Saturday, Aug. 14| “I saw your bikes, they look great,” says a guy on the street as we leave Betty’s Restaurant in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the one with the memorable sign inside.
Our sidewalk fan mentions the fluorescent green motorcycle jackets we have on and Linda says they’re hot in this kind of weather until we’re actually moving. The guy nods and says, “take care, ride safe.”
That’s amazing, I think to myself as we part, since Erebus and Linda’s red Vespa are parked on a side street way up the hill past Shepherd University’s main building.
What a coincidence: He saw the Vespas, came down the hill, and unexpectedly encountered us.
They look like they’re built for the Dakar rally and they are beautiful.
Ah, so that’s it, he thought the BMWs were ours, I think, and wonder what his reaction would have been if he’d seen the Vespas. Perhaps not as enthusiastic, but still.
The Shepherdstown reconnaissance was part of a short 135-mile ride charted by the mission navigator2 – who overcame my initial reluctance since I was just too tired – that kept us off interstates and on country roads.
We go through a few small towns that are interesting, though Shepherdstown unanimously wins the day.
It’s a college town, obviously, with an artistic, cosmopolitan air that invites one to linger. Even humble sidewalk benches are an integral part of it, transformed into works of art with paint and imagination.
We find a really great independent bookstore called Four Seasons Books, one of those rare places of discovery where you walk in and fascinating tomes and titles call out to you from shelves. Books you didn’t know existed. I could have spent a lot and lugged home a double-armful.
We hadn’t been on the scooters for months, owing to work and other matters. I had only 814 miles on Erebus and I’m still not acclimated to riding it after years on motorcycles. The GTV still feels too small and the saddle is uncomfortable.
I know I have to do a lot of work before riding it down to St. Petersburg as we’ve planned and using it in the 2023 Scooter Cannonball rally as I – perhaps insanely – want to do.
But Saturday’s ride gets us out and about and it feels good once I get used to being in the saddle again. After a while, the seat doesn’t feel so bad. We ride through some scenic places, including Lock 29 of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal national park, near the Potomac River.
Friend and owner Younes Jafarloo3, is a former sportbike rider and tells us how uncomfortable his Kawasaki Ninja could be after a while on the road. Ninjas have an aggressive riding posture.
“My arms would hurt after a while,” he recalls.
Over dinner4, Linda and I relax and talk about what we’ve seen and where we’ll go next. Outside, the sun starts to set and street lamps light up.
Through the window5 I notice a couple, about our age, intently studying the Vespas and talking about them. The guy seems especially interested; he circles both and gesticulates at Linda’s GTS.
I’m mildly curious about what he has to say and if he’s been on scooters himself, but I stay where I am and don’t break the moment. At least he doesn’t think we’re on BMWs.
1 – Like Endurance, my 2000 R1150 GS, only 20 years later.
2 – That would be Linda, of course.
3 – Younes is a great guy who sold his Ninja years ago; I confess to pestering him (gently, I hope) about getting another bike or scooter. He sat on Erebus once but graciously declined my offer that evening that he take it around the block or across his parking lot.
4 – Which did not include wine, since the Vespas were parked outside and we never, ever, drink and ride. It’s an ironclad rule of our riding protocol.
5 – Because we always maintain a clear line of sight to the bikes whenever we’re in a restaurant or some other place.
Let’s get right to the point: Erebus has been delivered to Richmond for her 600-mile service1 and I’ve spent some time and effort on upgrades for comfort, utility and visual appeal.
I’m still getting accustomed to the small size2 of it – it’s a 2020 Vespa 300 GTV Sei Giorni – but the flat seat, the one obtained with the swap from Linda’s GTS, allows me to sit farther back.
I’ve also started using the passenger footpegs, which make it more comfortable and gives it more of a motorcycle feel3. And I attached an inflatable AirHawk cushion, which is working so far.
I feel a bit less intimidated on the freeway now, even with clueless Virginia drivers passing like they’re in practice for their own private Le Mans. It’s getting better, though. And it does feel good on meandering county roads, with a slower pace and less traffic.
One problem is a lack of storage space. There’s a small glovebox-like compartment in the front shield that could conceivably carry a pair of gloves, and a small tub4 below the saddle that can fit a half-helmet, a rain jacket and a real pair of gloves on a good day.
