PICKING UP SPEED

THE BALTIMORE 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."

Vermillion is a scoot loner and spoken of with awe among the local motorhead-oriented scene for the remarkable feat of transforming a vintage scooter designed to do 60 mph into a machine that reached the nearly unheard-of speed of 95 mph.

He's owned more than a dozen of the zippy little bikes and fell in love with them when he was a boy living in Italy. "Three or four people would be crammed on, and they would rip up and down the streets. The mom would sit on the back, holding a baby, with the dad driving and the kids standing on the floorboards."

The lure of danger

The Baltimore Bombers are already seated and having breakfast at the Donna's in Canton when the Jet Set pulls in, ready to swap stories of restoration jobs, unruly bikes, breakdowns and rides.

The Jet Set is a shadowy, exclusive group, says McDougall. The gang likes to say you can join only if a member dies, which is far from true. Gang membership is based on location -- which gang you belong to depends on where the monthly meetings are. Jet Set members are from the "west side scooter scene" -- Catonsville; the Bombers are from North Baltimore. The closer your home is to the location, the more likely your bike will make it to the meetings.

That's the other half of the scooter statement. Riding a scooter says: I like danger -- in the fashionable form of an unstable "midget motorcycle" that is prone to slide on slick surfaces and to have frequent breakdowns.

Which is precisely why Annapolis naval archivist Tom Karppi, 40, gave up motorcycles for scooters. He was searching for something "less powerful, less stable and, in a way, more dangerous and odd, more exciting. ... The older ones are downright terrifying if you get onto a wet road or go around a bumpy curve. It gets very interesting."

Baltimore's riders have seen their share of accidents.

Motor scooters and motorcycles together have a fatality rate three times higher than that for cars, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But in Charm City, riders talk mostly of fender-benders, for the cars anyway. Huffman and McDougall tell of run-ins where cars didn't see them. Both walked away with just bruises, but their scooters were left in twisted piles. There are stories that go back years of less-fortunate riders who suffered busted knees or broken hips.

McDougall, a skinny stay-at-home dad / metalworker with perpetual grease-monkey hands, says that after his 1999 accident he didn't want to ride for a long time. "But because I didn't get hurt, I got over it."

Nerds on wheels

Inside Donna's, the waitress is taking lots of orders for hot chocolate with whipped cream. That's the difference between scooterists and their archenemies, motorcyclists. They prefer hot chocolate to whiskey.

Jet Set leader John Irvine, who specializes in scoot restoration, doesn't like the attitude of fear that comes with the motorcycle world. "Motorcycles seem more complicated and overly macho, while scooters are these nonthreatening, fun little machines."

"We're a bunch of goody two shoes," adds Karppi. "I have three parking tickets, and I'm the worst criminal among the bunch."

In fact, McDougall says, there's another name for a scooter gang: "Nerds."

Yet scooters have just enough grease to let the men who buy them act like men.

Crosby says it's an incredible hobby for her husband, Tom Toczek, 34.

"It's a huge boost to his maleness that he's learned all this motorhead stuff." Before, she says, her middle-school guidance counselor husband was just an artistic, sensitive type.

Crosby is one of the few women drivers in the Baltimore scene.

Scooter widows -- the name for the wives and girlfriends of riders -- are common, but not female drivers. She thinks it's in part because of the danger involved, but also because the current scene is geared more toward restoring bikes rather than scooters as a fashion statement.

Before their two children were born, Crosby and her husband would hop on their bikes for romantic scooter trips to Ocean City and area bed and breakfasts. "We used to drive a lot and it was a big part of our relationship -- the fun, the chaos," she says.

She just recently bought a scooter and expects it to once again bring a certain flair back to her relationship. It's a 1950s movie-star-lipstick-red Vespa, and its homelessness was the result of a scooter couple breaking up. "It's a terribly common phenomenon," Crosby says. "A girl and guy break up, and the girl gets rid of the scooter. Usually when a girl gets a scooter, it's really just an excuse for the guy to get a second bike."

Her husband, Tom, is at the Canton scooter meet, with their 21-month-old son Tommie in tow.

Toczek is seen as a tragic figure in the scooter scene. He had to drive a car to the meet. He's been on leave as head of the Jet Set for about a year -- he has a garage full of scooters, but none of them is running. When the 30 or so scoots finally pull out from the Canton parking lot for an afternoon ride through the Baltimore County countryside, Toczek is left behind, with some very boring cars for company.

And that's the last place a scooter rider wants to be.

The musts

To ride a scooter in Maryland, you'll need a

1. Helmet

2. Motorcycle license

Optional, but recommended: A tool kit for breakdowns and cell phone, to get a ride if you can't fix your scooter

Resources

Scooters-R-Us

www.scooters-r-us.co.uk

A British Web site offering new and used scooters and parts

West Coast Lambretta Works

www.lambretta.net

A North American clearinghouse for all things Lambretta

Scooterworks.com

www.scooterworks.com

An Illinois Web site selling Vespa scooters and parts

Scootering Magazine

www.scootering.com

A monthly magazine out of the UK

Scoot!

www.scooter.com

A quarterly scooter magazine for North America

Moto Strada Scooter Shop

www.baltvespa.com / main.html

9918 C York Road

Cockeysville, MD 21030

410-666-VESPA

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