In the alley between Josephine and York streets near Cheesman Park, hipsters are assembling, engines are being goosed, and blue smoke is rising into the overcast air. Denver's scooter chicks are ready to rumble.
Behind a dowdy gray Victorian, a dozen self-consciously cool women in their twenties are gathering around a fleet of antique two-wheeled motor scooters. Some of the scooters don't run at all. Others are in need of repairs. Some are decked out with decals from Great Britain, others with Calvin and Hobbes stickers. Some are jet black and look like something out of Quadrophenia, the 1979 movie about rival teenage gangs in early-'60s England. Another is shiny blue and green. The sexiest one of all is silver--a steel frame completely stripped of its paint.
In a few hours, the scooter girls and a phalanx of invited guests--most of them male--will be heading out on a rally. The destination: the Coors Brewery in Golden. Your hostesses: Chris Hyder and her Secret Servix Scootin' Chicks All Girls Scooter Club--the "Secret SCs" for short--an organization whose members are proud to be one of the only all-girl scooter clubs in the United States.
That's right. Scooters. Those stylish two-wheelers made in Italy after World War II. Don't confuse them with wimpy mopeds or with brawny, oversized motorcycles, because scooters conjure up their own universe of cultural references. From the Sixties mod scene in London (heavy on go-go boots and ska music) to the classy image of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn touring the streets of Rome in Roman Holiday, the scooter is the perfect union of rock-and-roll style and mechanical substance.
The old Vespas and Lambrettas gathered in the alley are throwbacks to a time when getting around a big city was still an act of independence and sophistication--when you drove around for the hell of it, because you could, because it was fun. With their washboard fronts and flared rear ends and their simple controls--gas, brakes, a switch for the headlight, kick starter, clutch and speedometer--they're get-on-and-go vehicles. And they're urban, meant for people who live, work and occasionally make trouble in the city.
The 23-year-old Hyder, a blonde with dark eyebrows, purple eyeliner and an intense stare, started the club two years ago; today it has about fifteen members and is the only all-girl scooter club in Denver, where the other four scooter gangs are all dominated by men. The Secret Society part of the name comes from an all-male club in San Francisco that turned the women down after they asked to ride with the guys at a big rally being planned in California. After being snubbed long-distance, the girls went west planning to lay some full-throttle attitude on the Society--like "tampon bottle rockets, real obnoxious," says SC member Missy Walker. By the time they got there, though, they got caught up in the rally itself and figured they'd just get even by forming an exclusive club of their own. "It kind of burned," recalls Hyder, a waitress at a local brewpub. "So we have our own scooter society--nothing but girls."
Chris Shauinger, who works on scooters for a living and heads up his own scooter club in Denver dubbed the Aces, calls the Servix bunch a "band of yuppie girls gone bad." And while plenty of guys may fantasize about riding double as the Secret SCs cruise by, the scooter babes don't take a backseat to anyone. They know the history and the mechanics of the bikes as well as the men, and they're just as pleased with the kick-starter scratches and exhaust burns that have scarred their legs. Hyder says she'll often walk around the house oblivious to the oil smudges on her face. "To learn how to ride a scooter really well, you have to be twice as good as the guys," she says. "And we are, because guys tend to show off."
"It's so independent," agrees Walker, 25. "Especially if you fix something on your own, you're like, 'I am woman. See my scoots.' Sometimes Chris and I will go out in the garage and get some dirt under the nails. I always wear my little Dickies outfit."
But Walker hastens to add that the girls don't think of themselves as scooter chicks all the time. "Most of us are girly girls," she says. "The scooter is like a child. You have to take care of it. It almost becomes an obsession. When they broke down, I used to cry to my therapist about it."
Hyder was introduced to scooters in Salt Lake City by a close high-school friend. It wasn't until she moved to Denver in 1993 that she went out and bought her first ride, an Indian-made Bajaj--actually a replica of a Vespa 150 Sprint. (The bike eventually met its fate when it hit a pothole downtown and its entire exhaust system fell off.)
