Keanu Reeves on Why He's So Obsessed with Motorcycles
by Ann Donahue
Keanu Reeves wanted a custom motorcycle. Gard Hollinger was a bike builder looking for a revolutionary project. It took 10 years of painstaking collaboration for the two to release a steel and carbon-fiber beauty of a bullet to the public.
You hear it coming, a throaty rumble in the distance that reverberates against the rundown warehouses lining the street. It’s a motorcycle in the key of badass, a growl that is both impressive in its own right and because it reveals that the rider really doesn’t care about how sensitive your car alarm is. Dressed all in black, he steers off the street and maneuvers the bike through open double doors into the lobby of a building.
To be fair, it’s a building he owns, so he can ride a bike past the entry desk any time he wants to. It’s a movie-star-style entrance, and it all makes perfect sense when Keanu Reeves takes off his helmet and cheerfully says, “Ciao!”
The motorcycle Reeves, 51, is riding is a KRGT-1 from Arch Motorcycle Company. It’s his own bike—and not in the “he bought it” sense, but in the “he built it” sense. He’s the co-founder of Arch with veteran motorcycle customizer Gard Hollinger, and the two have just started selling the bike to the public.
In a world oversaturated with celebrity branding—oh look, here’s another movie star vouching for another wallet-emptying product—the cynical impulse is to doubt the sincerity of the enterprise. But the reality is surprisingly, almost jarringly, authentic. Reeves is a motorcycle obsessive, and it’s the type of love that is familiar to anyone who on the outside is going through the banal motions of functional adulthood but on the inside is actually daydreaming about getting back to what gives them joy.
For decades, motorcycles have been Keanu Reeves’ obsession and respite. it was time to build his own.
Arch is the culmination of a fascination with motorcycles that started in Reeves’ childhood—and really took off when he was in his 20s.
“When I was 22, I was filming in Munich at this place called Bavariafilmplatz,” he says. “This young girl had an [Kawasaki] Enduro, and I asked her if she would show me how to ride a bike. I rode it around the lot, and when I got back to Los Angeles I got an Enduro.”
Since then, Reeves’ interest has avalanched: When he isn’t filming, he’s riding. He’s taken motorcycle trips with friends through Big Sur in California, through Northern Australia and along the Route Napoleon in France. When Reeves travels away from Los Angeles to shoot a film, he buys a used motorcycle to ride to the set. When the film is finished, he sells the motorcycle. (Well, sometimes he sells it. “I’ve had four or five bikes from that—well, maybe six or seven,” he says. When pressed— only six or seven? Not eight or nine?—he demurs. “No, no, no it’s not like that. Well, yes it is.”)
“When I did a picture called My Own Private Idaho, I asked director Gus Van Sant, ‘So, what bike am I riding?’ ” Reeves recalls. “And he pulled up a ’71 Norton Commando that was canary yellow. The props guy said, ‘Do you know how to … ?’ and I was like, ‘I’m good, man. I got this. This actually is home.’ ”
While founding Arch wouldn’t be a financial risk to Reeves—his movies have grossed almost $2 billion in total during his career—there was always the risk that his passion could become a total grinding drag when it became a business. Those daydreams of dedicating a major part of your life to your hobby rarely include nuts-and-bolts visions of the scalability of manufactured parts and safety regulations. The what-ifs are endless—and yes, even movie stars can have doubts: What if the bike is pretty but is terrible to ride? What if it’s great on the road but looks like a tank? Worse still, what if the bike just doesn’t work and the project goes in the junk drawer that’s already full of toys created by celebrity dilettantes?
“The reality is that you have to be willing to fail a lot to succeed,” says Hollinger. “You just have to keep going and keep going and keep going.” When all was said and done, it took almost 10 years for the KRGT-1 to go from concept to sale, a decade of back-and-forth between two perfectionist bike enthusiasts. The bike is all about the thrill of riding, but it’s also an emblem of the resilience required during collaborative work.
“When I’ve been riding it, I’ve had a couple of people yell, ‘That is the most amazing motorcycle I’ve ever seen!’ which is fun,” says Reeves. “There was something about it that—and this is my expression—the bike wanted to be in the world. I feel very lucky to be sitting on this machine.”
THE RED BULLETIN: How did you guys meet?
KEANU REEVES: I had a 2005 Harley Dyna Wide Glide and I was looking to customize it. I’d done some brochure customizing, so that was Rookie Mistake 101, and then I went to Rookie Mistake 102, which was when I was introduced to Gard, I asked him for a sissy bar [a passenger backrest], and he said, “I don’t do that.” And then I said, “What do you do?” and he graciously showed me around his shop. Maybe a little reluctantly?
GARD HOLLINGER: I’ll just let him tell the story. He always makes it sound like I interrogated him.
REEVES: You did. You were a salty dog, man. A salty motorcycle veteran. Gard has a company called L.A. County Choprods, and he’d been customizing motorcycles for more than 20 years.
