Throughout the streets of Colombia you can find bicycles that have been rigged up with motors, essentially creating low horse power motorcycles with pedals. Putting a motor on a bicycle is perhaps the dream of any kid growing up in a bike riding culture, and I once tried in vain to put engines on my bikes when growing up. But in the Caribbean regions of Colombia such motorized bicycles are relatively common. They are mostly used by bicycle delivery people and by vegetable markets and corner stores to cheaply and quickly transport goods.
I saw a bicycle that had a small motorcycle-esque gas tank and a little two stroke engine attached to its frame, two sprockets flanking both sides of the rear wheel, two chains, a set of pedals, and a throttle attached to the right handle bar grip. Gear racks were attached over the front and rear wheels. This machine was clearly at first a regular bicycle before the customization job that morphed it into a motorized vehicle.
I walked up to its owner, shook his hand, and asked about his vehicular contraption. He thought it funny that I was interested in his motorized bicycle, as they are pretty common in Cartagena. “You’ve never seen one of these before?” he asked in surprise. I felt like I was questioning someone about something as inane as a pair of socks.
“I have never seen a bicycle with a motor that was so good,” I responded, remembering all the crappy motorized bicycle designs I have observed in my travels.
My words were true though, his motorized bike was pretty solidly designed, being more of a motorcycle on a bicycle frame with pedals than anything else. “Did you make this bike yourself?” I asked.
Juan responded that he did.
I looked over his work: the vehicle could function independently as either a bicycle or a motorcycle, or, as is the hallmark of motorized bicycles, both means of propulsion could be utilized in tandem. On one side of the frame was pedals connected to a sprocket that worked the rear wheel like a normal bicycle, on the other side was a sprocket connected to an engine that worked a larger sprocket to the same effect. The design was awesome.
“How fast does it go?” I asked.
Juan said that it could get up to around 30 kilometers an hour. Not bad for urban transport. But I had to wonder why, in a city as small and flat as Cartagena, was a motor needed for a bicycle? Why couldn’t a bicycle delivery worker just pedal his load from place to place? There were certainly many cargo bicycles around town without motors, why did Juan need one on his bike? Why are these motorized bicycles so popular in Cartagena and almost non-existent in most other parts of the world?
The answer, perhaps, lies somewhere between the facts that Cartagena is hot — real hot — and motorized bicycles are pretty cool. As I looked at Juan sitting on his bike on the side of the street like it was a hot rod, his girlfriend in his arms, I began to see the logic: it just isn’t cool to be huffing and puffing on a bicycle in the tropical heat. A motor trumps self propulsion as far as status goes any day.
But through my stay in Cartagena I did not observe a single one of these motorized bicycles in motion. I saw a few just sitting on the side of the street in front of shops, but I never saw one fired up and moving. I soon found out what was perhaps the reason for this:
“I would start it up and show you how it goes,” Juan said, “but I’m out of gas.”
One of the main advantages of the bicycle is that you don’t have to pay for fuel, that you can just get on it and peddle it anywhere you want to go for free. This advantages is lost if you want to use a motor with it. If you don’t have money for gas, a motorized bicycle is just a bicycle, and this is what I observed in Cartagena as the delivery guys would pedal their customized steeds, motors and all.