Two-stroke invasion

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I spread my towel on Paradise Beach under a shining sun. I shimmied out of my jeans and my new Total Letdown moped rally T-shirt and scurried across the sand to the American River. Mid-thigh in the swirling green water, I felt the afternoon warmth disappear as mammoth clouds eclipsed the sun. I halted midstream, debating whether to dive in or dry off.

It was the last day of summer—or maybe the first day of fall? The equinox, anyway, when day and night go halfsies before the Northern Hemisphere descends into darker seasons and I descend into six months of whining about the weather. Threatening clouds, eager to mark their territory with early autumn rains, battled the tireless sun. Temperatures fluctuated wildly, as did my determination to punctuate Sacramento’s first moped rally with a final summer swim.

I looked at the stranger next to me. Having abandoned his helmet and shirt on the sand, he’d waded in his jeans up to the knees before getting cold feet—literally. We stared at each other, immobilized by a mutual wussiness, as less trepidatious swimmers ran past.

It was impossible to tell where he or any of the 50 or so people in our party hailed from, now that the clothes were off. The T-shirts that labeled us Sacramento Landsquids, or visiting members of Seattle’s Mosquito Fleet, Portland’s Puddle Cutters, Los Angeles’ Latebirds, San Francisco’s Creatures of the Loin or Rocklin’s RoadGnomes lay discarded along the beach.

The women wore bikinis and the guys made do with boxer briefs. A longhaired man mooned us from the far shore, eliciting appreciative hoots. Another set his moped stereo playing 1980s hits by Foreigner and El DeBarge. Beers emerged from backpacks. Waders bemoaned the slimy river bottom, but no one turned back.

Rain and slime be damned! This rally might be called Total Letdown, but it would not live up to its name.

The moped buzz began two days earlier, when nearly 100 riders zoomed into Sacramento from as far as the East Coast and as close as the Landsquids’ Midtown garage. The sidewalk in front of rally headquarters at Flat Spot became a parking lot for mopeds tricked out with custom paint jobs, speed-enhancing Polini kits and gang decals. I parked my humble Puch (original paint, top speed 27 mph) in the melee and crossed my fingers I’d be able to keep up.

When we pulled onto 21st Street en masse for the inaugural city ride, the collective whine of two-stroke engines was almost as foreboding as the noxious smoke they emitted. Pedestrians stared and children waved excitedly. We swarmed the city streets, faster riders blocking cross traffic until every bike passed through the intersections. A few cars honked feebly, but most simply yielded to the infestation.

Emboldened by the fact that I had neither gotten lost nor broken down on Friday, I returned to Flat Spot on Saturday to attempt a 56-mile river ride. More mopeds clogged the sidewalk, but rain stalled the day’s plans. I waited for an hour, getting progressively soggier, before riding home wet and dejected. The rally eventually proceeded to Woodland for drag races, but I missed it. Total letdown.

On Sunday, I promised myself I’d miss nothing. Summer was over and the Landsquids aren’t planning another rally for two years, so it was now or never.

After an Old Soul breakfast, the rally split in two. Brave riders embarked on the rescheduled 56-mile trip—an epic journey that resulted in several seized engines and two crashes, but, miraculously, no injuries. I followed the larger group to Paradise Beach and this moment of amphibious indecision.

The stranger looked down at his drenched jeans. “The ride back is going to be so cold,” he said. In my mind, he wasn’t just referring to the few miles to Midtown, but the chilly months between now and next summer.

“Cold and wet,” he muttered. Gooseflesh broke out on my arms.

“It’s going to be amazing!” he yelled, and dove into the current.

Just then, the clouds parted. I ran back to my towel and soaked up the sun for one last afternoon.