Four wheels bad, two wheels good
Meet the Burgundy Topz, the Land Squids and other factions of the moped and scooter revolution
Pull back on the throttle; exhilaration follows. Feel the wind on your face, the trees and news boxes that line Sacramento streets disappearing behind you, and the security of knowing you can keep going for miles and miles without spending more than a few dollars of your hard-earned cash. Behind you, an army rises up, mopeds and scooters pulled out of Central Valley barns, smelling like hay and motor oil but fixed up and running again. Together you take over the streets, making Midtown look strangely like Rome or London.
This is the vision of a growing number of two-wheeled transportation enthusiasts in Sacramento. A recent Motorcycle Industry Council statistic cites an explosion in U.S. scooter sales, from 12,000 in 1997 up to 113,000 last year, with a 65-percent jump in sales in the third quarter of the year, just as gas prices were shooting up. Some see a correlation between present moped and scooter trends and those in the ’70s, which also corresponded to spikes in gas prices. With world oil supplies beginning a long, inevitable decline, and shrinking reserves requiring extraction from conflict-prone regions of the world, many pundits predict high gas prices are with us to stay. Alternative transportation now becomes more practical, not just in the short term, but as a lifestyle change.
What kind of lifestyle might that be? Scooter and moped enthusiasts are already having fun with it, getting together to ride, share mechanical tips, swap parts and bikes, and party.
The West Coast’s second-oldest scooter club, the Burgundy Topz, is based in Sacramento. About to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the club’s founding members are still active. “We’re a very diverse group,” member Ryan Ott said during an interview at the Midtown Scooter Shop, located at 21st and Q streets. “Bankers, financial planners,” Ott started saying. “Screen-printers, tattoo artists, you name it,” finished fellow Topz member Alex Zangeneh-Azam.
Though the scooter-rider image might suggest a group of kids, Zangeneh-Azam estimates the median age of Topz members to be 35. The club has met once a week, year round, since the group’s birth. It holds barbecues in the summer and group rides to San Francisco. Though it functions as a social scene, the group began out of necessity.
“When we started, there were very limited scooter shops. You needed help, parts,” Ott said.
“There was a scooter scene before us, based around ska, punk and mod, but in 1986 we started our own,” Zangeneh-Azam added.
American urban scooter culture traditionally has been influenced by that in the United Kingdom, long associated with music genres. Stereotypical images of the rocker mod in a fitted blazer or the reggae skinhead in suspenders and work boots, raising hell, drinking, fighting and tearing from bar to show on a Vespa have lent mystique, as well as some stigma, to scooter riding. The Burgundy Topz make it clear that they aren’t a gang; they’re a club. The negative impression some people have of scooter devotees is similar to that endured by motorcycle riders, whose fabled “1 percent” of outlaw bikers gives them all a bad reputation.
Of course, scooters just aren’t as powerful as motorcycles, and there is a corresponding difference in attitude. “The weekend Harley guys heckle,” Ott admitted. “But actually, the hard-core bikers are cool with us. A lot of them have scooters or learned to ride on one.”
One doesn’t look as tough sitting on a scooter as one does on a motorcycle, but scooter riders flip this around, embrace it and even make it a point of pride. Those guys in their SUVs? They’re just insecure. “I have nothing to compensate for,” Ott said with a smile.
A punk-rock scooter gang called the Wussies, based out of Seattle, has turned the insult into a badge of honor. According to the Topz, a prospective Wussie is required to get the word tattooed on his or her body in 8-inch-tall Old English script. Then each member is given a number, as in “Wussie 13.” “They’re the Hells Angels of scooters,” Zangeneh-Azam joked. Always conscious of leaving a good impression of scooter culture, he added, “Nobody cares if you’re not part of a club.”
“It’s the least intimidating group of people,” Ott agreed.
Just a few blocks away, at the Flat Spot skate shop at 1115 21st Street, a moped scene is beginning to take shape, possibly resembling the Sacramento scooter community 20 years ago. Flat Spot owner Mike Rafter has been working on skateboards for 17 years but was inspired to start tinkering with mopeds after a friend got one. Rafter went for a ride and decided he had to have one. He found a used moped, a Batavus, on the Internet for $325. When he got it home and found it didn’t run, he fixed it with a pair of pliers, a $15 part and some online tips.
“I’m not a mechanic,” Rafter said, adding that a vehicle a non-mechanic can fix is a vehicle he likes.
Almost a year later, Rafter has gone through nearly a dozen mopeds. “I’m not sure if I’m collecting them or buying them to fix and sell,” he said, though he has sold a few. A semi-official moped club named the Land Squids has sprung up around Flat Spot—mainly a group of friends who stop by, work on their mopeds and ride together.
The appeal of mopeds is much the same as that of scooters—they’re cheap, fun, two-wheeled motorized transportation—but there are some differences. Mopeds are considerably cheaper, costing anywhere between $300 and $1,000. Scooters start at about $500, average roughly $3,500 for a vintage scooter and can go up from there. Mopeds take less financial commitment but are more limited in what they can do. Long-distance moped rides are difficult, since mopeds usually top out at 30 to 40 mph. Scooters, which often can manage 60 mph or more, are able to take parts of a longer journey on the highway, while mopeds are stuck on the side streets.
Rafter and a few other Land Squids at the Flat Spot admitted confusion about the “Vespa culture,” mumbled about “rockabilly guys” and had a similar incomprehension of motorcycle riders. “There’s some kind of weird ego thing with the motorcycle,” Rafter said. The moped, apparently, is the ultimate in egoless motorized transport.
Rafter draws inspiration from Moped Army (http://mopedarmy.com), a Web site that offers a forum for buyers, sellers and moped owners, as well as a directory of Moped Army chapters, such as the Creatures of the Loin in San Francisco; the Hell’s Satans of Richmond, Va.; and the Mosquito Fleet of Seattle. The Land Squids have applied to become an official Moped Army chapter. Moped Army evaluates prospective branches four times a year, and the Squids are definitely above the three-member minimum required to start a branch.
With its motto, “Swarm and Destroy,” Moped Army’s purpose is to bring attitude to the humblest form of motorized travel. The site’s mission statement touts the “moped as a way of life,” citing “the moped’s aesthetic, its marginalized status in our society, the friendly traveling, easy stop communication and our ability to enjoy the trip, as well as the destination” as a superior lifestyle.
There’s something subversive about alternative forms of transportation in a country where most people’s way of life depends on the automobile. Something happens when people get out of their steel exoskeletons and onto motorized two-wheelers: They want to personalize their experience and reach out to others who share it.
This summer, which of you will discover that the smell of air-conditioning is not as sweet as the cocktail of exhaust and freshly mowed grass, as the rush of pavement beneath you, as the motor vibrating between your legs and those Delta towns calling you to speed down the levees with the crop fields blurring by? Somewhere in those barns there are scooters sleeping, mopeds rusting, but maybe not for long.