The Buzz is All About Mini Motorcycles
If you needed proof of the mini motorcycles craze, take a look at this great article by Chronicle staff writer Michael Taylor...
Pocket bikes are mini motorcycles -- powered, for the most part, by oil-
and gas-burning engines similar to those used in chain saws, weed whackers or
other small motorized tools -- and they look just like the real thing.
The snazziest mini motorcycles cost thousands and are made in Italy, but the ones that
are selling by the container load run from $200 to $500. They come from China,
among other places, and are getting snapped up by eager teenagers and, in some
At Broadtek LLC, a South San Francisco firm that imports them, the cardboard
cartons containing the small bikes are stacked to the ceiling of a tall
warehouse and are quickly going out the door to eager customers.
In Walnut Creek, Eric Rahin, owner of Sonic Scooterz, says he's selling the mini motorcycles
in droves -- "from college students to people in their late 50s. It's basically
a toy to have some fun with."
Manufacturers say the bikes are supposed to be used only on closed race
tracks, private roads or any other place where there are no public traffic laws
and, more important, no big cars or trucks to run into you. Many buyers follow
But now you see some of these new pocket bikes zinging in and out of parking
lots, up and down residential streets and, occasionally into the side of a car.
And therein lies the rub.
"It's very difficult for a driver (of a car) to see one on those mini motorcycles ,
because of their low height," said San Francisco police Lt. Kitt Crenshaw.
"We've had several accidents in the last few weeks, and people went to the
The pocket bikes have a top speed of about 35 mph, but can be souped up to go
faster. They evolved from tiny but highly sophisticated racing bikes that
campaign on European race tracks and are sometimes used as training vehicles for
Grand Prix motorcycle racers.
The bikes are faithful imitations of popular normal-size street motorcycles,
which, for marketing reasons, are faithful imitations of pure race bikes, down
to the disk brakes, handlebars, chain drives, twist-grip throttles and
The little bikes weigh about 50 pounds, stand about a foot and a half high
and can easily be put in the trunk of a car. They have tiny engines -- 47cc or
49cc displacement, less than 1/20th the size of a big motorcycle. And they are
"It's a fun little thing to ride," said Matt Damon, a 21-year-old salesman in
a Martinez pet store. "It's a whole lot cheaper than a $6,000 or $7,000 big
bike. For years now, I've been riding different types of motorcycles, but it's
more like the mini motorcycles are a fun thing, instead of just transportation. And
it's easier to maintain and burns less gas."
But Damon did admit, "I took it for a ride down the street and got pulled
over. The officer was kind of nice about it. But I got a ticket."
Police departments in the Bay Area and elsewhere in California have been
cracking down on the little two-wheelers, saying they are a major accident
waiting to happen. No police agency could come up with information about any
deaths caused by pocket bike crashes, but police want them off the public roads
before the inevitable happens.
"Their numbers are starting to increase," said Milpitas police Officer Jay
Johnson, who was assigned by his department to look into the phenomenon and
ultimately write about it for the weekly Milpitas Post. "Most of the complaints
we're getting is that drivers can't see them or there'll be a group of them
racing, or they're running stop signs."
For a while, though, until Johnson began studying up on the subject, and the
California Highway Patrol sent out a memo clarifying just what is and what is
not legal about the bikes, confusion seemed to be paramount.
In fact, it shouldn't be. On many bikes, there's a decal right there on the
gas tank that says these things do not conform to "federal motor vehicle safety
After a lengthy consult with the state Vehicle Code and the Department of
Motor Vehicles, the CHP explained that the bikes do not meet a number of
standards required for all vehicles registered in California -- the most telling
example being the stipulation that "headlamp height (be) between 22 and 54
Technical problems aside, it's the safety issue that concerns
"We're really concerned about these things mixing with traffic," said CHP
spokesman Steve Kohler. "If you think about it, something that small is
difficult to see, when it's mixed in with cars, trucks and buses. Drivers don't
even see full-size motorcycles. There's no way they're going to see these
Or, as David Edwards, editor in chief of Cycle World Magazine and a man who
puts about 20,000 miles a year on motorcycles, said: "When you get out in city
traffic, you'll be at more risk than on a full-size motorcycle. But they only
hold (a little) gas, so you won't go too far. And they're noisy as hell, so at
least people will hear you coming if not see you coming."
- Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer Wednesday, June 16, 2004
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