Mongrels to Mecca
Exploding tires, closed roads, creative pit-stops and American pride on not-your-father's scooters.
Much like the fashion world, scooter popularity follows a cyclical pattern. Scooter sales are currently on the biggest rise since the mid-`80s when "da Bears" quarterback Vince McMahon made scootering cool again. Before that time, scooters were last cool in the days when my dad rode a Vespa in college. I'm 37, so you can do the math. As Jerry Sinefeld might say, "So what's the big deal with scooters today?" To find out, I decided to do the unthinkable-ride two representative samples of the current breed to my annual religious pilgrimage to Sportbike Mecca: MotoGP at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
"Blasphemy!" my best friend Ray cried. Ray is used to me getting us the latest high-performance hardware for our yearly trip to Laguna where we combine it with a magazine or website bike comparison so he can claim it as a tax-deductible "business trip." Because I also have a booth at the event for my Lee Parks Design glove company and Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic school, it's business for me anyway, so the tough part is convincing one of my employees to drive the truck and trailer instead of taking part in the ride. Fortunately, because we were riding "only" scooters this year, my warehouse manager Steve offered to drive the rig up.
So would we really be squandering our sacred ritual by riding these shiftless, small-wheeled mongrels to a place where Ducatis outnumber Harleys? I also questioned the intelligence of bringing my girlfriend/sales goddess Christie along for the ride. It's a 500-mile ride each way when you take the fun route. Her butt had never been subjected to a scooter seat for that kind of distance. Would she enjoy the scenery and roads or revile me for days on yet another thing she doesn't like me doing to her posterior? The answers to these and many more questions would be answered on the trip.
For this spectacle of scooterness we chose two types of rides. Representing the 250cc middleweight division is Yamaha's sexy new Morphous. Looking like a cross between a custom chopper and a personal watercraft, the Morphous attracted wandering eyes like Angelina Jolie on a prison tour. From the full-dress camp came the 460cc Aprilia Scarabero 500. Complete with full luggage and 16" wheels, the 450+ lb. Scarabero's mass is more akin to a motorcycle than a traditional scooter.
Our planned route up included some of the best roads in California, including the 33, 58 and G16. To help with photo-modeling duties, AZ Ear Protection owner Ron Arieli came with for the fun on his BMW R1200GS. After helping Steve load up the truck and Weekend Warrior trailer with the booth supplies in Apple Valley, CA, we had lunch and were soon Laguna bound.
After about an hour of being on the road while heading south on highway 14, I began to smell burnt rubber. A rapid glance of the landscape revealed that some poor sap's trailer in front of me was having a blowout and throwing rubber shrapnel all over the road. A quick flick of the bars had me out of harm's way and as I passed I went to signal the driver to let him know what was up when I recognized that it was Steve at the wheel. Holy crap! It turns out that we were the poor saps with the blown tire. Not being a mathematician, I'm not sure what the odds are of me passing my own trailer the very instant of a blowout on a eight-hour ride, but they are obviously extremely slim. It was a good thing too, as I was the only one who knew where the tools were buried in the overloaded trailer. Baking for an hour at 105 degrees on the side of the road while we replaced the wheel was not what I had in mind as a beginning to a wonderful trip. As it would turn out, this was only the first of many tests of my fortitude on my own version of Homer's Odyssey.
After getting the rig back on the road, the rest of the crew and I headed out for our first set of twisty roads up in Ojai. We decided to stop for a meal a local greasy spoon and as we were leaving the waitress mentioned that the 33 was closed due to a rock slide. This meant we would have to ride all the way back to Interstate 5 which would set us back around 2.5 hours. Clearly I had upset the sportbike gods by choosing to take step-through machinery to do a leg-over job, and they were determined to make me pay for my sacrilege in more ways than one.
My bad karma was hot on my tail as we headed back through Santa Paula. While I was looking for a shortcut through the twisty California back roads, my dinner was looking for a shortcut through my twisty intestinal tract. A stop at the next gas station had me quickly handing Christie my credit card to pay for gas while I rushed to the bathroom to make another deposit.
"What do mean the bathroom isn't working?!?" I shouted at the attendant who found all my pre-deposit fidgeting in my Aerostich suit quite amusing. With the reflexes of an all-star halfback looking for a hole to squirt through the defensive line for a spike in the end zone, I saw a public bathroom out of the corner of my well-trained eye and made a run for it. As I got there my eyes grew even wider as I discovered they were locked for the evening.
