Monday, April 07, 2008

Honky-Tonk Dragon vs. the Mods and the Rockers

Labels are such weird things. We protest being confined to them by others, and then turn around and wrap ourselves in their comforting detachment.
The world of two-wheelers and two-wheel afficiandoes is more fractured and contentious than the genres of music store. Taste in music is how adolescents define themselves and make a place for themselves in the fringes of society. Taste in two-wheelers is how kids who have spent a lot longer avoiding growing up make a place for themselves on the fringes of society.

The Harley riders sneer at anyone who rides a foreign made bike. The sport riders sneer at anyone riding a bike not engineered for maximum performance. Motorcyclists look down on scooterists. Vespa riders look down on anyone not riding an Italian scoot. Vintage Vespa riders have disdain for anyone riding a four-stroke automatic... and so on and so on.

Sure, these are gross generalizations but if you spend any time hanging out with two-wheel afficianadoes you'll realize there is a lot of truth there. Since I've been working at a shop which sells both Vespas and Triumphs, I've been thinking about these divisions a lot. Because nothing captures these conflicts more than the Mod and Rocker brawls in Britain in the late 60's. And nothing epitomizes the Mods more than Vespas, or Rockers more than Triumphs.

It should go with out saying that both Vespas and Triumphs are a lot different now than they were forty years ago. But they are still very different machines and still attract very different buyers. But as much as some folks would like to perpetuate scooterist vs. motorcyclist rivalry, I'm more interested in contemplating WHY someone would choose to ride a scooter over a motorcycle.

Both scooters and motorcycles have a cachet as fashion accessories, as a kind of lifestyle statement, but I'm not interested in that, except for how it might illuminate the underlying usage. While a lot of people are drawn to both as lifestyle accessories, basically as toys, I think in reality more folks buy scooters for practical transportation reasons than motorcycles. This is becoming even more true, as the constant "born to be mild" news stories remind us, as gas prices rise, but there are practical advantages to scooters beyond just mpg's.

For the kind of personal transportation the average person needs on a daily basis, scooters are superior to any other mode of transport. Mostly we just need a means of commuting, through a mix of suburban and urban environments. While motorcycles and scooters both perform admirably in the suburban setting of strip malls and chain restaurants, scooters really come into their own in residential areas and urban gridlock. In zones where the speed limit is 45 mph or less, and traffic is stop-and-go, a motorcycle is overkill, and shifting gears diminishes the riding experience rather than adding to it. Even many two-stroke manual shift scootering die-hards are starting to come on board the automatic bandwagon for just this reason.

On top of this is the fact that scooters, with their smaller wheels, and shorter wheel-base, as well as lighter weight, and lower center of gravity, are easier to operate at low speeds. They are also more nimble, and easier to muscle around without power. In a very real sense from an operator's view point, a scooter is more friendly than a motorcycle.

One perceived difference between scooters and motorcycles which I'd like to dispute, is the need for protective gear. Many folks seem to think that riding a scooter is somehow less dangerous than riding a motorcyle, But at 40 mph, not to mention 60, the asphalt doesn't care if you are falling off a Vespa or a Harley. And since most accidents happen at 35 mph or less and within 5 miles of home, "all the gear, all the time" or ATGATT should be every rider's mantra. This means at the very least, a helmet, eye protection, gloves, an abrasion resistant jacket and pants, and shoes/boots with ankle protection and good grip on road surfaces. I'll discuss the differences (mostly aesthetic) between scootering and motorcyling gear in a later post.

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