Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Descent Article on the Cutters

Portland mo-ped fans get some big buzz
by Nicole Santa Cruz, The Oregonian
Saturday September 06, 2008, 9:31 PM
Members of the mo-ped club the Puddle Cutters wheel through Southeast Portland on a recent Sunday afternoon. The group is part of a national movement of mostly urban twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings who buy antique mo-peds and fix them up.
They ride in packs that sound like swarms of mosquitoes. They're tough, tattooed and territorial. Initiation rituals are practiced, and their bike loyalty doesn't change with the seasons.
They won't, however, hurt you, and they don't ride Harleys. And while their name is the Puddle Cutters and they call themselves a gang, they are, essentially, just a bunch of self-proclaimed dorks whose bike of choice is -- the mo-ped.
That's right, the mo-ped. Unless you're too young, you remember mo-peds -- those bikes with attached engines from the late '70s that top out at 30 miles an hour, unless, of course, they're tricked out.
Now local groups like the Puddle Cutters are the soul of a nationwide, growing movement called the Moped Army, which consists mostly of urban twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings who buy fixer-upper antique mo-peds in cities such as Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.
The gangs ride for a multitude of reasons: The retro-cool individualism of it, a low-cost and efficient transportation mode amid high gas prices, the need to get dirty and grimy amid friends. Or, just because they like mo-peds.
And they're yet another example of a Portland mini-subculture trying to maintain its authenticity and individualism amid raging popularity. Like cyclists and motorized-scooter riders, mo-ped aficionados are seeing their ranks swell exponentially -- even beyond the gangs and the Moped Army.
Dan Kastner of San Francisco, a co-owner of a national mo-ped shop called 1977 Mopeds and a founder of the army, said that when he and buddies Simon King and Brennan Sang started the first mo-ped gang in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1997, mo-peds were "pretty much dead."
"They basically were a weird oddity that was really dated to the fringes," he said.
But the new breed of hard-core enthusiasts such as the Puddle Cutters have become like antique hot rod collectors: They pine over ways to fix their vintage bikes. At weekly gang meetings, talk of carburetors, pistons, wrenches and spark plugs fills the air.
And while they welcome the returning popularity of the mo-ped, the Puddle Cutters remain an exclusive and elite group that prefers old-school mo-peds to the modern, high-tech machine. Bob Hansen, a founding Puddle Cutter and a local business owner, said it's getting harder to keep his gang small, since mo-peds are becoming so popular on the streets.
He said his gang and the Moped Army make up a useful network of enthusiasts who trade parts and knowledge of their vintage bikes. And it signifies a camaraderie.
"We're being very selective on who we're going to let into the gang," he says. But "anyone is welcome to come hang out and do whatever."
Though the older bikes are usually unreliable, Puddle Cutters say they have a strong fondness and connection to their rides.
"Because most of the bikes we ride are vintage, each of them has its own problems," says Erica Allison, a 25-year-old Puddle Cutter who calls her bike the "indestructible little mo-ped."
"It's kind of like owning a car where you know exactly how to start it and that sort of thing."
The Puddle Cutters like to meet up a couple of times a week and "swarm" -- or ride in a pack -- around town. They usually meet up in Southeast Portland but say "the sky's the limit" as to where they will ride. Whether it's Clackamas or Troutdale, the streets near Mount Tabor or hilly neighborhoods around Milwaukie, they have probably swarmed it.
But they don't cause trouble.
"They hardly wreak havoc," said Cathe Kent, a Portland Police Bureau spokeswoman, who said the gang is basically harmless. And though the mo-ped enthusiasts say they don't necessarily hate anyone on a bike or scooter, their choice of transportation is a little against the grain.
"In a city such as Portland where bikes are all the rage, they're rebellious," said Adrian Melnick, a 28-year-old waiter/artist/musician and a Puddle Cutter.
But it takes more than just an interest to get a vintage mo-ped, said Hansen, who said that when people ask him about mo-peds he questions them right back.
"I ask them the same thing every time," he says. "Are you looking for a hobby or are you looking for transportation?"
If they answer transportation, a new mo-ped may be the thing.
But if they have time for a hobby, go vintage, he says.
The neat thing about them is the plethora of different makes and models, Hansen said. Every company that made bicycles and motorcycles back in the '70s made a mo-ped. "I think it's more of the aesthetic and the look of the really older bikes that are really cool."
But the newer models such as the Tomo, a mo-ped that is usually out of stock at scooter and mo-ped shops around town, doesn't require the will to fix.
Jim Smith, a co-owner of Ptown Scooters off Southeast Division Street and 33rd Place, says many are looking to the mo-ped as an alternative means of transportation.
"We get folks who have never ridden before and want to be comfortable," he says. People are also turning to mo-peds because of their 100-miles-to-the-gallon fuel economy and the ease of riding them.
But of the Puddle Cutters, he says they just like to have fun.
"It's one thing to go have a reading club, and its another to grab six friends, load up your bikes and go to Kalamazoo for a rally."
It definitely appeals to the aesthetic of something that's goofy and retro, said Eric Sabatino, the only certified mo-ped mechanic in town and an employee at Ptown Scooters. "Retro-hilarious stuff like big hair and fanny packs and brightly colored shoes is becoming cool again, too," he says.
But he still insists the club is just a group of best friends.
"We all like punk rock music and being kind of dirty," he jokes. "We're all of that sort of school and mindset. We were all the weird kids with black fingernail polish in high school."
But it's still exclusive. "You're not going to be a Puddle Cutter unless you're our best friend."