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  • Tue March 02 2010
  • Posted Mar 2, 2010
Los Angeles, CA

Road & Track magazine gives a "Road Test" on illegal pedicab racing in LA.

Main Street Pedicab - Special Feature Road and Track Magazine "Road Test" Like so many forms of chaos and social unrest, illegal night-time pedicab racing in America probably has its roots in the permissive ’60s, a time when everything went haywire. Young GIs, sent to Vietnam, arrived in country having “experimented” with tricycles or bicycles with training wheels as children, “just to see what it’s like.” Soon they were hurtling through the back alleys of Saigon or Phan Rang in pedicabs, headed for dives called The Li-Ly Bar or the Bon-Bon Club, drinking Johnny Walker Red and watching the Sony reel-to-reel crank out mysterious Doors tunes about “riding the snake.” Naturally, they arrived back home with thousand-yard stares and full-blown addictions. .Unable to settle down, some of them joined the hippies heading off for India, seeking inner peace and meaning in ashrams or the hills of Kashmir, but here, too, found themselves on hallucinogenic pedicab trips through the steamy night streets of Amritsar or Gorakhpur, all hopped up on garam masala, dodging sacred cows and Rajasthani camel trains and nothing was ever the same. When they came back to New York or L.A., or even Des Moines, they brought their habit with them—an enduring association between living on the edge and a slightly bumpy nocturnal pedicab ride down an exotic street full of potholes. Jump ahead a couple of generations, and pedicabs are a fact of life in this country. In a scenario those old vets and hippies could scarcely have envisioned, entrenched gangs of young “pedicabphiles” come out at night like vampires, racing on the mean streets of L.A.’s beach communities, frightening tourists in crosswalks by jingling their handlebar-mounted bicycle bells, swilling small packets of energy gel and seeking thrills at anywhere from 4 to 18 mph, depending on road grade and passenger weight. By day, most pedicab jockeys support themselves as legitimate drivers, giving out-of-towners rides from their hotels to the beach. At night, it’s another story. They gather in the back shadows of a Starbucks’ parking lot and hang out until a few other “rigs” show up, and then it’s time to race. Drag races…laps around the block…it doesn’t matter as long as the insatiable craving for moderately disappointing speed is satisfied. Using free chain lube as bait, we gained the confidence of two of these drivers, who identified themselves as Johnny “Guns of” Navarone and “Mike the Bike.” Mike declined to give us his full name because, “my parents think I’m living in Cleveland, finishing up my GED so I can get into medical school or run a tanning salon. But that’s my old life. I’m a pedicab racer now.” Navarone showed up with his girlfriend, a cute little thing named Darla, who couldn’t have been more than 15. “We look for wild, fearless high school chicks with one foot in the grave,” he said, “nihilistic types who have their homework done and don’t have to be home ’til 11. Also,” he added, “it’s good if they weigh less than 110 pounds. A girl who likes pizza can ruin your knees.” Mike the Bike, on the other hand, showed up with a “customer,” a bespectacled tourist from Grosse Pointe named Shaun who was willing to pay big money just for the pleasure of going an entire city block without breaking a sweat. A vicarious fitness guy who probably watches NFL games from a barstool and talks tough about coaching decisions. Shaun threw himself into the cab and assumed a kind of lounge lizard pose, with one arm splayed across the back of the seat like an overfed pasha watching a floor show. It looked like a bad night for Mike’s knees. While the usual crowd of pedicab groupies cheered them on, the guys warmed up with a couple of drag races down the Main Street of Huntington Beach. With immense effort, both drivers pulled minor wheelies, followed by the kind of acceleration you normally see during a soft-field takeoff with a Brewster Buffalo when you’ve got a full load of fuel and torpedoes and you’ve accidentally left the carb heat on because you’re so bloody hung over you don’t know whether it’s Tuesday or Belgium. There was a heavy police presence on the street, but luckily the cops didn’t realize they were racing and no arrests were made—even after a brief vendor license check to see if we were selling ice cream. Predictably, Navarone and his featherweight Darla won by a full cab length. Then it was time for real road racing—a flying lap up Main and back on 6th Street, along the deadly Pacific Coast Highway in heavy traffic to the finish line. By the time they’d completed their big lap, I was in a nearby drug store, trying on sunglasses and reading the small print on a box of Just For Men hair color, so I missed the finish, but heard it was exciting. Suddenly it was nearly 11 and Darla had to get home, so that was that. We’d seen these pedicabs in action at night, but were curious how they’d do in real testing, up against the R&T stopwatches in the quarter mile, slalom and skidpad. Both drivers agreed to meet us the next day in a large, empty parking lot along the beach. This time, the real owner of our cabs came along, a man named Tony Saccareccia, who heads a company called Blue Water Pedicabs. Saccareccia told us he keeps 24 of these little beauties at a facility in Huntington Beach and rents them out to subcontractors for $20 or $25 a day, depending on the season. His drivers have to be 18 or older, with clean driving records. “No derelicts or partiers,” he