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Cover Story: Going Easy

Local scooter enthusiasts piece together a pretty cool scene

By Christopher Kemp · June 4th, 2003 · Cover Story
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  Jim Labarbra (left) and Jeff Jones meet their Ten Years Late Scooter Club mates at The Comet in Northside.
Matt Borgerding

Jim Labarbra (left) and Jeff Jones meet their Ten Years Late Scooter Club mates at The Comet in Northside.



"It's my perfect scooter," says Adam Biddle, pointing to a battered-looking red vehicle that sits in the corner of his basement. "I took every piece of a scooter I liked, from all the years, and put it on this."

Biddle identifies the parts -- a 1965 Allstate body, a 1974 Primavera front fork, a 1971 Sprint Veloce engine with a 177 DR kit, a 1966 Sears tail light ("It's the only light they made, that tail light").

"The only thing I'm missing is a GS160 seat," he says. "They're really hard to find."

A couple of minutes ago, Biddle and his housemate Casey Beagle were sitting on their balcony in Clifton, swigging from cans of Hudy Delight and relaxing. Now they're standing in their dimly lit basement, swigging from cans of Hudy Delight and reeling off the names of some of the scooters they've crammed down there: "That's a '58 Allstate Supercruiser ... this is my '65 Allstate ... this is a Vespa P-series from the 70s ... that's a brand-new Vespa ET2."

Biddle and Beagle are members of the Ten Year Lates Scooter Club, a group of scooter enthusiasts that since 2000 has been meeting regularly at The Comet, the popular bar on Hamilton Avenue in Northside.

"The scooters themselves are what lure you in, but the community is what turns it into a lifestyle," says Biddle, 25, who's wearing a pair of holey sneakers, a faded Ten Year Lates T-shirt and a long cut-off pair of shorts that end below the knee.

The club has more than 20 regulars, including sales representatives, store owners, graphic designers, carpenters, students, the unemployed, a University of Dayton art professor, a court stenographer in training, a blue-haired girl rocker from local Punk band The Messengers and WGRR afternoon DJ Jim Labarbara, who joined the club a couple of months ago shortly before investing in a brand-new 2003 Vespa ET4.

Every Wednesday night at about 7, members of the Ten Year Lates -- or XYL -- Scooter Club start to arrive at The Comet, parking their scooters in a long line that stretches along the sidewalk outside. Afterward, if it's not raining, the club usually goes for a drive en masse, sometimes more than 20 members weaving in and out of traffic, admiring each other's rides.

Meanwhile, back in Biddle's basement, we carefully step over skeins of brake cable and stop in front of a hollow, rusted scooter body that dates back to the late 1950s. It has no wheels and no seat, and there's just a dark hole where the engine should be.

Biddle gazes at it, perhaps imagining what it'll look like with a new coat of paint, a Sears taillight, a new headset and one of those hard-to-find GS160 seats. The moment passes quickly. He points to another scooter and the inventory continues: "This is a 2000 Aprilia Scarabeo ... that's a 1966 Primavera ... it's super quick, perfect for city riding."

We stop again.

"This is my 1979 P200 with a Malossi 210 kit on it," Biddle says, standing by a black scooter. "I've had it up to 104 miles per hour. This is the one I take to scooter rallies. It's got my cup holder on it."

Last year, Biddle attended nine scooter rallies, driving to some in his truck and riding as far as Chicago on his scooter to attend others. In fact, almost a year ago to the day I entered his basement to take a look at his scooters, Biddle was driving back from a rally in New York when his truck broke down, with his scooter in the back. So he parked the truck by the side of the highway in Pennsylvania, unscrewed the license plates, wheeled his scooter off the back and rode 400 miles home.

Good town for scooters
"I consider myself a vintage scooterist," says XYL co-founder Chris Hebenstreit, 33.

He owns two scooters, both of which date back to the mid-1960s. And just lately, he says with parental concern, he's noticed a patina developing on the original paintwork of one of them -- his 1964 Vespa 150. Last year, he sold a third scooter to Biddle for $100, who used it to create his perfect scooter, the apple-red '65 Allstate that sits in his basement.

"There were four of us originally, I think," Hebenstreit says, describing how the club first began. "We actually had all met online, found out that we were all in the same city and decided to meet one afternoon and ride together."

The four of them began meeting regularly; and then four members became five, and five became six and so on. Now, more than 30 people sometimes gather at weekly meetings, spilling out onto the sidewalk between drinks to take a look at the scooters parked there.

The club has its own bank account and a Web site (www.tenyearlates.com), which provides regular news updates, contact information and member profiles.