Today the Secret SCs will cap their rally with a cookout and a night at the clubs. Rallies happen about once a month, but this is the first one hosted by Hyder and her crew, who have had T-shirts printed up to commemorate the event.
But the truth is that the activities and who's hosting them are a secondary matter. Today is about feeling the rain splatter against your sunglasses and getting your hair tousled--at least as much as it can be tousled at forty miles per hour. "It's a way of life, a total subculture," says Skye Barker, a 23-year-old advertising saleswoman who describes herself as a "hardcore Vespa chick. The guys are impressed with the amount of women in the scene. This ride is rad. It's a chick deal."
Today Barker is wearing a 1960s-style print dress, white go-go boots and oval wide-frame sunglasses. Many of the other Secret SCs are decked out in swinging, retro, form-fitting dresses or elegant affairs that Grace Kelly might have favored. The men invited along for the ride have young faces and gaunt frames and wear crewcuts or slicked-back hair. Chains hang out of their pockets, many wear thick-rimmed glasses, and almost all sport sideburns big enough to wipe your feet on.
In California, scooter clubs are more prominent and more clique-ish; some clubs cater to a mod crowd, others to ska fans. That's less the case in Colorado, which usually takes a laissez-faire approach to fashion anyway. Not everybody at the rally dolls up like Skye. As the participants roar their scoots down the alley, some opt for jeans and T-shirts, others for racing shirts, others for pastel shirts and ties. One guy comes as a clown, sporting a red nose and carrying a bunch of balloons intended as a birthday gift to Walker, herself decked out in a body-hugging lavender dress.
"Some people are idol worshipers," says Adam Baker, an X-ray technician who got his first scooter in 1989. "They worship the bike--that's why they're into it. For others it's a lifestyle thing--the scooter is a fashion accessory." But if attitudes about fashion are lax in this crowd, attitudes about scooters are a different story. It's best to know the ground rules going in. Otherwise, the outsider is liable to eat plenty of blue exhaust.
First, don't get the scooter mixed up with the moped. There is a technical distinction related to engine size, but the stylistic distinction is much greater. Barker rode mopeds when she attended high school in Italy, a country where two-stroke vehicles are as prevalent as "dragonflies." When she returned to America, she says she left her moped by the side of the road and began to scoot. The difference? "A scooter kicks a moped's ass," she says.
Mopeds are easily dismissed by Baker as well. "It's a motorcycle with pedals," he says with disgust. Others refer to mopeds as plastic scooters and refer to moped clubs (they, too, exist) as "Tupperware parties." "They're pretty creative-less," Shauinger says of the machines.
"Pretty ball-less, too," Hyder adds. "It only tops out at thirty miles per hour."
But when it comes to incurring the wrath of the Secret SCs and their pals, mopeds get off easy compared to the not-so-new wave of Japanese scooters. Shauinger describes the high-tech scooters marketed by Honda and Yamaha since the 1970s as part of a "corporate takeover." The Japanese scooters may run well, he says, but they lack the look so necessary to a truly gratifying scooter experience. "[The Italian scooters] weren't made to run nice," he explains matter-of-factly. "They were made to look good."
In the hour before the rally begins, two things become clear: Scooters are hard to find and they break down a lot. Since there are few scooter shops in the U.S. and parts must be imported, it helps to know a little about the bikes when they go goofy.
In the garage, Hyder and a friend named Mike are peering over an old bike she bought for $150. "The jetting is wrong," he tells her. "It's a racing engine geared for the city." Mike's been into scooters since the mid-Eighties and is, like many other participants, a California transplant. A half-hour later, he revs the engine for several minutes--it's almost as loud as a motorcycle. "It's still wet," he says. "What size jet?"
"190, probably," says Hyder.
"Smallest one you got?"
"No 160, 180..."
"Get a 150 or 170 in there with an air filter and it'll probably run," says Mike. "It's still a little wet."
