Motor Kit Methadone for Internal Combustion Junkies

Eugene Bicyclist responded to How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative with his own post on How To Talk A Conservative Into Riding A Bike:

Bike Engine Kits
Photo: Eugene Cyclist

The How to Talk to a Conservative post got me thinking. Sure, I can do the things [Tom] Bowden suggests. I can say that cycling saves money, is good for my heart and reduces our need for Saudi Arabian oil.

But I dont see that convincing the kind of people were talking about here. For them, when it comes to foreign oil, the sentiment is more drill, baby, drill than pedal, baby, pedal.


I think the backlash [from conservatives] has to do with a sense that the increasing tide of urban cycling may be saying something unkind about their own way of life a way of life that includes a warm coziness with the device known as the internal combustion engine.

He concludes, in the name of peace, brotherhood, and political reconciliation, that the cycling left can reach out to the cycling right with gas-powered motor kits for bikes. “Its a bike and an internal combustion engine.”

When I was done laughing, I began reflecting.

I know this is not a new or novel insight, but I believe there is something about internal combustion that is deeply embedded in the American soul. I realized this after living abroad, in Africa. I didn’t set foot on American soil for more than two years. It was in Africa where I learned to maintain a motorcycle engine. When I returned to the USA, I set out on a three-month motorcycle tour to rediscover my country.

When I stopped for awhile in Washington DC, I eventually wandered into the “America on the Move” exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I entered a room with many specimens of internal combustion engines throughout history, and I felt something akin to a religious experience. Understand this and all it’s societal impact, I felt, and you will understand America.

Ducati Cucciolo (human and engine power)
Photo: Ben Kamenjas

Fast forward a decade or more, and I’m sitting at my desk typing for a cycling blog. But Eugene Bicyclist’s observation on the backlash from conservatives made me realize that there is a corollary to my epiphany at the Smithsonian: Fight this and all it’s societal impact, and you fight America.

I certainly don’t believe that to be literally true, but it deepens my understanding of the backlash. A “warm coziness” with the internal combustion engine is an understatement. “Pathological dependency,” might be a bit strong. Somewhere between those two descriptions there’s precise adjective-noun combination to describe the relationship that we threaten when we advocate for habitual motorists to consider cycling (or to at least accommodate others who do). It’s like asking an unrepentant junkie to give up heroine and try lemonade instead–maybe just one day a week. Even conservative politicians have used the addiction metaphor, so cut me some slack. If Eugene Bicyclist is right, then maybe motor kits are the methadone for internal combustion junkies.

P.S. Yes, there’s also a Bicycle Collection in the Smithsonian but my instincts didn’t guide me there at the time.

Sign up for our Adventure-Packed Newsletter

Get our latest touring, commuting and family cycling posts and sales delivered to your inbox!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

16 thoughts on “Motor Kit Methadone for Internal Combustion Junkies”

  1. Interesting post.

    And it’s about the best compliment I can think of that some of that goofy nonsense I write over on my blog once in a while makes someone stop and think seriously about something serious.

    Thanks for furthering the discussion.

    And thanks for giving space to Mr. Bowden for his original post, which got all this rolling.

  2. Josh Lipton says:

    If gas powered bikes are the methadone of the transportation world, what are steam powered bikes? I’m guessing steam power might get libertarians excited about cycling.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Libertarians want bikes powered by an invisible hand.

  3. Josh Lipton says:

    I think these metaphors might rapidly start getting out of hand, but I can’t resist one more.

    “Defense Hawk” Style Pedal Assist:

  4. BikeBike says:

    Interesting post for sure. We have been open for less than a year now and I have been very surprised by the number of people who are coming in talking about installing ICEs on bikes.

    There are quite a few of them buzzing around here in Calgary and, based on how many people are asking about them, I suspect we’ll see more of these contraptions on the road in the future – shudder!

    Wanna take a stab at who these customers are? Yup, you’re right. White, middle-aged, pudgy, non-cyclist types, perhaps busted with a DUI, perhaps addicted to gasoline fumes too. Certainly not female or younger than 30.

    I have been in the bike biz for 25 yrs+ and am not sure why so many people are interested in these bikes now. They have been around forever – any thoughts on why they seem to be “booming” now?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I can only speculate.

      I’m considering a electric-assist bike sometime in my future, but there are two things holding me back: (1) The cost, and (2) the exoticness of the technology.

      If the noise, smell, mess, and proximate pollution of the engine kit weren’t factors, I would easily find myself considering a motor kit (or a Whizzer-style moped). I like the option of pedaling when the engine breaks down or runs out of gas. Pushing a motorcycle or a scooter sucks.

      I’m not a small engine mechanic, but I’ve maintained small internal combustion engines before, and I know I could learn how to maintain my bike’s motor.

      If there is any broader pattern to your anecdotal observations on the demographics, then I can imagine that these are guys who aren’t intimidated by small internal combustion engines, because they’ve been around them their entire lives.

      But noise, smell, mess, and proximate pollution are factors for me, so I find myself priced out of my other options now, and intimidated by the technology.

  5. KevinW says:

    What I don’t understand about motorized bikes, is that a gently used motor scooter from a reputable manufacturer like Honda or Yamaha only costs a little bit more. Scooters are designed by teams of professional engineers who know their vehicle will have a motor and design accordingly. A motorized bike is a frame designed for pedal power by one group, with an engine designed by someone else slapped on. The scooter is just going to be a better product in every way: safety, reliability, utility, efficiency, resale, etc.

    For my money a bicycle is the best personal transportation machine, but if you’re going to move to a gas-powered vehicle and everything that entails, why would anyone choose a weird kit over a well designed product?