"In the last four or five years," Hebenstreit says, "scooters have really made a comeback in the United States. I've lived in Covington for five years now and I've always found it easy to get from point A to point B with them."

And like Covington, Hebenstreit says, Cincinnati's geography is well-suited to scooter owners.

"The roads are narrow and hilly and curvy," he says, "and scooters are very maneuverable."

Most club members have at least one scooter and keep a car for long-distance travel. Some have two scooters, or three, or even four. Others, like Biddle, have basements and garages that have become cluttered, oily shrines to scooters.

When I first visited Biddle and Beagle, there were 13 scooters in their Clifton basement and a couple of mopeds thrown in for good measure. Sometimes, Biddle says, if there's a rally in town the number more than doubles.

Vintage Italian-made Vespas from the 1960s and 1970s are popular among club members. There are a couple of vintage Lambrettas, also made in Italy, and a few carefully restored Allstates, which were made in the United States by Sears from Vespa parts until the mid-1960s.

I know this because I've been told so several times already by scooter enthusiasts, who find 40-year-old Allstates, mildewed and rusty, in attics and basements or through dealers or advertised in magazines with unlikely titles like Scootering or Scoot! Quarterly. They then spend months resurrecting them and making them roadworthy again.

Standing on the sidewalk outside The Comet one night, club member Chris Rice (aka Crisis) points out a handsome silver-colored 1966 Sears Blue Badge Sprint.

Last fall, he says, he and Biddle drove all the way from Cincinnati to Cherry Hill, N.J., to pick it up and then turned around and drove back again, completing the journey in less than 22 hours.

Join the club
At the Vespa Cincinnati showroom in Blue Ash, a 2003 Vespa ET2 leans on its stand, carefully parked on a pedestal in the middle of the store. Somewhere beneath its pressed-steel monocoque body is housed an Otto cycle, two-stroke, single cylinder 49cc engine, with a top speed of about 40 miles per hour.

A more powerful 150cc Vespa ET4 leans near it -- identical to the bright-red scooter DJ Labarbara bought in March and capable of speeds above 65 miles per hour. After deciding to buy the ET2 model, Labarbara says, he talked with club members who convinced him instead to get an ET4, citing its larger engine.

Both models are available in nine different colors, including alabaster, light green and cobalt blue -- or Blu Cobalto! if you happen to be at Piaggio & C's headquarters in Pontedera, Italy, where Vespa scooters have been manufactured steadily since 1946. The Vespa ET2 is priced at $2,995 and the Vespa ET4 costs $3,995, and sales of both models are up.

According to the Motorcyle Industry Council, scooter sales more than quadrupled between 1997 and 2001. And sales figures are still climbing fast at both Vespa Cincinnati and Autobahn Craftwerks in Northside.

"Most buyers tend to be baby boomers," says Andy Zolman, manager of Vespa Cincinnati, who rides with XYLers. "Believe it or not, their average age is probably about 45."

With the steady rise in scooter sales and the exploding interest in vintage and restored scooters, clubs like the XYL Scooter Club have sprung up in almost every city across the United States. There's the Sneaky Devils Scooter Club of Sacramento, Calif.; the Upsetters Scooter Club of Kansas City, Mo.; the Full Moon Scooter Club of Syracuse, N.Y.; and so on, ad infinitum.

There's even a club in Chicago, Biddle says, called the Solo Scooter Club, which has only one member -- a scooter enthusiast named Mike Dursso whom Biddle sees regularly at scooter rallies and race meets.

Every year, the Ten Year Lates Scooter Club organizes its own rally, which takes place on Biddle's birthday in March and attracts people from scooter clubs located across the country. The inaugural XYL Scooter Club was held in 2001, and only 30 or so local scooterists turned up. A year later, the 2002 rally was much better attended.

"That was Scooterpalooza," Biddle says. "We had 66 scooters, four motorbikes and 13 mopeds. We had people from as far away as Austin, Texas, and New York City."

The club hired bands to play the Southgate House in Newport and partied late into the night. Out-of-town guests either slept on Biddle's floor in Clifton or at the Travelodge in Newport.

Then, on a cold day last March, more than 80 riders gathered to take part in the club's 2003 WKRP scooter rally, carefully strapping on their helmets and riding in a slow-moving pack through downtown Cincinnati before gathering speed and setting off on a route that ended more than 60 miles later at a biker bar in Milford.

"Last year we rode to Chicago for a rally," Biddle says matter-of-factly. "It took us, like, 13 hours. We dilly-dallied. Anything that looked cool, we stopped at -- and we got lost in Indianapolis."