But the Sei Giorni (as we discussed earlier) is patterned after a racing bike, laughable when you think about its 24-hp engine, but still. I want to store tools and rainsuits and spare parts and such without turning it into the truck from the Beverly Hillbillies.
A few other additions:
A windscreen from Scooter West/Vespa Motorsport, along with handlebar-end weights, an extended footpad for the sidestand, a rubber floormat and a small luggage rack for the floorboard. (That’s where the main toolkit will reside.)
From Scoot Richmond: A luggage carrier behind the saddle and a set of crash bars.
I attached two plastic canisters that each hold a 30-oz. MSR fuel bottle. The canisters5 look like a pair of small torpedoes or maybe warp nacelles from a Starfleet vessel.
Installation of all this was just basic tinkering, though it took me a while to figure out how to position the fuel carriers on the underside of the luggage plate. I also had to fabricate a way to attach them.
But at least now I can carry a half-gallon of gas in reserve.
I dithered over the floorboard rack but decided I liked it. It’s low-profile enough to carry the toolkit without looking junky. It’ll be a pain to remove when it comes time to fuss with the battery, though.
The acclimation process continues. And have you heard about this Scooter Cannonball Run? It’s this coast-to-coast endurance rally, see, and I was thinking…
1 – Though the odometer shows 1,021.7, which makes it plain that the dial is recording distance traveled in kilometers instead of miles. 1,021.7 kilometers equal 634.9 miles, if you want to know.
2 – Relatively speaking, in reference to the BMW and the Yamaha.
3 – Aside from the saddle problems, foot placement can be a bit maddening at times. There’s some space on the floorboards to move your feet around, but I found myself wanting more. I tried folding out the passenger pegs and using them and it works, sorta.
4 – The tubs are called pet carriers because you absolutely can’t carry petsin them.
5 – They’re actually tractor manual carriers from Agri Supply. I read about them somewhere quite a while ago; the MSR bottles fit perfectly. I have a set on Endurance and Terra Nova.
“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
— Lao Tzu
The Vespadebacle ended Saturday1 when we went to Scoot Richmond — where we probably should have gone in the first place — and bought a new 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni GTV.
It was a drama-free, no-regrets event that let me think about the scooter itself during the meandering ride home.
I was gauging how it felt, the way it handled, and whether I’d be scared silly while sharing the freeway with demented, uncaring, inconsiderate northern Virginia motorists who are better at texting than driving.
We rolled out of Scoot Richmond’s lot with 11.5 miles on the clock and hadn’t gone 50 miles when I realized the saddle just wasn’t working. Sliding back on the seat gave my legs and arms more room, but the saddle is contoured and I ended up on the seat’s edge, which felt like sitting on the short side of a 2×4.
I’ve got to get a new saddle, I remember thinking.
But that was the only thing, aside from vibration at stoplights, which is expected since we’re talking about a single-cylinder engine. The Vespa has nice acceleration and was good on the sweeping county roads like U.S. 255 and stable when I got on the freeway. The ABS-equipped brakes felt reliable.
And I didn’t feel ridiculous on it as I thought. How I look may be another matter.
I swapped seats — my first modification! — between the Sei Giorni and Linda’s GTS2 the next day, which will make both of us more comfortable, I think. There’s a list of other changes I’ll be making.
“What’s the idea of a scooter if you already have a motorcycle?” a colleague at work asked, a righteous question, certainly; it’s still hard for me to articulate why I wanted a Vespa.
They’re much quirkier machines than either of my motorcycles but they still have a certain attraction for me.
I still like both of my motorcycles3 and couldn’t give them up.
The Vespa is something radically different, forcing me to think differently in terms of riding and touring. It’ll be slower-paced, and we’ll have to take less than we usually do. I’m thinking that may be a good thing.
Continuing my predilection for naming my bikes after Antarctic exploration ships, the Sei Giorni will be called Erebus4.
Now we have to figure out where to go.
