The Iron Hoodies

Oct 12, 2005 at 12:00 am

The loud crack signified the worst.

The first victim is Jason Florence, whose street name is R. He knew the dangers going in, but R, 24, of Ann Arbor, still gamely ventured onto the crater-pocked streets of Detroit.

With a bump and a bang, R’s moped — the kitschy ’70s relic, a motorized bicycle — is mauled by a particularly abysmal pothole. His ride — a black, dirt-encrusted mechanical anomaly dubbed the War Machine — begins droning even louder. As he clatters down the street with nearly 50 of his moped brethren, the din rouses the sidewalk-sleeping bums to look up from their malt liquor long enough to give a thumbs-up.

The sight of dozens of mopeds sputtering through the urban landscape isn’t something you see every day — unless you ride with the Moped Army.

On the first weekend in October, moped enthusiasts from across the Midwest converge on Ann Arbor for a three-day rally that includes a perilous trip from Dearborn to downtown Detroit. The gathering, dubbed Red October 2, was organized by local branches of the national organization, the Moped Army — the Guns, of Ann Arbor, and Dearborn’s Noviy Lef (Russian for “New Left”). Despite its humble beginnings eight years ago in Kalamazoo, today the Moped Army has branches from New York to San Francisco.

Regional chapters have badass names like the Guns, Decepticons and Ghost Riders, but members favor Levis and Elvis Costello specs over black leather and chains. Riders come from Chicago, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Indiana for the rally, and three fanatics even hauled their bikes all the way from Louisville, Ky.

Though many moped riders are typecast as Death Cab-listening, navel-gazing indie rockers who’d rather ride around on their bikes than get a day job, there’s still plenty of diversity, from young professionals to vintage-culture enthusiasts.

Simon King, 27, one of the Moped Army’s founders, was attracted to the bikes because they were “different from what everyone else was riding.”

Chris Salmonson, of Dearborn, says, “You’ve got this piece of junk that’s obscure and you’re riding it every day.”

The attraction is hard to explain. Most riders were skeptical until they actually hopped onto a moped. Noviy Lef co-founder Justin Todd, 25, was unimpressed with the odd-looking transport at first. “This thing goes 25, how much fun can it be?” Todd says. But after he gave it a shot, he was hooked. Twenty-five miles an hour on something resembling a ramshackle bicycle can feel awfully fast. The wind gusts from passing cars and near-misses in traffic add to the thrill.

During the rally, a gang of 45 cheesy riders in denim jackets spew acrid blue smoke as they slalom around pavement pits en route from Dearborn to Detroit.

The mopeds buzz, their noise drowning out insults hurled by other motorists. A few riders stop at each intersection to block traffic so all have a chance to putt through, even after the light turns red — illegal, but anything goes on the streets of Detroit. And it’s in keeping with the Moped Army’s fearsome aparian motto, “Swarm and Destroy.”

The swarm lands at Hart Plaza and mopeds crowd the sidewalk, overwhelming even seasoned Moped Army vets. “It used to be, you could get a nice picture of the bikes all locked up,” Salmonson says. “Now there’s too many.”

There are pictures on the group’s Web site,, which also features profiles, articles, news and discussion forums. There, riders can get advice on repairs, look at mopeds for sale, and hook up with other riders living nearby.

Many of the profiles contain political references, most tongue-in-cheek.

The name Noviy Lef reflects the fact that the members “are all communists at heart,” Todd jokes. A moped isn’t exactly mainstream transportation and some members feel it’s a peachy alternative to gas-guzzling SUVs.

“One hand on the bars, one hand straight up holding a one finger salute to the urban sprawl that necessitates SUV in order to safely navigate to Starbucks for a Crappe Latte,” reads the biography of the Guns, founded in September 2002.

The Guns and Noviy Lef have been partners since Florence, a Gun, crossed paths with Todd in Ann Arbor one day. The two became friends and their branches began to hold meetings and rides together on Sundays in Ann Arbor. The next logical step was to host a rally.

It all fit in with founder King’s master plan to strengthen the Moped Army network and sprout branches nationwide. King hopes for a tightly knit network, and to “not become loosely organized like scooter clubs.” His comment hints at a small rivalry between some moped owners and scooter owners, also known as mods. Part of King’s definition of a moped is “it’s not a scooter.”

For the unsavvy: A scooter is a plastic or metal shell without pedals, and with an engine usually larger than a moped’s. Is there a gang rivalry brewing, a battle of the baby bikes?

Decepticon Mike Recker, 21, of Kalamazoo is overheard saying, “I really hate to say it, but that flat-black scooter looks really nice,” while eyeballing a ride owned by a member of Ann Arbor’s Jedi Knights.

In Ann Arbor, the rivalry is a running in-joke, if anything, Florence says. He and Jedi Knight Robbie Linkner are “constantly joking on each other whenever we see each other. But he’s cool with mopeds. I’m cool with [scooters]. And I’ll help him work on a scooter, or he can come help us work on a moped.”

In an act of solidarity during one smaller group ride, the Jedi Knights put themselves and their scooters on the line to block intersections in Ann Arbor, so the moped riders could pass freely in one group.

Alexis Ford, 23, of Plymouth is a member of Noviy Lef and the Rovers scooter club of Detroit. She loves both machines, but thinks the Moped Army has more room to grow than the scooter clubs do. “Moped Army has the potential to have a long lifespan because it’s on a national level via branches, and we get together on the Internet,” she says.

With the 2002 opening of Kalamazoo’s moped-only store, 1977 Mopeds, and the recent release of the Moped Army graphic novel by Kalamazoo artist Paul Sizer, it’s clear the swarm is growing.

“It’s picking up speed fast,” Florence says, “like a rock falling off a cliff.”

Or a moped into a pothole.

Nate Rogers is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]