This summer, scooters are threatening to take over Biddle's life completely, slowly eclipsing everything else that requires his attention. Take last month as a case in point: Biddle spent the first weekend of May at a scooter rally in New York City, driving there in his truck with his scooter in the back and then "zooming around on a scoot at breakneck speeds like a local;" the following weekend he attended the Mid-American Scooter Sports race meet in Circleville, Ohio, watching leather-clad competitors accelerate around the hairpin turns of Circleville Raceway at staggering speeds hunched over their scooters; and then a week later he was at another rally in Niagara, Canada, where he helped raise $650 for a friend who was refused hospital treatment after jumping a make-shift ramp on his scooter -- yes, on his scooter -- landing awkwardly and breaking his leg.

Finally, on the last weekend of May, Biddle and other XYL club members organized a long scooter ride preceded by a slap-up breakfast at the Northside house of long-time club members Leslie Scott and Jeff Weyer.

Bitten by the wasp
In 1966, Hunter S. Thompson published Hell's Angels. Subtitled A Strange and Terrible Drama, it documented a year spent by Thompson with the Visigoths, a violent, leather-clad motorcycle gang that rode around California conducting murderous battles with rival gangs. The Hell's Angels had names like Little Jesus, the Gimp and Dirty Ed, and they belonged to gangs called the Coffin Cheaters, the Comancheros and the Stray Satans.

On the first page, Thompson describes a member of a motorcycle gang who looks "like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus." This is worth mentioning only because it fails so completely to describe a member of the XYL Scooter Club perched atop a vintage scooter outside The Comet, taking heat from a bunch of giggling black kids propping each other up and asking how many miles it gets to the gallon. Without a trace of irony, unaware even that he's an object of teenage derision, a scooterist might calmly answer, "About 70."

About 70 ... and before the kids have time to decide whether that response is funny or not, the scooterist will be striding into the bar, ordering a beer and sitting down with his fellow club members.

Biddle bought his first scooter in 1999. "When I went to pick it up, I didn't know how to ride it," he says.

And if anything went wrong with it, he didn't know how to fix it either. He learned how to rebuild scooters, he says, for one simple reason: "They break."

Four years have passed, and Biddle now has two wasps tattooed on his chest -- Vespa means "wasp" in Italian -- and an impenetrable tangle of scooters and scooter parts in his basement. He can be seen weekly at rallies, popping 40-yard wheelies on his black 1979 Vespa P200, on which he installed a cylinder kit, increasing the engine displacement and doubling its top speed.

"We like to ride around on bikes that are beat up," Biddle says. "For the most part, we make our bikes go fast and we ride 'em a lot, through the rain. We ride all winter. We like to ride around on dirty bikes."

"I disagree," XYL co-founder Hebenstreit says. "I honestly think when you're riding a 30- or 40-year-old motor scooter, something that's been around that long, there's bound to be something wrong with it. Adam typically does have the beat-up bike -- but that's Adam."

Mark Dickinson would most likely disagree, too. At $5,250, his red-and-white 1964 Lambretta Li 150 Special is probably the most expensive scooter parked outside The Comet.

"That's cheaper than a Harley," says Dickinson, a 36-year-old actuary who lives in Hyde Park. "I've got two scooters. I've got a Vespa as well -- that's a 1966 small-frame. I only paid about $1,600 for it."

In spring 2001, Dickinson arranged with a Virginia company to deliver him a restored Lambretta 150 Special. The contractor bought the bike in Ohio, took it back to Virginia and restored the original engine, chrome-plating several parts that previously were polished metal. Dickinson picked out the colors for the paintwork at a paint shop in Cincinnati, and the scooter was finally completed a year later.

His fully-restored Lambretta has a top speed of about 53 miles per hour, Dickinson says, and maybe a little more if he crouches. Despite its cost, he says he tries not to be overprotective of it.

"That would take the fun out of it," he says. "I show some respect, though. I don't leave it out in the rain."

'Really darn cute'
A couple of days ago, I picked up a copy of Scoot! Quarterly and started to flick through it. When I looked up again, it was dark outside.

In idle moments, I've been scouring eBay for a good deal on a vintage Vespa. And if I find one, I'm hoping I can convince Biddle to drive me cross-country to pick it up, and, well, to show me how it works, maybe install a cylinder kit for me. Of course, he'll need to fix it when it breaks, which I've been assured it will -- repeatedly.