1 — I put a down payment on that poor Sei Giorni at the Honda dealer when it seemed they were making an honest effort to obtain a brown/red key. Sadly, the previous owner did not return their calls and they were flabbergasted by the quoted cost to replace the ECU and ignition switch. They dropped the price a bit more but Richmond offered a better deal on a new bike, with bonafide key and two-year warranty, so I withdrew from Honda and went to Richmond instead.
I still feel bad about that keyless Sei Giorni, though. It deserves better.
2 — The Sei Giorni is essentially the same as Linda’s GTS with the same engine and ABS. The seat swap was with her consent, of course.
3 — Both Endurance and Terra Nova will be around for quite a while.
4 — The HMS Erebus (and the HMS Terror) visited both the Antarctic, in 1841, and headed for the Arctic in 1845. Both were lost until they were rediscovered in 2014.
“If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Still captivated by the idea of slower-paced motorcycle touring – a fixation I couldn’t dislodge with a bulldozer – I gave up on the Honda Super Cub 125 after a discouraging dealer encounter and started looking at other small motorbikes.
The focus drifted to Vespa, where I started paying attention to the Vespa Sei Giorni II, a 300cc scooter with the HPE engine, like Linda’s 2020 GTS.
It’s a beautiful machine, even more sexy than the green-and-yellow 300 Racing Sixties HPE I once admired at the dealership in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The Sei Giorni (which translates to “Six Days” and pronounced say JOR-nee) is based on the winning team of 125cc Vespa scooters in the 1951 Sei Giorni Internazionale enduro race in Varese, Italy.
That’s a brutal six-day endurance race. The team won nine gold medals, a stunning success.
Today’s Sei Giorni is styled the same way as those winning scooters, but with updated electronics, fuel injection and ABS. The headlight is mounted on the front fender instead of the handlebars. It’s garnished with the racing number 6, front and rear.
The damn thing grew on me, gnawing at my subconscious, until finally I decided to look for one. The hunt, of course, is turning into an endurance event of its own.
We patronize Scoot Richmond in nearly all things Vespa, but they’re 110 miles from us, a bit too far for casual looking just now.
So on Saturday we went – just to look, you understand – to the closest dealer, La Moto Washington in Arlington, Virginia, whose website said they had one for sale.
“Oh, we have one, but it isn’t here,” said the nice salesperson at La Moto. “We store it off-site since we can’t keep everything here.”
She says she’s there by herself since the other salesperson wasn’t able to make it in and mentions that it might not be a good idea to walk over to the other site because of the cold and ice but we could come back.
We say that’s fine, we’ll come back the next Saturday and thank her and take our leave.
Walking back to the Jeep, Linda suggests we go to Richmond but it’s a little late in the day for a long drive and we veto the idea for today.
“Hey,” I say, “why don’t we go back to the Honda dealer? Let’s see if that Super Cub is still there1.”
So we do, and we enter the place, and I walk back to check the row of used bikes and I see…
…a 2020 Vespa Sei Giorni2 with 356 miles3on the odometer. Exactly what I want.
Seriously. It’s right there.
The coincidence is overwhelming – Twilight Zone scary, even! – and I’m marveling as I circle the Vespa. It looks good, really clean, a few minor scuff marks inside the front shield, but still, really, really good.
The sales guy, probably young enough to be my grandson, comes over and we talk for a bit and I ask, “so what’s the out-the-door price on this?”
He does a quick calculation in his head and names a figure roughly much more than I would pay. I look doubtful and he says, “I can run some numbers if you like.”
“Well…okay,” I say, convinced nothing will come of this, but the Sei Giorni looks really good so we head over to his desk.
He’s on his computer for a moment and then fetches the sales manager, who turns out to be the same Mr. Killjoy4 from the Super Cub debacle literally 29 days ago.
But Mr. Killjoy is carrying a piece of paper, a printout – hey, the printer’s working! – and says they’ve done some price cutting and hands me the paper. It turns out they’ve had Sei Giorni for 90 days or more, taken as a trade-in. It must’ve been parked downstairs; I haven’t been down there in a while.
The price is a lot less than I expected, still a little high, but a good starting point. The mood is entirely different from last time, there’s no take-it-or-leave-it vibe and I’m actually starting to feel hopeful. We say we’ll think about it, thank them sincerely and leave.
