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R-R-R-R-Rad to the bone

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.

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“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.

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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.

By 1985, the moped boom was over, and scooters (they have a floor, small tires, no pedals and a broader cc range) had become popular. People dumped their mopeds in alleyways, left them to rust in garages -- much to the delight of Jung and his friends, who love nothing more than rescuing these orphans.

Besides being fun to fix up, mopeds are a supremely affordable way to get around. New ones go for about $1,200, and a used vintage bike can cost as little as $200 on Craigslist. Today, the most popular brand is Tomos, from Slovenia, which you can buy at Choke. “They get 120 miles to the gallon,” Jung says. “It’s amazing.”

Pedestrians stop and smile as the riders cruise along Hyperion Avenue toward Hugo’s, a taco stand in Atwater Village where they’ll load up on horchatas and burritos before swarming up the hills of Griffith Park. Unlike some more fearsome biker gangs, this friendly two-wheeled tribe seems to elicit nothing but warmth from the general public, especially older folk who remember riding the bikes in the ‘70s.

Even tough-guy bikers seems to have a soft spot for them, based on their mutual obsession with mechanical problem-solving and the unending quest for speed. And there’s a natural bond between the moped gangs and such vintage bike gangs as the Cretins (who ride vintage Cafe Racers) and South Bay skater/bikers the Cycle Zombies.

“We’re pretty much the same type of people -- most of those guys get super stoked on us riding mopeds,” rider Nik Jung says.

Among this band of brothers is a handful of girls, who plan to start a Girls-Only Moped League. One of them, Jennifer Anderson, was hobbling around Choke on crutches after breaking her femur at a Polini-sponsored moped race in Atwater, in the San Joaquin Valley, a few months ago. She’s putting on a brave face, and joins her friends at Hugo’s despite her injury. A founding member of the Latebirds, she says the scene has grown to be “bigger than I ever thought it would be.”

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“It’s the most amazing thing ever,” she adds. “All the friends we have here -- it’s because of the bikes.”

Anderson, Charlie Staunton and Jung were among the earliest moped pioneers in L.A., and founded the Latebirds after meeting in the summer of 2005 in Big Sur. They had traveled there to work on their respective novels. (“We were doing the Henry Miller thing,” Staunton says.) Then summer ended, leaving them with no table-waiting jobs to support themselves and no way to get back to L.A. “One of the local dudes who ran a gas station had a bunch of 1970s mopeds,” Staunton recalls. “We bought three Puch Maxis for $50 each and cruised along PCH, trying to not get hit by cars.”

It took them four days. They arrived home with three (still) unfinished novels and a newfound moped addiction.

In 2006, there were hardly any other mopeds on the road. “We would ride around by ourselves, and you would see a moped here or there, and you’d stop and [say], ‘Hey dude, come ride with us,’ ” says Staunton (Latebirds name: the Osprey). They connected with pockets of other riders in Southern California via the Moped Army website, forming a loose collective of riders, sharing notes on parts and repairs. They found the final piece of the puzzle in the shape of Johnsen (who wisely declines to align with any one gang). He had just opened Choke when Jung responded to an ad he had posted on Craigslist, selling a rare vintage bike. Jung visited the shop, and soon enough, L.A.'s budding moped movement had its headquarters, complete with espresso machine.

Jung, Johnsen, Staunton and another rider named Nick Shapiro subsequenty formed the Choke moped racing team in 2007, competing around the country. Last year, the riders, many of whom tend toward the artistic, held a moped-inspired art show at the Berdhouse Gallery in Echo Park. And they’re key organizers in L.A.'s annual rally, which draws hundreds of moped riders from around the country each February.

The weekly meet, which they affectionately refer to as “Two-Stroke Tinkering Tuesdays,” is now in its third year. Many of the regulars have built their moped collections up to three, four and even five bikes.

“It’s an addiction,” says Aris Dimalanta, a member of the Latebirds whose gang name is Burrowing Owl. “We call cars cages -- but with this, it’s you and your bike . . . and it feels like you’re free.”

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L.A.'s moped army

Go online to find an audio slide show of Los Angeles’ moped crowd.


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