Common Tread

Inside ZLA: Our classic British expert takes a 1972 Triumph racing in the dirt

Feb 17, 2017

[12:00 PM] Joe Zito: i get people every week wanting to talk to you
[12:00 PM] Joe Zito: and dudes wanting to buy you pizza and beer
[12:01 PM] Lemmy: which is funny, because they are talking to you, and you are far more talented a rider and wrench than me.

That exchange happened the other day with Joe Zito, one of the RevZilla Gear Geeks. Apparently, some of our customers want to bypass Joe to talk to me. If only those people knew Joe’s skill level, they might change their tune. Like me, he’s also an old-bike guy, but his iron generally hails from the other side of the pond. One of his bikes he rides regularly has a heck of a story, because Joe changed the bike a lot — and the bike seems to have changed him, too.

If you've been around Philadelphia, you might even know Joe Zito and not know it. He's the guy who dreamt up and ran the Ride to Skate event that was Philadelphia's claim to fame in the hand-built bike scene for the better part of a decade. Like Joe, the show was known for its grit (it was held under a friggin' overpass, for the love-o'-Pete!), personality, and steadfast dedication to remaining grassroots.

Zito appreciates lots of different riders, and lots of different bikes. His garage is varied. He’s owned a few old Harleys, but at present he is Brit-heavy. Among others, he has a modern Tiger 800 XC, a rigid Trumpet short chopper, a Yamaha two-smoker street bike, and a 1972 Triumph TR6R Tiger.

That last bike — and what Zito has done with it — is noteworthy. He picked up the motorcycle a few years back from a buddy who is a tattoo artist. The buddy had done a tattoo and received the bike as payment, so Joe ponied up $700 and relieved the tattoo fella of the machine.

A very ugly before picture
Here was Zito's starting point: An aesthetically bankrupt British basket case traded for the price of a tattoo. Photo by Joe Zito.
“It was like an Eighties chopper, kinda-sorta," Zito explains. "It had this huge Corbin king-and-queen seat on it and the trans was locked up. I had to cut the chain off it to even move the motorcycle.”

Joe started rebuilding the bike in between the other bikes he had to work on. (Joe owns and operates Zito’s Vintage Cycle, his shop specializing in wheel building.) He repaired some cracks in the frame (Joe Z’s pretty lethal with a TIG stinger in hand) and got a new cluster for the transmission.

Here's Joe's dirt bike under construction. It was actually a pretty lightweight machine at this point. Photo by Joe Zito.

He decided to build himself an off-road bike. The king-and-queen was junked for a much smaller ass platform. He put a much narrower slimline Bonneville tank on the scoot. Because Joe’s a deep-down wheel guy, he laced his hubs up to a set of aluminum Excel rims. Out back is an 18-incher, and it’s joined by a 19 up front.

Engine underway
All you have to do to make a cool bike from a $700 special is rebuild the entire thing with new parts, valuing your labor and time at next to nothing. What a bargain! Photo by Joe Zito.

Suspension had to stay at stock travel because of the rules for the racing Joe planned to do, so he outfitted the bike with Works Performance shocks and fork internals. When he took apart the engine to rebuild it, the cylinders appeared to be “siamesed,” indicating that someone loved the bike enough at some point to install one of Sonny Routt’s old big-bore kits, punching the British brawler up to 750 cc.

Rebuilding an old Triumph is a noble endeavor (endeavour?), but it’s not all that rare. Lots of people have taken apart an old bike and refreshed it. What makes Joe Zito’s Triumph special is what he’s done with it. Joe understands the difference between a modern dirt machine and his bike, but he doesn’t seem to care. He began running the bike off-road with friends as soon as he finished putting it together at the end of 2015.

“I had to break it in riding with guys on modern bikes because I don’t know anyone else who rides old shit off-road. These guys were kind of taking it easy, and I was at 110 percent just trying to keep up,” he said. Once it was broken in, Zito wanted to prove his own mettle, so he signed up for the AHRMA Mid-Atlantic Vintage Cross Country series.

