My scooter-riding experience was almost over before it began. As soon as I received the assignment to write about scooters in Santa Barbara, I headed to the DMV to get my motorcycle license, required by law in California for all scooter riders. With no line and a simple 25-question test waiting, I figured I didn’t need to look over the handy booklet.
It turns out, I did.
After failing the first test, I turned right back around for a second attempt, which I promptly failed twice as bad-who knew you were supposed to use the headlights of the vehicle in front of you to see better at night? With only one opportunity to pass the test before I had to reapply not only for my motorcycle license but my regular driver’s license as well, I decided I should go home and read the book.
And read I did. But not closely enough, apparently-I failed again. I was devastated. The dream ride was over, momentarily. Thanks to an administrative gaffe-they gave me one of the tests twice-I had a fourth shot at passing, which I did. Barely. But I was official, so I immediately headed over to Vespa of Santa Barbara on Anacapa Street to get going on my one-week tango with the two-wheeler.
The assignment couldn’t have come at a better time. Because of high gas prices, among other reasons, I had recently decided to sell my car. It’s a popular choice in Santa Barbara these days, according to Peter Collins of Kawasaki Santa Barbara in Goleta, which sells two different types of scooters. He said that sales in the past six months have “kind of exploded.”
Before letting me out into the real world of cars and trucks and bicycles and pedestrians, Vespa of Santa Barbara owner Bobby Weindorf brought me across the street to a vacant News-Press parking lot. After acquainting me with the scooter, he told me to drive in a straight line, which was a bit of a wobbly experience. Apparently I was a little too tense. “Your knuckles are white,” Weindorf told me. “It’s just like riding a bike. Relax and look where you want to go.”
It was effective advice. Soon I knew right where I wanted to go, and I could go there! After 30 minutes of me zigging and zagging around the parking lot, Weindorf decided I was ready for the streets.
Right out of the gate, I saw City Councilmember Helene Schneider and her husband walking down Anacapa Street. I waved a quick hello, then went to flip on the turn signal to turn right. Instead I beeped the horn.
The Vespa, a baby-blue number with a 50cc (cubic centimeter) engine, maxed out at 30 miles per hour-a perfect city cruising speed. And cruise I did, first to upper State Street to show off my new ride to some friends, and then back down the drag to display my new two-wheeled wonder. I went up and down Cabrillo Boulevard, flew up the big Mesa hills which normally give me trouble on my bicycle, and cruised all the way back to my apartment in Goleta. The ride gets roughly 80 miles to the gallon, so it hardly matters that the tank only holds two of them. I rode Saturday through Tuesday and didn’t have to fill up once.
Weindorf has been into motorcycles all his life (he currently owns 12 scooters and 19 motorcycles). But it wasn’t until a trip to Italy eight years ago that his love for scooters-specifically Vespas-bloomed. Though they were the hot ride of Europe, Weindorf realized they were non-existent here. So he bought a bunch of older Vespas, brought them over to the U.S., restored them, and sold them.
His business quickly took off, as the plaque hanging in his shop, reading, “2004 Outstanding Dealer, #1 Market Share,” can verify. Weindorf estimates he’s sold more than 1,000 in Santa Barbara. More could be sold, he said, but the pesky DMV test holds back a lot of people. He currently has about 140 new scooters in stock, along with 20 vintage Vespas. And if he doesn’t have it, he knows where to find it.
Both Weindorf and Collins pointed out that Santa Barbara, with its ideal weather and small-town feel, is perfect for scooters. Weindorf’s clients range from college students to retired millionaires to two-car families who decide to dump a car. More often than not, they come away satisfied, with some even coming back for more. And I can see why.
Midweek, I was upgraded to a sleeker, sexier silver machine with a 150cc engine. This puppy really made the heads turn and, with a lot more power and speed, shortened my trip from home in Goleta to downtown for work. Although my motorcycle permit limited my driving capabilities to main roads during the day, I couldn’t resist taking one spin out on the highway (don’t tell Bobby : or my mom!). After covering an event at UCSB, I decided to hop onto Highway 217 for a quick trip to Hollister Road. And quick it was! The world flew by in a blur as my cheeks waggled in the wind. I’m not going to tell you how fast I was going, but the rush was over before I knew it.
As was my week of riding the Vespa, which came to an end six days after it began, and left me wanting more. More of the wind blowing in my face and more of me sneaking in between cars to the front of traffic piled up at a stoplight. More free parking in all the city parking lots and squeezing into the closest possible spot on the street. More of not having to buy gas and more looks from sexy ladies looking for a ride on the Vespa (okay, that didn’t actually happen, but I’m not blaming the Vespa).
It was so fun I actually found myself whistling and singing while I rode, even if the occasional bug did fly into my mouth. I didn’t have any accidents, nor did I cause any accidents during my Vespa week, as far as I know at least. In fact, I felt safe. The wind blowing in my face made it hard not to be aware of my surroundings, and paying attention to what the DMV booklet said (gulp) helped as well. Riding a scooter took me to a happy place free of care. With all my long-forgotten troubles so far behind, I couldn’t find a trace of them in my tiny rearview mirrors.