In the oily brick garage and the backyard, riders tinker with their machines, smoke prodigiously and swap scooter war stories. One woman's gray-green Vespa was hit by a drunk driver, and the front-wheel fender is badly dinged. She might have to take the current engine and put it into a new shell. If she can find one.
Missy Walker, meanwhile, is breaking in her newest scooter, a white '59 Lambretta Series 1. Walker, an office manager for a local advertising firm, bought it over the Internet for $500 from a guy in Nebraska. "The first one I owned was possessed," she says. "I rebuilt the engine so many times it just gave up. It only had first and fourth gear."
Walker was introduced to scooters by her father, who owned one when he was living in Wyoming. She bought her own soon after moving to Denver in 1989. It was a Vespa P200. Today she drives the Lambretta but has the corporate logo of Piaggio--the company that makes Vespas--tattooed on her back.
Adam Baker, who's got a jet-black Vespa with a police-style windshield and black checkered print at the bottom, says mods live to ride, not just repair.
"Everybody rides 'em," he says of the scooters. "Nobody just sticks 'em in the garage."
But lately prices have risen as scooters have become more popular among yuppies--who, to the disdain of the modsters, pamper them as showpieces. Baker says a Vespa P200--the most common vintage scooter--used to run about $500, $900 if you were being taken advantage of. "Now you're looking at $800 to $1,000," he says. "The sucker deal is closer to $1,500."
They're not easy to find, either. The gang is constantly asked about procuring scoots for friends. But Hyder says you have to be in the loop to score. "People ask, 'Will you help me find one?'" she says. "If I come across one, I'm gonna buy it."
The star scooter this day belongs to Dustin Gabel, a product designer for a medical manufacturer in Boulder. Gabel has a large warehouse where he restores old scooters in his spare time and sells them off. Today he's unveiling a one-seat 1972 Vespa Primavera that he's been working on since last fall. The results are stunning. The bike is a vision in gleaming steel, stripped of its paint and accented with bright-yellow handlebars and speedometer. But even this dream ride isn't perfect: Gabel struggles throughout the day to fix a gimpy spark plug.
A coming wave of scooters may exorcise those sorts of mechanical gremlins. In a few years, Piaggio, having finally met U.S. emissions standards, will be allowed to begin importing new Vespas into the U.S. for the first time in almost two decades. The Italian firm's new ET2 and ET4 (with a four-stroke engine) are gorgeous neo-retro machines--sleek and modern, yet styled as a throwback to the easygoing sensuality of the older models.
But their arrival may create a dilemma for the serious scooterphile: whether to trade up to a new model that's too damn sophisticated to tinker with or stick with the hip but troublesome old bikes. Shauinger says it's an easy call: Out with the new, in with the old. Unlike old scoots, whose engines can constantly be rebuilt, "once these [new] motors break down, it's done. It's unrealistic to work on it in your garage."
A recent Harley-Davidson advertisement drives home the motorcycle industry's belief that more and more women are buying bikes, not just clinging to the back of them. Under a picture of a black leather motorcycle seat, the ad reads: "It Vibrates."
Indeed. And scooter chicks pick up good vibrations, too. In fact, say the Secret SCs, the Lambretta has a well-deserved reputation as a virtual vibrator on wheels.
"It's almost like a boyfriend," says Walker. "Having a boyfriend and a scooter is definitely trying. They're two things you have to keep maintenance on."
Early names for the club included Hooters on Scooters, Puss 'n' Scoots and Pussy Galore, the last a reference to James Bond's sexy foil in 1964's Goldfinger. And though, as Hyder notes, "we smell like two-stroke all the time--not exactly the most elegant perfume," the SCs acknowledge that sex clearly sells for some girls on the scooter scene.
"We try not to get involved in the whole Melrose scene," Hyder says of herself and her closest mates, referring to the bed-hopping that routinely takes place on TV's Melrose Place. "Guys usually go for the new girls in the scene, and that girl goes from guy to guy to guy. And the guys are still really good friends."
"True-blue scooter girls won't date scooter boys," adds Hyder. "Because we've built so much of an identity for ourselves, we don't want to fall back into having an identity as so-and-so's girlfriend."
