The cat’s meow |

The cat’s meow

Scott Condon
Bare Bonz Choppers

ASPEN ” Why settle for a hog when you can ride a tiger? The fellas at Bare Bonz Choppers in El Jebel designed a bizarre-looking bike that incoroprates the skull and bones of a sabertooth tiger into its design. The lethal cat was good enough to take second place Aug. 9 in “the most unusual” category at a custom bike show competition at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

“I always wanted to be different and stand out,” said master blacksmith Vaughn Shafer, who came up with the design along with partner Bill “Bonz” Rathbone and their team.

The Sabertooth Tiger Chopper features a skull, complete with six-inch power canines, menacingly glares from the front of the handlebars. The spine and rib cage protect two lung-shaped gas tanks. Hip bones, femurs, tibias and fibulas fill out the chassis. The kickstand is a lower leg bone with paw. The transmission linkage is a radius and ulna bones.

“This is a collage of all our imaginations. There were a lot of good ideas and a lot of ideas thrown away,” Shafer said.

The “skeleton” is actually metal formed into the shape of bones then covered with a powder coating that gives it an eerily realistic appearance and feel. Shafer and his wife Lori run a business called Iron Arts and Interiors in El Jebel. Vaughn incorporates replica skeletons of elk and other big game into the sculpture and pieces he creates for the business. That inspired him to pursue the sabertooth design for a chopper.

The scale of the skeleton on the chopper is in scale with the extinct cat and it is anatomically correct, Shafer said. Their mechanical collaborator, Glen Niemeyer, incorporated a 120 Ultima engine and six-speed transmission into the pro street model bike. The engine and tires were the only part of the bike that wasn’t hand built.

Ivan Sorensen, a blacksmith, rounded out the Bare Bonz core team but several of their friends helped out, including their wives, who put up with them spending long hours in their workshop in the heart of El Jebel.

The Sabertooth took three years and roughly $50,000 to create. All of the primary builders have day jobs, so they worked on the chopper during evenings when they could. The creators wouldn’t hazard a guess of how many thousands of hours of labor went into the bike.

Bonz hauled the Sabertooth Tiger Chopper to Sturgis in a glass-sided trailer that looks like President Lincoln’s hearse with Grateful Dead decor. Travelers would zoom by him on interstate highways, do a double-take then slow down to gawk.

Once at Sturgis, the bike was often displayed in the trailer with special effects from a fog machine and lights. “The joke was if we left it out at night it would chase deer and rabbits,” said Bonz. “And small children,” added Niemeyer.

Sturgis is to cycling what Aspen is to skiing. Hundreds of thousands of riders and spectators converge on the South Dakota town each August for the rally. Winning a top spot in the custom-bike show sponsored by a bar called Rat’s Hole guarantees tons of exposure, particularly in the “most unique” category.

The Bare Bonz team said tens of thousands of people checked out the bike while it was displayed at Sturgis. They became celebrities of sorts once the 25 judges awarded them second. “I was taking pictures of people taking pictures,” said Niemeyer.

The men felt they had a winning entry for the custom-bike show. They were aced out only by a sleek cycle called “The Time Machine” that was entered by a team from Budapest, Hungry.

Rest assured the Bare Bonz Choppers team tipped a few beers to celebrate their strong showing. “Rock stars partied with us, seriously,” said Bonz. The metal group Poison, one of the performers at the show, invited the team backstage. The ZZ Top dudes, famous for their flowing beards, also checked out the Sabertooth during the rally.

The celebration party continues in El Jebel this Sunday, Aug. 26. The chopper will displayed at the Short Stop bar in El Jebel from noon until 7 p.m.

The winners of the competition didn’t earn cash. “That’s more for bragging rights,” Niemeyer said.

But the exposure could turn the Sabertooth Tiger Chopper into a money maker. The Bare Bonz team was invited to compete in the Thunder in the Rockies custom bike show in Loveland, Colo., later this month. That competition and others they hope to enter pay cash prizes.

“We all stuck our necks out ” forever ” it seemed like,” Shafer said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is