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Secrets of the Vespa sisterhood

Get your motor running, head out on the highway-- an urban woman's guide to the wild world of scooters

Their names read like a cast of Marvel comic book heroes: The Screamin' Mimis, the Bella Donnas, the Baltimore Bombshells. They're groups of women across the United States and Canada who view the road as part racetrack and part runway. Wearing flashy helmets and bomber jackets, they cruise around on what some view as the greatest Italian invention since the Roman chariot: the Vespa scooter.

The Vespa -- the word means ''wasp" in Italian -- can kick up to a top speed of 74 miles per hour, cruise at an average of 37, cover some 23 miles on a liter of gas (just a splash over a quart), and look like a lady's fashion accessory, in candy colors and sleek retro styling. Favored especially by nonconformists, 16 million Vespas have been produced since they were introduced to the world in 1946.

Boston has its own community of women riders, and as the weather has turned from balmy to bracing, they're hitting the road with a passion. Talk to them, and you find they tend to fall into two camps: the girlfriend and the hardcore.

The GirlfriendBoy meets girl. Girl meets boy's Vespa and falls madly in love. That is the lowdown on how 34-year-old Misty Woodbury came to cofound The Boston Stranglers, back in 1990. In 1989, she says she was just a punk rock girl whose boyfriend (now husband), Woody Woodbury, enjoyed rummaging through junkyards for used scooter parts. On summer weekends she'd follow him to his mom's house in the suburbs, where he'd spend hours tinkering with his scooter.

''I thought it was boring at first," Misty confesses. ''I'd hand him wrenches and stuff. Eventually he'd let me take apart a carburetor or change a cable. . . . Then, after a few months of proving my worthiness, he let me ride one of his bikes." Three months later, Woodbury was shopping for her first scooter, a 1966 Vespa Sprint, which she still rides. Later that year, the couple were recruiting members for a scooter club through a zine they created called ''Zen and the Art of Scooter Maintenance."

Since then, Woodbury has ridden her Vespa to scooter rallies in New York and Toronto. ''You definitely feel you are on the edge of death every time you ride on the highway, but it's a thrill," she says.

At a rally about 10 years ago, she attempted to jump across two hills on her Vespa.

''I wanted to show Woody how it was done." she says, smiling. ''I went flying off the top and broke my shoulder. . . . That same rally, three girls from Boston had injuries, one had a black eye, one a broken wrist. At the emergency room they were like, 'Where are you all coming from?' "

Since her son, Ian, was born two years ago, Woodbury has cut back on riding. She still goes on weekly rides around Providence, where she and her husband own JavaSpeed, a scooter shop and coffee bar. There she hangs out and talks scooters with other two-wheeling moms and their kids.

Lucia Rollow also gained entry into the male-dominated scooter world through dating a male enthusiast. When Rollow, who rides behind her boyfriend, is asked at a recent Stranglers meeting why she chooses not to own her own scooter, she lets her boyfriend, Noel Hidalgo, do the talking. Hidalgo, a stocky guy with a shaved head and Buddy Holly glasses, waxes poetic on the joys of riding double. ''For a single rider, [a scooter] is just a mode of transit." He nods at Rollow. ''When we ride together, we experience Boston together. Like in 'Roman Holiday,' when [Gregory Peck] is driving [Audrey Hepburn] around Rome. The couple itself becomes an accessory to the scooter."

Still, since the late '80s, when Woodbury became a Vespa convert, there are more women around Boston riding solo. She reflects, ''Now there are definitely independent girls who aren't coming in [to the Boston Stranglers] because of boyfriends."

The HardcoreAngela Thibault is one of those women. In a case of what she's dubbed ''scooter jealousy," 25-year-old-Thibault lost her old girl-friend over a mint green 2003 Vespa called ''Stella." Thibault remembers the girlfriend would complain all the time: ''She didn't like to ride on the back . . . I know now that if I find anyone else, they have to understand the scooter thing."

Thibault bought her first Vespa in March 2003. Eight months later, inspired by attending Boston Stranglers' weekly meetings, she founded the Ladies Scooter Society of Boston. Since the club's debut, the Ladies have collected 22 female members throughout New England who meet every couple of months to attend scooter rallies or go on group rides.

Suggest driving a car in Boston to Thibault, and she balks like a wine connoisseur being offered a glass of boxed Chardonnay. She considers herself ''way too ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder]" for automobile-driving, pointing out her dangerous habit of getting distracted singing when a good song comes on the radio. She says, ''With a scooter, driving is easier because you are right there on the road connected to everything around you."

Every day, Thibault commutes to her job as production manager at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater, riding from Porter Square in Cambridge to Somerville on her Vespa in rain, sleet, and sub-zero temperatures, adding or subtracting layers like a weather-savvy mailman.

Scooter devotion? Recently she traded bedrooms with one of her housemates to get closer to Stella. ''If I want to wake up at 3 a.m., now I can just look out the window and see it," Thibault says. ''I told my roommates if I didn't get the room, I'd have to go outside with a flashlight."

Who is the average woman scooterist? ''They are women with European taste," says Maz Abdel-Hafiz, the manager of the Vespa Boston shop on Brighton Avenue in Boston. ''They are attracted to the design and the freedom the Vespa represents. Freedom of traffic, of parking, of gas prices." Vespa Boston has sold about 600 scooters since last August, says Abdel-Hafiz, noting that about half his customers are female.

Like Harley guys who don muscle T-shirts and leather pants, half the fun of riding for some women scooterists is in dressing the part. ''The typical girl rider is very fashion-oriented and kind of '60s," Woodbury says.

Thibault adds, ''A lot of girl scooter clubs get lipstick companies to sponsor their rallies. I am definitely a little more butch than most girls in the scooter world. I have no use for lipstick!" she says, laughing. Though she considers herself ''more practical" than most women Vespists, often riding in jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt, Thibault points out, ''My helmet still matches my scoot."

Woodbury recalls her old riding uniform. ''Our friend Vinnie used to deejay [at The Common Ground coffee shop on Harvard Avenue] for 'Mod Night.' You'd be dressed to the hilt in '60s mod, and you had to ride your scooter as part of the fashion. I'd wear go-go boots, fishnets, and a miniskirt. I had this awesome leopard cape, and I'd ride, and it'd be flying!" she laughs. ''It's been awhile. Now I teach at a university, and I try to be serious."

For more information on The Boston Stranglers visit www.bostonstranglers.com.For information on the Ladies Scooter Society of Boston e-mail Angie Thibault at saphic1@yahoo.com. 

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