Sixteen-year-old Emmi Cupp built a custom 1958 T20 Triumph Tiger Cub, accidentally entered it in Roland Sands’ Coronavirus Bike Build-off … and walked away with third place!
Words by Joy Burgess
Photos courtesy of Harleigh Cupp and AMD World Championship
Think of this for a moment. You’re sixteen. You’re a girl. You’re just into high school, and whether you’re a girly girl or a bit of a tomboy, you likely do certain things. Clothes. Studies. Boys, maybe. Friends. Parties. Social Media. Sports, biking or dance, or any manner of things young ladies do.
But welding? Machining parts? Rebuilding cylinder heads? Lacing wheels? Hammering out gas tanks? Leather working? And assembling all that in your family’s shop among drill presses and welding torches and lathes and workbenches piled high with tools?
For 16-year-old Emmi Cupp, the latter scenario is her life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way…
Back in May of 2020, Thunder Press highlighted Emmi Cupp in its ‘Women in Motorcycling’ issue. She’s been busy working on her bike build ‘Aunt Tiny’ since then, but there’s so much more to her story. The young bike builder isn’t just walking in her father’s footsteps, she’s making her own path in the industry.
Emmi’s been around bikes and bike building all her life, watching her dad work in the machine shop building show-winning bikes. Nearly a spitting image of her father with stunning red hair she often wears in braids, she’s been hanging around the shop and all her dad’s bike buddies for years, and somewhere along the way she fell in love with it, too.
It’s not really a surprise she decided to build a bike of her own, one assembled from a rusted-out 1958 Triumph Tiger Cub. But winning third place in Roland Sands’ Coronavirus Bike Build-off…now that was a surprise to everyone – especially considering she had no idea she’d entered the build-off until she found she was a top-three finalist.
Emmi’s done something few 16-year-old girls (or boys) have done, but she’s far from finished. It doesn’t matter that she just added her own third place trophy to the collection of trophies her father’s won; she’s already planning her next bike build, and her dad is asking for her ideas on his next build. And there’s a good chance this dad and daughter duo are two to watch in the world of custom bike building.
Bike Building: A Family Affair
Long before Emmi tried her hand at bike building her father, Jeremy Cupp, was blazing a trail as a custom bike builder himself. “For my Dad,” Emmi said, “bike building started off as no more than a hobby. He was always into mechanics and fabrication. But like any hobby it got expensive, so he started his bike parts company LC Fabrication to help pay for his hobby.”
“His first builds were such a success,” she continued, “that he decided to keep going. His work has been recognized many times in the motorcycle industry.” That’s probably a bit of an understatement.
Jeremy Cupp was the Ultimate Builder National Champ in both 2012 and 2015, and he took second place at the AMD World Championships in 2012. He dominated both Artistry in Iron and the AIM Expo with his build in 2015, and even landed a spot for two of his bikes in the Haas Moto Museum in Texas.
“I find it very cool,” Emmi noted, “that because of these accomplishments, many people beyond me and my siblings look up to him in the industry.”
With her dad so into bikes long before she was born, Emmi’s been around them all her life. “When we [she has a sister and brother] were still teeny, my Dad got my little brother a yellow Yamaha PW50 that we all rode around the yard. That was the first bike I ever rode on my own. As we got older, Dad started taking us for rides on Bonny (his Triumph at the time) and later the Norton 750 Commando. But this was all before I started hanging around the shop and I was still a little uncertain whether I liked it or not.”
But a defining moment grabbed her. “There was one ride,” she told us, “that I think really helped me make up my mind. For one of my birthdays while in elementary school, Dad pinstriped me a Bell Gringo helmet and took me for a ride on the road! I’d ridden with him before, but never past our lane. I was young and excited by the simplest things, and I immediately fell in love.”
Another favorite bike experience for Emmi was riding with her Dad in his Triumph sidecar. “My Dad’s sidecar is pretty fun,” she said. “He normally keeps sandbags in it to avoid flipping, and let’s just say that those bags weigh more than I do. The first time he took me for a ride in it he cut a pretty quick turn and the sidecar lifted off the ground so far I thought we might flip. It was scary at the time, but I’ll always remember that with a mischievous smile. And we didn’t tell Mom ‘til later.”
“Later,” she went on, “I started hanging around the shop and learning what I could. When middle school came around, I had some struggles as any teen does and fell away for a while – I wasn’t sure that life was what I wanted. But boy was I wrong! I started getting back in the shop, and I couldn’t help but fall in love again. I learned a lot, but I was starting to get bored just helping out. I’d seen and helped my Dad with multiple projects, and now I really wanted one of my own.”
