scooterlife - photog's blog

Motorcycles. Scooters. Wheelchairs. Tape. Whatever rolls.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Scooter Saves the Day

So I'm headed out on assignment, enjoying the cool spring morning in the Jeep. The CD player is cranked up, my gear is ready to go, and I'm on time to meet the client.

Without warning--and not a hint of anything amiss from the gauges and idiot lights on the dash--the Jeep rapidly loses power and a horrible clattering sound erupts from beneath the hood. Bear in mind that the 4.0L inline six is bulletproof; if I've blown up this one, I'll go down in history as one of the few lunkheads to ever actually drive a 4-liter Jeep into an early grave at 154,000 miles. Oil pressure--check. Water temp--check. I coasted my way across 4 lanes of commuter traffic to the right shoulder just as the engine cut off. From the right side of the hood, a wisp of steam emerged. Hmmm.

Apparently, the radiator had blown itself to bits--a large hole developed so quickly that it overheated rapidly, even before the temp gauge could catch up. Sure enough, when I turned the key, the needle began to climb. Golly, I said. Or something similar.

First came the apologetic call to the client. Thank God I got voicemail--those sorts of calls suck. I kept trying and finally got through to someone who could get through to them. I was sort of a tag-along, not an essential part of their field study, so it wasn't like their day was ruined, but I felt bad. Despite that professionalism, what I REALLY felt bad about was that my beloved Jeep was Tango Uniform on the side of the road. If the engine had gone bad, I was in deep doo-doo transportation-wise AND had lost the best packmule I'd ever owned.

After letting it cool, I held my breath and cranked the Jeep up--it started immediately and ran smoothly--good! About an hour and a half after my call to AAA, the tow truck arrived, yanked the green beast onto the rollback, and we were on our way to the local shop that's been maintaining my Jeep. From there, it was a 2 mile walk back home--uphill, unfortunately--with all my camera gear slung across both shoulders. That's 2 video cameras, assorted support gear, and so on...about 50 pounds total.

Aside from a Suzuki Marauder that stranded me every time I rode it, it was the first time since college--about 25 years--that a vehicle made me walk home, so I wasn't too upset.

But the next day was gonna be a busy one. We had one car between us, and I needed to pick up someone at the airport. The solution? The little Zip.

Here's where the Scooterlife test really came into action.

The plan was pretty simple--take the scoot to where the car was, and swap. This is no big deal on my end since I've been riding for 20 years but the 2nd half of the relay rider team for the trip home was going to battle downtown rush-hour traffic plus a short hair-on-fire jaunt on a high-speed 45mph thoroughfare (with average flow-of-traffic around 55) on the scooter for the first time.

On my way there, I was tempted to just keep riding. It was about 70 degrees with a nice cool breeze, and traffic was light. The Zip felt fine at the low downtown speeds--it's really in its element there with acceleration to spare.

Later on that afternoon I called in to see how the return trip was. You'll have to read the scooterlife2 blog to get those details.

No matter how much you integrate a scoot into your daily life, there may be a time when it REALLY becomes your only vehicle. Any work you've done to get ready for that day or undetermined period of time helps--figuring out a locking system, being familiar enough with it to tackle any traffic you're likely to encounter, and so on. Despite the 100 or so miles of that sort of experimentation, it was still exciting to strike out knowing that the bike had to run flawlessly or 2 people would be in deep doo-doo. And it performed as it always has--cranked up quickly, sliced through slower traffic, and disappeared into a tiny parking nook without stealing a full-size space from a co-worker.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


We found this tiny chapel off NC Highway 209 near Spring Creek.

After a long ride, even with the time to reflect as the miles rolled by, it seemed appropriate to get off the bike and enjoy the silence, remembering what's important in life and giving thanks for all we have.

Built by Beverly Barutio after she survived cancer, it's open to everyone. The woodwork and stained glass windows were stunning. The 12 X 14 chapel was erected to fulfil a promise she made to St. Jude while battling Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She hired builder Mike Ellis 3 years after her diagnosis, keeping her promise.

We stumbled across it while wandering along 209...more proof that there are no wrong turns on a good trip.

Stella test ride

The great Stella test ride was one of the scheduled festivites for our weekend in Hot Springs--also known as the 2005 Eastern ADVrider Annual Rendezvous. About 75-100 or so adventure riders descended on the sleepy little burg of Hot Springs to get together and ride motorcycles, camp, eat BBQ, and tell stories.

Since for us this weekend was more about being pampered and not about the GS, we stayed in a cabin and relaxed. After arriving Friday evening and enjoying the cookout, we got some shuteye in preparation for a glorious day of visiting a nearby scooter shop in Asheville, then being pampered at the local spa. Sound expensive? It really wasn't. Besides, this was our first full weekend off in nearly a year. Most folks get a one-week vacation...we were thankful for two consecutive days off.

On Saturday we got up at a leisurly pace, rode Highway 209, and arrived in Asheville around lunchtime. The shop we visited was a Stella dealership as well as a rental shop.

If you don't know what a Stella looks like, think PX-series Vespa. The Stellas are in fact license-built vehicles from the LML factory. Here's a shot from the Genuine Scooter site:

We picked out a light green Stella to try, and both of us gave it a run around the hilly terrain of downtown Asheville. The engine fired right up and after a moment on the choke settled into its signature popcorn-popper idle. A quick check of where the turn signals resided, and I was off.

