When you see great design, you just know it. Sure, people write dissertations about the lines of the object and the meaning behind those lines. But at the core, it’s something you innately recognize. It’s a feeling usually followed by one of, “I want that.”

Such is the case with the motorcycles John Ryland builds out of an old mule barn in Richmond, Virginia. Ryland isn’t some storied third-generation bike builder, nor is he God’s gift to wrenches. He is a guy who knows how to make beautiful bikes that you “get” the moment you see them. Ryland started his company Classified Moto in 2013 after being laid off from a job at an advertising agency. He hadn’t even been riding a motorcycle that long at the time, but he had an eye and a mind for what he wanted to create. Through good ol’ fashioned internet power, people came to learn more about what he was working on, and the Classified style of motorcycles started catching on—to the point where now they’re being mimicked.

We caught up with Ryland to talk about the craft of building bikes, how he developed his aesthetic, and the unique point of view he brings to the world of motorcycles.

How did Classified Moto come to be?
I always forget how old I was when I started riding. I was probably 40. I waited a really long time. I was into cars and boats. But a friend of mine went out of town and left me his bike. I rode it in the wintertime and just loved it. I got one right away. I started doing what I was doing to cars, weird modifications and stuff I hadn’t seen before. That started it. One of our signatures is we put modern sport bike forks on older bikes. It’s a striking visual. People saw the bike I did for myself and said, “I want that.” At the time, whatever parts cost they would pay for and I would do the work for free.

So you were already handy from working on cars?
I’ve got weird stuff like a turbo minivan that I drag race sometimes. It just looks like a regular old first-generation minivan, but it’s the fastest car I’ve ever owned. I’d work on sleepers that look totally plain and you’d never notice it but then you open the hood and it’s like, “Wow!” Stuff like that translated well to motorcycles.

How did you move from making bikes for friends into starting a business?
My buddy Adam is a really great photographer who I’d worked with when I was in advertising. We shot the first four or five bikes and the photos were so good. That had a lot to do with how we caught on because a lot of people build great stuff but they don’t know how to present it. I just had a little blog to keep track of what was going on with different builds and somebody I didn’t know, this guy Bob from North Carolina, wanted me to build him a bike. That was the first time someone who I didn’t know at all wanted me to build him something. It caught on from there. The bikes looked different enough that the blogs and other motorcycle sites were happy to run them. There wasn’t a whole lot that looked like that then. Now you’ll see a whole lot of bikes that borrow stuff from us. That’s fun-slash-annoying.

What is it like to see your stuff imitated?
It’s a double-edged sword. I love it when we inspire somebody to go build something themselves. I think that’s great. I’m not a big fan of inspiring other [professional] builders to build something that looks just like ours. That’s skipping the design and idea process. That’s always annoying, but it comes with the territory. It tells you you’re doing something right when people are ripping you off.

Norman Reedus with his Classified Moto bike (photo by Adam Ewing)

Norman Reedus with his Classified Moto bike (photo by Adam Ewing)

Was there a moment when you knew you were onto something?
There’s a website called Bike Exif out of Australia. It’s a really cool site. One of our bikes was on there. I was really new to bikes and didn’t know much about what was cool and what wasn’t. But when we got on that blog—it was a big deal and put us on the map. Cool things kept happening. I gave a talk at a design conference and wrote up this fake business plan as if I had planned everything that actually happened. It sounded so ridiculous. But once you read it—because it’s all true—it makes you realize anything is possible. We built a bike for the actress who was on Battlestar Galactica, Katee Sackhoff. When we delivered her bike, we met Jay Leno and toured his garage. Then Norman Reedus from The Walking Dead contacted me and wanted us to build him a bike. That snowballed from there and he hooked us up with the producers and we ended up making a couple bikes for the show.

How did you first learn to build bikes?
First of all, there’s a ton of other people that know their stuff way more than I do. It was really trial and error. I had an old college friend who saw through Facebook that I was starting to do project bikes. He and I reconnected, and he was my mechanic for awhile. He was good about showing me the things that were specific for motorcycles that were different from cars. You know how when you get into something new, you have an energy for it? That was a big part of it. I loved the design part of it and picturing stuff in my head and seeing it come to life a lot more than I liked figuring out electrical problems.

How would you describe the aesthetic of a Classified Moto bike?
Everybody tries to categorize things—music, movies, motorcycles. They kind of get generically call our bikes as a cafe racer. If you ask the average person who knew our bikes, they’d say they all have gold forks, which they don’t, but it’s kind of the classic Classified style to have gold forks and textured black frames and a lot of bare metal. There’s no shiny tank or plastic. It’s all just really basic metal but artistically done. We really love it when the mechanicals of the bike are the decoration. If I had to paint an elaborate design on my tank to make the bike look cool then I’d think that the design wasn’t working. There are a whole lot of parts on the bike that look raw and Mad Max-y. I’ve always liked that rugged look where it looks cobbled together and ready for action—where if it fell over, it’s not going to ruin it, it’s just going to give it more character.

John Ryland stands next to one of his creations (photo by Adam Ewing)

John Ryland stands next to one of his creations (photo by Adam Ewing)

Was it scary to go out there with a bike that didn’t look like other bikes, especially since you were coming at this later in your career?
I never really had any trepidation about people rejecting stuff. The first big exposure we had was on Bike Exif and I was just happy to be on there. Then you see all the comments and most of the people love it but there’s always armchair quarterbacks that are going to complain about something. I don’t care what they think, but it does affect how you do stuff. Sometimes I’ll go an extra step to neutralize some objection that I know I’m going to hear. At the beginning, I didn’t know any better and didn’t know what the rules were, which is very liberating. We’re always going to do what we like, but you know sooner or later people are going to bitch about something. That’s just part of building.

How long does it take for a customer to get a bike? How much do they cost?
Generally we say it’s 5 to 18 months. We’ll open up a build queue for a certain type of bike and say we’re going to build 10 of these Honda Nighthawk-based customs, for example, and they’re all going to look like this and there isn’t going to be a whole lot of back and forth about design changes. That way we can be more efficient. But inevitably when we open up the queue somebody will say, ‘I love your stuff but I don’t want that one, can you build me something that’s more like one of these that you did before?’ Those obviously take longer because there’s more back and forth with the customer. Our bikes start around $17,500 and they go up to the low $40s. A goal of mine was to create a brand that people put value on. We’ve easily spent $30,000 on a $25,000 bike before. But even if we lost money or barely broke even, something good always comes from it, like Norman Reedus sees it and it turns into something bigger. It’s a really unpredictable way to do business, but the goal is to make the brand too big to ignore.

What other projects do you have coming up?
We just built two bikes for giveaways with Rebel Yell bourbon. They’re going to give them away at the bike rally in Sturgis in August. It’s mostly a Harley event and that’s not really my crowd. I don’t know how that crowd is going to react to our stuff but my curiosity is peaked. My mechanic Danik Herashchanka and business partner Alex Martin are going to ride from St. Louis to Sturgis. It’s going to be memorable.

Are you still able to ride a bit?
I still ride. I had a wreck not long ago and messed my shoulder up and had to have surgery, but I was back on it right away. Mostly it’s just testing bikes. We always have something that’s getting ready to ship out and have to put miles on it. I don’t see any time in the near future that I’ll spend a lot of time riding when I’m not listening for things. It’s a different vibe than just riding for fun. Still, I love it. Having gotten into it so late, it’s still really exciting for me. It just makes you feel really, really alert. You’re basically looking for people who are trying to kill you while still trying to enjoy yourself. It feels like it should be illegal a little bit [laughs]. It’s just a great thing.

Justin Tejada is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @just_tejada.