A Tiny Bike for a Tiny Girl
She was still just 15 years old and ready to build a bike of her own, and then Christmas 2019 rolled around. “I found a rusted 1958 T20 Triumph Tiger Cub under the tree,” Emmi said. “Many people won’t know this, but I’m a very small person, so a tiny bike was just what I wanted.” A tiny bike for a tiny girl. Perfect!
“I was given the option to either make it run as an old beater bike,” she continued, “or I could custom build it for shows. Obviously, I chose the build. This was the project I’d been waiting for. How could I pass this up?”
As soon as she knew she could turn the tiny Triumph into a custom build, she started drawing ideas. “Those first drawings were a little, well, not so good,” she laughs, “but Dad helped me draw what I actually wanted so I could turn it into a reality.”
Of course, the journey of turning the rusted-out bike into something beautiful and rideable wasn’t an easy one. Yet she said she never thought about giving up, although there were a few times the build tested her patience.
“The two things that pushed me closest to the edge,” Emmi remembered, “were hammering out the oil and gas tanks and building the engine. For some reason I just didn’t understand how to make the metal move the way I wanted it to, and I didn’t appreciate that much. I’m glad I was able to knock out each of those tanks in a day because I don’t know if I would have been able to pick it up and finish it another day.”
“My Dad did most of the engine work,” she went on, “and I was his extra set of hands that was willing to learn. At one point my Dad was able to purchase what seemed like a million shelves of old new-old-stock Triumph parts, which I had to look through every time we needed a new part. I’m not gonna lie, that sucked! But by the end I knew where pretty much all the parts were on those shelves.”
When we asked her what she learned while facing some of the challenges that come with building a custom bike, she mentioned, “I’ve learned more than I would have imagined during this build. Not only in the skill-related fields, but also about life and how to carry on no matter what. One lesson I’ll never forget is how my Dad told me that every time he shows a new build, people always have a million good things to say, yet all he can see are the flaws. I could go on forever about every little mistake and redo on the Cub. One of my favorites happened when we were trying to tap a plug into a hole in the frame. We tapped a little too hard and looked at each other like, ‘uh oh!’”
Another lesson she learned was about the importance of family. “One of the important lessons I’d like to share,” she said, “is keeping your family close. I’m not just talking about your biological family either. Sure, building a bike was fun; it gave me lots of joy. But not as much as getting to hang out with my Dad and know that I’m following in his footsteps, not as much as seeing the excitement in Mr. Gordon’s (a local parts collector) face when he found some parts I could use, or seeing the look on my Mom’s face the first time she saw Aunt Tiny run. Yes, bikes are fun, but family is funner.”
Emmi’s been working on this build for months, including through the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the country at the end of February. Many states issued stay-at-home orders that left people stuck in their homes or garages.
To put a positive spin on something that was so devastating for many people who lost their jobs and suddenly found themselves trapped in their own homes, Roland Sands Design came up with the idea of a Coronavirus Bike Build-off. The contest ran over several months, with builders – pros and newbies – jumping into the contest by adding the hashtag #coronavirusbikebuildoff to their photos.
“This is a funny story,” Emmi told us. “One day I was looking through my Instagram feed and saw #coronavirusbikebuildoff showing up a lot. I just thought it was a cool hashtag, so I started using it for all my photos of my Aunt Tiny build. Turns out that was the first step to entering the online show hosted by Roland Sands Design.”
“At first,” she went on, “I was really worried. What if this was a big mistake? What if people didn’t like it and I was forever a joke? I finally decided that if I wasn’t meant to enter, I wouldn’t have used the hashtag by accident. I watched the top three being picked on the car ride home from a mountain bike ride, and I couldn’t believe it when my build was in the top three! I didn’t even care what place I got, I was just grateful to RSD for the opportunity and experience!”
At just 16 years old, Emmi mentioned that she hasn’t had a whole lot of big achievements in her life…until now. “I was so excited to see my bike on RSD’s page,” she said. “I nearly yelled in the car. I kept a close eye on the votes and wasn’t so stoked to see I wasn’t doing too well, but over the next few days I started popping up in a lot of people’s stories – people I don’t even know – asking for votes for my bike. That was probably the best part, even if I still got third place.”
Third place in a nationwide bike build-off? We’d say that’s a pretty great accident and an awesome achievement!
After seeing her build be an unexpected success, we had to know if she’s planning to build another bike. “Well, my Dad has been planning a build for many years and he’s been so busy with LC Fabrication and LC Machine that it’s been a while since his last build. I think Aunt Tiny reminded him just how much he loves it. I believe we’re gonna be partners in crime going forward because he’s actually asking me for advice and opinions and says he wants me to help – something I’m stoked about.”
“As for me,” Emmi continued, “I would love to do another build, but I need to refill the old coffers first, if you know what I mean. But I think I want tiny bikes to be a common theme for me. If I can’t ride it, what’s the point?”
What’s the point, indeed?