Sarah Lahalih is a motorcycle instructor, former racer, Triumph brand ambassador and all-around motorcycling enthusiast.
Sarah Lahalih’s abbreviated stat list includes a Golden Gloves boxing championship title and numerous successful business endeavors; years spent educating new riders and more recently writing the “Rider’s Corner” column for RideaTriumph.com. She’s also making her way into the customs world thanks to an exquisite 2013 Triumph Scrambler she is building with colleague Yoshi Kosaka of Garage Company.
We first found out about Lahalih after MotoUSA’s Cruiser Editor, Bryan Harley, spent a few days in southern California testing the new 2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander
. Lahalih, who has been a Triumph brand ambassador for a number of years, was along for the Commander ride. During that trip her work on the Scrambler came up in conversation, along with a few pictures. The images revealed a vintage-inspired machine with a wooden tail and leather-wrapped tank, custom spoke wheels and speedway-styled handlebars. We were intrigued so called Lahalih to find out more.
Lahalih’s always been a big fan of scramblers and when Triumph offered her one to customize, she jumped at the chance.
“I had a scrambler once, a CB350, but I had to sell it and I’ve always regretted doing that. I just love the look of them, particularly flat trackers and street trackers, and knew that it was a platform I wanted to use.”
One of the most striking features is the street tracker-inspired tail section, fashioned from wood by a furniture maker in Texas.
“I’m a big fan of wood and I had a chance to work with it in our high school’s tech shop,” explained Lahalih. “So when I decided I was going to go with a street tracker I knew that the seat had to be wood. I wanted it to be rolling art. Style came first, function came second and I don’t think practicality was ever really invited to the party. All the components, on paper, shouldn’t work, but they do work visually I think. I want to say the bike was really built around the seat.”
Lahalih then needed to decide on a plan for the tank. She tossed around the idea of going with paint, but was unable to find a color or design that resonated with the spirit she was looking to create with the machine.
“I then thought I might just do a textile and eventually decided on leather. What I wanted to do initially was brand the Triumph logo into the leather. But I learned a lot about leather though this whole process, and the type that I had wasn’t appropriate to be branded; it would have burned right through. So then I had a leather patch tooled with the Triumph logo that I was going to attach to it, but that didn’t seem to work either. I decided on embroidery, something that I’ve never seen before, which was inspired by that distressed, vintage Triumph logo. Because it was distressed it kind of looked like embroidery already so we decided to go that route.”
Engine work was minimal, except she did add carburation to keep with the vintage theme of the bike. Some of the more specialized one-off pieces, such as the speedway-inspired bars and wheels, were done by Kosaka. The front forks are standard springers and once the build returns from a tour across the country they’re going to add front drum brakes, taillight and turn signals and line-out the wiring harness.
Lahalih also added a leather harness for a Pendleton blanket, complete with custom leather-tooled Triumph logo, so riders of the machine are always prepared for the impromptu picnic. She named the machine “Lahalih-Wood” (her name, pronounced La Holly, allows for a play on words, which she loves, and also pays homage to the fact that the bike was built in Hollywood.)
Lahalih now spends much of her time training motorcycle instructors on military bases around the country.
While chatting with Lahalih I found the road to “Lahalih-Wood” is as interesting as the machine itself. She comes from a family far removed from motorcycling and she and her siblings didn’t ride at all growing up. Her brother had some friends with motorcycle however, and at 16 she found her way onto the back of one of their bikes. Riding pillion planted the seed and Lahalih started saving up. By age 17 she had enough to buy one of her own, a Honda Hurricane.
“It was painted a custom Hunter Green and if you ask my brother he’ll say it was the ugliest bike he’s ever seen! It had white rims and I just loved it. It was the biggest check I ever wrote. I saved up $2000 for my first motorcycle, even though I didn’t’ know how to ride.”
The first year-and-a-half with her bike proved to be rough. She self-taught during that time “and it was not pretty,” according to Lahalih. “I didn’t stay upright very often.”
She sought out safety courses, but at the time in Illinois there was just one state-supported free course available to her that had an incredibly long wait list. Patience paid off and her introductory training proved to be life changing.
“Once I went through the course and learned how to turn and stop the motorcycle I knew I wanted to become an instructor. I didn’t know I wanted to have a school, that was never in the plan but I knew I wanted to be an instructor. I appreciated the empowerment of knowledge so much; to not be afraid of this thing that I’d come to love.”
