Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: From Vespas to bikes, some seek a cheaper ride

Whit Hiler, left, and Michael Wright, with his bulldog, Murray, own Vespa of  Lexington. They say they've sold nearly 200 scooters since opening.
Whit Hiler, left, and Michael Wright, with his bulldog, Murray, own Vespa of Lexington. They say they've sold nearly 200 scooters since opening.

Scooters have always been fun, but with gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon, they're also looking practical.

"I love it," said Lesme Romero, owner of Lexington Pasta, who bought an Italian-made Vespa scooter last November to deliver pasta from his shop on North Limestone to restaurants and markets around town.

Romero drives his Vespa almost daily, but has filled the tank only twice, because it gets about 90 miles to the gallon. Downtown parking is easy, he said, and the bright red-and-white scooter is good advertising.

"People see us and say, 'There's the pasta guys!'" he said. "I take it to the farmers market and Thursday Night Live, and everybody wants to stop by and see the Vespa."

Vespa of Lexington has sold nearly 200 scooters since it opened in November 2009 at 198 Moore Drive, said owners Whit Hiler and Michael Wright. The company sells Vespa, Piaggio, Genuine and Sym scooters and services most brands.

While many people buy scooters for fun, an increasing number commute on them, Hiler said. Scooters have been especially popular with people who work at the University of Kentucky (campus parking is easier) and among families that want to go from two automobiles to one.

Scooter prices start at about $2,100 and go to about $9,000, depending on brand, model and engine size, Hiler said. Gas mileage (regular unleaded) ranges from about 50 mpg to nearly 100 mpg. Top speeds range from about 35 mph for small-engine models, such as the one Romero bought, to 90 mph.

A motorcycle license is required to drive all but the scooters with the smallest engines, which still require a driver's license or learner's permit. Helmets are strongly recommended.

The most popular scooters the shop sells are Vespas — Italian for "wasp." The Italian company Piaggio, which made aircraft during World War II, began making Vespas in 1946 to satisfy Europe's need for cheap transportation. The Vespas steel body, which has become a design classic, fully encloses the drivetrain, and there is a covered ledge for the driver's feet.

There was a Vespa dealer on New Circle Road until 1981, when the company withdrew from the U.S. market for two decades. Other Vespa dealers in the region now are in Louisville, Elizabethtown and Cincinnati.

"Lexington has been a good market for scootering," said Hiler, adding that his shop ranked third in sales among Vespa's 42 dealers in the Great Lakes region in 2010.

Local enthusiasts last year formed the Circle 4 Scooter club, which has a Facebook page and sponsors rallies and other events. "Scooters can save you a lot of money, but they're also fun — that's the biggest benefit," Hiler said. "We call ourselves fun dealers."

A cheaper ride

Lexington bicycle shops also are seeing sales rise along with gas prices.

"We've had a pretty strong season so far this year with gas prices doing what they're doing," said Billy Yates, owner of Pedal Power Bike Shop at South Upper and Maxwell streets. "Even if people commute (by bicycle) just one or two times a week, they're starting to see a savings when they fill up at the pump."

Pedal Power is selling more practical bikes than in recent years — hybrid models with upright seating, fenders, racks, baskets and bags. "It's a very viable means of transportation for many people," he said.

That is because statistics show many automobile trips are within a mile or two of someone's home, said Wendy Trimble, owner of Pedal the Planet bike shop, 3450 Richmond Road.

"Our sales are at an all-time high," Trimble said. "We attribute some of it to commuting and recreation, but a lot is health and fitness issues. Bicycling is a great, low-impact way to lose weight, and it's fun."

You will see more bicycles on Lexington streets Monday than on any other day of the year. The annual Bike Lexington festival is expected to draw several thousand people to activities at Courthouse Plaza and a car-free family fun ride around town. More information is at