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HOP ON: Whether modern or vintage, scooters get crazy gas mileage. 75mpg, anyone?

What a Scoot

In which a penny-pinching gal hops right on a scooter, rides to the coast and falls in love

By Leilani Clark

I've always thought of scooters as kind of dorky.

No matter how many stylish Italians ride Vespas around Roman streets for cappuccinos and cafe conversation, there's something about the way you have to sit on the buzzy little things, perched and upright, like a Midwestern schoolteacher or something. It just isn't cool.

So it's with reluctance that I go to the DMV to pick up the "California Motorcycle Handbook." I need it to pass the written test for a Class M motorcycle permit, which will allow me to legally drive a scooter, and in preparation, I head over to Revolution Moto, the scooter shop in downtown Santa Rosa owned by Roy and Johnna Gatinella since 2003.

"There's a dork factor, definitely," says Johnna, laughing. "It's not like you can get on and be thinking, 'I am a total bad-ass.' You just have to be like, 'Yeah, I'm giving it up. I'm on a scooter.'"

And yet the Gatinellas, and their customers, are part of a growing segment of Americans embracing scooters as an alternative to cars. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, U.S. scooter sales jumped 50 percent for the first quarter of 2010, compared to 2009.

"We're trying to shift people's viewpoints on how they travel," says Roy as we sip water and lemonade outside the shop. Jerry Bender, husband of exSanta Rosa mayor Jane Bender, zips out of the parking lot on his scooter, waving before he disappears into traffic on College Avenue.

A large part of the appeal is that scooters require very little oil and gas, and they take up a small amount of space, says Johnna. "If you look at European households, they spend less than 1 percent of their household income on gasoline," adds Roy. "In the United States, we spend 10 percent of our household income on gas. That's ridiculous."

With gas prices fluctuating between high and higher, many folks in the North Bay have taken up scooters as a form of fun and practical transportation. From the SRJC student who commutes to his job in Windsor, to the fifty-something woman Realtor from Healdsburg, to the architect who commutes to projects in Calistoga and beyond on his Vespa, scooter riders cross age, gender and cultural boundaries. Truly, they're not just for mods anymore.

"It's a slower way of life," says John Curnutt, founding member of the Napa Valley Scooter Club. "In Napa Valley, we have the Slow Food movement and wine culture, and that's kind of what scootering is all about. It's the journey, not just the destination."

Grumpy and tired at the DMV on a Monday, waiting in line to take the written test, I have to remind myself of Curnutt and the Gatinellas' enthusiasm for scootering. Admittedly, scooters are growing more intriguing to the frugal environmentalist in me. The average scooter gets up to about 75 miles to the gallon, meaning a two-gallon tank filled up for under $10 can last for 150 miles. Insurance can be as low as $200 a year. Studies show that scooters made after 2006 produce, on average, 72 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than cars and 78 percent less than the average SUV.

My after-work studies pay off when the woman behind the counter says that I've passed the test. With permit in hand, I'm ready to take to the streets.

Hell, maybe I'll get really brave and try to get myself knighted into the Royal Bastards. Dan Carls lives in Sebastopol and is a founding member of the Sonoma County chapter of the nationwide scooter club. The more the merrier, he says, when it comes to scooter riders.

"We don't care what you ride, as long as you ride," says Carls, who sometimes commutes to carpentry jobs in San Francisco on his Piaggio BV500, a larger beast that almost rivals a motorcycle.

"I try to use my scooter as much as possible," he explains. "It's cheaper, it's more fun. It's just a great way to get around. It saves so much time on commuting and getting from here to there."

After all this positive reinforcement, I approach my first solo ride on a borrowed Genuine Buddy 150cc with more trepidation than anticipation. I squeeze the helmet over my head only to spend 20 tear-inducing minutes trying to start the damn thing. Finally, with help from the scooter's owner, I get the engine going, throttle up, and go.

My first thought: Is this the day that I will die?

Fear sits down right behind me. It appears I've stayed away from scooters all these years not just for the dork factor, but also from terror at driving a motorized vehicle that doesn't offer two tons of steel protection. Quiet and virtually car-free streets in a residential neighborhood allow me to buzz around at slow speeds without breaking a bone.

After about an hour of practice, my worry shrinks a little; with hopping endorphins, my confidence increases, and soon, busier roads call. I carefully turn and cross through a major intersection—heart pounding. Survival makes this yellow-bellied scooter rider into a braver soul, and while I still feel like every moving vehicle spells potential doom, I keep going and soon I'm riding over to the gas station—where I gasp in pleasure when $2 nearly fills up the tank. Oh, this is good.

And then it happens. Scooter dreams begin to haunt my days and nights. Propelled by fantasies of a shiny red scooter, I start thinking about how I'll need to take a safety training course to get truly legit. I enlist my friend Laura, a recent scooter convert who commutes from Santa Rosa to Freestone on her white Vespa, to take me on a ride around West County.

Before we hit the road, Laura takes me to a long, almost empty parking lot where we practice the skills—like the counterintuitive push turns—that will allow me to gracefully navigate curvy rural roads.

And then, we're doing it, riding up and down hills, winding around roads, past side-of-the-road pink ladies, vineyards, meadows and rustic farmhouses. We stop to take in the elegant views of the valley from a ridge on Burnside Road and fly by eucalyptus groves, slowing down to take the curves with a wild mobility that doesn't happen in a car.

It's a freedom I haven't experienced in a long while, like one of those dumb movies where the 30-something woman moves closer to a state of grace through unexpected romance—except that my state of grace comes from scooting at 50 mph down Highway 1, heading toward Valley Ford and the Sonoma Coast, buffeted by the wind on a fantastic little machine.

To think that a week ago, I thought scooters were dorky. Now? I'm in love, and it's deep.

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