For the Recyclists Bike Club, motorized bicycles are the way forward
on September 29, 2014
In front of a busy gas station in Oakland, an unusual-looking vehicle with two wheels passes by.
It’s not a motorcycle. It’s not a scooter. It’s not a battery-assisted bicycle. It’s a black Genesis one-speed cruiser, with a fat seat, high handlebars, and a silvery motor welded to the frame. There’s a gas tank, too, about the size of a toaster—and a crescent–shaped exhaust pipe.
The bicycle rumbles and goes quiet, as its owner, a 32 year-old mechanic named Jon Marshall, reaches for the gas pump to fuel up his bike. “Everywhere we go, people tend to stop us,” he says.
Marshall, a veteran of the Marine Corps who served in Iraq, grew up in Oakland’s Laurel District. He is assembling these motorized vehicles in his family house’s backyard garage, which he and his two friends working with him have renamed the Recyclists Bike Club. Using second-hand bike frames and an assortment of tools and small motors, the three Recyclists have devoted their shop not only to bike repairs, but also to building their own improvised motorized bicycles.
Unlike the battery-propelled bicycles now being sold in local shops in the Bay Area, the Recyclists’ homemade motorized bikes are powered by the kind of small engines typically used for all domestic and imported scooters. That makes these bikes noisy, when the engine kicks in. But the noise itself is “a safety advantage,” Marshall says. Car drivers are likelier to notice a vehicle on the road, he says, when its engine is making a loud sound.
“It’s easy to use,” Marshall says. He jumps on the bike, starts pedaling, and gradually releases what looks like a left handlebar brake. But this handlebar contains a clutch lever, and releasing it—just as in a manual-transmission car—engages the bike’s engine. With a rising growl Marshall’s cruiser bike now starts to sound just like a motor scooter.
“It’s easy, simple and I like it,” Marshall says. He started taking an interest in cycling at an early age, he says, and two years ago began talking to his friends Willis Charles, 31, and Jason Tso, 28, both of whom have mechanical backgrounds and also love bicycles. The three bought their first used bikes and began experimenting with ways to attach both motors and safety features. They decided to link the front and back brakes, for example, so that both could be controlled from one handlebar.
The Recyclists’ very first finished product, a grey 6KU single-speed Fixie bike they named RTD, was sold—for $700—to a “collector” Marshall says. The friends have since built three more, and worked on building bikes for customers in their city. They have started up a small business putting motors on bicycles people bring to them. “Bring your bike, I put the motor you want on it,” Marshall says. “ It depends on your budget.”
For purposes of governmental licensing and registration requirement, the motorized bicycle is currently in legal limbo. Although Marshall says their bikes can go 30 miles per hour under motor, there is no formal California Division of Motor Vehicles category for motor-propelled bikes. Regular one-time bicycle registration is all that’s advised, and “there is not much regulation in terms of parking,” Marshall says.
The Recyclists aren’t the only people in the Bay Area putting motors on bicycles. There is All Access Mobility Device Repair in San Francisco, and Rutherford’s Boat Shop in Richmond.
“The competition is high,” Charles says. But the Recyclists hope to expand their business, and soon to start importing motors directly from China. They consider the Bay Area an especially bike-friendly area, and aim to create a community for motorized bicycle riders—perhaps with its headquarters in the crowded Marshall garage on Maybelle Avenue.
“It’s a work in progress,” says Charles, pointing at two dollar bills tacked to the wall. “These are not coming down,” he says, “until each of us makes ten thousand dollars.”
Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: firstname.lastname@example.org.