Hugo Moto gets dirty with American iron

Jan 17, 2017

Nico Danan has led an interesting life.

Born in France, Nico calls America home. He quit riding motorcycles at 18 after a crash left him hospitalized. Turning to a different form of adventure, he appeared on a CBS TV show working as a chief deep-sea diver for the Cousteau family. That led to an appearance on the History Channel for his work developing a man-powered submarine to cross the Atlantic. Life was good until a series of misfortunes left him unemployed in Silicon Valley when the tech bubble burst.

Moving back home to Florida, Nico took a position in his father’s company fulfilling defense contracts for the U.S. government. While it paid the bills and kept the wolves at bay, it did nothing to fulfill Nico’s passions. Then one day his job brought him to the doorstep of Christian Travert’s machine shop.

Hugo Moto World Tour Kit
A prototype of the World Tour kit. Photo by Hugo Moto.

Nico picks up the story from there. 

When Nico met Christian

“I worked for my dad. And my dad needed a part for his business, like a CNC-machined part. It was my job to find a place to make it,” Nico started.

Hugo Moto Exhaust
It's all in the curves. The aftermarket exhaust included with the World Tour kit. Photo by Hugo Moto.
“And then I ended up going to Christian to see about making the part, and we started talking about motorcycles. I had started riding again, back in 2007 when I was working on this diving project and my boss at the time had all kinds of motorcycles hanging around. There were Harleys, BMWs, and Ducatis. Everything. He just was like, go ride anything. My mom wasn’t there to stop me like when I was 18 so I just kinda jumped into it.

“Walking into Christian’s shop was like that experience all over again. There were motorcycles everywhere. I mean, everywhere. I was like, there’s a V-Rex custom creation that Christian built and then there was this crazy Hayabusa supermotard creation that he still hasn't finished. It's like one of those never-ending project bikes.

“Christian is one of those creators that creates like 10,000 billion things throughout the years. And then you know, some things pan out and some things he doesn't have the time to take care of, so he just gets busy with whatever moves forward. I totally forgot about the part I was sent there to ask about and just told him we should work on a project together.”

The spark for Hugo Moto was born. With help from Nico's father Chris, the men founded Hugo Moto, company’s whose goal is to manufacture kits that allow Harley-Davidson Sportster owners to transform their bikes into legitimate off-road machines. 

Who is Christian Travert?

There's more than one reason Christian’s name could sound familiar. He was hand-picked by Ted Mclntyre of MTT to design their Y2K Turbine Superbike. The Y2K is powered by a Rolls-Royce Model 250-C18 gas turbine engine producing a claimed 320 horsepower at 52,000 rpm. In addition to his reputation in the custom bike circles, he is also an accomplished rally racer. 

Christian Travert with Jay Leno
Christian delivering Jay Leno his MTT Turbine Superbike. Photo from Hugo Moto.

Nico originally wrote an article for Common Tread about Christian surviving the Atlas Rally in 1987 after a crash in the Sahara Desert left him stranded at a time before electronic tracking devices made it easier to be found by teammates and rescue crews. Despite barely surviving the ordeal, Christian continued racing professionally until a friend was killed during the Dakar Rally. He made a promise to his mother that he would give up rally racing but the spark was not extinguished. It just took on new forms.

Christian Travert Rally Racing
Christian Travert back in his racing days. Photo from Christian Travert's personal collection.

“After getting out of racing he started importing vintage muscle cars to France, but he fell in love with America and eventually moved to the States and became a U.S. citizen," Nico said. “Technically, I am French, but I've been all over the map. I've lived in Panama for a few years. I relate to a lot of different cultures. I speak a few languages. I am where I am. I am American. I am French. But not Christian, he's the typical example of a first-generation immigrant. I mean that's the whole story about this country. We’re all immigrants.

“I think that people who have moved and left everything behind, started life again here in this country, are so American. I mean, like there's flags everywhere. They buy only American products, and Christian is one of those. That's who he is. When we started talking about creating Hugo Moto it was never a question, we had to use Harley-Davidsons.”

What is Hugo Moto?

Of course the idea is not new. Over the years, lots of "dual-Sportsters" have been built by garage hacks and talented customizers alike. Plenty of Common Tread readers were hoping an American company would produce a competent adventure bike, but instead Victory shut down and Harley has pulled back. Hugo Moto's plan is to enable Sportster owners to do it themselves with a a kit that draws on Christian's rally racing knowledge and converts a Sportster into what Hugo Moto claims to be a competent adventure motorcycle.

Having ridden quite a few of the current OEM scramblers and ADV bikes, with a few longer off-road rallies under my belt on my Tiger 800 XCx, I was skeptical. The idea of building a true off-road bike out of a Sportster doesn’t sound sensible to my mind. Nico argues that it does make sense for a world traveler.

Early Hugo Moto Sportster with World Tour Kit
An early mock up of the World Tour kit. Note: the belt drive is still in place in this earlier version, but will be replaced by a chain and sprocket in the production kit. Illustration by Hugo Moto.

