It‘s Electric

It‘s Electric

Riding a moped for the first time feels like flying. The Bandit I’ve borrowed, an electric version designed and constructed by Spark Cycleworks in North Branford, glides quietly and effortlessly up the inclined pavement, the excitement somehow muting the busy rumble of motors on nearby Route 80. It’s a “superhero feeling,” says Matt Schell, Spark’s founder, emphasizing the distinctive soft whoosh that signals a moped, not a motorcycle or car, is on the move.

Decades after their invention, mopeds peaked in the US in the 1970s, when spiking gasoline prices spurred demand for more efficient modes of getting around. During the ’80s, declining gas prices and the introduction of economy cars put the brakes on sales. But lately, it seems, mopeds have experienced a renaissance. While on a trip to China for his other local engineering business, Differential Pressure Plus, Schell was struck by the popularity of electric bikes. Seeing how fun they are to ride and thinking they’d be fun to make, he founded Spark in 2018, soon bringing on team members Tao Markovich, Erin McGinn, Taryn Nycek and John Vincent. Together, they’ve been designing and building electric bikes and mopeds ever since. “We want people to realize we’re not a big corporate company. We’re just 5 people making bikes out of our garage,” Schell says.

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In a carpeted side room with a Johnny Cash poster, a muddied, well-loved electric moped is being checked for Flat Out Friday, an upcoming annual race in Milwaukee. (This year’s marks the first time electric moped riders are invited.) Bricks, Schell’s spunky new pup, prances about on wiry legs, his red harness and collar offsetting spotted dark fur. He grabs a white helmet by its straps, dragging it around the warehouse. A pair of white doors open up into a larger room where electric bikes and mopeds are stationed on shelves across the ceiling. Tools and bolts are spread across almost every other surface.

After moving in January, Spark’s new home is still in process. Doors lack knobs, some wooden wall frames are exposed and other walls are unpainted, all improvements the Spark team is making themselves. During their move, over 30 people showed up to help, including by driving mopeds over to the new location. “A couple came from Philadelphia, guys from New York, a guy from Boston. Out of that entire crew I had probably met less than half of them,” Schell says.

The communitarian culture around mopeds spans the country, from groups like New Haven’s Dirty Burnin’ Broads to Ypsilanti’s The No-Nos to Baltimore’s Graveyard Shifters. Moped rallies bring riders together across states to form a chosen family. “It’s always going to go back to the community, to the group of people you ride with. That’s the biggest thing,” Schell says.

While many mopeds still run on gas, Spark’s bikes run via battery. The appeal of an electric moped is not only in its environmental aspects but also its potential for customization. Spark’s moped designs have found inspiration in the ’90s jazz cup motif and the Mad Max movies, and customers are able to choose from an impressive array of options covering the power and number of their batteries, the shape of their headlights, the color of their shocks.

The Bandit, Spark’s first electric moped model, is reportedly the first street-legal electric moped in the United States. With hydraulic brakes, turn signals and even its own VIN number for registration, the Bandit is a viable mode of transport, starting at $3,295 and offering single-charge, dual-battery ranges of up to 100 miles when driven slowly and 50 miles at high, power-gobbling speed. Meanwhile, the Javelin, Spark’s latest design project, represents “a radical new concept in frame building technology,” meant to make it possible for Spark to manufacture the frames themselves right here in Connecticut. Set to emerge in the spring, the model also aims for greater acceleration power making it suitable for both racing and everyday riding.

“I had a 14-foot catapult in my front yard up until high school,” Schell says while reminiscing on what led him to engineering. After watching the Discovery show Punkin Chunkin, which explored the primal question of how to optimize pumpkin catapults. 6th grader Schell was in awe. “I built an 8-foot catapult as my first one, and then I built a 14-foot one,” he says.

The catapults were followed by a long string of engineering experiments, including a two-wheel drive mountain bike designed for Schell’s high school senior project, which probably had something to do with his first job working at Zane’s Cycles in Branford. That was followed by a degree in Engineering, Fine Art, and Business from Virginia Commonwealth University—and a penchant for understatement. “All of these little experiences have added up in interesting ways,” he says.

Spark Cycleworks
8 Commerce Dr, North Branford (map)
(800)-557-9598 |

Written and photographed by Lindsay Skedgell.

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