Not that the chance doesn't present itself--especially on long rallies. At a gathering in Kansas last Memorial Day weekend, says Hyder, every Servix girl "could have hooked up. We so impressed those guys. We had guys from St. Louis fall at our feet. They thought we were the coolest thing they'd ever seen."
Only in America, however, does the sultry scooter chick still qualify as a cultural rarity. Scooters have been marketed to women in Europe for years, and "one of the reasons we formed our own club," says Hyder, "was to bring publicity to Colorado." Most of the women on Vespas today, she complains, are still just "bitches"--only there because of their boyfriends.
Hyder says she once got over an old flame by buying a new scooter. And though riding companions come and go, her and Barker's love for their bikes remains strong. Barker says she doesn't even drive. "It never occurred to me to get a car," she says. "If I hadn't fallen in love with scooters, I'd probably have no vehicle at all. It's freedom. At forty miles per hour, you're just a rocket on the street."
Motorcycles and other two-wheel vehicles have been around since early this century, but the modern scooter was born in Italy in the aftermath of World War II, when two bombed-out Italian factories started to manufacture new products to serve a nation weakened by war.
Enrico Piaggio's Vespa came first. During the war, Piaggio's factory was turning out fighter planes and bombers for the Axis forces. By the end of the war, his factory lay in ruins. Determined to put his thousands of employees back to work, and assisted by American foreign aid intended to ensure that the factories didn't fall under Communist control, Piaggio set about updating a little-used wartime scooter designed for paratroopers.
Italy's automobile factories were rubble, the cost of fuel was outrageous, many people were poor and the roads were in bad shape. The scooter Piaggio unveiled in 1946 was an attempt to address these problems. It was lightweight, easy to assemble and operate, fuel-efficient and cheap. Its single-cylinder, two-stroke engine produced only 3.3 horsepower--less than many of today's lawnmower engines--and the top speed was only 35 miles per hour. But the Vespa produced an amazing 100 miles to the gallon.
The Lambretta story is similar. Ferdinando Innocenti was a successful manufacturer of steel tubes who operated a large factory in Milan before it, too, was severely damaged in the war. Faced with putting 6,000 unemployed workers on the street, he rebuilt his factory and geared it toward producing motorized vehicles. The resulting Lambretta was a hit from the start. The Lambretta Model A was introduced in 1947 with a steel frame and tubes for the handlebars and seat mount. Larger than the Vespa, its engine was built in the middle of the scooter rather than on the sides.
The scooter boom peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when interest in Europe was so high that Vespa and Lambretta started exporting them to the U.S. At one time, Vespas could even be ordered through the Sears catalogue. But scooters were never really popular in the United States, where the great spread of cities and land made motorcycles, with their greater power and range, the two-wheeled vehicles of choice.
The fortunes of Vespa and Lambretta gradually declined in the 1970s, when the Japanese started making their cheaper, more technically sophisticated models. In 1981, amid the stink over emissions, the export of new Italian scooters to the U.S. stopped. The bikes, though, never went out of style.
Shortly before the rally begins, a wayward scooter rider named Matt drops by on his new Triumph motorcycle. "He didn't come to show it off," Baker says, "but we still had to give him shit."
For Baker, the true rebel these days is the man--or woman--who rides a scooter. "I totally feel like a rebel driving it, more so than if I were on a Harley," he says. "Every dentist in the world has a Harley. Are they rebels when no Harley guy is gonna get called a faggot for having it? Or am I the rebel for riding a classic scooter and gettin' shit from a 35-year-old guy in a Pinto wearing an Ozzy Osbourne shirt?"
At 3 p.m. one of Hyder's neighbors, James Helton, a big, toothy guy, gets ready to start the rally. It'll be his third. "This is fun," he says. "I'm glad they started doing this again."
