Thursday, April 23, 2009

Scooter Resource -- Cannonball Run

Somewhere in the middle of Wyoming, roommates Mike Garrett and Rob Downs may come to question the wisdom of their journey.

Crossing the continental United States on a Vespa and a Lambretta ? Those nippy little scooters more associated with the narrow, congested streets of Rome than the vast, yawning spaces of America?

But they cannot be dissuaded, and Sunday in Pacific City, Ore., they will straddle their machines and point them east, destination Coney Island, N.Y., 3,500 miles away. With them will be 30 other scooter riders.

Make that "scooterists."

"There's a difference between scooterists and people who ride scooters," said Rob, a 30-year-old Navy vet who works on the Department of Labor's Web site. "Some people just own and ride scooters. If someone's referred to as a scooterist, that means he does scooter rallies and likes hanging out with other people who have a shared interest in this hobby."

The name of their nine-day trip is the Scooter Cannonball. It's a chance to push the two-stroke machines to the limit. Not to mention themselves.

"I'm going to try to wear bike shorts with gel padding," said Mike, a 34-year-old government contractor who runs the Navy's records Web site.

I caught up with them one night last week at Vespa of Washington's Silver Spring maintenance facility, where mechanic Greg Marsh , 35, was helping get the scooters ready.

Rob's 1966 Lambretta, shorn of its bodywork, was up on a lift as he rigged an extra fuel tank. Mike's 1964 Vespa, the oldest scooter to tackle the Cannonball, was in pieces, too. He reached his hand inside the rear fender to screw on a new taillight.

Both scooters have been modified to raise their top speeds from about 50 mph to as high as 80, a necessity given that they'll ride up to 530 miles a day.

The obvious question is: Why? Why scooters in the first place?

You might as well ask why someone prefers a mate with short hair to one with long hair, or the color red to the color green. We all of us have our passions, our obsessions, our pleasures. We're all of us attracted to certain people, places and things because of some inherent quality in them and us that we can't really explain.

Some people bird-watch. Some people ride scooters. Some people ride scooters a very long way.

Rob dates his scooterphilia to 1999, when he saw one in a San Diego shop window. "I decided I needed to have it for some reason," he said.

Mike was into motocross motorcycles when he was a teenager. Those mudslinging vehicles don't make much sense in a city -- he and Rob live off U Street NW -- so he got into scooters.

"I think scooters are dirt bikes for city rednecks," Mike said. Both enjoy machines they can tinker with.

They have planned the trip with the discipline of a military campaign. The route will stay off the interstates and follow the Oregon Trail much of the way. Support vehicles will follow them. They have even plotted the elevations along the journey, an important consideration as their carburetors gasp in the thinner air.

Some of the 32 Cannonball riders are using the rally to raise money. Rob's riding for the American Cancer Society; Mike, a former member of the 82nd Airborne, for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a group that provides scholarships for the children of special ops personnel killed on the job.
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Their scooters left yesterday on a truck for Oregon. Rob and Mike will fly out Thursday. For Rob, this is a bit of unfinished business. Two years ago, he came within 300 miles of completing the first Scooter Cannonball, which went from east to west. On the Arizona-California border, he was rear-ended by a tractor trailer. Rob broke his left hand and his right ankle.

Even so, he has great memories of the trip. On a scooter, a foot off the ground, you're not very far from the world around you. You're riding through it, not past it.

"We're going to get some funny looks rolling through Nebraska," Rob admitted.

Said Mike: "We're doing it because it's not supposed to be done."

Godspeed, gentlemen.

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