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The road, the wind, the pals

Long hot in Europe, scooters are taking off here

Danny Kourafas, owner of an Avon scooter shop, led a group of scooter enthusiasts on a group ride along the South Shore on a recent Sunday. Danny Kourafas, owner of an Avon scooter shop, led a group of scooter enthusiasts on a group ride along the South Shore on a recent Sunday. (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Meg Murphy
Globe Correspondent / July 24, 2011

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AVON - On a bright, sunny afternoon not long ago, Susan French, a scientist, took her Il Bello 150 scooter for a spin. She bought her first scooter four years ago, at age 46, and learned to ride by zipping around an industrial park in Stoughton. Now she rides for fun.

“The freedom is awesome, and so are the people,’’ said French.

She rode with dozens of other scooter lovers, including a high-powered executive from Plymouth on a Piaggio MP3 500, a three-wheeler dubbed Darth Vader’s Scooter; a faculty member from Quincy College on a shiny red Vespa 250; and her husband, a highway department worker in Avon, on a scooter identical to hers, right down to the colors, black and white.

An eclectic mix of scooter enthusiasts often gathers in loose-knit communities in the Boston area - at spots such as Danny’s Scooter Shop in Avon - to share a passion through group rides, barbecues, and rallies. Their enthusiasm for scooters is also represented by many events and the popularity of Twist N’ Go and Twisted Touring, chapters of the Greater Boston Scooter Club.

“I’m proud of the community - they’re so unpretentious. How can you be when you ride on scooters? It’s not like they are on motorcycles in black leather,’’ said Daniel “Danny’’ Kourafas, a motorcyclist himself for years but now the proud owner of a growing collection of scooters and a shop that caters to a decidedly fun-loving clientele. “These are my friends,’’ he added.

A scooter, while not defined by law, is commonly known as a two-wheeled vehicle with a step-through frame and a platform for the operator’s feet or integrated foot rests. It typically has a small engine, automatic transmission, and under-seat storage - although this definition is increasingly fluid, with some new models incorporating three wheels or manual transmission. The scooter lacks the stereotypical machismo of the motorcycle but carries a certain European flair.

At Danny’s Scooter Shop, Kourafas and his partner, Diane Park, host regular events, attracting riders within a two-hour radius, most of whom arrive on heavy-duty scooters. Imagine Audrey Hepburn riding sidesaddle with Gregory Peck on the classic Vespa in the 1953 film “Roman Holiday’’ - only now it’s a model with a larger engine, reaching speeds between 50 and 80 miles per hour, and aggressive styling.

On a recent Sunday, Kourafas and Park led a group of riders along seaside roads in Quincy, Hingham, Hull, Cohasset, and Scituate. A few weeks earlier, the pair hosted a barbecue ally in Avon, and dozens of area riders told stories about the scooter lifestyle - although not all agreed there is one, exactly.

“I’m never sure what people mean by lifestyle and culture - look, there are all sorts of people here. We get together for rides,’’ said Nick Altenbernd, 65, a South End resident who rides a green-tinted Vespa.

“We are basically all such very different people - the scooter is the common characteristic.’’

“Without my scooter, this area would make me crazy,’’ said Gay Lemons, 58, a Medford resident and psychology instructor at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell who sometimes rides her small-engine scooter even during New England winters.

“Riding a scooter makes you sturdier inside,’’ said Lemons, who sports a hot pink helmet. “I’ve dumped it a couple times, but I’m fine.’’

French, the Il Bello 150 owner from Stoughton, said she is cautious of the dangers involved in riding a scooter, especially when many motorists appear frustrated by them and respond aggressively.

“The problem is that cars don’t always like you - sometimes they try to run you off the road or push you over,’’ she said.

“Or they give you the finger,’’ added Lemons.

Altenbernd said his scooter accelerates better than most cars, and gives him far more flexibility and control, but sometimes drivers react emotionally to the sight of a scooter nearby.

“There is a type of driver that cannot stand having a scooter or motorcycle in front of them,’’ he said, adding that he gets out of their way because, in this instance, size matters. “If there is an altercation between a scooter and a car, the scooter always loses, and you must never forget that.’’

