Picking Up Speed

Gangs of adult motor scooter riders band together to find thrills on two very stylish little wheels. Call it Easy Rider, all grown up.

May 20, 2001|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,Special to the Sun

It's a quiet, drizzly Sunday morning when the Jet Set motor scooter gang roars onto Roland Avenue. Roland Park residents heading for church turn to look, disturbed and confused, as the group putt-putts by, clad in Speed Racer-esque coats and riding a mix of shiny white, black, blue and wasabi-green scoots.

The gang is made up of guys between the ages of 16 and 35. Some are married, some are fathers, and some are single. All are slightly insane. A few scooter babes are riding on the back of the bikes, hugging their drivers tight as they head for the first big group ride of the spring. The riders are excited to show off the bikes they've worked on over the winter. They are also excited their bikes started.

"If you actually did a survey," says the Jet Set's secretary, Brad McDougall, "you'd find that we work on them more than we ride. We just talk a lot about riding them."

As the gang nears the Inner Harbor, the carny atmosphere cranks up.

From inside their cars, people point, they smile, they laugh. It's clear that the gang is the silliest thing these people have ever seen.

And the gang eats it up. Hot-rod scooterist Dustin Huffman, 31, is wearing leather head to toe and riding a souped-up white and black 1968 Lambretta. He's fitted the bike with a noisy expansion chamber exhaust that milks the tiny engine for as much power as possible. At each stoplight, he lets go with a series of crowd-pleasing burnouts. He revs the engine full throttle while holding down the front brake, spinning the rear tire and creating a cloud of black smoke and a sound similar to an attack of a million angry gnats.

It's a bit like watching a young Jerry Lewis play a big bad biker.

Drama, fashion and a big dose of humor are inseparable in Baltimore's scooter world. You are what you drive, says Mark Jurus, who leads Baltimore's biggest scooter gang, the Bombers. The elegance and quirkiness of a bike speak to a rider's character.

Jurus, 34, is largely responsible for whipping the current scooter scene into an organized body that turns out for local rides, monthly gang meetings and out-of-state rallies. He's also leading a movement to get the city to designate free two-wheel parking spots in tourist areas. He says his "smart parking" proposal rewards city residents who free up more spaces for tourists.

But if you ask most scooterists why they ride, it's not about economy. It's about coolness.

"It is the best fashion accessory," says Kedren Crosby, 32, who lives in Catonsville. She spent the '90s cruising around Baltimore on a red and white Lambretta that won several best-looking scooter awards.

Anyone riding a scooter is saying "look at me," says Jurus, owner of the Cockeysville scooter shop Moto Strada. That's why the clothes are so important. Mod fashion -- the British '60s schoolboy look, topped with an early Beatles haircut -- used to rule the scene, but now it's more anything goes, as long as it's eye-catching. Plaid pants, leopard prints, racer looks, leather, anything retro, wild shoes, loud helmets.

The rider and what he is wearing is like the "cherry on top of a sundae," says Jurus.

His girlfriend, Teresa Perrera, 32, says the thing she loves most is how close a scooter brings her to nature. "You feel the cold and the heat, the smell of fresh-cut grass. It's like sitting on a magical chair and flying."

Popularized in Italy

The stubby-tired scooters, which when running can sell for $2,000 to $5,000, have been around in some form since the turn of the last century, but the modern fascination deals with those dating back to post-war Italy.

Royal Air Force bombers wrecked airplane manufacturer Piaggio's factory in Italy. So the company took the opportunity to design a two-wheel vehicle that would outperform, outsell and outshine all other scooters for the next 50 years -- the Vespa. Italian for wasp, the Vespa was characterized by an open, step-through frame that lets riders sit upright, feet in front, rather than straddle the machine, motorcycle-style.

Much cheaper than cars and with great gas mileage -- up to 70 miles a gallon on some models -- scooters were valued in war-ravaged Europe and then later by schoolkids. And as a product of Italian minds, they were by default stylish.

The silliness factor comes from their poppy little engines, which sound like they were ripped off lawn mowers and, if you ask a motorcyclist, have all the power of a hairdryer.

But no matter what a Harley-Davidson rider says, their workhorse engines are plenty rugged, attests 27-year-old Aberdeen printer Mark Vermillion, who likens the bikes to "pretty mules." He's one of the few in Baltimore who rides a scooter as a main form of transportation instead of just as a hobby. "They're cheaper and a lot more fun to ride than cars," he explains. "The high point of my workday is to ride that thing to and from work."

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