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Jardine: When desire is strong, stature doesn't matter

Chad La Follette always dreamed of owning a custom Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

So he did what any enterprising red-blooded American would do: He applied in 2006 to become a participant on "American Chopper," the TLC cable channel show in which the hosts build custom cycles for selected guests.

"They flew me down to L.A. and put me up in a hotel for two days," the 35-year-old Turlock resident said. "I did lots of interviews."

La Follette said he was among a group of 12 applicants that included two men in wheelchairs, two women, two "small in stature" people and others from varying walks of life, all vying for the three spots on the show.

When the screening process ended, the producers told him to go back home to Turlock and wait for the phone to ring. If he didn't hear from them within a couple of weeks, it meant he didn't make the cut.

They never called.

That might have cured him of any show-biz aspirations, but it didn't quash his desire for a chopper. So in 2007, he began building a scaled-down model — scaled down because at 4 feet, 6 inches tall, he was one of the two "small in stature" people who had auditioned for the show.

Now, after working on the cycle for about six months over a two-year period, it's just about ready to ride. He's awaiting the arrival of a custom seat and a few gaskets, and he needs to hook up some of the wiring.

The chopper is testament to a small man with big ideas and a refusal to accept physical limitations.

La Follette is married and has two children. Miranda, a 10-year-old daughter from his previous marriage, also is small. Daughter Brooklynn, born to wife Janelle 21 months ago, is not afflicted with dwarfism.

"Nothing's impossible," he said. "It's how bad you want it. Anybody that might have a handicap — whether you're short in stature or in a wheelchair — there's nothing that can't be done if you really want it."

La Follette and friend Shawn Avalos merely had to build a chopper made to order for La Follette using a motor from a 2002 Harley-Davidson Sportster.

"We just had to convert it to something he can ride," said Avalos, who owns Mid-Valley Window Tinting in Turlock. Avalos has built and rebuilt numerous motorcycles and cars, "purely as a hobby," he said.

They had no plans to work from, Avalos said.

"I've known Chad all my life," he said. "I've never seen a bike built for a small person in any magazines."

So they basically winged it, starting with normal-sized parts and adapting them to the smaller frame they built. They're having a seat made especially for his cycle, allowing La Follette to sit very low. The lower seat, though, forced them to relocate the engine oil storage, because the pan is below the seat on most bikes. On this one, the oil is stored in the frame.

Friend Dean Massey helped with the body and paint work.

The bike is equipped with an air-ride suspension system, meaning he can raise the frame higher off the ground with the touch of a button for the ride and lower it to get on and off.

They modified the handlebars and foot controls and ordered a custom-made gas tank. It holds two gallons, making his range between fill-ups 60-70 miles.

"I figure I can ride from here to Jamestown," La Follette said. "Anything long-term is a big stretch. Across the desert? Forget it."

The key, he said, was making it look like any other chopper, only smaller.

"If we couldn't build something proportionately right, I wouldn't want to build it," he said.

It's one of the few elements of his life that he can build to size. La Follette, who will turn 36 this month, drives a forage harvester for his uncle, Randy La Follette. Those German-made contraptions are very large.

Chad La Follette said some clients seemed initially skeptical about his ability to operate these machines, which cut corn used for silage and hay.

His uncle said Chad manages a six-man crew effectively.

"I've never had a customer regret his work," Randy La Follette said. "Some customers ask to have him back, asking for him specifically. And he's got some real advantages being small. He gets in to work on places in that machine where other guys can't go."

Chad La Follette also owns three silage trucks, in essence subcontracting to his uncle's business. At some point, he'll become a part owner of La Follette Enterprises, Randy La Follette said.

For now, there's always another field to chop and a chopper to finish.

Small in stature, yes. Limited? Absolutely not.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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