Despite this, there's just something indefinably attractive about vintage scooters. They're aesthetic machines, with sweeping wing-like curves that begin at the headset and continue in a downward arc, levelling out along the footboard and ending finally at the engine cowls, which sit above the rear wheel like speech bubbles, one on either side. From a practical point of view, a scooter, even a 40-year-old scooter, really does get about 60 or 70 miles to the gallon; with its simple two-stroke engine, it is easy to fix; and, provided its owner has a valid motorcycle license, it can safely be taken on the highway.

"I guess for me," says Hebenstreit, explaining the root of his interest in scooters, "it goes back to the old Johnny Quest cartoons when I was a kid. I think he rode a Fuji Rabbit, which is a Japanese scooter from the '60s."

But whatever attracted them all to scooters in the first place -- "What's not to love about scooters?" writes Crisis via e-mail -- it is the sense of community that keeps club members going to meetings each week. Biddle probably says it best: It's a lifestyle. It's an attitude, a philosophy. It's a long summer spent zigzagging from rally to rally on a scooter, seeing familiar faces, popping wheelies and jumping make-shift ramps -- or ramping, as Biddle calls it.

Club member Leslie Scott, who owns Ali's Boutique in Northside -- not to mention a bright-blue 1974 Vespa Primavera -- says she likes scooters because, put simply, "They're really darn cute."

Like many XYL club members, Scott doesn't attend scooter rallies every weekend, and she doesn't ride the two or three hours to Circleville on her scooter just to watch semi-professional scooter racers zip around a track seven-tenths of a mile long. And Dickinson would sooner pay another $5,000 than drive his restored 1964 Lambretta Li 150 Special off a ramp.

But their scooters are what first brought them to a meeting, not what they choose to do with them. Besides their scooters, it's hard to think of anything else some of these people have in common.

'My first time'
It's Karaoke night at The Comet. Casey Beagle is trying to decide whether to go home and go to bed or stay here and sing. If he's going to stay and sing, he says, he needs to start drinking. Now.

An hour earlier, a thunderstorm marched overhead, quickly flooding the gutters and filling the storm drains. The rain has kept club members away. Dark clouds crowd the green hills that rise sharply behind The Comet. A few members drove here in their cars rather than risk the storm perched on top of a 50cc two-stroke engine. Predictably enough, a couple of diehard scooterists rode their scooters blind through a white wall of rain to get here and now are sitting in the bar, dripping.

Biddle is already here. So is Drew Bach. Crisis is sitting at a table, tattoos bursting from the sleeves of his Moped Army T-shirt.

Bach stands up. He's the first to perform. As the first couple of bars of "White Wedding" by Billy Idol pound from the speakers, he leaps in the air, grabs his crotch and screams.

For the next three-and-a-half minutes, Bach is no longer a 29-year-old sign writer who lives in Newport, owns a vintage scooter instead of a car and is currently working on his third can of Burger Beer. No, Bach is gone. Standing in his place, indeed, wearing his clothes, is Billy Idol.

"He looks like a banker," Beagle says, as Bach leaps in the air again behind him, "but he's crazy as shit."

Indeed, Bach does look like a banker and, as he proves this evening, he is as crazy as shit. Another 10 minutes or so pass and he sings "Never Say Never" by Romeoboy. Ten minutes later and he's up again, singing Idol's "Rebel Yell." Afterward, he walks back to his chair, breathing hard like a boxer walking back to his corner.

At his senior-year high school talent show more than 10 years ago, his girlfriend tells me, Bach sang "White Wedding" and then rode his scooter across the stage and through a paper stained-glass window.

"I've fried my vocal chords," he says simply, slumped in his chair.

Beagle's name is called. He stands up slowly, complaining that he hasn't drunk enough to sing yet, and walks toward the monitor.

"This is my first time doing Karaoke everybody, so go easy on me," he lies, before launching into an Elvis Costello song, mike held upside-down like a rapper.

Then Shannon from The Messengers, who sports a blue mohawk and a pierced lip, sings "Son of a Preacher Man," while the guys drink their cans of Burger. Club member Sarah Griesemer sings "One Way or Another" by Blondie, and someone is passing around a heavy stack of photographs taken at the last scooter rally.

By now, everyone who isn't in the scooter club is starting to wish they were. It's worth buying a scooter just to be a part of it.

It's 10:30 p.m. now, and it looks like it's going to be a long night for the members of XYL Scooter Club. Outside, it's dark and the streets are quiet. Miraculously, the rain has stopped. The thunderclouds have slid apart like stage props, and a bright moon shines on the scooters lined up along the sidewalk.

Back inside, Beagle puts down his beer. It's his turn to sing again.

"This is my first time doing Karaoke everybody," he says for the second time, as I stand up to leave, "so go easy on me." HOT

 
 
 
 

 

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