Get your motor runnin’Published 7:52pm Monday, May 21, 2012
Tom “Stumpy” Neumann has nailed the biker look.
With a fluffy, uneven mustache that’s headed from blonde to gray, along with his thin goatee and long, scraggly hair, he’d probably look like like the prototypical biker even if he were dressed in a suit and tie. Add the black leather skullcap, the faded and torn blue jeans, the black sweatshirt, the stud in his left ear and the wallet chain hanging on his hip, and the picture is complete.
Neumann, who owns Stumpy’s Biker Barn on Shoulders Hill Road in Suffolk, epitomizes the image of the iconic American biker. His tiny shop, which has been open since 2007 in a building that was once used as a heifer barn on the Lotz family’s 300-acre farm in the years before that area sprang into the Hampton Roads marketplace with its retail and residential boom, has the gritty, cluttered feel of a place run by a man for whom motorcycles — and not the faddish aura that often surrounds them — are the important thing.
“There was always a Harley in the driveway when I was a kid,” he recalled. “The bikes were just something that interested me.”
Neumann spent his childhood in New York, where he had dozens of cousins who lived within shouting distance. His father and uncle were both motorcycle police officers.
He earned the moniker “Stumpy” by jumping over old tree stumps on motorcycles as a teen — and then he sealed it as an adult by grinding stumps as a heavy equipment operator, which was his full-time job until he got the chance to live his dream of working full-time on motorcycles.
“At this time in my life, it’s a labor of love,” he said. “You’re not going to get rich. Getting-rich days are over. I kind of just do it to keep myself out of trouble.”
In most people’s getting-rich days, Neumann was serving in the U.S. Air Force and even traveling the rodeo circuit, riding bulls and roping calves. But there always have been motorcycles in the picture.
Neumann got his first bike, a 1966 Harley-Davidson Shovelhead, at the age of 17 and then rebuilt it. The bike is featured in many of the photos on the wall of his office. There have been other bikes — probably about 30, he estimates — but this one obviously holds a special place in his heart.
These days, he loves just about any motorcycle — domestic or foreign, regardless of make, model, design or paint scheme. He just loves motorcycles. When he talks about them or about his grandchildren, he smiles, and the lines in a face that has clearly seen some hard miles become even more distinct. And when he greets a visitor with a handshake, calluses and spots of grease on his hands attest to long years of working on bikes and engines.
And Neumann is all about the bike.
Take a look around the three-room shop and you’ll find walls and display cases filled with chromed exhaust pipes, leather seats, rubber gaskets and seals and a plethora of parts and accessories identifiable only to someone accustomed to building, rebuilding and customizing motorcycles of all descriptions.
In the workroom, bits and pieces of motorcycles are everywhere. There’s hardly a complete motorcycle in sight, but several customers’ bikes sit outside, under a couple of tents. An old library card catalog cabinet holds screws, nuts, bolts and any small part or tool that will fit. Larger items hang on the wall from floor to ceiling. Where there’s nothing hanging, there are phone numbers written on the wall for friends, customers and pizza delivery.
At his rarely-used desk sits a ceramic toad wearing a ceramic-leather hat and jacket. On the other side is a dust-covered computer monitor that hasn’t worked in two months, ever since a car slid into the power pole outside and fried his electronics.
“I’m not that type of person,” he says, explaining why there’s a monitor but no keyboard. In other words, not the kind that needs a computer to work.
There are a few collectibles and some Harley-Davidson jewelry here and there, but you won’t find much in the way of biker apparel — it’s just too much of a hassle, he says, and it takes away from the time he can spend on the work that made him start the business in the first place.
An example of that work sits in the small parking lot under a tent. “Vertebrae” is a chopper-style motorcycle that he built with an oil-cooled frame designed to evoke a spinal column. The bike features the largest tire manufactured for a motorcycle and a paint scheme designed to look like carbon fiber — two features he included just to try something new.
“You get bored with yourself, so you start working on things that are a challenge,” he said. “I’m not into flair. It’s all experimental.”
The motorcycle’s 12-foot length and wide rear tire belie its nimble handling, he said. But the design and unadorned features are completely true to Neumann’s style.
“Everybody has their own little style,” he said. His style is pretty simply defined — “hardtails, straight bars and fat tires.”
Hardtails, motorcycles without rear suspension, are his favorites. “You feel more of the road,” he said. “You know you’re riding. I’m not a Cadillac type of person.”
But he’s not a motorcycle snob, either. Hardtails or softails, imports or domestic or custom — they’ve all got a place, he said. His wife (the fourth one, he admits, the one for whom he moved to Virginia 12 years ago) has different taste in bikes, and he becomes almost as animated talking about her Harley-Davidson Road King Custom as he does when he talks about Vertebrae, his own creation.
Since she had back surgery, she’s unable to ride it anymore, and he’s been trying to sell it for a while; the poor economy has interfered with getting a good price. But Neumann isn’t worried. Even if he has to hang onto it for a while, it’s just one more in a long-running collection of motorcycles, one more way to connect to the freedom of the open road.