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Moped riders who are r-r-r-r-rad to the bone

November 08, 2009|Caroline Ryder

It's sunset on a Tuesday and members of L.A.'s biggest moped gang, the Latebirds, have gathered at Choke, a Silver Lake shop, for their weekly ride. They lean against their motorized steeds -- Tomos, Puchs, Motobecanes and Peugeots -- on the sidewalk, brooding, smoking and shooting the breeze, looking cooler than Bob Dylan and his Triumph Bonneville. They are artists, would-be novelists, bike messengers, stylists, a mortician and the intermittently employed; twenty- and thirtysomethings for whom riding and restoring vintage 1970s mopeds has become a lifestyle. Some call them "dirt wizards," but their casual-yet-carefully wrought aesthetic -- raw skinny denim, Vans and mucho plaid -- betrays undeniable hipster leanings.

They're joined by members of other, more recently formed gangs, the LA Tigers, the Woolly Bullies and the HalfWits. Cruising through the hills and canyons of Los Angeles County, 15 to 50 of them at a time, they fall just short of magnificent, thanks to the tinny, high-pitched "waaaa" of their 50cc engines -- a migraine-inducing whine that's less "Easy Rider" than it is "angry chain saw."

"You can't take someone on a moped that seriously," says Steve Acevedo, a member of the LA Tigers. "And we don't take ourselves that seriously. That's the whole point -- it's all about having fun."

Moped means MOtor with PEDals, a hybrid vehicle halfway between a small motorcycle and a bicycle. With their quaint pedal-starters and two-stroke engines, they normally max out at a puny 30 mph and are banned on freeways (although it is legal to drive them in bicycle lanes). But the aficionados hanging around outside Choke have figured out how to trick out their engines so they can cruise at up to 70 mph.

"That's the thing with L.A. moped riders -- we're all about speed," says Choke's owner, Jeff Johnsen, unofficial mayor of L.A.'s moped scene, and one of the fastest competitive moped racers in California. He opened Choke about three years ago in a former upholstery store at the intersection of Normal and Virgil avenues. It is the only shop in L.A. dedicated exclusively to mopeds and is the clubhouse for the city's ever-growing moped subculture. When Johnsen opened it in January 2007, his plan was to work on vintage motorcycles too, "but the moped thing started getting so big, I didn't need to," he says.

An affable 30-year-old, Johnsen is good-humored about the homeless people who sleep under cardboard outside his door, and he likes to administer hugs to local children who dart in and out of the store. They're fascinated by its curious wares -- a plethora of dusty bike parts in glass cases, with handwritten price tags; two 1970s-era pinball machines; two 1940s cash registers; a vintage Dr Pepper dispenser; a Choke T-shirt line; and several pairs of raw denim jeans that Johnsen designed himself ($88 a pair). In the back is Cafe Legs, where he brews Stumptown coffee for friends. At the start of each month, the cafe sells just one item until the supply runs out: One month, it's vintage Czech moped gloves; another, it's ham sandwiches.

Latebirds member and photographer Nikolaus Jung (gang name Vulture), 25, was among the first of L.A.'s latter-day moped enthusiasts. This scene is very different from the Mod-inspired Vespa scene of the '80s, he explains. "Those dudes were trying to faithfully resurrect a subculture that happened 20 years prior. We're riding old bikes, but not trying to emulate things from the past," he says. "This is a new subculture."

Moped culture has been gaining underground momentum across America since 1997, when three enthusiasts in Michigan founded Moped Army, an online community and forum. For young, cash flow-challenged artists with a vintage aesthetic, mopeds presented a world of fuel-efficient possibilities. Gangs sprang up across the country -- Brooklyn has the Orphans; San Francisco its Creatures of the Loin; Portland, Ore., its Puddle Cutters; Tempe, Ariz. its Tom Cruisers; and Richmond, Va., its Hell's Satans. Each scene takes a slightly different approach -- L.A. and Brooklyn are known for their speed addictions, while Bay Area moped fans like to prettify their rides with custom paint jobs and carbon fiber exhaust pipes.

Thanks to the Internet, the creed spread quickly, and the scene exploded when gas prices soared in 2008. "People were buying bikes left and right," recalls Jung, who likens the recent boom to that of the 1970s, during the oil crisis, when moped bikes first became popular in the U.S. Half a million were sold in this country from 1976 to 1979.

"Mopeds got kind of a dorky rap because in the '70s it was all about old men driving to the grocery store on them, trying to save money on fuel," Jung says.

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