transmission pieces to a slowly evolving chopper with the skill of a brain surgeon. As he ducks under the assembly of the bike, two TV cameramen creep up on him, tracking his every move. He's under the gun: This bike has to be built and delivered tomorrow -- to Florida. That's a far drive from Roman's 6,000-square-foot shop here in Northeast Houston. The long, sleek chopper is only 75 percent complete; it's missing wheels, lights and a gas tank. And before it's placed in the cargo trailer, it has to be fired up to make sure it starts.
It's the perfect dramatic scenario for American Biker Series -- an upcoming reality TV series starring Roman and his crew that's slated to premiere on ESPN, TNN and Spike TV in January. The show's setup: Roman, a dead ringer for Kid Rock (without the drugs and hep) and owner of RB Custom Choppers, has 30 days to create a bike -- from sketch to reveal. That's tough enough without having a TV crew following his every move, every second. ("They don't follow me into the bathroom," Roman quips.) The bike, a silver, slender beauty-to-be, is being unveiled tomorrow at a big bash in Ft. Lauderdale. There'll be fans, a party and plenty of media. It promises to be the perfect showcase for an up-and-coming bike maker. That is, if the bike is finished on time -- and works.
Randy, who paints bike pieces for Roman, walks into the shop bearing a silver gas tank. "He's been working on this bad boy for 40 hours straight," says Roman proudly. He and his crew gather around as the meticulously painted tank is fitted onto the chopper's "backbone." Suddenly, the skeleton is a real bike. It's a great reality TV moment, and for a second, the tension is gone.
But then Roman looks at his watch. "Damn, it's time," he says to his guys. The cameras stop rolling. It's Halloween night, and Roman promised his daughters Yasmina and Zoie that he'd take them trick-or-treating. Given his insane deadline, he'd be justified in passing the task off to his wife Silvia, who also runs his retail shop. But that would be neglecting his kids.
And that's not the way he rolls.
It's the perfect time for a reality biker show. Every week, Discovery Channel audiences tune in to watch the dysfunctional Teutul family on American Chopper, with muscle-bound dad Paul cussing out sons Paul Jr. and Michael. Motorcycles are hot, and so are the people who make them. Take Jesse James, who started out building bikes and later became the star of the reality show Monster Garage, a restaurateur and Sandra Bullock's bed buddy.
When the bigwigs at Platinum Television Group, a production company based in Florida, decided to create the next big cable chopper series, they scoured the country, whittling down thousands of candidates before choosing Roman as their star. "I got a call, and they wanted to know a little about me," he says. One call became two, then three, and soon, an executive producer and a camera crew were in his shop off of 1960, following him around.
Once the deal was signed, life got "really crazy," says Silvia, a slender firecracker of a wife/ mom/office manager who Roman says "keeps his ass in line." Two TV cameramen followed the Blum family around and tracked the RB staff all day. Yet Silvia and the family have managed so far. "When Roman first started out making bikes years ago, he'd have parts in our living room, the hallway, even the bathroom. But I knew he loved it -- it was his passion, and a little sacrifice of my living room back then is what's gotten him here today." Roman started RB Custom Choppers in 2002. Before that, he'd worked in car stereo outfits, car customizing and parts shops, and even an upholstery store. It's second nature for him to create a bike from scratch, right down to making the leather seat and embroidering it. (The upholstery shop experience has definitely come in handy.)
"I kinda come from what you could call the urban underground," says the former hardcore skater and BMXer. His shop is a playground. He and his crew throw firecrackers at each other (and even at unsuspecting members of the media). They ogle the nudie pics on the walls, chill at the sports bar next door and hang at the neighboring pizza place, owned by Silvia's dad Burki. When they get stressed, Roman and Charles go pop ollies on their skateboards. They toss a tire at Roman's pit bull Dre and watch him prance around with it like it's a dead bird. Roman regresses 20 years as he taps the glass box that holds two mammoth black scorpions -- his "other pets" -- "just to piss 'em off." (You probably won't see Jesse James doing that.)
There's only one thing that sets Roman off: racial intolerance. He knows the prevailing image of biking is white and male. "The old-school biker society is all about white supremacy," says Roman, who grew up seeing Confederate flags on the backs of T-shirts at bike meets.