  6. Dave says:


    I’ve been living off and on in El Salvador for around a year and when I’m here, I always see a lot of these converted bicycles. I see a lot of people pushing broken down motorcycles and scooters too, and my guess is that Ted is on the right track when he notes that there is security knowing that you can pedal your way home in the event the motor breaks down. I guess those people riding motorized bicycles just got tired of pushing around their motorcycles.

    I wonder if the electric bike would ever do well down here. But for some reason people down here are scared to death of paying electricity bills, but pay high prices for gas all day long.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      I wonder if the electric bike would ever do well down here.

      My international experience, as I said in my post, is in Africa; most of that in Cameroon. My friends in Cameroon go without many electric appliances such as a refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine, etc. not because the appliances are unavailable, and not necessarily because my friends can’t afford them. A major factor is that the state-run power company is extremely unreliable. Conversely, the gas stations rarely run dry. (And if they do, there are always opportunists who smuggle Nigerian gas over the border and set up by the side of the road to sell it by the liter.)

      There are many reasons that we use gasoline in this world. It stores a lot of energy per pound, and it’s not particularly volatile compared to other combustible materials with the same or greater energy density.

      I don’t imagine e-bikes taking off anywhere there is an unreliable source of electricity.

  7. MikeC says:

    The vintage engine looks like an old Ducati Cucciolo, produced just after WWII, when Italy was getting back on its feet. It was popular when gas and material were short. As gas prices rise, people will look for alternatives. Electric bikes are still a bit expensive, but a gas engine in a bike that gets better milage than a Prius if gas hits $5/gal in 2012 like someone important predicted will appeal to many.

    A scooter or moped would certainly be better as a reliable commuter, faster too, but where you can buy a cheap engine kit and MalWart Cruiser for less than $300, even a used scooter will cost more than twice as much.

    Plus, in our state, no license required for “motor powered bicycles” of less than 50cc. I think the only thing keeping hordes of pre-license teens from being early and ardent adopters are computers and console games.

  8. A friend of mine recently bought a used electric bike that I soon took for a spin. Holy cow it would be easy to get addicted to riding one of those. Very quiet and very effortless. I almost felt like I was cheating. In fact I did feel like I was cheating, but it was still quite a bit of fun. I’d own one of those over a gas powered moped, but I still prefer the human engine on my bikes.

  9. Chrehn says:

    These are more great examples of why bicycles are so beautiful. Just about anybody can follow their muse with a bicycle. Keep on keeping’ on.

  10. Dave says:

    Thanks, Ted, for the wikipedia article. I didn’t know that about gasoline! Fascinating…

    I know what you mean about unrealiable electricity. The electricity was only recently privitized in El Salvador a few years ago, and has greatly improved since then, but I have still seen some sketchy bills. I personally (well, actually, my wife… as a non-citizen I can’t own property) have seen a bill one month at $7 for 85 kWh jump to $35 for 79 kWh for no reason at all. Not to mention the meter is situated atop a 25 foot pole and takes binoculars to read!

    However, despite the apparent unreliability in billing, the actual electrical supply is extremely reliable. This country has geo and hydrothermal electricity out the wazoo and as far as I can tell, unless you are out in the boondocks, produces a steady 120 volts with about the same fluctuation we find in the states (+/- 5 volts, maybe). Blackouts and brownouts seems pretty rare, as long as you’re in the city.

    The most important factor in this country is cost, and it is by far cheaper to put a ICE on a bike in this country than it is to import an electric bicycle. Even if long-term costs outway the initial investment, people here would never even consider buying an electric bike. The most expensive bicycle I’ve found (not counting the specialty shops in the capital) runs for around $120. That includes fenders, a rear rack, and a front dynamo headlight. It’s a heavy one, but people here could care less about weight, considering they use bicycles to haul everything from sugar cane to scrap metal.

    But why am I blabbering on about Central America? Let’s focus on what electric bicycles can do for the good old U S of A.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Well American people don’t wont to give up there car or internal combustion engine because of what it affords them. Which is the ability to get somewhere distant extremely fast and to go several hundred miles in one day. Since I started to really get into mountain biking and riding it all over town some things have really bothered me. How in the hell does bicycling always turn into a political debate? I somewhat consider myself a conservative but not main stream more like Ron Paul. I have a Chevrolet Silverado 4×4 which I love ride around in and shuttle my bike to far off trails. I come from a automotive background my dream is to one day either work in or own a high end hot rod shop. My first bike shop bike I bought while at a school that trained people to build custom cars from the ground up. I bought it to save on gas and in the end it really saved me. I like how a mundane car trip to the movie theater can turn into a enjoyable and pleasant cruise on a bike. I also like how a bike forces you to slow down and look at what is around you. If you want to help people get away from cars inform them why they should. Tell them how the internal combustion engine is at it pinnacle, gasoline is the best fuel thats why it is used the most. Per gallon no other fuel offers as many BTU’s, ethanol only provides half what gasoline does per gallon thats why you horrible MPG’s on it. BTU’s are important because all the engine is trying to do is heat up the nitrogen in the air, when the nitrogen expands it pushes the cylinder down. Hybrids are horrible designs that only benefit people that live in city’s and never go over 35MPH’s. That the strip mining they do for the battery packs is nut’s. Most of all just find a friend or someone you know that does not ride and take them on a cruise around town with you or group. It’s a experience they soon won’t forget.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Most of all just find a friend or someone you know that does not ride and take them on a cruise around town with you or group. It’s a experience they soon won’t forget.

      That’s a great sentiment. I wonder what we could accomplish if everyone who bikes regularly could just try to get one more person on at least one ride this year.

  12. Garry Market says:

    Hi, this is a well written post. I just bookmarked your site. Kindly continue the amazingly good posts.

Leave a comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


20% off ALL Ortlieb Bag Closeouts! Shop Closeouts

Scroll to Top