HOLLINGER: It was one of those things that once you decide you’re going to do it your way, you are going to do it your way even if you starve. I said no to a lot of work. It wasn’t even personal. Of course, when Keanu had an appreciation of that, it was…
REEVES AND HOLLINGER, simultaneously: “What do you want to do?”
REEVES: I put in a lot of effort to get to what he originally asked for, but we’d get to these points where the connection between the function and the form wasn’t happening. He was always great about saying: “No, don’t change the form! We’ll change the function a bit.”
How long did the back and forth take?
REEVES: The prototype started to get built in 2007. Once it arrived, we both rode it and thought it was pretty special. The way the ergonomics, the handling worked, I’d never ridden a bike like that.
HOLLINGER: And then I did the typical Hollinger thing.
REEVES: Which one?
HOLLINGER: Where I go, “Let’s just finish this one bike. We can talk about making more later, maybe.”
REEVES: That’s the thing. It’s a shared passion with a push-pull of process. Gard does all the building and making a dream a reality, so it’s easy for me to say, “Here’s a dream!”
HOLLINGER: It’s a challenge to make a production motorcycle, but that’s part of the attraction. There are so many more considerations and restraints than building a one-off. Safety things: Where do you position the lights? All of that is way more challenging than building one work of art.
It’s like that Maserati joke: It’s beautiful to drive to your mechanic’s garage.
HOLLINGER: We wanted that same feeling, but have it be reliable.
REEVES: We wanted to offer something unique, not only aesthetically but also about the pleasure of riding.
And as Test Rider No. 1, what was your feedback?
REEVES: I’m Test Rider No. 2. Gard is Test Rider No. 1.
HOLLINGER: Truth be told, he rides it more.
REEVES: It’s a way I can participate. I’m not a mechanic, I don’t have any engineering experience. I have a little bit of seat time, so I can talk about that, how the bike feels. I gave some feedback on the seat. The first time I said: “I think the bike should have signals.” I don’t think Gard had ever built a bike with signals.
HOLLINGER: He’s being modest. He always has a lot of feedback. I think he has to temper his wish list a bit because he doesn’t want to overwhelm me. His thoughtfulness and passion for riding was a huge part to what caused me to commit to do it. I’ve ridden my whole life, and when we talked about the riding experience, I was struck and impressed by how in tune he was. Man, all the years I’ve been riding, I’ve been taking it for granted.
The price tag for the bike packs a punch at $78,000, but the reviews from the automotive press have been very positive. How does that make you feel?
REEVES: It’s part of the reason to do it. It’s what you hope for, what you aim for. It’s not like any other motorcycle. You’re on a sweeping turn, at an extreme lean angle, and you’re comfortable—there’s no machine like that bike that does that.
Between the two of you, you have more than half a century of riding experience. What’s going through your mind when you’re going fast?
REEVES: I’ve only gone over 125 mph a couple of times. I had a Suzuki GSX-R750, so that touched that a few times. I did it on a two-lane New York state highway. I did 135 mph. It was pretty interesting.
Were you scared or was it [maniacal laugh]?
REEVES: For me, those two go together.
HOLLINGER: You know when you get scared because that’s when you back off. I think fast is relative. Fast for the conditions can be 40 to 50 mph; you can feel like you’re near the edge.
Is riding a respite for you from the Hollywood lifestyle?
REEVES: For me, it’s integrated into how you live your day. When I get on the bike, it’s a place to think. [To Hollinger] I mean, you probably do that. You just ride and think. Or not?
HOLLINGER: I feel that was something Keanu gave back to me. It had just become kind of rote for me. You know, if you’re a cobbler, the last thing you want to see is a pair of shoes. That was nice to get back. Now if I don’t have to drive a car, I won’t.
What’s been the best motorcycle ride you’ve taken?
HOLLINGER: The next one.
REEVES: If it’s Arch connected, it was when we were in Austin, Texas, for Formula One—it was the first time Gard and I had gone out on the bikes. I kept asking people, “Where can we ride?” Someone said Marble Falls [northwest of the city], and we found ourselves on these two-lane roads going 100 mph. I was laughing in my helmet because they were so perfect for the bike. It was cool to be taking a ride with Gard after so many years of developing the bike. It was the birth. We were bringing it out into the world and doing what we’d hoped, which was going for a ride on this amazing machine.
Photographs by Peter Yang. Captions:
2. Work in progress: Keanu Reeves looks over a KRGT-1 that’s almost ready for delivery. Orders are processed individually and each bike costs $78,000.
3. Test Rider No. 1: The feedback Reeves provides feeds directly into the development of the bike.
4. Reeves rolls on the KRGT-1, a motorcycle he says is like no other.
5. “I’ve had a couple of people yell, ‘That is the most amazing motorcycle I’ve ever seen!.’”
6. The dream team of Reeves and Hollinger.