THE PIANO MAN'S MAN
On a cool fall afternoon, we leave Brooklyn and point our two-wheeled machines towards Oyster Bay, Long Island. We got word that Billy Joel, yes Mr. Piano Man, had opened up a custom motorcycle shop titled 20th Century Cyclesin the small north shore town. Not expecting to actually see him there, to say we were surprised when we rolled up to garage to see Billy waving us in would be an understatement. A few handshakes later and we were ushered inside to experience one hell of a motorcycle collection.
Off in a distant corner, like a shepherd overseeing the flock, stood Alex Puls, the shop’s mechanic. An Atlanta native, Alex, as you’ll soon read, found his way here quite serendipitously. A knowledgeable mechanic, a boat enthusiast, a husband and father of two, Alex certainly has his hands full. Sitting inside the garage, he spares a few moments on this sunny Saturday afternoon to chat a bit more about his journey here. - GSCo.
The Piano Man's Man
Alex Puls, Mechanic, 20th Century Cycles
Interview and Images: Chris Logsdon
The 20th Century Cycles garage houses a pretty impressive motorcycle collection. How did this all come about?
AP:The collection, as it exists today, started to form back in 2005 however my boss has been riding for most of his life. He would build up a small collection of bikes and then get rid of a few, then build it up, then get rid of few. The shop was opened in 2010.
How did you come to find Billy?
AP: I was working at a shop in Atlanta called Blue Moon Cycle.It was a BMW dealership that started out as a restoration shop. The owner, John Landstrom, had the foresight to import BMW /2 parts from Germany by the container load when they weren’t really available in the US. I was fortunate in that he allowed me to come work there when I was a teenager. I scrubbed toilets, then did the shipping and parts sales and then I did motorcycle sales. I was never actually a mechanic. I had a real interest in the vintage bikes and would work on the race bikes after hours.
AP:At that time Blue Moon was also a Guzzi dealer. One day in 2000, I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was this guy named Bill. He mentioned he was on a tour headed towards Atlanta and was having problems with his Guzzi. I felt bad for him. Here's this poor guy having to ride a Guzzi across the country on a tour (laughs). Little did I know it was Billy Joel and he was 'on tour' with Elton John and he had a truck full of bikes. So I got him fixed up. We talked. Stayed in touch. Whenever my wife and I would come up here we'd go to dinner. Whenever he would come to Atlanta, we'd go to the show. In early 2009, his lighting designer approached me saying he wanted to get him something nice for his 60th birthday. Initially he thought about getting Billy a Norton Commando, I responded 'Why not a Vincent?'. At the time I was pretty obsessed with Vincents. So I went around and looked at about 10 different bikes and we ended up with that one right there.
(Alex points to the 1952 Vincent Rapide sitting across from us.)
Where did this one come from?
AP: Jim at the TheVincent.comhad purchased it on Craigslist in California, and he was on his way back to Virginia and stopped at a friend of mine's place. My friend knew I was looking and asked Jim if he would sell it. He said 'sure', so a few days later I drove up there, looked at it, gave him cash and drove away with the bike. Someone else had purchased a yellow Ducati 750 Sport for him so I picked up that bike and took it, along with the Vincent, to Chicago where he was playing. We managed to sneak the bikes into the hotel where I showed him how both bikes worked. That's when Billy said 'I have a collection of 30 bikes now, would you want to come and take of them all?'
At that time I was only working on his European bikes, down in Atlanta. Either he would ship bikes down or I would fly up here to New York. There was another guy that owned a great shop called Lighthouse Harley that was doing all the American stuff and another guy that was working on his Japanese bikes. He wanted one guy to do everything and Billy knew I wanted to live in New York.
Why New York?
AP: Just a change. I was born and raised in Atlanta, I wanted to see something different. I'd always envisioned living in the city, like most people. So I came up here and ended up commuting from Atlanta for about a year and half. Billy ended up renting an art gallery in Sag Harbor in 2009 and put about 15 bikes in it. He felt that motorcyclists didn't really have that destination to ride to in New York. Marcus Dairy in Connecticut was gone. There was the Oak Beach Inn on the south shore, but that was mostly a weekend thing that also included cars. He thought that people are looking for a place to go, and I have all these cool bikes, let's give them that place. So he experimented right there in Sag Harbor, and it went really well.
So it went over well with the crowd?
AP: The response was great. We got a ton of press. Mike Seate even came out and did a piece on us. So we started looking for a permanent location. We looked at vacant spaces from Brooklyn to all the way out in Montauk. Eventually we found this spot which was a kid's tumbling studio and had been vacant for a few years. It took us about 6 months to fix it up. Apparently this building also housed the first Ford dealership on Long Island.
Seeing how you primarily worked on European bikes and Billy wanted 'one guy', how did go about learning everything else?
AP: YouTube is a beautiful thing. Luckily I had been in the vintage motorcycle business for 20 years at that point, so I had a pretty good phonebook of people from which I could ask questions. Some of it was also just trying things and if it doesn't work, try it again.
Was there any pressure considering the owner of the bikes?
