Jim Tregarthen, a 66-year-old retired grocer, recently spotted a motorized bicycle zipping around the Miller Creek area, where he lives. From afar, the bike resembled a Whizzer, the bicycle-styled motorcycles that were popular in the 1940s and '50s. While it wasn't a Whizzerjust a modern bicycle with a basic motor attachedTregarthen's fond memories of Whizzers "clicked in my mind and I thought, 'I could do that.'" He added building a motorized bike to his "bucket list."
Now, inside Tregarthen's garage, secured to a motorcycle lift formerly used for the Harley Davidson Road King Classic he's since sold, stands Tregarthen's own motorized bicycle he just finished building. It's a Sun Retro Cruiser with a small two-stroke motor affixed to the frame, a two-liter gas tank on the top tube, a muffler, ignition and throttle. But it's still very much a bicycle, with pedals, fenders and a squeeze horn on the handlebars.
This 66cc hog, which Tregarthen built with a kit he bought off eBay for about $150, has a range of up to 70 miles, he says. He got it up to 21 miles per hour once, though usually he cruises at around 16 mph. "It's just fun to ride around," he says.
Tregarthen isn't the only one who's discovered the appeal of gas-powered or electric bicycles. They're seen more and more on Missoula's streets, providing a cheap, exertion-free way to get around town, and they typically don't require a license. They're conspicuous when a rider passes you without pedaling, but especially so for their noise. Chris Hutchings, another Missoulian who's tinkered with motorized bicycles, says they sound like weed eaters. "You can hear them coming a mile away."
"They've definitely increased in popularity, that's for sure," says Hutchings, who along with his partner Dave Foust have built two motorized bikes and one trike in the last couple of years. "Winter time might be a little rough, but it's a viable option."
Check Missoula's Craigslist page and you'll find a half-dozen motorized or electric bicycles for sale, including Tregarthen's and a red cruiser built by Hutchings and Foust. Tregarthen posted his Retro Cruiser last week, asking $425. His reason for selling it? "I want to build another few of them!" he wrote on Craigslist. To that end, he recently found himself test-riding an $88 Huffy around WalMart's aisles.
Tregarthen says motorized bikes are easy to build; he would have finished his in one day if not for a complication. "You actually have to have a full complement of tools and a little bit of a mechanical background, but I don't think it's beyond anybody doing one," he says. His "pie in the sky plan" is to "keep building them and sell them cheap."
Though if he wants his bikes to be street-legal, he'll need to keep them below 50cc, and incapable of reaching speeds exceeding 30 mph. Those are the thresholds below which, under city and state law, a user of a motorized bike doesn't need a driver's license and registration. The threshold is the same in several states, which is why many motorized bike kits available on the internet include 49cc motors.
Colorado treats motorized bikes a little stricter. In 2009, the legislature passed a law requiring all users of "low-power scooters"all self-propelled vehicles under 50ccto have a license, registration and liability insurance. As Jerry Abboud, a lobbyist for the low-power scooter industry, told the Denver Post at the time, "What was happening was as they became more popular, the likelihood of them colliding with cars or bikes became greater. The need for insurance became more obvious. The last thing you want is a crash with a Porsche and no insurance."
Missoula Police Sgt. Travis Welsh says the city hasn't run into many problems as motorized bicycles have become more popular here. "Considering the price of gas, it's a pretty economical way to get around," he says. He just reminds users to follow the same rules all bicyclists have to follow.
Sgt. Greg Amundsen adds this warning: "By city ordinance, even though they're a bicycle, you're not allowed to use them on the Riverfront Trail and park system trails...We've actually had issues with people riding them down on the Riverfront trail system. Those things book; there's a bunch of them that go 25 or 30 mph, which is way too fast when you're mixed in with pedestrians."
Tregarthen's not too worried about heavy pedestrian traffic near his house in the Miller Creek area. Eventually, after he gets more practice, he's going to build his "ultimate" motorized bicycle. That means better parts, a better exhaust system and springing for a Schwinn frame.