Mary Lee Belleville, 53, a Newton resident, arrived in Avon filled with stories about navigating her Vespa 150 through the streets of Boston, a mostly positive experience, aside from the occasional mishap. In April two years ago, just after she bought her first scooter as a reward for landing a job at Pearson Education in the Back Bay, Belleville took a spill that broke her shoulder, one of the most common injuries for scooter riders.

Belleville was on Boylston Street turning left onto Berkeley, and a woman with a baby carriage stepped in front of her, out of synch with crossing rules.

“It was a short riding season,’’ said Belleville, who was taken away by ambulance after attempting to stop, and going down holding her bike. A novice mistake, she said; now she would know to speed up, go around the woman, or, if falling, let go of the bike.

Also, she added, she would not be wearing open-toed shoes.

“That gravel gets you every time,’’ joked Belleville, who was right back on her Vespa last season.

“I really thought my family would think it was crazy, my riding around on a scooter, but they all think it’s great.’’

In fact, the dozens of scooter lovers gathered in Avon said they receive more positive attention than negative. They described how children like to call out for a scooter to pop a wheelie, an acrobatic maneuver involving applying extreme pressure on the back wheel to make the scooter’s front end rise off the ground; motorists at gas pumps ask about fuel efficiency, and express interest when told many scooters get between 70 and 100 miles per gallon; and heads turn at traffic lights, with people rolling down windows to ask about scooters.

Park said she has even taken to carrying along business cards for her scooter shop to hand out at intersections.

Across the country, scooter sales have been rapidly rising for the past decade, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council, as this fuel-efficient and compact mode of transportation, hugely popular in other parts of the world, steadily gains followers in the United States.

In Italy and Britain, passionate and competitive scooter owners customize their machines, seeking to show off with the most stylish step-through frame, foot platform, or front leg shield. In other countries, such as Japan, India, and Vietnam, scooters are a practical and inexpensive space-saver, often the means of transportation for entire families.

South of Boston, the collected scooter lovers spoke about the more romantic elements of a ride: the feel of the wind, described as “like being a dog with its head out the window’’; the smells of fresh cut grass, the salt of the ocean, pine trees, or, in the city, the mouth-watering aromas wafting from bakeries in the North End. Plus the thrill of the sights: the rabbits on the side of the road; the colors of autumn foliage; the waves crashing against the shoreline.

Plus, they get to meet up with one another and hang out.

“Look at this camaraderie,’’ said Lemons, adding she knows a lively 75-year-old who rides a Vespa with a sidecar.

“It is just a really great hobby,’’ said French. “We love it.’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.

Rules of the road

Motorized bicycles, or motorbikes

A scooter with a maximum speed of no more than 30 miles per hour, a cylinder capacity of 50 cubic centimeters or less, and an automatic transmission requires a two-year sticker from the Registry of Motor Vehicles affixed to it. Such a scooter, labeled as a “motorized bicycle’’ in Massachusetts, cannot be operated by a person without a valid driver’s license or permit, or under age 16, or without a proper helmet, or at speeds greater than 25 m.p.h. Riders must follow traffic rules, and stay off recreational paths and limited-access or express state highways where signs prohibiting bicycles have been posted. They are allowed, however, to use the bicycle lanes.

Limited-use vehicles

A few more rules apply if a scooter is capable of reaching speeds higher than 30 m.p.h. but no more than 40 m.p.h. on a paved surface. To operate on a public way, these scooters are now considered “limited-use vehicles,’’ as of 2009, and must have a special license plate sporting that label. These scooters are prohibited from “limited access’’ and “express state highways,’’ and any portions of other roads where the speed limit exceeds 40 mph.

Motorcycles

Scooters capable of speeds over 41 miles per hour, with engines 50 cubic centimeters or more, are considered motorcycles by the RMV. The state requires any person 18 or older to pass a 25-question written test and a road test on his or her own registered, inspected, and insured scooter before being issued a motorcycle license. It is possible to ride on a permit, which only requires the written test, for up to two years, or more with proper renewal. On a permit, freedom is limited, restrictions apply, including no passengers, and no riding after dark. People age 16 and up, with a valid driver’s license and guardian consent, plus a successful written test, can operate a scooter under a permit.

Source: Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles


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