Secret Richmond Business Builds Futuristic Antique Bikes

John Ryland has held in his possession, at one time or another, an oddball collection of various modes of transport – each with a different story. There was a classic Land Rover, a collection of old BMW motorcycles, a VW Scirocco, and a crazy French car that looked like a grasshopper. One in particular, a turbocharged 1989 Dodge Caravan, just about won him bragging rights at Richmond Dragway one night when he lined up against a shiny Mustang that barely managed to squeak out a win.

Here’s the thing: Ryland likes to break stuff and then make it better. He sees the value in taking a Frankenstein-like approach to combining the old with the new. Call it a futuristic antique, if you will. His approach is both thoroughly modern and old at the same time. And to Ryland, it always adds up to something much more fun. In some cases, even more profitable.

“If I had a pot of money and could buy anything, it wouldn’t be a fancy car. I would buy an old, ugly one and soup it up so that I could have something unique,” Ryland explains as he sits outside on a picnic bench in a secret location in Manchester.

Next to Ryland is a vintage motorcycle, stripped of most of its parts down to bare metal. He looks at it and then gestures to an old mule barn turned state-of-the-art facility a few feet away that contains some of the most sought-after hybrid motorcycles in the world. “I didn’t grow up in a mechanical household,” he admits, “but I eventually learned that if something breaks, just fix it. There’s no voodoo to it.”

With a curiosity strong enough to puzzle out just about anything, John and Betsy Ryland started Classified Moto, a small Richmond-based cycle and design shop that has enjoyed commercial success around the world and attracted Hollywood’s attention more than once. An 11-year veteran at The Martin Agency, John Ryland was once known for handling large accounts, such as Miller Genuine Draft, and on the side, building a short track racecar and personally racing it for the firm at Southside Speedway. In the evenings Ryland continued to tinker with cars and bikes. But it wasn’t until a colleague at Martin let him borrow his motorcycle that he became hooked.

Ryland’s interest in alt bikes grew as he began modifying motorcycles out of his home garage for other employees at Martin. Modifying motorcycles can be fun and engaging at the same time, and sometimes with a few changes, it can do wonders in transforming vehicles. Yamaha graphics kits or other graphics kits, for example, could be used to make motorcycles look visually appealing and boost the masculine appeal of motorcycles. As luck would have it, Ryland was laid off from the local ad agency in 2011, allowing an opportunity to turn his hankering for bikes into a fulltime gig, he’d soon be importing different types of bikes from all over the place and has even used a motorcycle shipping service to deliver his creations. His contacts in the auto world have meant he has been able to purchase and have delivered some otherwise hard to attain motorcycle parts. Before long, Ryland’s hobby turned boutique business exploded and his team’s work was recently landed on AMC’s The Walking Dead. He aims to continue to grow, expanding his business to all corners of the US – using motorcycle shipping to ensure they get there safely.

As a fan of the show, and all things post-apocalyptic, Ryland was honored when Norman Reedus, the actor who plays Daryl Dixon on The Walking Dead, followed him on Twitter and then sent an email asking him to build a custom XV920R. It wasn’t long after the first bike that a call came from The Walking Dead’s showrunner resulting in custom orders for not one, but two additional bikes to be used in this year’s show. Ryland, whose bike build queue was full, says the project required all hands on deck for a short and frantic timeframe. The end result was a unique piece of art that we’re sure was as fun for Reedus to ride on set as it was for TV viewers to dream of owning.

To create this utilitarian-looking road warrior, the team at Classified Moto used a 1992 Honda CB750 Nighthawk and added a Yamaha YZF-R6 frontend. Then there was the modified exhaust with custom baffles and a custom crossbow mount for Reedus’ zombie hunting character on the show. Powder-coated, low, and futuristic, the finished product had a look that could only be Classified.

The hard work paid off and Ryland’s team was invited to the set where they had an opportunity to ride with Reedus. AMC documented the extremely detailed process of building the bikes, part by part, in a video tribute to Classified Moto, which was shot here in Richmond. Since that time motorcycle blogs and niche publications have featured the bike as the show’s fans eagerly await its return appearance when The Walking Dead starts again in October.

This isn’t the first time Classified Moto has had a brush with Hollywood however. Not long ago Classified built a bike for Café Racer, which airs on Discovery’s Velocity channel, as well as custom built bike for the movie Reciprocity. And there was that one time when Jay Leno personally called Ryland’s cell phone to give him props for his side project, Classified Moto Lamp – a vintage lamp featuring salvaged spares from Japanese motorcycles of the ‘70s and ‘80s welded together in a simple, elegant design.

While quietly working with their hands here in Richmond with little hometown press, Ryland and team have managed to garner international headlines for their work on both bikes and lamps that have been sent to Sydney, Anchorage, Barcelona, and London, to name a few. Out-of-town fans of Classified Moto have been known to visit Richmond from abroad in hopes of figuring out exactly where Ryland’s alt-moto design shop is hidden.

Meanwhile, Classified Moto continues to land itself in hotspots like Playboy’s gift guide, Inked, Popular Mechanics, and Top Gear. Then there’s social media, where Classified Moto has well over 65,000 followers on platforms like Instagram. Each of these publications and media outlets tend to focus on the unique way Classified Moto goes about building modern retro bikes.

“We are big fans of bringing old, discarded things back to life,” Ryland says. While they weren’t the first to start putting modern front ends on older bikes, Classified Moto has clearly popularized this approach and overall interest in front end swaps has spiked. The decidedly Classified Moto look first came about with their first XS850-to-R6 swap that rocked the motosphere. Classified’s signature look typically features fat, inverted gold forks that are essentially opposite or upside down when compared to conventional forks. But remember, Ryland doesn’t care much for convention. He, therefore, routinely borrows from his love of sport bikes, which use inverted forks for high rigidity and performance, and has helped fuel an industry-wide trend toward fork conversions, also called a “triple tree swap.”

While many enthusiasts line up to have Classified Moto build a bike for them, ranging from $17,000 to $38,000, others pay the local outfit $485 for a triple tree exchange service that essentially modifies an existing bike with customer-supplied parts. In other words, people the world over pay Ryland to bolt a badass front end onto an existing bike as if it were factory-made. However its customers choose to engage with Classified Moto, the result is always the same: an unforgettable bike that has a hefty dose of creativity with a nice balance of quality and price. Not to mention, when you ride one of Classified’s bikes, it looks and feels like a battle-scarred suit of armor.

To handle the increased demand for these beauties, Classified has ramped up. They’ve brought in Alex Martin as a partner as well as lead tech Danik Herashchanka, who moved to Richmond for an opportunity to build bikes with Classified and even slept in a bunk in the garage as he searched for a home in RVA. In addition to growing its in-house, Classified regularly teams up with local machine shop Maxum Machine and master welder Casey Hyatt.

Ryland says that he hopes to release three new Classified builds at McCormack’s Big Whiskey Grill in the coming months. While the growing Classified team plans to keep its studio relatively secret, Ryland hints that he’ll continue to look for subtle ways to let Richmond know it’s home to one of the most celebrated bike builders and chop shops around. You may even see Grid delivering a few magazines on one of these futuristic antiques before you know it.

CategoriesInnovators, Makers, Work

Publisher and Editor in Chief of Richmond Grid magazine, a conscious lifestyle publication designed to celebrate how the region works, lives and plays. Richmond Grid magazine is a B-Certified business that uses a community-based, solution-oriented approach to shift the region for good.