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Coup de Scoot

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You didn't need a weatherman to see this summer's perfect storm brewing.

Destabilize the Middle East with a major military occupation, hit refineries with added production costs brought on by seasonal fuel mixtures, and then strain your food supply by taking your staple food crop -- corn — and making it part of your government-mandated fuel supply, and what do you get?

How about $4 a gallon by July?

Normally a perfect storm calls for a good roof over your head. But not for this weather-ready commuter. I'm parking my V-8 pickup truck, hopefully for most of the rest of the summer. I plan to pay about $8 a week for gas — not far off from what I paid to fill up back in high school — riding a motor scooter.

Actually, this summer will mark my third full year of riding a scooter to work. And when I say three full years, I mean full, since I ride as often as I can for about nine months out of the year on a 150-cubic-centimeter bike that does 60 mph on a good day.

I know I look like a goof: big alien-head helmet and a too-short two-wheeled ride that sounds like a pair of hedge clippers. But more and more, I'm not alone.

Faced with the prospect of $60 to fill up at the pump and forecasters at AAA predicting even higher, Richmonders increasingly are parking their cars in favor of pedaling their bikes — or revving up motorized two-wheel mopeds, scooters and motorcycles.

Three years ago, I was a kook to all my friends. I paid $1,500 for my new ride and had to go through the trouble of getting my motorcycle license, all so I could look like a circus clown dodging Richmond's ubiquitous Chevy Suburbans and Volvo S80s.

Today I'm part of a legion of commuters who have marched through area bike and scooter shops in an effort to rein in driving expenses.

"The folks we try to get on scooters have changed a lot," says Chelsea Lahmers, who has run her scooter shop, Scoot Richmond, in an old factory building in Manchester for six years. It's one of dozens of shops in town that sell scooters. Even Pep Boys, the auto parts store, sells 49-cc bikes that don't require motorcycle licenses to ride.

Back when Scoot Richmond opened — it was Scomo back then — scooters were hardly about economy to their riders, Lahmers says. "You'd tell people about the fuel economy — but the main thing they wanted was to be stylin' and profilin'," she says.

It was mostly 20-something hipsters who wanted the vintage-style Vespa scooters, like the ones Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn rode in "Roman Holiday" — or, for that matter, the variety you still see in Rome, Naples and other Italian cities.

Style remains important to today's buyers, Lahmers says, but customers' eyes no longer glaze over when she starts talking about 125 miles to the gallon.

"It's kind of remarkable how nonspecific the demographics have become," she says, estimating that she has sold well over half as many bikes in April than she had all of last year. "Gas isn't getting any cheaper for anybody."

Justin Brickett bills himself as Velocity Motorcycles' sales guru. The shop on North Boulevard has seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in scooter sales this year over last.

Most are 50-cc Hyosung brand Korean scooters.

"Honestly, I would say the majority of people who buy the 50-cc scooters are people who have lost their licenses," Brickett says, noting that those riders are breaking the law, since a suspended license legally means driving nothing with a motor.

Motorcycle sales are also up, Brickett says. Some of the smaller cycles, 250-cc bikes mostly, also get as much as 75 mpg, which is comparable to many scooters.

"More and more people are buying bikes for the fact that gas is going up — they don't see the need to ride their [Ford] Excursion down the block," Brickett says. "And the price [of a motorcycle] is not much more and you get a full-sized motorcycle."

Riders in their 30s, 40s, 50s and even 60s: Commuters zipping through Richmond's downtown district in suits and skirts aren't out of the ordinary anymore. Asian-made bikes have overtaken Italian Vespas in terms of numbers.

Brands like Kymco, Buddy, Geely — even Yamaha — go for sleek lines that bear only a passing resemblance to the old-style scooters. And there's very little learning curve to figuring out how to make them work. Gone, for the most part, are manual shift bikes. They've been replaced by "twist and go" bikes with automatic transmissions.

The city's black-and-white-checked parking-ticket squad even zips around on Yamaha Vino scooters. And there's at least one bureaucrat who parks her pastel-painted scooter in the parking deck at City Hall.

"I would love to know who I need to talk to get some dedicated motorcycle parking in this city," Lahmers says.

So would I. S



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