Motorcycle versus Vespa 

John and Susan House

        My wife Susan and I last September rode US 50 most of the way from the East Coast, turning southwest on I-15 to visit friends in southern California .  Susan’s motorcycle is a BMW F650GS, a fairly light motorcycle with a single cylinder; she had no problems with this, even in some rather severe winds in the UT, NV, AZ, and CA deserts.  She could deal with the grades in the Western mountain ranges, but (rather like driving an older air-cooled Volkswagen “Beetle” or “ Westphalia ” camper-bus) she did not have much chance of passing anyone going uphill at high elevations on steep mountain grades.  I was riding a K1200GT BMW, a very different situation on a bike known as an “autobahn-burner”, and could accelerate easily going up mountains, but she could not.  Otherwise, she was at no disadvantage.  However, 650 cc is very different than 250 cc even though the scooter is probably much lighter than her motorcycle.

        In September, strong desert winds are a fairly frequent condition, usually from the southwest.  This is an issue not only for you as a scooter rider, but in terms of the effect on traffic around you, particularly large trucks.  Passing, or being passed by, one of these in strong winds, is an exercise in physical stamina and mental alertness.  There is not only the strong air turbulence that accompanies a big square vehicle blasting through the air; there is also an effect due to the truck blocking side winds.  You are riding along in a strong wind having to adjust and lean a bit to stay straight in your lane, but suddenly as you are passed by (or pass, not so likely on your scooter, but perhaps you’re both moving at a lower speed in a town)  a big truck, the wind is blocked by the truck.  As soon as that happens, either you will alertly shift your steering and weight to adjust for no longer having the wind blowing you sideways, or you will forget this and suddenly find yourself leaning to the opposite side where the wind is no longer pushing against you.  That’s not good: you’ll be moving toward the side of a big truck right next to you.  Even if you’re not a physics major, you can figure this is not going to be a happy experience.  And there’s more, because in a few seconds at most, you or the truck will move ahead, and just as suddenly, you’re hit by the same wind you were momentarily sheltered from, scrambling to re-adjust again.  Since it’s usually the truck passing you, you’ll also spend a few seconds dealing with the vortex of air caused behind any large truck moving through air, which causes low pressure behind the truck and the situation of feeling tugged toward the back corner of the truck.  US 50 is a truck route, especially in the West, so you’ll need to feel comfortable in this sort of situation before you start the trip.  Go out on your local highways and find some trucks to practice with!  It can be done, but you will be much better off to have mastered the skills before you start the Big Ride.  

        Heat can be a big factor.  If you’re used to traveling long hours in heat, or are an outdoor sports enthusiast, you’ll know what you need to do.  If not, talk to people who deal with long periods of heat – distance bicyclists and runners are a good source of information.  This is a little crude, no offense, but you might want to turn your internet search browser to looking for the term “monkey butt”.  That’s a rude phrase that describes a common issue among distance bicycle and motorcycle riders (or cowboys who spend all day in the saddle, same deal).  It is NOT a joke, despite the funny name.  It can turn into a serious medical issue, so study up and be prepared.  If you can, try to add the search term “Flash Gordon” to the “monkey butt” search.  This is the actual name of a physician who rides motorcycles and does sport medicine.  He has written some good articles on this subject – if you can’t find the articles on the web, find his address and email him.  Getting this right can be the difference between a great adventure or a horrible experience.  

        For people who can chat knowledgably about the issues of a woman rider, look up organizations for women motorcyclists, such as the “Motor Maids” (one of the oldest organizations), or “Women On Wheels”.  Such internet sites usually have links to discussion forums where you can “talk” with experienced people who can appreciate what you’re trying to do and won’t waste your time or theirs trying to tell you to stop riding and take up knitting (nothing against knitting).

        Interstate “qualification” – state laws differ about small displacement engines like yours on high-speed roads – applies.  You won’t always be on just highway 50.  There are parts where you’ll be merged with other routes, and in some places that can include a stretch of high-speed highway.  Also, you might want to go around rather than through big city traffic.  Example: you will spend a short time, perhaps a half hour, in Kentucky going around the south side of Cincinnati OH on the interstate rather than tackle riding through the busiest parts of the city especially if it’s rush hour when you get there.  (That routing decision occurs just as you finish crossing Indiana on US 50 and either go straight into and across Cincinnati , or find a way around it.)  If the state of Kentucky doesn’t ant your scooter on the Interstate, you will need to do some advance research about alternative routes.  Personally, having ridden that bit, neither my wife nor I would say you’d enjoy that bit of interstate.  It is a major truck route “wall to wall” with big trucks in a hurry, and frustrated commuters in their 4-wheeled cages, many of the trying to dodge in and around the truck traffic to speed to work or home, with their radios on and their cell phones I their ear drawing their attention away from you.  Spots like that are “combat riding conditions”, where you will experience what fighter pilots do for a living.  It can be done – again, practice and work your way up to feeling sure of yourself “out there” before you tackle it tired and perhaps in heat or rain after a long day on a long trip.  Spending time with routing information services is a good use of your time before you ride, and with 3 months to go, START NOW!  Knowing and having ready alternatives is a key to happy trails.  Surviving perils may generate a sense of adventure and an adrenaline rush, but it is not a thing to be deliberately courted day after day on two wheels; the strain adds up.  Pick “paths of least resistance” in your planning, and you’ll have a happier story to tell afterward.  

        Riding west of the Mississippi is different than east of it.  It seems silly to even mention it, but there is a major change in the density of population, and with it the density of traffic.  Experiencing this directly on two wheels is different from just having an intellectual grasp of the fact, or even different from having “been there” in a 4-wheeled cage with air conditioning!  You’ll know once you actually do it.  

       Mr. Berg’s book is a good resource, but keep in mind that trip was made in a camper/van rig, and you are dealing with some variables not part of the 4-wheel adventure.  Others on the motorcycle links dealing with US 50 will have useful information, and many of the people writing there will be happy to exchange notes with you.

        People will tell you doing this on two wheels is suicide.  Not at all, provided you recognize that there is a greater risk exposure and plan/ride accordingly.  Others will tell you it simply is impossible on a scooter.  This is also wrong.  Among motorcyclists, there is a brave, resourceful, and slightly lunatic group who think long distance riding is the best thing in the world.  Among them, there is the Iron Butt Association, which sponsors competitions in which people ride many thousands of miles around the country, competing to do it quickly while also collecting extra points for visiting a list of places not directly on the shortest route.  It’s not fully exclusively motorcycles that run this grueling competition; it has been done on scooters, and with a respectable score, much to the chagrin of people who finished lower with big fancy motorcycles!  Not everyone does this, and I’m not recommending it.  Just so you know people who say it’s impossible are wrong.  

        Best wishes on your adventure!      John House