AP: At first there was but Billy is a really good guy to work for and he understands when things don't work out. Especially because of the fact that a lot of the stuff that we're doing is a bit of an experiment, [he pauses] for instance, we built this bike for Springsteen where we took a California Vintage, a 2009 Moto Guzzi, and we re-bodied it to look like an Eldorado. We did two of them, one for Bruce and one for Billy. You run up against things that sometimes leaves you working for two days straight, like mounts for a rear master cylinder. He understands, because sometimes figuring out solutions to little fabrication problems can be complicated.
How many bikes are in the collection?
AP: About a 100.
And all of them run?
AP: There's 20 of them that I know to always keep running. Those are the go-to bikes he's always going to ride. Then there are the 20 bikes that I never have to touch, like the ones hanging from the ceiling. Then there's the remainder, that are on the ever-evolving priority list.
What's Billy's favorite?
AP: Whatever he's riding that day. Typically Guzzi's, specifically the V7 Classic that we’ve changed the color scheme a few times. I added the luggage to it, new exhaust, a set of bars then another set of bars, then back to the stock bars. It keeps getting re-tailored and fine tuned to suit him. We also bought the Yamaha Bolt when it first came out and did a bunch of work to it. He was riding that all over the place. He's a big fan of the W650s too. The lightweight standards usually fit him pretty well, ergonomically speaking.
Word around town is that you also have a love for boats.
AP:Yes! I always wanted a one. When I first met Billy, I stayed on this pocket freighter that he used to have. It was this 65 foot trawler called ‘Red Head'. That's when I got bit by the boat bug, big time. So I subscribed to Wooden Boat magazine and then moved up here and sold my bikes - my Norton, my Vincent, everything. I then bought an old sail boat and eventually an old downeast picnic boat from the 50’s.
So where do your passions lie now? Boats or Motorcycles?
AP: Definitely boats. The bikes have become work. When I go home I look at boats. I was quite possibly the most enthusiastic, young motorcyclist you could ever imagine. From the time I was three years old I've been involved in motorcycles in some form or fashion, and after a while it just becomes work. I will say this though, I went home to Atlanta recentlybecauseBilly was playing at Philips Arena. It was just for the night so I saw my Mom and drove by my house that I still own, you know, to make sure it hadn't burned down or anything. I noticed this place had opened up in East Atlanta Village called Brother Moto. Are you familiar with it?
Never been but we've been hearing a lot about it.
AP: It's on my street in East Atlanta and when I was living there, man that place, you couldn't look inside it because it was so dark. It originally was an old welding shop. Seriously, you could put a klieg light in there and the darkness would have swallowed it up and they turned it into a space to ours with light retail and a sort of lounge area. It's really cool. Apparently you buy a subscription, you become a member, and you can rent a lift for a day where you can service your own bike. There's someone there that tells you things like not to ground your wrench out while you're touching the positive terminal on your battery, you know, try to keep you somewhat safe. I think, because the whole moto scene got really pretentious and little closed off, that a concept like that, well, got me more excited about motorcycles than anything else I've done in a long time. Seeing that reminds me of what it was like as kid. Not knowing or having a clue as to what I was doing, just being excited to be around it and to learn. To suck it all in. It made me want to move back to Atlanta and be a part of it. They're doing it right. I would have killed to have something like that when I was first getting into bikes.
AP: When you do something for a long time, you start to get that sort of, bitter thing. When I saw what they were doing I thought to myself 'Man that's a really good idea'. It sounds cheesy but it made me want to give back. In seeing what they're doing and forming this community that doesn't have all the attitude, it gave me hope for the motorcycling world. I think it's cool that you get a bunch of young people that want to come in and change their own oil and tires. People start to do things for themselves again.
I think a scene like that, what they're putting together and even what you guys are doing with this Shop Rag Shirt, I think it's really beneficial. Having that sort of grass roots thinking is cool.
Switching gears here, what's an average day like for you?
AP: There is no average day. Some days I'm making dog seat belts for side cars; other days I’m working on a bevel drive Ducati. I have a list of long term projects that are being worked on however I also have to find time to do the little things that pop up such as relocating bikes, dealing with minor service issues, etc.
As far as the long term projects go, from a visual standpoint, he'll take a bike and say 'I want to take this modern bike and make it look like X'. He'll then send me his ideas, some photos and a general theme or historical context that I need to stick to, and then I figure out how to get it execute the ideas.
So not the standard 9 to 5 huh?
AP: I don’t know what that is. When I took this job I was actually considering applying to law school. My father was an attorney and I wanted to grow up and get a real job. I think in the end, I couldn't get a job like that, I wouldn't know what to do.
Do you love what you do?
AP: I do. I love the creativity. I love learning new ways to create something.
Have people ever told you that you have the dream job?
How do you react to that?
AP: I'm very very lucky. I've gotten to do some wonderful things, meet certain people, build projects that I would never have the opportunity to ever do and I'm unbelievably grateful for that. But stuff still breaks. You know what I mean? The oil still ends up on the floor and I still have to clean it up. I'm one lucky guy.
Curious for more? Follow Alex Puls on Instagram: @eglicomet