We go home, pull the sales papers from Linda’s 2020 Vespa and find a few discrepancies in dealer prep and so on. We talk the idiocy of getting yet another bike but Linda senses my rising enthusiasm and understands me as usual so we decide to go back and make a counteroffer.
Mr. Killjoy comes back with a counter-counteroffer that’s a hundred bucks higher. I say okay and we get the paperwork started. I call our insurance company and get the Sei Giorni added to the policy.
It’s really happening at last and we wait and let the paperwork machinery whirr along.
I start thinking about the Sei Giorni and what modifications I want to make (larger windscreen, additional brake light, maybe some auxiliary lights on the front) and which Antarctic exploration ship I’m going to name her after.
Then the sales guy looks up and says, “We don’t have an owner’s manual. In trade-ins, we sometimes don’t get one.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “That’s not a problem.”
And it isn’t. I can go online and print one; I’ve already done it with Linda’s Vespa, two copies, one aboard the scooter itself, the other in the garage at Starbase Nashville.
“And,” the sales guy says, “we don’t have a spare key.”
If this story had a soundtrack: Here is where the needle would skip across the record and make a horrible scratching sound and send the tone arm clattering off the stereo.
“Wait,” I say. “You don’t have another key? You don’t have a brown key?”
“Uh, no,” he says. And, as if someone’s tossed a bucket of sand into it, the deal machinery screeches to a halt.
A brief but necessary technical digression…
All modern computerized Vespas are sold with two keys:
A blue key, which is used as a standard ignition key, for day-to-day operation of the bike. It has a tiny transponder chip.
A brown key5, which is the bike’s master key. This is the program key, used to work the bike’s onboard computer and program the bike to accept new keys and a whole lot of other stuff.
When you buy a new Vespa, the salesperson will hand you this brown key and say, literally in bold capital letters:
“DON’T LOSE THIS KEY.
KEEP IT SOMEWHERE SAFE.”
You can get other blue keys as spare ignition keys. (I got two for Linda’s scooter.) However, you need the brown key to program them, to make them work.
It’s an aggravating quirk of the Vespa system. The computer controls an immobilizer system on the bike, which means you can’t start the engine without the properly coded keys. You need the damned keys.
You can’t get a new brown key without replacing the bike’s Electronic Control Unit and the ignition barrel (the thing in the dash with the slot you stick the key into). All that costs a lot of money, upwards of $800 or so with parts and labor.
I am not making that up.
You can get new blue keys cloned but it’s a pain in the ass without the brown key and there’s no guarantee they’ll work.
…and now back to our story
“I’m sorry, but we need to have that brown key,” I say. “That’s a deal breaker.”
The sales guy goes looking for the key without success. It’s not in an office, it’s not aboard the Sei Giorni.
We try to explain how necessary the brown key is, but you just know the sales guy and Mr. Killjoy think we only want a key with a different color or something. You can see the disconnect in their eyes.
“I’ll get you the brown key,” Mr. Killjoy says, and I believe he is sincere but I also believe he thinks he’ll just go to the nearest Vespa dealer – La Moto Washington, in another bit of irony – and pick up one.
He wants me to sign the paperwork anyway and I say, I’m sorry, I really like the bike but I can’t do that, not without a working brown key.
So we leave it like that, with them saying they’ll get the key and they’ll call the previous owner to see if he still has it (though he should have surrendered it with the bike as part of the trade-in).
Like 29 days ago, we leave empty-handed.
We get home and I start to think how this will play out and I’m quietly convinced it won’t happen.
We’ve been in a Samuel Beckett absurdist play for 20 minutes, talking about keys with different colors and the dealership’s Vladimir and Estragon don’t quite understand because they haven’t done their homework. Vespas can be costly and complicated and dealers don’t like complications when selling used vehicles.
What’ll probably happen is that they won’t find the original brown key or get a new one and I won’t buy the Sei Giorni.
They’ll end up selling it to someone unfamiliar with Vespas and that person will buy it and toddle off and things will be fine until they discover they need a brown key and find out they’re screwed.
I’ll wait and see what happens. If under-powered Vespa scooters can win a six-day endurance race, it’s possible Godot will actually show up with a working brown key.