Skidmarks: Six Things You Need to Know About Scooters

Gabe Ets-Hokin
by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Now you know, so let me ride my %$#$#^ scooter in peace

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.

Mark Twain

Scooters are muy peligroso because o’ ’dem teeny little wheels! They’re slow because they only have 49cc engines! Why would I want one when a real motorcycle is better? Arrrg! Motorcyclists are so misinformed about scooters it’s like talking to medieval peasants. “Burn the scooter! Burn the scooter! It is a tool of the devil, with its tiny, satanic wheels and un-Godly giant underseat storage!” Me not understand scooter. Me smash scooter!

Luckily, thanks to the modern marvel that is, you no longer need be ignorant. I, the enlightened coastal elite moto-journalist, will inform and uplift you, the unwashed and ignorant savage square-state big-bike rider, and you will move to Santa Monica, open an aromatherapy studio, and purchase a Vespa 946. No, no: there’s no need to thank me. Just read and learn, o mortal:

1. Scooters aren’t unstable because o’ dem teeny-tiny wheels

Moments after Troy Siahaan snapped this photo, Evans’ Grom mysteriously fell over because 12-inch wheels are just too small to be stable. Sadly, Evans had also just eaten a bag of Pop Rocks and drank a bottle of Coca-Cola. His stomach exploded and he instantly died.

Oh, but your buddy Dave said they are, so I guess that’s why millions and millions of scooterists are just crashing for no apparent reason as their scooters suddenly highside. Said no scientific study ever. The fact is that scooters are highly represented in crash data worldwide because there are a lot more scooters sold than motorcycles, and the riders tend to be younger and more likely to engage in risky behaviors, researcher politeness-talk for “scooter riders are idiots.” But there’s little in the actual scientific data that points to scooters being somehow inherently dangerous. Maybe dangerously fun, but not dangerously dangerous.

If you think small wheels – and most scoots have at least 12-inch wheels – are unstable, whatever that means, please see the exploits of MO’s own racing team, which managed a jillion laps on teeny-weeny Grom wheels without suddenly losing control because of lack of gyroscopic effect, or whatever pseudo-scientific baloney Dave told you. Where they do want is going over obstacles like bumps and potholes, but you know that and you tailor your riding style accordingly (politeness speak for “not being an idiot”). Are cruisers “inherently dangerous” because they don’t have as much cornering clearance as sportbikes? Are sportbikes a hazard because they don’t go over speed humps as easily as an enduro? Oh, please.

2. They ain’t necessarily slow

Scooters comes in many sizes, including the motorcycle-like Suzuki Burgman 650. Photo by Suzuki

Somehow, there are a sizable number of motorcyclists who don’t understand that scooters, like motorcycles, come in all levels of performance, just like motorcycles. From the can’t-bust-a-wet-paper-bag 49cc Razz of the ’80s to the feared-by-all 850cc V-Twin Gilera SRV, you can find a huge range of power. Both the mighty Suzuki Burgman 650 and the Yamaha TMAX (sadly stripped from our market, sob) will haul serious ass with their two-cylinder engines.

Even when they are actually slow – most scooters are 150cc or smaller – they are so light and the power is so easily accessed thanks to the CVT transmission, that they don’t feel slow for their intended purpose – getting around town. If you think you can beat me across San Francisco on a GSX-R1000 because I’m riding a Burgman 200 you haven’t ridden a motorcycle in San Francisco, or you have no self-preservation instinct at all. There’ll be a crab Louie waiting for you at the Cliff House. I won’t order the clam chowder because it’ll be cold by the time you get there.

3. Not all scooters handle poorly and have simple brakes and suspension

Triz gets all cray with a TMAX. Photo: Evans Brasfield.

It is true. Some scooters are built as very low-budget commuting tools and would be at a disadvantage on a racetrack against a 1985 Chevy Geo. Others, though, do have what it takes. I tested the Yamaha TMAX and it was amazing, a similar design to Dan Gurney’s famed Alligator. It boasts a rigid aluminum frame and laydown Twin that feels like it’s about six inches off the ground. It went through corners like it was on Velcro, and I angered many sportbike riders passing them on the outside.

Sadly, most scooters are unlike the Burgman 650 and TMAX and locate the motor as a combined swingarm/drive unit, which is Not Good for unsprung mass and weight distribution. That limits the effectiveness of the front suspension and overworks the rear suspension, which is usually underdamped and oversprung and goes over bumps like Kathy Bates on a pogo stick. But they’re also usually pretty light, 300 pounds or less, and being 100 pounds or more lighter than your riding buddies can turn into some serious leads, regardless of how badly the suspension works.