“Tracks are usually 3.5 to 4.5 miles long and offer a wide range of trail conditions, from single track, grass track and fire roads. All races are one hour plus a lap on the leader.“

“To qualify for awards, I needed to run six races," Zito said. "I did seven. It would have been more, but my top end went bad, and the bike was down. The stock airbox on those bikes is this big cast aluminum thing that let a bunch of sand in and it ruined the engine. I rebuilt it and replaced that airbox with a small K&N air cleaner."

“There was no one else in my class, so I was in first place every race, but I still rode as hard as I could.” (I can confirm this; we entered an event together recently, and Joe rode his ass off. I was sucking wind, and he seemed as fresh as a summer breeze!)

“AHRMA enduros are hard, but not like a modern enduro," Zito explained. "But there was still some pretty gnarly stuff out there. It’s not easy by any means! My bike is the biggest and heaviest out there. I have like my own little fan club, because everyone knows how hard it is to race this street bike out there. Everyone else is on a single, because by 1972, you could get a real dirt machine, not a twin masquerading as an off-road bike. Also, you don’t need to be street legal, but my bike is, which adds even more weight.”

Joe in the snow.
See Joe. See Joe go. See Joe go in the snow. Joe going in the snow is a hell of a show. Photo by Brittany Thomas.

Joe wasn’t done there, though. He rode the Michaux Dual Sport Event, racking up over 100 miles and completing most B- and C-level options. Then he did the Hammer Run, racking up 80 more. After that came the Mountaineer Vintage Enduro in West Virginia.

“Somehow the fucker didn’t blow up,” he said with a laugh. And just a short while ago, I watched Zito slay all sort of other bikes in the Appalachian Moto Jam Snow Hillclimb, where he won first place in the British, Hot Rod Multi Heavy, and Vintage Heavy classes. Thank goodness I didn’t have to race him in my class. I was whupped!

Zito's trophies
The big trophy was from when the bike earned second place at the Triumph National Rally bike show last summer in the "Competition" class. Then it won first place in a cross country race the next day. Show and go! Photo by Joe Zito.

Joe’s shop walls are covered in awards at this point.

“Usually you get just this little token plaque with a picture, but they mean a lot to me," he said. "And I have three of the same Class Winner T-shirts from the Moto Jam!” He recently went to the Potomac Vintage Riders Awards banquet, which he took pretty seriously.

“I wasn’t good at school or sports or anything as a kid. I skateboarded a lot. But, if I have grandkids ever, I could tell them about this. It was cool to try something new.”

Joe's Triumph
This bike is purpose-built, and it shows. Full knobbies, high fender, high pipes, nasty motor, and alloy wheels. Dual-Sportsters, eat your heart out. Photo by Joe Zito.

Joe plans to race another season this year. He’s getting a van so he can bring the bike, his wife, and their dog to the races so he can sleep over the night before and not scramble to get to the event location. He’s optimistic about keeping the bike running, too.

“I just dig Triumphs. I have enough parts to fix anything that goes wrong on this bike,” he said.

A post shared by Joe Zito (@zitos_vintage_cycle) on

While Joe has done a lot with the old Triumph, the bike has also changed him. It has given him a refreshed outlook on motorcycles. Though he has built quite a few very classy show bikes, the Triumph is a quiet reminder that flashy paint, fancy fabrication, and all the “cool-kid” parts aren’t needed to have a really neat motorcycle. It’s also a tribute to the fact that on a “smiles per dollar” basis, it’s hard to beat an old motorcycle. Not only does the rider have a big goofy grin on his face, but so do a lot of people nodding their approval on the enduro course as Joe roars by on his big ol’ Trumpy.

“For a $700 motorcycle and a lot of my labor, it’s given me a lot of joy and takes the pressure off the show bike scene," he said. "This bike reignited the fun of building for me.”