It's the vegan of motorbikes - lean, green and more than a little anemic. I'm talking about the moped, a humble, less-than-2-horsepower machine that cranks no more than 30 mph and weighs less than I do.
There's only one moped manufacturer that meets the EPA's current requirements to sell in the U.S., and chances are you've never heard of it. Peugeot, Puch, Motobecane - they all either have died or left the U.S. market, scared away by daunting federal emissions tests and slim chances of survival.
That leaves one remaining brand: Tomos. Based in the former Yugoslavian republic of Slovenia, the company has been making mopeds, scooters and dirt bikes for more than 50 years and selling them in the U.S. since 1976.
If you've never seen a Tomos on the street, that's no surprise. The last time mopeds were in vogue was 30 years ago, following the 1973 oil crisis. From 1976 to 1979, half a million of these motorized pedal bikes were sold here. Then Middle East relations improved, Japanese scooters came on the scene, and poof - the boom was over, gone in a cloud of exhaust.
Today, Tomos makes six models, which range in price from $1,100 to $1,700. Each gets 100 mpg and is based around the same basic engine - an air-cooled, two-stroke, 49-cc single that's started with a swift kick.
Yes, it's an old-school two-stroke, which is why it sounds and smells like a leaf blower. But it's outfitted with an automatic oil injector to infuse the gas with the right amount of slick stuff going in and a tiny catalytic converter taking care of business out back.
I was riding the most popular Tomos model - the 112-pound ST Stock, it's capable of a limp 28 mph, but mine had been juiced.
Cutting the intake restrictor, swapping the spark plug and reducing the size of the rear sprocket brought the bike up to a respectable 37 mph, though upping the ST's ante has its ups and downs. Extracting another 9 mph nullifies the bike's legal standing as a moped. While it made the ST fast enough to keep up with most street traffic, it wasn't so fast as to stop the occasional jeer.
Despite their great gas mileage, mopeds get no respect. The illegitimate spawn of motorcycles and bicycles, they're neither accepted nor respected by either group.
Even the state seems confused about how to deal with them. A cycling hybrid, the moped is subject to some pretty strange rules. No registration is required, though a special license plate is necessary, as is an M1 or M2 driver's license classification. A motor vehicle (rather than a bicycle) helmet must be worn while riding, which is allowed on streets and also in bicycle lanes.
The pedals on my ST were fully functional. I was just too lazy to use them for anything but kick-starting the bike and resting my feet while riding.
Had my 1.06-gallon tank run dry, I might have changed my tune and pedaled to the nearest Chevron, but I wouldn't have gotten there very fast. Pedaling, the ST goes only 8 mph. The one time I decided to ride it without the motor running, I felt like a gorilla on a chimp's bike. And I'm just 130 pounds. Shockingly, the Tomos ST can haul people 100 pounds heavier. They'll just feel like Gigantor.
I swore I never would ride a motorbike with less than 250 cc displacement in Los Angeles because an unusually high percentage of the four-wheeled population drive like they've just shot meth. When I first got on the Tomos, I felt far more trepidation than I have on bikes with 80 times the horsepower. The key to riding a moped: Defer to higher-powered vehicles and act more like a bicyclist than a motorcyclist.
The first time I rode the Tomos it was from Orange County to my house 27 miles away. According to MapQuest, it's a 34-minute trip, but it took me three times as long because: 1) the bike doesn't go very fast, 2) mopeds aren't allowed on the freeway and 3) I got lost.
The Tomos ST has a telescopic fork in front and double shocks in the back, but long trips and occasional dips over manhole covers were torture. It was dusk as I wheeled through town. At least my ST was red to help with visibility, but the low light confirmed what I was already suspecting. The electrics rely on revs to keep them going. At idle, the headlight flickers and the turn signals slow like a heart patient before the defibrillator's kicked in.
Rolling on the throttle of this automatic two-speed, the Tomos had enough muscle that it wasn't choking on the exhaust of sneering pickup drivers. Rolling off the throttle, it whinnied and wheezed from 20 mph to idle but didn't conk out.
The best thing about the Tomos ST is its efficiency, in terms of cost and fuel. It's an impressive little machine, but riding one takes nerves of steel and a lot more time than money.