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Sean Schuitman (left) and Nick Callis tune up Schuitman’s Motobecane before taking it to the streets.

This Ride’s a Gas

By Curt Wozniak
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Moped owners in the Ghost Riders club
love riding together, fixing their bikes together,
and getting over 100 miles to the gallon.

A persistent, high-pitched whirring swells in the August evening.

Pbrrr … Vrzzz …

At the close of any other late summer day in Grand Rapids, it might be the song of the dog-day cicadas. But on Mondays, there’s a good chance the sound is emanating from a swarm of a different variety.

Pbrrrr … Vrzzzz …

Members of the Ghost Riders — the Grand Rapids branch of a loose, national affiliation of vintage moped enthusiasts called the Moped Army — meet for their weekly Monday evening ride outside Founders Brewing Co., 648 Monroe Ave. NW. With membership at 25 strong, they’re one of the larger branches in the U.S.

Pbrrrrr … Vrzzzzz …

The maximum capacity of a moped engine is a displacement of 50 cubic centimeters. With a distinct intonation like the recorded sound of a motorcycle crossed with a chainsaw and played back at high speed, one lone 50cc piston draws attention all by itself. The sound of 15 or 20 mopeds revving up at once can be enough to stop traffic. Such eccentricities have a certain magnetism about them — and that’s how the Ghost Riders’ founding members found one another.

Drawn together by a shared infatuation with 1970s-era mopeds (not scooters — an important distinction), a handful of local aficionados began riding together in spring 2004. These early cruises — often through cemeteries — became the foundation of the Ghost Riders.

There had been prior attempts to organize a Grand Rapids branch of the Moped Army, primarily because the epicenter of moped culture in the U.S. is just 50 miles south. The original Moped Army branch, the Decepticons, was formed in 1997 by two Western Michigan University
students, Daniel Webber Kastner and Simon Kingand, and their friend Brennan Sang.

Some — though not all — of the Ghost Riders’ founders knew about the Moped Army when they first started riding together. As Ghost Riders co-founder Nick Callis, 24, confessed, “When I first heard of the Moped Army, I thought it was a band.”

 

Above: The Ghost Riders are as much about camaraderie as mopeds, but mopeds remain the common bond for the group’s diverse members such as (left to right) Phil Clifford (age 24), Hilary Kempkers (23), Delbert Wiersma (60), Brad Hawkins (33) and captain Joel Leo (28).

That changed soon enough. Kalamazoo is to mopeds what Sturgis, S.D., is to motorcycles, and a good showing by the Ghost Riders at the 2004 Memorial Day moped rally in Kalamazoo earned the Grand Rapids branch official status.

Like any pastime, one can choose to ride a moped in isolation. The retro cool of these pedal bicycle/motorcycle hybrids translates whether one is riding solo or with a group. But as Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam explored in his 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” people get a lot more out of pastimes when they share them with others.

“I originally got into mopeds looking for a hobby and also fun transportation,” said Joel Leo, 28, co-founder and captain of the Ghost Riders. “I wanted a fun, hip, little bike that could take me where I needed to go for a little cheaper than my car.”

Like the vast majority of local moped enthusiasts, however, Leo still drives his car to work every day — in his case, an Internet marketing job. Mopeds are more practical in cities such as San Francisco, where the weather is more conducive to year-round moped transport and where owning an automobile can be a headache.

Leo currently has a 1980 Puch Magnum MK II and a customized 1977 JC Penny Pinto in working order, and, in non-working order — “Everybody needs a project,” Leo quipped — a 1977 Motobecane 50v. For him, riding his mopeds has become more of a social thing.

“My interest has evolved from just a hobby,” Leo said. “Now it is more about the group of people I ride with and the love of things old.”

The Ghost Riders are unique among Moped Army branches. The majority of members weren’t friends who bought mopeds together to form a kitschy, less menacing version of a motorcycle gang. Ghost Riders come from a variety of backgrounds. In many cases, their only common ground is mopeds.

That appealed to Amy Delezenne, 23, who joined the Ghost Riders last summer because she likes hanging out with a diverse group of people in Grand Rapids. She also enjoys connecting with others through moped rallies in other cities and online at www.mopedarmy.com.

“I joined because of the social aspect,” Delezenne said. “A lot of people in the group are in it more because they love to fix mopeds and it’s a good resource to have a bunch of people on hand that you can trade parts with or get help from. I don’t enjoy fixing mopeds. Really, the only interest I have in fixing mopeds is so that the guys will think it’s cool that a girl can fix her moped.”

Brad Hawkins, 33, thinks it’s cool that a 12-year-old can fix his moped. The sales representative turned a broken-down moped into a project he can work on with his son.

“New car’s tuner kits are impossible to work on in the driveway,” Hawkins said. “With this, he’s learning how to turn a wrench and rely on his own skills to get a machine running again.”

As Hawkins hearkens back to a time when a dad didn’t need a diagnostic computer to work on a car with his son, the Ghost Riders also have enkindled some nostalgia in Mark Poling.

Poling, 50, has been riding with the Ghost Riders ever since he spotted them last August on the weekend of the group’s first annual Grand Rapids moped rally. (This year’s event takes place Aug. 17-19; check the Web site for details.)

“ I love it,” said Poling, who hasn’t had a group of moped buffs to talk shop with in almost 20 years. “You can’t beat it.”

In 1982, Poling bought his first moped — a Puch Newport that he still owns today — for cheap transportation between Kent City and Grand Rapids. The height of moped popularity in the U.S. came during the energy crisis in the 1970s, but considering today’s gas prices, mopeds might be redefining cheap transportation. Shawn Finch, 30, who is in the process of joining the Ghost Riders, recalled an interesting conversation about gas mileage earlier this summer.

“This SUV pulled up next to me at a stop light,” Finch said. “The driver rolled down his window and I felt the blast of his air conditioning right in my face, so I turned and looked at him, and right away he asked, ‘What kind of mileage does that thing get?’”

“I told him 200 miles per gallon,” said Finch, who rides a 1975 Solex 4600, an especially lightweight moped. “Then I asked, ‘What kind of mileage does that thing get — eight?’”

Average moped mileage is more typically 90-130 miles per gallon. There’s no denying that the mileage is great, though fuel efficiency does not necessarily translate into big savings for moped owners. As Ghost Riders member Nick Carlevaris-Bianco has learned, tricking bikes out can become an addiction.

“When all is said and done, it’s more expensive than just driving your car,” said Carlevaris-Bianco, who currently owns three mopeds and also takes care of his girlfriend’s bike. “It doesn’t save me any money, that’s for sure.”

Like any serious hobby, moped culture is permeated by a friendly spirit of one-upmanship.

“As soon as you have one, you find someone that’s got a cooler one — and you need to customize yours” he added. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

Individually, members were drawn to their bikes for a variety of reasons. They present relatively simple tinkering projects, provide cheap transportation and carry a quintessentially retro-hip cache.
At the same time, they’re also slow (top moped speed is 30 miles per hour, while most scooters can reach 50), constantly breaking down (and don’t expect to find a professional mechanic willing to work on them), and nerdy (the ultimate misfit toys).

Members of the Ghost Riders wouldn’t want it any other way. GR

   
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