After all, did Jim Redman complain about lesser-talented riders passing him in the straights on their two-smokers? Probably, but he won anyway. A true artist doesn’t blame his tools, and if you’re slow on your scooter you need to learn how to ride better. Just sayin’.

4. Scooterists should wear enough protective gear but don’t

Mention scooters, and inevitably somebody will point out how scooterists ride around town wearing less protective gear than they’d wear to play beach volleyball, which is true, but not really a valid criticism of scooters themselves. It’s actually speaks to an advantage of scooters, if you think about it: they’re so cute, fun and inviting that you don’t think you could possibly be hurt riding one, but believe me, types the guy who hit the rear bumper of a very nice Turkish lady’s Jetta on I-5 one sunny Thursday leading to a worker’s comp claim, you can. ATGATT on a scooter is a must, like anything you ride, but it doesn’t have to survive triple-digit crashes.

Durable pants, securely fastening over-the-ankle shoes, an armored, abrasion-resistant jacket and full-face helmet are what you should wear around town at a minimum, just like a motorcyclist. Why scooterists think God beams his benevolent gaze upon them because they’re riding a cute lil’ scoot is a mystery.

And speaking of under-protected riders, yesterday I saw an old, porcine man riding an equally old and porcine BMW GS while wearing shorts, a tattered ADV-style jacket, huaraches and no gloves, but that’s not an argument against either being large and doughy or riding a BMW. It is an argument against wearing short shorts in your 60s, though. Yuck.

5. You may wind up on one

Peter Jones levitating to work at Kymco.

Oh, not you, oh-so-manly he-man with your giant diesel truck and motocross trophies and half-empty jars of protein powder all over your garage, you’d never ride a scooter. Or would you? Kymco PR guy Peter Jones, as manly a man as you can imagine as long as your imagination is limited to 1990s Lifetime Network movies, rides a scooter and told me that scooter demographics in the USA are all over the map when it comes to age and experience.

Many scooter buyers, especially of larger-displacement models, are older, experienced riders who want a lower-impact riding experience, often because of health issues or a disability. If you had a hand injury and couldn’t squeeze a clutch, or if you lost a foot and couldn’t shift gears, would you really give up riding forever just because of your oh-so-important image? If you’d rather take the bus than be seen on a scooter, I question your commitment to your sport. Are you in it for the image or the experience?

6. Scooterists are as passionate, enthusiastic and skilled as motorcyclists

“Ha, ha, ha,” laughs Gabe. “We are all having such fun, being candidly photographed. This is not staged at all.”

That’s the main thing I’ve learned in three decades of riding scooters. The latest case in point is Miccah D, whom I met last week on my Kymco event in Asheville, North Carolina. Miccah came to scootering late in life, a county employee and mom of two looking for a fun way to get around. She bought a Vespa and has been riding a couple of years, a self-described “glorified commuter.”

She showed up as the least-experienced rider by far in the company of veteran journalists with thousands of miles riding experience on every kind of motorcycle on any racetrack, road or trail you can name. Miccah fearlessly tackled gnarled roads, highways and city streets with aplomb, keeping up with our egos rain or shine. The choice of a scooter says nothing about your character – only your choice of how you ride does.

And if anybody posts the dumb joke about fat chicks, my column will be about nothing but scooters for the next six months, so help me.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is the 2002 Sanctimonious Prick of the Year Award winner for his book, My SV650 is the Best Bike Ever so STFU.” It’s available as packing material at your local FedEx office outlet.

Gabe Ets-Hokin
Gabe Ets-Hokin

More by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Join the conversation
2 of 47 comments
  • Mark Garvey Mark Garvey on Mar 31, 2018

    Hey. I havbe owned 3 scooters. An 86 Helix which I thought was the best bike ever until I got the 07 Yamaha morphous... And a short lived and much lamented 06 majesty that was stolen from my driveway.
    Around town? Yeah... lovely rides. Highway? That too. The morphous has been on several long rides. Sometimes covering 800+ miles a day. Uh huh.. that's right. Miles, not km. My majesty traveled over 600 miles in one day. At speeds of 80to85 mph in comfort.
    (If I ever run into the guy who took it, I will beat $2000 worth of crap out of him.....)
    All three were delightful and handy. Easy to ride And stable as an anvil. The 250 may be the "perfect" motorcycle. In many ways better than the Maj.
    Scooters are comfortable smooth and friendly. And about the gear.. yeah yeah...i with you. But the way I ride. I'm more interested in utility. On the highway.. ok...
    Stay safe, keep your eyes open