said. “I like to employ young Irish people who are here on work permits. They relate well to the customers, talk to them and point out the sights, which is a good way to improve your income when you’re working for tips.” He said the drivers can typically make $12 to $20 an hour. “Who are the customers?” I asked. “Guests from resorts and hotels like the Hyatt over there, who want to go to the beach or a restaurant, such as Ruby’s Diner out on the end of the Huntington Beach Pier. We also give rides to handicapped people who want to go out on the pier.” And where do the cabs come from? “Denver, manufactured by a company called Main Street Pedicabs.” He said they cost him about $3800 each, and he has about $4200 in each one, by the time he equips them with a battery and all the necessary safety lights. The cabs have Shimano 21-speed twist-grip derailleur-type shifters (three front chain rings and a 7-speed rear cluster that runs through a gear reduction jackshaft), but the tig-welded chrome-moly steel frames and fiberglass bodies are all made in the U.S. The 26-in. rear rims have their hubs keyed to a modified go-kart axle that has a center differential with spider gears. Tubular rear shocks and springs, along with the hydraulic rear disc brake, are also go-kart based. I took one for a ride down the beachfront and felt an immediate but temporary disorientation because it has the forward visual aspect of a bicycle but doesn’t handle like one. As you trundle over a bump, you feel as if you’re tipping over, but body English and counter-steering have no effect. You just go with the flow of the terrain, tipping this way and that, and steering the handlebars toward the intended direction of travel. Frankly, the whole dy-namic made me feel a bit queasy, like the inner ear failure that typically comes after nine or 10 rum drinks on a cruise ship when you find yourself pitching headlong into an open lifeboat or crashing into a row of deck chairs, so I was glad to turn it over to the boys for our real performance testing. In the quarter mile and slalom the cabs were—shall we say—a bit slower than a Dodge Viper, but it was interesting to note that these rigs are much faster than walking. They can disappear into the distance and come back about four times before you can walk over to your car. They’re tremendously efficient in quickly moving two people—plus the driver—over what would be a very long walking distance, particularly for a highly trained automotive journalist. On the skidpad, our pedicabs once again underperfomed, say, a Lamborghini Murciélago, but then their tires are a little narrower. About 4 ft. narrower. Our testers found it best to turn in abruptly and put the cab up on two wheels to reduce the side load on the spokes. The wild card in our testing, of course, was endurance. The pedicabs did not get appreciably faster after repeated runs down the quarter mile. In fact, our drivers became increasingly sullen with each pass, then ominously silent. When our Test Editor suggested a 5th run down the quarter mile, Navarone, who appeared to be gasping for oxygen like a guppy in a badly aerated fish tank, caught his breath long enough to whisper menacingly, “How would you like to be thrown off the end of the Huntington Beach Pier and eaten by sharks?” So that was pretty much a wrap on our testing. As the sun set over the Pacific that evening, we tried to revive the spirits of our two drivers by taking them out for dinner at a beachfront restaurant called Duke’s, named after surfing legend Duke Paoa Kahanamoku. They ate like horses, of course, yet both were trim and fit as the late Duke himself once was. I also ate like a horse, despite the fact it wouldn’t hurt me to lose a few pounds. It was then I had my first—and perhaps only—profound insight on the future of the pedicab in America: In an age when we need to reduce our dependence on imported oil and cut carbon emissions, pedicabs may hold a better answer to our problems than all the fancy hybrid technology we can imagine. Why? Because they run on what is probably our last great untapped source of energy: the fat cell. Geologists now estimate that overweight Americans have amassed nearly six billion metric tons of stored—but normally squandered—heft that could be turned back into energy to power tomorrow’s dreams. Think of it: Years and years of accumulated solar energy, already converted to grains and corn-based sugars and ingested as snacks. Or, in my case, seafood Alfredo, key lime pie and a second mug of Fat Tire Ale at Duke’s. Forget the quarter mile; with a little fitness conditioning, I could take one of these things to the moon and back, without refueling. As for racing in the streets, we may be seeing only the dim beginnings of a new sport, like those impromptu drag races between early hot rods on the boulevards of Burbank just after WWII, or the fabled moonshine runs that led to organized stock-car racing and then to NASCAR. Given a little management by the France family, this could turn into something big. All it requires is a paying public with infinite patience and nothing else, really, to do. In the meantime, the pedicab street racing goes on in the dark heart of the city, filling the night with small tire chirps and the fearful sounds of asthmatic wheezing, creaking chains and deceptively innocuous bicycle bells. Noises of the new street warriors, all geared to send a chill down the spine of any honest citizen with remarkably acute hearing. No one knows where it will lead, and fewer still have even thought to ask. (click on the source to see lots of photos!)

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