At no point did the little scooter seem challenged by the hills; it was as peppy at downtown speeds as anyone would want or need, whether cautious beginner or experienced hooligan. Steering was quick yet the little beast felt solid, never overly twitchy, even when I hit a few largish potholes. The bike was still in its break-in period; this showed in a bit of snitty behavior from the clutch, which grabbed a bit on uphills and gave me a rough launch occasionally. I'm sure that with some adjustment after the typical cable stretching, it would ease itself in after a few hundred miles. The transmission itself was positive and easy-shifting, with a solid thunk letting you know you had passed neutral on the handgrip and had found second. Third and fourth gears settled in nicely. Downshifting was equally easy.

It seemed to be happy whether it was being short-shifted or wound up a bit. I didn't find the 2-stroke peakiness I expected, but then, I didn't have much distance to really wind it up to feel it get on the pipe. Perhaps an aftermarket kit would give it that familiar 2-stroke slingshot feel, maybe the catalytic converter--a nice touch for environmental friendliness--had intruded a bit, or perhaps it just needed more break-in time. However, that didn't detract one bit from its jalepeno-flavored performance. This is a motorcycle that will welcome a new rider with its predictability, yet charm an experienced rider with its competency and willingness to be flung into corners.

The bike sits tall; my 30" insteam was challenged by the seat height and at a stop I was on tip-toes. No problem, though; the scooter is light and easily manageable. Steering is light but positive and there's plenty of room on the seat and good legroom fore and aft, though slightly less aft room than some scooters. If you are tall, you won't be cramped at all; I found myself a bit more forward, like a sportbike rider's crouch, and if I was taller I'd be more upright. Again, no problem--the bike is friendly enought with its light weight to welcome an inexperienced short rider while giving a taller rider, inexperienced or otherwise, a nice roomy cockpit.

It shows itself as a serious transportation device, solidly-built for decades of service on rough roads--true to its Italian heritage of conquering Europe 2-up and daily use on rough unpaved roads in India. I crawled beneath it to see if there were any flaws hidden beneath the cowls and peeking underneath it found only nice welds and solid machinery; the underside was as attractive as the rest of the bike, another indication of the durability this bike is intended to have through attention to detail. The disc brake up front is light and predictable and in concert with the Bitubo front shock, brings the bike to a halt quickly even over rough surfaces; the rear brake is quite effective though it takes a bit of adjustment getting used to moving one's right foot to the pedal, though it's roughly where a motorcyclist would expect it to be.

Getting used to the twist-grip shifting took only a moment and then became effortless. After a minute I was shifting like I had owned one for years. The throttle feels precise, and the engine responds with a nice linear answer to throttle input--more so than I expected from a two-stroke. It had enough pull down low that idling along in slow stop-and-go traffic was as easy as any 4-stroke.

What stuck with me the most was that the Stella is true to its rugged, practical, and sexy roots with a bit of upgraded parts savvy thrown in. Side by side with other Vespas in the shop, it held the same appeal: curves abound, with painted steel and aluminum everywhere--no plastic for the Stella. The chrome "Stella" badges are heavy and shiny; the paint is thick and evenly applied with no waves or orangepeeling. On the road, the Stella feels light, but never cheap or flimsy, with no rattles or chassis oscillations on rough roads, though the firm suspension felt harsh at times--again, some break-in as well as attention to the adjustable shock's settings may help there. Although I didn't have a chance to take it up to its top speed for an extended period, there's no doubt in my mind that it would be up for it, even with its smallish 10" wheels. I didn't look much at the speedometer while dodging urban traffic, so I can't say what speed felt like what, but that's the nature of that scoot, anyway: it's a bike that lets you focus on the ride with the mechanical methods of conveyance fading into the background. It simply goes, and goes well.

One of the salespeople confessed that it was tough to sell the Stella--the younger folks tend to lean towards the plastic automatic scooters, he said, while the Stella is a 30-and-up age bracket. Although he seems right, I still pondered that statement for hours afterwards. At $2900 it's not cheap, nor does it give you the freeway capabilty of a used motorcycle in that price range. What it does give you is absolute competence as an urban commuter along with gobs of style, plus the endless amounts of Vespa customization goodies, and membership in any of the scooter clubs worldwide that admire and ride these scooters with all the gusto intended by their designer.

I spent the five hour ride home figuring out what to sell in order to buy one.

If there is anyone who has longed for less motorcycle, but the same durability, with more classic appeal, this is the route to take. It is not a lesser being; it's not a compromise. It's a design that'll take years of commuting and weekend trips in stride. If someone is looking for a functional urban vehicle without the weight and wheelbase of a larger motorcycle, this is it.

If you're looking for a smallish bike to take to the end of the street and back every other weekend, I don't think this is the bike to have. It isn't a bigger version of a Honda Spree. It's a design that is the 2-wheeled Volkswagen for several generations, serious transportation with a bit of fun thrown in. The engine is clearly designed to be run daily; the bodywork is stout and easily replaced, and chrome fender guards complete the urban assault protection.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Stella could easily replace a car for all urban trips, lend itself to light touring duty on back roads, and welcome short jaunts on the freeway.

Since I have a bit of adventure touring background--I pack light and delight in detours--I'd have no qualms going from North Carolina to Alaska on one.