Mopeds Off-Season: They're Useful, Cheap - but on Chilly Side

By CHRIS BURRELL

Manuel Suza just ordered a fill-up at deBettencourt's gas station in Oak Bluffs and only had to shell out $1.66. No wonder he was still smiling.

His rig barely uses any fuel, but it comes with a price. It's a moped, and he's riding the thing in 35 degree weather. That explains the thickly-insulated coveralls and ski gloves.

Mr. Suza is one of a handful of hearty Islanders who rely on a vehicle that would hardly win a popularity contest on the Vineyard.

It's an odd juxtaposition. The buzz of moped engines is a harbinger of summer. They're inextricably linked with the tourist trade, and they are arguably the most reviled vehicles on the Island, viewed by many people as dangerous.

But to the moped owner, there are other considerations. Economics is chief among them, and the urge to save seems to defy all kinds of weather.

"I wish more people would realize how useful these things are," said Dale Robinson, a 62-year-old resident of West Tisbury who rode his first moped in 1984.

Mr. Robinson loves to regale anyone who will listen with the stellar gas mileage of his mopeds. "You can get anywhere from 75 to 80 miles a gallon and on up," he said.

Mr. Susa can't speak much English but according to the fellow pumping gas and offering to translate at the same time, the 30-year-old paid $300 for his Yamaha and counts on it to take him to work at Season's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs where he washes dishes.

Mr. Robinson has been known to find even better deals on mopeds. He buys used mopeds from Don Gregory, who runs a moped rental shop in Oak Bluffs called Sun 'n Fun. The prices run between $50 and $100. He picked up his most recent one - a red Yamaha - for free.

No doubt, this is a cheap set of wheels, but tossed into the bargain is a hefty dose of scorn.

Mr. Robinson seems nearly oblivious to the issue of grouchy Island motorists who just plain don't like mopeds, but other moped owners will tell you it's rough out there on Vineyard roads.

"I had people running me off the road," said James Bryan, a 74-year-old real estate agent in Edgartown, who owned a moped for years. "I said the hell with it."

Mr. Bryan bought himself a scooter with a bigger engine that could keep up with traffic.

Trina Kingsbury in Chilmark said she rides her moped to the market in the summer. "I'd get dirty looks from people walking down the road," she said.

But come winter, it would be hard to confuse any moped rider on the road with the tourist variety. Aside from the fact that the rental shops have closed up by Columbus Day, there's the wardrobe.

"I wear full body coveralls and insulated shirts," said Mr. Robinson. His bushy gray beard even seems to offer some protection from the windchill.

"There have been a few cold days where I almost swore off mopeds altogether," he said. "But not quite."

Clearly, there's something of the daredevil in Mr. Robinson.

He treats his moped like it was a pick-up truck, loading up his rear racks and even the front handlebars with bags full of everything from plastic bottles to dogfood.

"I use 'em for shopping, [and carried] over 100 pounds of squid in one trip," he said. "I've had four bags of groceries in the back and 50 pounds of dogfood on the crossbar."

Mr. Robinson will show you the Polaroid pictures to prove it. But he'll admit that he's gone overboard on the heavy loads.

"I was going around one corner and forgot I had a 20-pound bag of dogfood on the back basket. Down I went," he said. "The helmet came in handy. My head hit the dirt so hard, I had a headache. That could have been a whole lot worse."

Mr. Robinson also keeps himself mechanically prepared for any excursion. He carries a sparkplug wrench with him on all trips. A hairline of carbon can be the difference between a smooth ride up Middle Road and a breakdown on the shoulder.

Moped owners like Mr. Robinson swear by the thriftiness and convenience of two-wheelers, but they also consider themselves critics of the moped rental scene.

"I really do have bad feelings about mopeds as it relates to people just coming down here and renting them with little or no experience," said Mr. Bryan. "They're doing something down here with mopeds they'd never do at home."

To people with years of experience riding a moped, the distinction clearly comes down to experience, an element that many renters simply lack.

"In my opinion, some renters have grown up not even knowing how to ride a bicycle. They take a moped, twist the handle grip and off they go," said Mr. Robinson. "A moped is no more safe or dangerous than anything else. You need to learn."

Mr. Robinson said the best place to train is on a dirt road.

"You either learn to stay up quick, or mister, you go down right quick," he said.

That skill of being able to balance a moped in slippery spots makes Mr. Robinson a confident rider, but he is still very alert to the dangers. "Little slips on a sandy corner make your heart skip a beat," he added.

Mr. Robinson is one contented moped owner. On Tuesday, he hauled a load of bottles and cans down to Our Market in Oak Bluffs and traded them in for the deposit money. It's a trip he's made many times over the years.

You can see your breath out there in the parking lot by the harbor, but Mr. Robinson is no complainer. He told the guy at the redemption center that the little engine on his bright red Yamaha kind of keeps his legs toasty.

To Mr. Robinson, the moped is the ultimate exercise in affordability. "When I get a good one underneath me," he said. "I totally wear it out."