At this point my body switched to Defcon 1 and I knew I was almost out of time before my Under Armor would have to be labeled as a bio-hazard receptacle. At this point I did the same thing any other reasonable man would have done in the same or similar circumstances and crouched down next to the locked building, did my civic "doodee" and fertilized the bushes free of charge. Although I didn't have a permit to do so, I justified this act of eco-endowment to myself by figuring that the city didn't have to pay me for this one-of-a-kind piece of performance art. I even utilized completely natural fallen leaves to wipe away any bad memories of this incident.
As night befell us we made our way back to the I-5 and ended up stopping in Gorman for some gas/Red Bull to get us through to our evening's destination of Taft where we were planning on spending the night at Christie's place. Fortunately a little caffeine was enough to help perk up my previously falling asleep, helmet-bonking passenger to the point that her 24-year-old eyes noticed something amiss on the rear tire of the Morphous.
"Is the tire supposed to be missing those big hunks of rubber like that?" she asked.
"Yikes!" I exclaimed. "Definitely not. You may have just saved both our lives." Much to my horror, the Morphous tire was chunking like a turbo-charged GSX-R1000 at Daytona with John Goodman on board. With us maintaining a constant cruising speed of 70 mph, I don't think the Morphous was at fault, but this meant yet another delay.
Fortunately, there was an Econolodge within pushing distance that had a vacancy. Unfortunately, it was the only hotel at that exit. That meant that it had a monopoly on accommodations and could charge us whatever it wanted. Let's just say that "Econo" was only in relation to the prices charged at the Ritz Carlton in L.A.
A little light at the end, er, in the middle of the tunnel was a call from Yamaha's "B2" Brad Banister the next morning letting us know that he was on the job and would have another Morphous out to us by 3 pm. To help add insult to injury, however, the Econolodge would not let us stay in our air conditioned room past 11:00 am so we were forced to sit in the lobby where the air conditioning was broken and it was 105 degrees. By the time the Yamaha truck arrived we looked as bad as the snickers bar I left in my suit's side pocket.
With a fresh bike and an Iron Butt shower in the hotel restaurant's sink, we were back on the road. The highlight of the ride up was taking the 58 from McKittrick to Atascadero. If you've never had the privilege of riding this road, it's like a tight, twisty racetrack combined with a high-speed racetrack complete with beautiful scenery, perfect pavement and virtually no cops. Even Deals Gap ain't got nothin' on this place.
As the Morphous is more like a cruiser than a sportbike, ground clearance is in short supply. Therefore Christie and I had to ride it more like the worm sidecars with monkeys of Laguna's past than a modern machine. This meant lots of body lean into the corners to keep from dragging hard parts. One rider commented that we looked more like we were sailing a Hobie Cat than riding a motorcycle. Biologists call this behavior "adaptation." Once we arrived at the 101 we decided to just blast the rest of the way to our accommodations in Marina so we didn't get in too late.
After a good night's sleep and a nice breakfast at Mother's we headed to the track and set up the booth for the coming race. Our luck finally seemed to be changing.
The next two days of races were more or less business as usual for Laguna with the exception of an incredible heat wave that had riders, spectators and vendors all feeling drained and a little nauseous. Ducati MotoGP factory racer Loris Capirossi was even reported to have thrown up during practice due to the oppressive conditions. Given the sweaty temps, not as many people were as interested in trying on leather gloves so business definitely suffered compared to last year. Still, a good time was had by most. The highlight of the weekend, of course, was Nicky Hayden winning the race for the second consecutive year. Any time a kid from Kentucky can beat the best in the world in a major motorsports championship is a day I'm proud to be an American. Well done Nicky.
For the ride home I switched to the Aprilia Scarabeo. This time we took the coastal route, which turned out to be almost completely devoid of tragedy. Perhaps Poseidon had granted us safe passage, figuring we had suffered enough for our crimes against sportbikedom.
Riding down PCH in July is usually a pleasure with nice temperatures and gorgeous scenery. On the Aprilia, Christie found a passenger seat she could really love. To paraphrase Taoist philosopher Chung Tze, "When the seat fits, the butt is forgotten." With significantly more ground clearance than the Yamaha, we could concentrate more on enjoying the ride and less on trying not to drag hard parts.