The three Planet Chocolate City mechanics hover around the distressed motorcycle, poking at it with screwdrivers. Up on its stand, the bike gives a petulant whine, then expels a blob of bluish smoke. But the tallest mechanic isn’t throwing in the towel yet: Gripping the machine by its gas tank and undercarriage, he hoists it up to his chest and shakes it. Hard.
Such manhandling of almost any other motorcycle would be no mean feat. But for this one—a Big Wheels–sized sport bike that weighs about 50 pounds—shaking the bastard just seems like a natural product of frustration.
“They’re pretty light,” notes Perry, a manager at Planet Chocolate City, who’s observing the bike’s sidewalk tuneup through a window. “You want to put it in the back of your pickup? You can do that. Or in your trunk, know what I’m saying?”
Like any major city, D.C. has long harbored a fondness for shrunken forms of transport: The Vespa and its scooter ilk are big, as are dirt bikes and ATVs (the latter tending to appear in storming parties of a half-dozen). But these minimotorcycles, which are gaining traction as the stylin’ ride of choice on D.C. roads and sell for between $350 and $550, mark a breakthrough trend. Never before have people driven something so ridiculously dedicated to mimicking another, arguably more respected motor vehicle.
Not that it’s easy pinning down which motorcycles, exactly, they’re supposed to copy. Ninja? CBR? Who knows? Most of the models buzzing around town not only lack brand decals but also are seemingly devoid of manufacturer’s marks.
Perry says his Georgia Avenue fashion-cum-everything store received its first shipment of bikes this morning. One occupies a prominent perch in the middle of the shop, inspiring the wonder of visitors with its metallic-blue paint job, anodized tailpipe, and treadless Zhongya tires. “When they see this, they want it,” says Perry. “I guess with older people, it brings out the kid in them.”
The fad has crossed the river, too. Nino, a grown man who’s been driving circles around the Anacostia Professional Building on a red 49cc sport bike, stops under the World’s Largest Chair on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE long enough to express his fascination with his poodle-sized ride. “I got a big bike,” Nino says, “but I just like, you know…#riding around and playing.” He honks the horn, which issues a surprised squeak.
Where are the bikes coming from? A clothing vendor outside the BP gas station at 14th and Euclid Streets NW sells wee sport bikes from the roof of his van, but he has no idea who makes them. “You the first one asked, ‘What company?’” he says. He already knows what he needs to know: “They buying ’em like water.”
“Go-Go” George Long, 40-year-old president of the local Brother 2 Brother Motorcycle Club, says he first saw the tiny motors at Myrtle Beach’s Bike Week last May. “Some dude came riding through on [what looked like] a little Ducati,” he says, referring to the elegant Italian sport bike. “And then four or five of his buddies came right behind him. He had a gang. And I was thinking, Man, I’d love to have me one of them.”
“But then I saw his knees,” says Long, “and I was like, Forget that.”
Italy is a good guess as to the infestation’s origin. Minimoto—the racing of high-performance, Shriner-sized “pocket bikes”—has enthralled Italian sports enthusiasts for nearly two decades. “Polini was the original pocket bike,” says André Esser, owner of Takoma Park’s Redline Motor Sports. “People actually race them on the track. They take them seriously: It’s not a toy.”
The bikes around here, says Esser, are not special orders from Italy. Most of them come from Pep Boys and Advance Auto Parts, which in turn get them from the California importer American Products Co. (APC). The company sells not only 43cc “Sport Cycles,” but also “Mini Choppers” with a mere 2.36 inches of ground clearance. Each style supports 250 pounds. “Sales are getting stronger and stronger,” says APC president Brian Horowitz.
But there’s no cruising going on at Planet Chocolate City, where the mechanics, encircled by a crowd of local busybodies, are still fiddling with the store’s first sale. “That’s what you want—RPMs!” yells a garage junkie as the bike vomits out a monumental smoke plume from its strawlike pipe. The owner of the disabled bike, a tattooed man who looks to be in his early 20s and is wearing an open-face helmet, stays put as the exhaust cloud envelops him.
A few hours earlier, the bike’s owner, who won’t give his name, dropped $500 on this little black baby with the idea he’d have fun this weekend. And now he’s stuck here on a Saturday night, biting his lip while some guy on a mountain bicycle says loudly: “If you gotta do all that shit, why you gonna buy them?”
Back in the shop, another model lies half assembled on the floor. This one reveals the true and perhaps unsurprising origin of most of D.C.’s pocket bikes. “Made in China,” declares a sticker pasted to the bike’s body.
“They’re probably the worst things ever made,” says Esser. He doesn’t work on Chinese models, though they’re mostly what are coming in, and says he’s mounting a sign on his shop explaining as much to the average of five customers with minibike woes he encounters each day.
“The [pull cord] breaks, the batteries go dead…When you get a flat, there’s no way to get a tube,” he says. “If I could find a place that had a warehouse full of parts, I could make a million dollars off of these things….I have no interest in it, because it’s such shit.”
Popular shit, nevertheless. Since APC broke the bottom-dollar pocket-bike scene in D.C., other importers have entered the market. Reggie Miller, owner of G&M Dollar Plus and Variety Store at 15th and D Streets SE, sells not only $550 APCs but even smaller $400 Razor “Pocket Rocket” electric bikes. He says he closes deals on about 10 miniature mounts a week.
“Most people are like, ‘Aw, that’s cute!’” says Miller, before noting a more practical side to pocket-bike ownership. “A lot of these guys don’t have driver’s licenses. You can ride all day on a tank of gas…[and] you ain’t got to worry about the police messing with you.”
Of course, if a driver happened to exceed 25 mph, the toy would become a motorcycle in the eyes of the city, requiring registration, licensing, and insurance. But even though the bikes list higher speeds (APC Sport Bike speedometers top out at 40 mph), “there’s no way in hell those things could go faster than 15 miles per hour, even with the tail wind,” says Horowitz. “For us, it’s something fun. If people abuse it, law enforcement and legislation will put laws in place to take the nice thing away.”
But the police are concerned that a minibiker will have a major accident. “I haven’t had one seized to look at the speed limits,” says Lt. Patrick Burke, traffic-safety coordinator for the Metropolitan Police Department. But he adds, “It’s just a matter of time before somebody gets injured or killed.”
There have been no serious pocket-bike-related accidents in D.C., according to a D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services spokesperson. But that doesn’t mean the media aren’t taking notice. Perry’s still fuming about an ABC 7 report last week that hyped the menace of minibikes. “A lot of people, I guess new residents, they’ve kind of been complaining. They don’t want to hear the noise,” Perry says.
Or smell burning oil, as is the case outside Planet Chocolate City. The tall mechanic snatches the bike off its stand and sets it down between his legs. The motor dies. “I think you put too much oil in,” he tells the owner. The current mixture is too thick to flow into the engine. “Dude put enough oil in there to lubricate a Ford Taurus,” Perry comments.
The mechanic empties the tank and fills it with a more diluted concentration of two-stroke. Then he pulls the starter cord, straddles the bike, and guns it to an angry-lawn-mower roar. The machine leaps off the sidewalk and into busy Georgia Avenue, with the mechanic, like a bear riding a unicycle, teetering on top of it. CP