I went on Saturday to finally check out the Craigslist Vespa I’ve been eyeing for a few weeks. It’s a GT200, with a displacement four times that of any scooter I’ve ever operated – and that little experience I do have driving is from many years ago. I wasn’t really anticipating taking it on much of a test drive – I don’t have the M class license to legally drive it yet, nor did I have any experience handling a bike that size. I walked around it, poked some things, turned the key and flicked on lights and blinkers, hit the starter and listened for the way it dropped to idle.
“You can take it around the block,” the seller offered.
I was standing there with my helmet, gloves and jacket. I suppose I might have looked like I knew what I was doing.
“I can just go down the driveway and back,” I said. “I’ve never driven one this size and this is for me to learn on.”
“No no, try it out,” she insisted. “Go left at the end of the drive and then the block is just residential streets, no traffic, stop signs at all the corners.”
Oh, twist my arm. Twist the throttle. Off I went.
I have been riding – as a RIDER – on and off for more than ten years. Aside from a brief period of interest in 49cc scoots in something like 2009, I didn’t have much interest in driving one until pretty recently. I liked to just hold on and go, feel the wind and watch the world fly by while someone I thought was pretty awesome took control of everything. I just had to hang on, lean in, and trust. Driving is obviously different. I still have to hang on – until I have to remember NOT to hang on and get out of the way of a falling bike. I still have to lean in – except when I have to remember NOT to lean in on certain slow and tight turns. And trust? There’s no one else to trust now.
I gave the scoot a little gas and a few glances at the speedo – not shooting for any number really, but I think I hit 25 or 30 on a straight stretch. The engine sounded good, the weight of the bike and the size of the wheels – 12″, which is big for a scooter – made for a solid connection with the road. I got to a stop sign and waved the waiting cars on ahead of me to give myself space. The heft of the steel-framed Vespa was unfamiliar to me, and I knew that the steer-accelerate motion needed for a tight turn from a full stop was something I’d really need to practice.
Once. Twice. Three times. I was a little jittery and put my foot down more than once, but I made it just fine.
Then the fourth turn, the home stretch. I don’t know what happened. I am 100% sure I wasn’t being cocky, because the nerves were still there, on a bike I didn’t own and wasn’t super comfortable driving yet. I think maybe what happened was that I overcompensated with the acceleration, because the turn led uphill, and then I panicked a little and didn’t control the steering as well as I should have. Then I was on the sidewalk, and then I was on the ground with 300 pounds of Vespa on top of me, engine still running.
A nice man who had been working in his yard ran to help me, but I was up from under the thing and pulling it upright with I don’t know what strength – adrenaline, probably. One of the things flashing through my mind right then was what I’d read about those engines flooding if left to run when the bike was on its side. But on the angle of the hill, I couldn’t get the center stand down and the bike up. There was no side stand. And in my shaky panic I was cranking the key and hitting the kill switch frantically and wondering why the thing wasn’t turning off.
Oh yeah. Brake. Then key. Off.
I took some deep breaths, and with the help of the neighbor got the bike onto the street. Back up the hill, I made the left into the seller’s driveway without incident, and brought it to a stop. Since my legs broke the bike’s fall, it had zero damage from the incident so I didn’t actually tell her I dropped it. Not that it should have mattered – I was giving her the deposit anyway.
I don’t think I really calmed down till I was at home with a cool cloth on my road-rashed ankle, watching the bruises pop up on my thighs. I ordered proper riding boots and some kevlar-reinforced jeans that night, along with a much-recommended book called Proficient Motorcycling. The next morning I felt like a truck had hit my legs and I was sporting all shades of black and blue. My bones hurt. I had these isolated minutes of total freakout that day, thinking I was in over my head, it was too much bike, I should just get a 49cc and not bother with the license, I should just get something cheaper and lighter, I wasn’t strong enough to control it, it would be too hard…
Yet something about already being injured by that thing sort of stiffened my resolve. Every little fear that bubbled up in my chest was countered by a fierce and bruised pride that said I wasn’t going to give up, not that easily. I was battered from breaking that bike’s fall, but I got back up and got back on, didn’t I? I could have handed it back to the seller and driven away. I could have kept the cash deposit I brought that day, gone home to nurse my wounds and pout.
When I tested the 49cc cheapies some years ago, I really wanted one. I’d been riding with ex-boyfriends and wanted the wind in my face – but they were far away, and those relationships were over. I thought the little scoots would be a way I could manage that on my own. I could have gotten one – but I didn’t because I was scared. The kind of scared that gives up without trying.
Well, I’m still scared. But I think this time it’s the kind of scared I can channel into work, into learning this and practicing and putting in the time and effort to become a good rider, a safe rider with the wind in my face and no one making it happen but me.
The kind of scared that says I will beat this, I will tame this, and I dare anyone to tell me I can’t.