“The Sportster is one of the most sold motorcycles in the world. You find it everywhere, and everybody can work on it, and the engine is simple," Nico says.

“Since we are starting first in the U.S., as far as distributing the kit, there are so many Sportsters on the aftermarket. I don't know how many people I've been to their house and there's a Sportster sitting in the garage that hasn't been used for many years, and it was bought for the kid or the wife or whoever else, and it's just sitting there.

“So why don't you do something fun with it, you know?”

The World Tour Kit

Hugo Moto's idea of "something fun" is the World Tour Kit, designed to fit 2006 and newer Sportster 883 and 1200 models. While Nico says the contents of production kit are still being finalized, riders can expect to see new fork components, rear suspension, wheels, tires, exhaust, a new headlight, foot peg relocation, chain and sprockets, a skid plate, and different handlebars.

Hugo Moto World Tour Kit
The standard World Tour kit.

Of all of those goodies, Nico insists it’s the suspension that steals the show.

“We went with a custom-made setup from EMC. And that's the interesting thing, now that I've said Christian has that pride about the U.S., but now EMC is a full-on French company that Christian knows from his racing. They manufacture suspension for quads and racing motorcycles along with units for, you know, the normal consumer. So they came out with a 409 for Harleys. My dad put a set on his Harley and it's phenomenal. And I have EMC also on my Tiger, which completely changed the bike.

“To give you an example that's a cool little story. We went to Daytona last year and spent some time with the Kawasaki and the Triumph flat-track team. And we did some tests, and they actually swapped both teams from Penske shocks to EMC, and the Triumph team almost gained a second in the lap changing from the Penske. These guys know what they're doing. They've been going at it for decades.”

Sporty owners considering the kit can expect to see about seven inches of travel from the fork and a little over six inches at the shocks. Ground clearance has been increased to just over 11 inches. In the end, Nico insists that they’ll end up with a capable off-roading machine. The cost for the kit? The World Tour kit is set to retail at $4,200.

Hugo Moto World Tour HP kit
The World Tour HP Kit.

"There will also be a World Tour HP kit, which will include higher performance components and cut weight, sub-500 pounds for a Sportster," Nico tells me. But. it comes at a price. The HP kit costs over double that of the standard kit, carrying a price tag of $8,950. 

“So here's the beauty,” Nico explained. “There are two options to consider when selecting a donor bike. The first one is I find a beat up Sportster and, let's say the wheel's all beat up, and you don't care because you're just putting the kit on it.  You're not gonna use those parts anyways. So you can find a beat up Sportster for like, $2,500 or $3,500 bucks and build your bike.

“On the other hand there’s the guy that has a little more disposable income that wants a brand spanking new Harley. Well he can sell his stock wheels and exhaust on eBay and make a ton of money, and end up paying for part of his kit just by reselling the parts he's not using.

“You end up with this really cool custom bike. We have a designer based in Italy, Luca, that's been working with us as well. He's part of the design team, and he basically worked with Christian on looking at parts, and designing them. He did all the rendering on all our graphics and stuff like that.

Original Foot peg redesign
An early prototype of the foot peg relocation bracket. Photo by Hugo Moto.

“And the cool thing about Luca is that he graduated from the industrial design department of Turin Polytechnic University, which is the university in Italy for automobile and motorcycle design. I mean, that's where Ferrari's based and a lot of designers from Ducati came from there. So he's just amazing. I mean the team we have right now is super small, but it's just like everybody's completely passionate about motorcycles.

“So it's cool. I mean we stayed true to the classic design of Harley with, I think, a little bit of a European touch. Like you can tell, like there are some parts, especially the skid plate and exhaust lines, they have that little Italian flair.”

Expected time of arrival

According to Nico, Christian is in the last stages of figuring out ways to make it even easier to install the kit. And that was the intent from the beginning, to create something new from an existing staple, but to make it easy to install so anyone can do it.

“We wanted it to be pretty easy, a complete bolt-on unit. We were going to include new triple tree clamps but we decided against it for simplicity's sake. We might even be able to make Lemmy happy because we have one here sitting in the shop that's carbureted.”

Hugo Moto Garage
Hugo Moto with their first kits installed: Christian Travert (left), Nico Danan (center) and Chris Danan (right). Photo by Hugo Moto.

“Christian is like Lemmy, right? At the beginning, he's like, 'Oh fuck that. I don't want injection.' And I'm like, 'Dude, like we just bought bikes with injection. Let's just build those up.' He's like, 'No, no, no. I don't want injection. I want carburetors.' So he built a bike carbureted for himself.

“Then yesterday, he started riding the injected one, and he's like, 'Oh, this is really smooth. It's really nice.' I'm like, 'Man, too late. You're keeping the carbureted one. This one’s mine!'"

While I am not completely sold on the Sportster as a true adventure bike, I have to admit, Hugo Moto has put quite a bit of R&D into their kit. The real question is going to be how this thing handles true off-road conditions. I already have a plan: We give Lemmy the carbureted one. I'll take the fuel-injected one. We see who can break it first.