Twenty scooters kick on in two lines, and boyfriends and girlfriends clamor onto the small seats in the rear. Sunglasses are thrown on, though the sky is cloudy and it looks to rain soon. Helton starts waving his arms up front, then lets them drop. The seat of Missy Walker's Lambretta begins to shake, and the rally is on.
At first the scooter is a little unsettling; it's so small and light that you figure the first bump in the road will throw you off. But it's actually a smooth ride, and the bikes are fast and nimble. The ride is easy going through Capitol Hill, where two scooters diverge right behind a truck, swing past it on either side and come together again.
The two-wheelers dance around each other, take the lead, then give it up. It's possible to find yourself at the head of the pack one moment and bringing up the rear the next. Blue smoke is everywhere.
The rally passes the library and then turns onto Speer Boulevard, where a few people in the rear miss a light and fall back from the group. When everyone is reassembled, the procession heads past downtown and then over I-25, where one rider loses his hat in mid-air.
The riders head north up Sheridan Boulevard to 38th Avenue. As they turn left onto 38th, rain starts falling out of the mottled, blue-gray sky. It's now that one begins to envision wiping out. But only one guy is wearing a helmet, and that's Andrew Hyder, Chris's brother. Hyder explains that he wears the helmet to be safe. So far in his scooter-riding career, though, he's slammed into two cars and taken a bad spill that left an exclamation point of a scar down one arm.
For the others, wearing a helmet is simply inconvenient. It's hot, hard to see out of, there's no place to store it. Worst of all, it just isn't cool. "You just have to know how to drive," Shauinger explains later with a shrug. "You have to be aware of things."
The scooters ride in lines of two, for the most part, alternating between the left and right lanes. The riders use hand signals at the same time, almost lemming-like. Cars are appreciative. There is no sign of men wearing Ozzy Osbourne T-shirts and driving Pintos.
The scooter girls say they generally don't get hassled much, though Walker and Hyder are occasionally accosted on Larimer Square by guys riding around on the space-age motorcycles scooter babes refer to as crotch rockets--or worse. "We call those plastic motorcycles penis extensions," says Hyder. "The guys always try to be macho."
As the rally continues, a few problems crop up. Baker's muffler extension falls off en route, and when another scooter pulls alongside him to tell him, he shrugs it off, shouting, "It's not worth going back for!" It's not uncommon to see scooters zip down a side street to check a problem or duck into a gas station. Some bikes don't have a lot of oomph in them and fade to the rear of the pack, then out of the pack altogether. Every so often, the lead scoots will pull to the side of the road, if they can, and wait for others to catch up.
Eventually the convoy passes under I-70 and begins the curvy two-lane traverse down 32nd Avenue toward the Coors Brewery. The sun has returned, and the hills behind Golden provide an excellent backdrop. Traffic is light, and the drivers open up their throttles. It feels more like a race now, and drivers blaze past each other if they can. Finally the hulking brewery comes into view.
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As the scooter party files in to take a tour of the brewery, the tour guide blanches. It's the last group of the day, her largest ever, she says, and she seems anxious to move things along. But no one seems offended. After the obligatory group photographs, the gang leisurely heads back to Colfax Avenue. As the riders crest a hill, the Denver skyline comes into view.
"Isn't this view great?" shouts Ron Brown as his wife, Mary, holds on tight. "This is what it's all about!"
Afterward, over beers and sandwiches, the talk returns to esoteric parts and whether Lambrettas are better than Vespas and about an upcoming rally in St. Louis at the end of the month. Today's rally was relatively uneventful--nothing like the one in Manitou Springs a couple of years ago when riders drunkenly maneuvered their way through a makeshift obstacle course whose wooden ramps had been set on fire. And though today's trip cost Hyder, Barker and Walker nearly $1,000 to put on, the scooter chicks are pleased with the ride. They hope to bring in more out-of-state people for the next one and hope to get a reputation among other clubs nationally.
But for Barker, it all comes down to the bond between rider and scooter. "I totally feel like all woman," she says later, flashing a bouncy smile. "I get on my scooter and I'm so free, so tough. My hands are on cold Italian steel. I totally have passionate feelings.