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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 10:03 pm | Fair 49º


Motorized Bicycles Catching On, But Not Everyone’s On Board

Called 'DUI cycles' by some, the law on their use has confused riders and police, and more traditional cyclists have their own beefs about the bikes

A cross between a bike and a motorcycle, a new contraption has hit the roads of Santa Barbara. Whether met with fury or fascination, the motorized bike is a nod to the do-it-yourself spirit. Throw down a few hundred dollars for an engine kit, and a rusty beach cruiser is transformed, able to propel a large man up Carrillo Hill, and he won’t even break a sweat.

What is perhaps more amusing is that the law governing these vehicles is seldom known by the riders — or the traffic cops. Dubbed “DUI cycles” by some — a rider who has had a license revoked and is unable to drive may hop onto one of these motorized bicycles — they pop up all along the city’s roadways.

A walk down Carrillo Street yields an entire store dedicated to these creations. The old Ducati storefront, 320 W. Carrillo St., is now occupied by Affordable Go Karts, the brainchild of Shane Pothe. His philosophy was developed in the 1970s, when his dad owned a Harley-Davidson he worked on religiously. It was a bike that leaked oil and was a constant project.

“These bikes are a lot like that,” he said, looking out over the store’s inventory. The space is filled with bikes, mostly cruisers, with and without engines. A three-speed cherry-red beach cruiser sits on the showroom floor, decked out with a four-stroke engine. It goes for nearly $900.

Pothe said there has been a lot of interest since the store opened five months ago. But there are challenges.

“It’s the legalities,” he said. “That’s the gray area.”

Several police officers have come into the store, from the Santa Barbara Police Department and the California Highway Patrol.

“I get different answers every time,” said Pothe, adding that he tries to stay educated on the law, reading through motorized bike forums online to learn what other riders are facing. “One guy I read about in Newport Beach wants to be legal, but every time he’s pulled over, he’s told something different.”

Although he said he’s not sure what the actual law states, Pothe has a motorized bike, wears a helmet and carries an M1 license.

People who have a suspended license and aren’t allowed to drive are attracted to the shop, while others are tinkerers and see it more as a hobby. Pothe said he is among that group.

“I love small engine stuff,” he said.

The store sells only the four-stroke engines. The two-stroke versions are cheaper, Pothe said, but they don’t meet emissions standards. The engine kits start at $450, and enthusiasts can install them on their own, or let Pothe do it for extra. A larger, more menacing black bike also sits inside the store, with an engine twice as large as the others. Pothe built it himself, and he said the bike can do 50 mph, but it isn’t legal.

“I have a mountain bike if I want to exercise,” he said. “I hop on one of these things to have fun.”

So just what does the law say? Santa Barbara police Officer Mike Hunt, who works in SBPD’s traffic division, has come up with the definitive guide on any type of contraption that one might discover on local roads.

The nitty gritty states that a motorized bicycle is defined as any two- or three-wheeled device “having fully operative pedals for propulsion by a person ... and an automatic transmission, a motor which produces less than two gross brake horsepower and is capable of propelling the device at a max speed of 30 mph on level ground.” Electric-powered bikes are also included as motorized, if they go less than 20 mph, have power of no more than 1,000 watts and are accelerated by pedaling.

Both types require a motorcycle license and a helmet, but not insurance. A license plate is required for bikes that have a maximum speed of 30 mph, but an ID card suffices as a registration.

Are they allowed in the bike lanes? Yes, it turns out, to the chagrin of cyclists huffing and puffing on their bikes under their own power.

Motorized bikes can be ridden on the right side of the roadway and bicycle lanes, but the motorized bike must “ride at a speed no greater than is reasonable or prudent in regard to visibility, traffic conditions, condition of the roadway in bike lane and in a manner that does not endanger the safety of the cyclist.”

In contrast, a motor-driven cycle is any motorcycle that has fewer than 150cc’s. A license is required for those, as well as insurance, a license plate, registration and a helmet.

The plethora of detail was included in Hunt’s guide, and shows just how technical the issue can be. He said the department started noticing the bikes becoming a problem more than a year ago.

“Everybody’s selling these things,” he said, adding that a quick trip to Kragen Auto Parts, K-Mart or Sears would yield an engine kit for this purpose. He said that because so many different types of kits are being sold, it’s hard to enforce.

“You have to know the law,” he said. “It’s very technical.”

Hunt is spot on with that statement. Of all of the people Noozhawk talked with for this story, each had heard different rules about what is needed to operate a motorized bicycle. On top of the complexity, laws are constantly changing.

“Every year they change these laws, and that’s something you have to keep up with,” Hunt said.

With the cost of gas continuing to rise, and traffic an ongoing problem, the bikes are likely to remain popular.

“It’s a major problem,” said Santa Barbara police Lt. Paul McCaffrey, adding that SBPD has stepped up enforcement. “It wasn’t that we wanted to be meanies. We’ve had some serious collisions.”

One of those harrowing accidents occurred when speed caused a rider’s front wheel to come off. The rider was thrown over the handle bars, and even though he was wearing a helmet, he struck his face on the pavement, breaking his jaw.

“It was a disaster,” McCaffery said.

Among the cycling community, opinions range from perplexed to annoyed. At the Velo Pro Cyclery, 633 State St., employee Max Frank said the shop has seen many of the motorized bikes coming in for repairs, but that employees won’t work on them because of the liability.

“I’ve seen them up close and personal, and a lot of them are very jerry-rigged,” Frank said.

Three to four months ago, a police officer came to the shop to tell employees that people aren’t allowed to use the bikes, a further example of the spotty knowledge of the law.

“A lot of people in the bicycle community, at least hard-core cycling, aren’t really totally against (the motorized bikes) but don’t really know what to think about them,” Frank said. “They’re almost for people who aren’t willing to ride a bike normally.”

He said he recently saw one on upper State Street going about 35 mph, and it almost passed him in his car.

Erik Wright, co-owner of WheelHouse, said that from a personal standpoint, the motorized bikes are “annoying.”

“They’re so loud,” he said.

Wright said several people have brought in the motorized bikes for repairs, a task the staff is none too eager to tackle. He said the complexity of fixing cheap internal combustion often makes repair costs worth more than the engine. Most of the bikes can’t handle the strength of the engines, plus they have serious rear tire damage and the friction on the back tire ends up “blowing up the rear brakes.” Still, he acknowledges that he understands their novelty.

“I see why they’re fun and cheeky,” he said, but added that they shouldn’t be allowed in the bike lane.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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