The sound made by a pack of mopeds in motion is unmistakable.
It's like a beehive, but more mechanical — a beehive overflowing with weed whackers, perhaps. It's the two-stroke engines, simple but powerful, along with the performance exhaust pipes installed on some of the bikes to squeeze another couple of miles per hour out of the uncomplicated machines. As 100 or so riders cruise through the streets of downtown St. Louis on a recent Saturday, that sound alone is enough to turn the head of every pedestrian in sight, piquing their curiosity before they even have a chance to see the huge clutch of tiny, pedal-sporting motorcycles.
Half the group is already past the stoplight when it turns red. On cue, two riders break from the rear half of the pack and pull up to the cars who've just gotten a green, holding hands out to keep the cagers at bay so the rest of the group can pass safely. It's the price of admission for the spectacle, and the automobile drivers don't seem too angry about paying it. Many point their camera phones at the commotion.
Mopeds are slow, finicky, hard-to-find machines that inspire bouts of road rage from less patient drivers and are less than forgiving when involved in an accident, frequently leaving their devotees in hospital beds.
They're also fun as hell. In the state of Missouri they don't have to be licensed or titled, and they don't require insurance or a motorcycle endorsement to ride — only a standard driver's license. They can also go pretty much anywhere that bicycles can go. For the maniacs who belong to the area's moped clubs, the inevitable broken bones and aborted rides are just the cost of a damn good time.
The sixth-annual moped rally, hosted by the St. Louis club called the Ruffians, has everybody on the downtown streets today celebrating. Fans of 49cc engines have come from all around the country for the privilege of sleeping in a north city biker bar parking lot alongside dozens of fellow travelers, all of whom smell like burned two-cycle oil.
"I think the furthest was Texas," says Ruffian Nick Mackinaw, 37. "We've had people fly in from New York. We've had people from Washington, North Carolina. People come from all over. Evidently our event is not to be missed in the community."
Riders use their feet to point out potholes and other road hazards. A van follows the group to pick anyone up whose bike has broken down — if there is one word that could definitely not be used to describe a moped, it's "reliable" — and before the ride is done, that van will be overflowing with disabled bikes.
But for now, at least, everything seems to be running smoothly as the pack rips through downtown. As the back half of the group passes through the intersection, two riders are off their mopeds and stalled, kicking and pulling at their rides, which got locked together when the first stopped suddenly and the second ran straight into the back of it.
Mopeds are a lot of things. Glamorous is not one.