Americans love their big, bad Harleys. But in Europe, the preference has always been for light, lean, stylish cycles instead -- just look at the classic Vespa scooter. The comically minuscule extreme of this trend is also Italian: a Mini Me version of the mega-fast MotoGP (Grand Prix) race bike called the minimoto.

"Pocketbikes," as they're colloquially known, stand a mere 18 inches tall, weigh a scant 50 pounds, and are ridden and raced competitively by adults and children. Not many people are aware of them in the states yet, but the metro area has a lively scene thanks to the Capitol Area Pocketbike Racing Association (CAPRA) -- a local club that sponsors race teams and brings enthusiasts together.

Some 40 riders, ranging in age from 7 to forty-something, race locally. Their bikes may be little, but their horsepower is big: Endowed with 39cc two-stroke engines -- as opposed to the lawnmower-type engines used by the more commonly known U.S. motorbikes -- minimotos can be pushed to travel at up to 50 miles per hour.

Races are run on paved tracks and go for six miles, which equates to 10 to 12 laps, depending on the track. And while only minimoto owners can race or join practices, everyone is encouraged to come see the tiny machines.

What to Expect: You'll be surprised by how fast it feels going 50 miles per hour on a bite-size bike.

"It's the same level of intensity that you would get in any extreme activity," says pocketbike authority Thomas Branson, who owns Fairfax's Capitol USA Minimoto, the largest minimoto importer-distributor in the country.

Be prepared to react quickly in terms of steering; because the vehicles have a smaller wheelbase, they react very quickly when you turn. You also have a smaller chance of getting injured than when you ride a hog, Branson says. Speeds are reduced, and "you don't have as far to fall -- you're practically on the ground already."

What to Bring: Aside from a pocketbike, you'll need the following safety equipment: durable pants and a coat, plus a regulation-approved helmet, gloves, shoes and knee guards (also known as "sliders").

Cost: Bikes can run $500 to $4,500 depending on the model (and taking into account horsepower, speed and design). The cost to race locally starts at $45 but is slightly more for higher-class (i.e., more powerful) bikes.

Tony Sclafani

Meeting the Minis

Capitol Area Pocketbike Racing Association. E-mail pbventures@aol.com or check out CAPRA's forum on www.pocketbikeplanet.com. Races are held at the Sandy Hook Speedway -- Sandy Hook Road (no address) one mile off Route 1, Sandy Hook, Md., 410-882-2375, www.sandyhookspeedway.com -- on Saturdays: June 19, July 31, Aug. 28, Sept. 18, Oct. 23 and Nov. 13. Registration starts at 9 a.m. and race time is 11 a.m.

Practices are held most Sundays, 1-5 p.m., in the parking lot of the Fairfax County Government Center, located between Monument Drive and Government Center Parkway, Fairfax.

In the coming months, CAPRA plans to host races on the Kart track behind the 75-80 Dragway, 11508 C, Monrovia, Md., 301-865-5102, www.7580dragway.com. (A schedule has yet to be finalized.) In the winter, racers compete indoors at Allsports Grand Prix, 45915 Maries Rd., Dulles, 571-434-9570, www.allsportsgp.com.