Thick as Thieves

The Bourbon Bandits.

The Bourbon Bandits.

By IGOR GURYASHKIN
Staff Writer

Jeremy Shay.

Jeremy Shay.

In a garage straddling the border of the Highlands and Clifton, a group of friends have gathered. Jovial conversation fills the air as much as the smoke streaming from a pair of simmering grills. A web designer chats with a nurse who in turn converses with someone in I.T., an advertising executive as well as a grocer. But these are not old school friends, nor simple acquaintances. In fact they have very little in common and reside on opposite sides of town. But one thing bonds them: the unfathomable plethora of mopeds that surrounds them.

These are the Bourbon Bandits,  a group of close to thirty Louisville enthusiasts from diverse walks of life who like to fix mopeds. Started in 2005 by a group of four friends, the Bandits were united by a love of restoring and juicing their two wheel charges to go faster than the 30 m.p.h. they were designed for. The club grew quickly and soon became part of The Moped Army, a national organization of which they’re one of 23 chapters nationwide with close to 600 official members. The goal? To promote moped culture, make friends and perhaps enjoy a beer or two along the way.

“People get into this for various reasons,” explains Kitty Smith, one of the four founding members who even has a tattoo to prove it. “For example, I’m not a mechanic at all, but you feel pretty great when you manage to take apart an engine. I tell people who want to join to make sure that what they want is a real hobby.” Fellow member Kelly Grady couldn’t agree more. “I rebuilt an entire engine. I’m not the sort of person who thought I could possibly have done that. It’s empowering and you discover more about yourself through building them.”

Kitty Smith.

Kitty Smith.

While some mopeds may resemble post-apocalyptic jumbles, others are more creative and artistic, underscoring the fact that even when it comes to mopeds there are different philosophies. “Some people are about speed. Others are really passionate about restoring something to it’s original state,” explains Sean Reynolds, who recently opened a grocery store nearby. “It’s really an art form. But we’re making this up as we go along, really. For motorbikes there are shops and supplies, but those guys won’t touch mopeds. So we have to figure it ourselves.”

It’s this collective improvization and resourcefulness that Reynolds feels fuels the friendships they’ve made. “There is something special about moped culture,” explains Reynolds.  “I know that if someone on a moped broke down outside my store I would not hesitate to drop everything, close up shop and help in any way I can.”

While the history of mopeds in the United States dates back forty years, it’s only in the past decade that the humble vehicle has seen a resurgence. Originally imported from Europe in the thousands during the 1970s gas crisis, mopeds appealed for one simple reason: they could run close to 200 miles on one tank of gas. But as gas prices dropped so did the appeal, and scores were either unceremoniously scrapped or left to rust in barns and garages waiting to be rediscovered – until now.

Sean Reynolds.

Sean Reynolds.

For individuals like Jeremy Shay,  though, it only took one taste of moped culture – the remarkable sight of a rally featuring hundreds of moving mopeds – to ensure he was hooked for life.

“The first rally was unlike anything I had seen before. I had never really seen mopeds on the road before in Louisville, and then suddenly there were 300 people from around the country all in one place, talking about mopeds and life in general.”

Nor did an automobile accident deter him.

“I was in a wreck within the first week of my first rally. I was hit by an SUV. I had lacerations and stitches to the leg and lip. I had to go to physical therapy to learn how to walk properly again. But within a week I was getting ready to go to another rally. I just had to have more.”

Without mopeds in their lives, two couples in The Bourbon Bandits would not have met or since got engaged – Smith and Shay, and Adam and Becki.

“It’s kind of like that with mopeds,” muses Smith. “You don’t choose who gets involved, but you just all get along.”

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune