The air is thick with diesel. Bearded men in leather jackets and women with spiked hair sip coffee and discuss the years of their vintage Lambrettas, Piaggios and Vespas as if they were fine wines. Some of them have club jackets emblazoned with shields: The Secret Society Scooter Club, The Royal Bastards, The San Francisco Scooter Girls.
The groups don’t seem to be inter-mingling much. “They usually ride alone,” a skinny Vespa driver with square-framed glasses whispers to me. “This is one of the few inter-club rallies.”
He’s talking about the The Big Wet One, a wintery (and often wet) weekend of San Francisco scooting that – being my first group ride since I joined the ranks of the two-wheeled just a couple months ago – already has me feeling a little out of my league.
I’ve heard of clubs like The San Francisco Scooter Girls (their motto is “I don’t ride bitch”) but I thought they were ironic groups people might just reference in online chat rooms – not official jacket-wearing real people. This feels so – so serious.
“You ever ridden with a group?” a man with a red goatee and one hoop earring asks as I sit on my navy blue Derbi Boulevard, a plastic-bodied 2004 Spanish model that has absolutely no vintage street cred. I bought my Derbi at SF Moto for three reasons: it gets more than 60 mpg, was only $1800, and came with a warranty. Being a scooter driver for me is all about dependability, saving money, and lowering my carbon footprint.
But I am intrigued by the culture of scooting and, as a new scooter owner, I feel a twinge of obligation to explore its eccentricities. This goatee guy has a patch on his jacket that says “Evil” and is driving a scooter called an MP3 that has two front wheels and looks like a vehicle a bad guy in Mad Max would drive.
“First time,” I say.
“Well, there are three things to remember,” he says seriously, “Stay in formation, hold your line on turns, and don’t brake suddenly unless you’re absolutely going to crash. A lot of these vintage riders brakes don’t work so well, and if one is behind you, well, that’s when people go down.”
Go down? I thought these group rallies would be a mellow way to see some new parts of the city. Suddenly I feel like I’m about to enter the gladiator ring. I find myself wishing I had more than just my motorcycle permit. I went to take the DMV test last week but accidentally came with a flat tire.
I go inside the café and ask a middle-aged guy who introduces himself as Mark if he has done this sort of thing before. “Oh yea,” Mark says. “Last year we did the three bridges.” A guy next to him in a thin scarf and a Scottish knit cap says he has never scooted on a bridge. (Thank goodness, another beginner.) “Oh, you’ll be fine,” says Mark. “We can box you in.” The knit cap guy looks frightened. “Maybe I’ll go on the city ride instead,” he says.
We have a choice to do a “hangover recovery ride” around the city led by The Secret Society or an “adventure ride” around Mt. Tam. I decide to stick with knit cap guy. He seems sane.
His name is Ruben. And I’m glad I’m talking with he and Mark. Ruben turns out to not be such a novice though. He has been scooting for years and has been to a rally called Mods versus Rockers that commemorates the 1960s UK rivalry between the suit and tie
wearing Mods and leather-clad, motorcycle-driving Rockers. “That one is really fun,” Ruben says, “We take over the Stockton tunnel and do laps. It’s kind of hectic though. Nobody stays in formation. People go down all over the place.”
There it is again, this talk of “going down.” Seriously?
“Yea,” says Mark, “It can get tight. We lost a guy last year. He slid out in the crosswalk paint. The moral of that story is stay out of the paint.”
Lost a guy. Like died? I decide not to ask. I don’t want to know.
There’s no time to back down now. The light roar of one-cylinder engines fills the street. The “adventure group,” about 25 of them, lines up first in two haphazard single-file lines and revs their engines before charging up 21st Street like motorcycle gangsters who got too big for their machines. The hangover crew, appropriately a little sluggish, takes another five minutes or so.
Kathy, a Secret Society member with bleached white hair and a charming bad attitude, will be our leader.
“So what is the inter-city ride?” Ruben asks Kathy.
“It’s a ride around the city?” she smirks.
“Where do we go?”
“Around the city.”
A few minutes later, we’re lined up and roaring up Dolores Street, attracting stares. I’m in the back sucking down the exhaust of a really old blue and white Vespa that definitely needs a smog check. Not exactly the exciting start I had in mind. But once we traverse the Mission and head onto O’Shaunessy Boulevard, a wide tree-lined street that wraps all the way to Portola, spreading out into our staggered formation, I’m beginning to like this.
It doesn’t feel dangerous. I’ve also never been on this road so I’m checking off a goal of seeing more of the city. And thirdly, The Royal Bastards are blocking off traffic when we come to stop signs so the group doesn’t get split up. A few cars honk at us in annoyance, others with approving delight. It feels good. We own the streets.
On Laguna Honda we do finally get divided at a red light. The laggers include me, two other non-vintage riders, and a woman wearing a neon jacket because she’s officially pulling up the rear. The neon jacket woman looks at me and says, “Should we go?”
Oh great. The leader is asking the beginner if we should break the law. I’m picturing being grilled by police – “so whose idea was it to run the red light?”
“Umb, sure,” I say reluctantly.
Fortunately nothing happens and now we feel like outlaws, which I guess makes it worth it.
Our full ride takes us down to Ocean Beach, where giant waves are feathering in the offshore breeze, over to the picturesque Marina docks, where sailboats are being hoisted and scrubbed, through the Western Addition, which is just the Western Addition, and finally back to the Mission. We end at Zeitgeist, an appropriately gritty bar for tough people like us.
It was a nice hour-long route. But I’m realizing something about group scooter rides. It’s like riding alone, except not quite as fun. It’s not like you can talk to people while you’re riding. And being in a group kind of just slows you down.
I do like meeting these other scooter drivers though. They’re inspiring me with their gear. One woman on a Vespa has fuzzy leopard print seat cover, a license plate holder that says “70 miles-per-gallon, how ‘bout you?” and pink helmet with a sticker that says, “Hairdo by my helmet”. Another guy on bright red Vespa has a sticker of a well-figured silhouetted woman, like the ones on 18-wheelers, but she’s reading a book. His helmet says “Scooter Trash.” I’m jealous.
Inside Zeitgeist, the leopard print seat woman is in front of me in line.
“You in a scooter club?” I ask.
“No, I’ve been thinking about starting an ironic club of one called the mean girl club.”
“Nice,” I say, unsure if that was a line to get me to shut up.
She doesn’t say anything so I’m wondering if she really is mean. But then she recommends the Bloody Mary. “Best ever,” she says.
It is very good. The Royal Bastards haven’t joined us at the bar, but a few Secret Society members are here. Before ending my scooter gang experience, I have to know what the deal is with these people.
“How’d you join?” I ask the guy next to me, a skinny bright-eyed fellow named Paul.
“You have to be invited and voted in unanimously.”
Paul is fairly new and isn’t sure what he’s allowed to reveal. I manage to get out of him that you have to have a metal vintage scooter, you have to go to a meeting once a week, and you have to participate in an embarrassing hazing which Paul can’t talk about but he didn’t like it very much.
“So what do you do at meetings, discuss future group rides?”
“Yea, we discuss future rides and we, umb, let’s see…” Paul appears to be thinking hard either about what it is they talk about or if he can reveal a dark secret. “Yea, no, that’s pretty much what we do, talk about rides. But it’s fun. It makes you feel part of something.”
That’s cool. But once a week? Sort of a heavy commitment. I think I’ll go with my leopard print seat cover friend and form a scooter club of one, “the getting-around-town-cheaply-and-being-really-psyched-about-easy-parking club.”
It’s good to know these serious scooter clubs are out there though, owning the streets of San Francisco for fleeting moments of 70 mile-per-gallon glory.
Do It Yourself:
Wanna scoot? With both new and used models, SF Moto, is a great one-stop shop for purchases, repairs, or tricking your scoot out.
If you’re a scooter rider looking for a group, the San Francisco Scooter Girls, The Royal Bastards, and The Secret Society can all be tracked down through their websites.
The groups generally have individual rallies, some that are open to new riders.