Two years after she completed that first training Lahalih got a job at the school as an instructor. The waitlist backlog to take the course had only gotten longer as well and it was apparent that the program was woefully incapable of meeting demand. Prior to the start of a new session there would regularly be 30 to 40 people waiting outside on standby, just in case someone slept-in or forgot to attend.
“Some of them had been waiting years to get in the program,” said Lahalih. “It never sat well with me that we couldn’t say ‘well there’s this guy, pay him $1000 and he’ll train you.’ There was no alternative to the state program. So I started offering private lessons on the weekends in our high school parking lot.
A token of gratitude for Lahalih's work training military riding
“I had one bike, a little Honda 200 Twin that I picked up from a swap meet, and I really thought it was ok. I figured if you could teach piano lessons you could teach motorcycle lessons. I found out about six months later that it was actually illegal and I could have gone to jail for it. As the law is written in Illinois, taking tuition for training on any motor vehicle means you’re considered a commercial driving school and you need to be licensed as one. In lieu of getting arrested I decided I would go the legal route. I woke up a few months later and had a full school.”
She called it, “Motorcycle Riding’s Cool” (another little play on words) and it took off. A few years later she opened Chicago Motorcycle Rental, which was the first motorcycle rental business in the Windy City to offer foreign motorcycles. During those years she also began working with the United States Department of Defense, training instructors of on-base motorcycle training courses for military riders.
“They did a study that revealed more military personnel were dying in off-duty recreational motorcycle accidents than in combat,” explained Lahalih. “A lot of guys were coming back from deployment having saved up a bunch of money and wanting something fast, whether a car or a motorcycle. Many didn’t necessarily have the skill to ride fast so rather than taking the privilege of riding a motorcycle away the military implemented mandatory training.
“There’s a few different levels of training so everybody, service-wide, has to take a basic course if they own a registered motorcycle, regardless of how many years they’ve been riding.
“We use the Motorcycle Safety Foundation curriculum and my job for the program was to train the instructors. I’d go to different bases around the United States and I would train up to 12 instructors so they could offer those courses on their respective bases.”
In addition to riding instruction Lahalih has raced as well, running in the Championship Cup Series while in Illinois. Since moving to California she’s done less racing, though did participate in a 24-hour event at Willow Springs aboard a 50cc machine.
Recently her work with Triumph allowed her to head out to the Bonneville Salt Flats where she got the chance to make a number of passes on a Rocket III Roadster. It was all for fun, but as it turns out there was no record on the books for a stock Rocket Three. Her first pass was clocked at 117 mph, the second at 120 and the final at 122. She couldn’t get any faster because tire slip was too great, but all-in-all it looked like she scored a commendable record her first time on the salt. That dream slipped through her fingers the next day when she was informed that she needed to have gone to tech immediately after her pass to have the engine sealed. Though the event was eventually rained out she did get a chance to ride a modified Rocket III as well.
“I went 142 on that,” said Lahalih. “The record is Jason DiSalvo’s though and that’s 176. I really thought my head was going to fall off at 142, so kudos to anyone going above that.”
In addition to her exploits as a motorcyclist, Lahalih was also one of the first female Golden Glove title-winning boxers in Chicago. This was back in the mid-‘90s, but I asked if she saw any parallels between boxing and motorcycling.
“It’s hard for me to explain my affinity for boxing and hand-to-hand combat because violence is not something I condone, I’m not a violent person, I don’t have a temper. There wasn’t a switch that was turned on when I was in the ring. There was something very primal about it, something very natural about the movement and the flow of it and so I saw it as more of an art form than a violent sport. If there is a parallel, that’s the parallel between riding a motorcycle, which is absolutely an art form.
“I think of the motorcycle as an extension of my body, I think most riders do, and coming back to the custom build, if motorcycles are extensions of our body then custom motorcycles are almost the ultimate form of self-expression.”
Lahalih already has plans for her next build thanks to all she learned in the process of putting “Lahalih-Wood” together.
“Even though I had a clear vision on how I wanted “Lahalih-Wood” to look there were so many other builds that were inspired by this that I have in mind. The vision is to definitely get my hands dirty on the next one; I learned a lot about sourcing different components and I’d like to do so some of them myself. The next one is definitely going to be hands-on, very hands-on.”