Under sunny skies I get on the road to Koropi near Athens to meet Jorge of Homo Ratus (translation: Rat Man).
From the outside his garage looks like a stable, because that’s what it is. It’s surrounded by a few houses, fields and hills – remote and peaceful Greece in full force. The stable walls are made of old white rocks, and behind the metal gate the first thing I encounter is a massive pile of empty beer bottles.
With a grin I imagine this is a sign of what’s to come today and possibly the whole weekend. I’m welcomed by Jorge: “Come in my friend, come in!” Looking around the courtyards my eyes see gold everywhere: rotten rusty gold that you’d expect to find in old mechanic’s yard. There are old classic bikes, vintage VWs in various states of disassembly, engines, rotting 2CVs, an old Merc (a runner!), and other parts everywhere. Between the cattle feeding quarters and milking area it’s like an organic junkyard.
I continue the tour and meet a lovely unassuming man called Panos, the other resident of the stables. He is a VW fanatic working exclusively on air cooled motors.
When I get inside the actual stable I can’t believe my eyes. It’s a mixture of old style saloon/biker gaff, with a garage section, long bar, live band area with drum kit, sofas, bikes hanging on the wall, the odd engine on the bar and a couple of ginger kittens. Everything seems just right, like it was always meant to be there, and I have to confess I’m a little jealous. I wish I had such a space to do what I please with bikes and friends.
His girlfriend Elisabeth is also there, and she offers me the most delicious Greek pastries I have ever tried. The coffee Jorge ordered via phone has arrived with a scooter delivery and we sit and chat. “The first time I came here there were only the walls and roof.
Everything else is made by us – the wiring, the bar counter, plumbing, everything – all with no money, a little at a time. Every weekend, friends. come over, we have a good time, a BBQ, beers and do some work,” he says. Sure enough people soon start to roll in on all sorts of bikes and it feels more like a clubhouse than a workshop. These are not customers but friends, and the vibe is chilled. No one seems in a rush to have any projects finished, which obviously suits Jorge down to the ground – good times and no pressure!
It’s midday, the BBQ gets lit and the first few beers are popped. I ask if the locals mind all the bikes coming and going but I’m told they are fine. Jorge says: “We are careful with the neighbours. We don’t want to piss people off. In the week we are not here, there is only Panos working on the VWs. We are here at the weekend and we take it easy.”
The Homo Ratus stable is a recent project – Jorge only took it on in 2014. Until then he tells me he was working from his home garage, repairing his own bikes and those of his friends who came to visit. But ultimately it all started way before that. “My grandpa gave me a bike as a present, and with my father’s tools I started fixing it. And then my friends asked me to help them with their bikes. I used the same tools to fix the BSA, then I chopped it – long before any of the café racer craze came about.”
Jorge’s nickname is Rusty, and that seems pretty fitting. No bike around his stable has seen any paint in the last 20 years, and that just adds to their beauty. The casual and irreverent rat style embraced by Homo Ratus comes through everything in the most genuine way. There is no failed pro-builder aspiration here, it’s just the way it feels right for Jorge.
“All the people ask me, ‘are you gonna paint it?’ No, I’m not! ‘Why is this rusty?’ Because I like it!” The bikes around the stable are mostly ratty bobbers and bratty gems from another time, reincarnations of what used to be someone else’s pride. You see BSAs, Royal Enfields, Harleys and Yamahas scattered around, and more projects and engines in all sorts of states.
I ask the story behind the engine on the bar top. “I destroyed this engine when I was drunk, after a concert. It didn’t run very well, I revved it and broke it. I fucked up. You have to love engines, say good words… please don’t let me down, please don’t die.”
But not all the motorcycles here are Jorge’s, some belong to friends who like to keep them here and be part of the family, or they want to do a build at some point. But there is no rush in Jorge’s mind: “A friend of mine told me he wanted a bike, and he bought this Royal Enfield. But it’s unfinished and I don’t want to finish it, I like it here.”
Of course Jorge likes to chop and customise and he has many projects laying around, but he also has clear ideas: “Yes I like to cut bikes but you can’t cut everything. This is a BMW R51. I can’t cut something like this.” It’s great to do what you love without any pressure, but it wasn’t always like this for Jorge, as he did try and build professionally for a couple of years. Through Facebook and word of mouth people were getting to know his work and began calling, so he did two Yamaha SR500s and a BMW GS for clients, but in the end all his money was going to pay expenses and tax, so he decided to be free and do the bikes he wanted just for fun and for friends. “I don’t want money. You can bring beers, or if you want to put some money there for the stable electricity that’s fine by me.”
It’s still tough days for Greece, and it looks like there is not enough disposable cash for speedshops to flourish, so many people build on their own. “You’ll find nice projects, but you’ll find also very freaky projects,” says Jorge. In the end though, the broken economy is what allows people like Jorge to get an old stable and turn it into something special, fuelling creativity and freedom of life without spending bags of cash. But you still need the odd job to put gas in the tank. Jorge works in a shipping company at Athens’ airport.
All through our chat Jorge is prepping the bikes for the next day’s Rotten Race (see page 14). Nothing too fancy as you can expect, just swapping some tyres over so that he can stay upright on the dusty oval. I want to try the Royal Enfield with the suicide gearshift, as I‘ve never ridden one, and I jump in the saddle. “Are you sure you want to ride this? Because the hospitals are very bad here,” is my incentive to do it. I take off.
It’s pretty confusing at first, but I do have an advantage – the gearshift is on the right, just like cars in my native Italy, so I just pretend I’m in my father’s old Fiat 126 and speed through the deserted junctions. Excited by the speed and increased risk levels I decide to try the beautiful BSA too, just to make sure Jorge will be safe at tomorrow’s race, you know. “This bike doesn’t have first gear,” he says. “Only second, so don’t kill yourself, okay? We want to see tomorrow. I told Nikos [who runs the race] it’s 11bhp – I don’t want to race with monsters.”
The brake pedal is on the left, but behind the footrest, and memories of trying to stop downhill bicycle rides with my feet come to mind. The BSA is not easy to stop, but we are in the middle of nowhere and thankfully there are no stray Greeks crossing the road. After a few pictures on the road and a few doughnuts in the fields, we declare the bikes sound, sort of, and go back to the stable to join the BBQ. Friends keep arriving and we cook, laugh and drink. It’s soon evening and we’ve had more beers than I can count. “You see all these bikes?” asks Jorge, “I buy them, I don’t sell, I don’t want to sell anything. I’m not gonna sell any of these. I might have 50 bikes but I won’t sell them. If I have too many bikes when I’m 60 I will give them away as gifts. If a kid comes and says ‘oooh, I love this’, I’ll say, okay, take it!” I’ve only met Jorge this morning, but I believe him.