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Issue 015

Build a Better Bike

May 5, 2009

If your commute is too long for pedal power, just add a little juice to your ride.

By Jason Cozens, as told to GOODI've been an on-and-off bike commuter for about seven years. I enjoyed riding and being outside-not being confined inside a car-but I always showed up to work covered in sweat and beat up.I read an article about a man in Africa who built a motorized bike. The picture in the article showed this bike that looked like it was from another era. It was delicate looking, but it could get him from village to village, and it transformed his life. So I started doing some research and discovered that the motor I had seen in the article is generally known as a Happy-Time motor. They're two-stroke motors, made in China.So I ordered one.They make these kits 49 cubic centimeters for a reason. If it's 50 CCs or more you're required to license it, to register the bike, and to license yourself. Those things might deter a do-it-yourselfer. It makes the project bigger, and it kind of takes the renegade aspect out of it as well.
When the kit came in the mail, I was shocked to find it came with no instructions. It was just a box with Chinese characters printed on it and a bunch of parts inside. The parts were all shiny and vaguely resembled the parts of a motorcycle or a car. I googled "motorized bike"-that's what they were calling them in the article I had read-and found this community of people who make these bikes. Without the help of this nation-wide community, I wouldn't have even attempted to make it.I probably could have put it together in about a week, but I customized it a lot. I wanted the bike to be eye-catching and have a bit of character. I've always had character cars. I'll be at a gas station with my beat-up 1976 Celica, or my beat-up 1967 El Camino, and people will come up asking how much I want to sell the car for. I love having a car you don't see anywhere else on the road, and in the same respect I love having a bike that nobody else has. It's kind of like a Pee-wee's Big Adventure complex. He has his ridiculous bike and I have my ridiculous bike. Pee-wee and I were born on the same day.It's about a one-horsepower motor, which means it's like riding a horse. It is a very natural amount of power to have. I don't have a speedometer, but people have pulled up next to me and said, "You're going thirty miles per hour." I'd say around 30 mph, 35 mph, is my top speed on flat ground. Since it's just a one-horsepower motor, on hills you have to pedal just like you do on a bike, but when you pedal you feel like Superman because you're barely touching the pedals and you actually feel yourself relieving strain on the engine.Now that my engine is broken in, I get about 150 miles to the gallon. I have a half-gallon tank, which I usually don't fill up all the way. There's nothing quite like the feeling of going to a gas station and telling someone I'd like 75 cents on pump two, and then seeing the shocked look on his face when I come back in for change.
The two-stroke motors from China are EPA-approved, but to really comply with the law you need an EPA-approved muffler also. There are similar, four-stroke motors that are actually green. They have very low emissions, they get over 200 miles per gallon, and they are extremely reliable. A lot of those motors come from Japan and they're more than twice as expensive.The quirks are what really endear me to this little machine: the fact that you have to pedal from a dead stop, or that you go faster downhill if you pull in the clutch and stop gassing-those things are unique to this form of transport. Also, the ability to use it as a regular bike is probably underemphasized in what you read about these bikes.I spend a lot of time at The Home Depot. There are plumbing parts in and around this bike, as well as plenty of things from the 99-cent store, pieces of jewelry, and leather bracelets. You start to see the possibility of anything making its way into your own custom vehicle. Something like a doorstop becomes a fantastic way to hold a gas-tank in place.I live a block off of Skid Row, and so many homeless people come up with a general interest. A lot of homeless people rely on bicycles for transportation, so I'm sure the gears are turning in their heads:  "Wow, I could get out of town on one of these if I had a motor." When I tell them I got my kit for $130, they're usually blown away.My current commute is about five miles through an older, industrial part of Los Angeles. It's kind of miserable to sit through in traffic. But on the bike it's actually a fantastic experience; it becomes transcendent.
LEARN MORE  motoredbikes.com Want to buy a motor? spookytoothcycles.comPhotos by Will Etling
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