The word Vespa will conjure up different images to your mind, depending on your experience. Maybe a college student getting to class, paddock transport at a racetrack or, if you’re the romantic type, Audrey Hepburn in "Roman Holiday." In Italy, the history and pedigree still creates adoration for the Vespa, but the little machines are also abundant. And so the love sometimes manifests in odd ways.
One of the more deranged forms of Vespa affection belongs to a group of Italians in the Alpine foothills northeast of Milan, who have taken to converting Vespas into off-road racing machines. They gather at motocross tracks to compete (and drink beer). They have dubbed it VespaCross.
After first hearing about it, we did a quick internet search and saw two-stroke Vespas of yesteryear bristling with knobby tires, leaping jumps with three feet of blue sky under their axles. It was a blend of violence and grace rarely shown in the world of step-through transportation, and we simply had to try it. My colleague and would-be VespaCross teammate, Ari, got in touch with the organizer, Sem Righetti, via Instagram, who told us if we could front some euros to buy used Vespas and make it to Italy in the middle of October, he would scrape together enough parts to get us on the grid. We pushed some money across the pond and packed our bags.
Building off-road Vespas
We arrived to the town of Clusone with only a few expectations: First, that there would be a Vespa for each of us, and also that we might have to help put a few parts on at the end of the build. What we found were two freshly painted Vespa chassis, stripped down to sheet steel and nothing else. No wheels, engines, suspension, seats, or controls of any kind. In other words, a long way from rolling, running or racing.
Fortunately, we came to find out that we had landed in the workshop of the most distinguished and prolific builder of motocross Vespas in the whole boot-shaped country. Alessandro Pendezza, "Pendez," for short, grew up tinkering with two-strokes and now — between work days restoring vintage cars — he has grown into the godfather of VespaCross tuning.
The goal was to have our pair of scoots up and running in about a day and a half, just in time for the VespaCross season finale at Ottobiano Motosport complex a few hours away. Step one in rebuilding a VespaCross machine, we learned, was running the cables for the throttle, clutch, and transmission through the core of the chassis and into the engine bay at the rear of the machine. Once we had proven we weren’t completely useless with wrenches in our hands, a plan of attack emerged: Along with Sem, who greeted us at the shop, Alessandro would build one of the scooters from the ground up and we would do our best to keep pace. Next, the single-sided fork was threaded through the headstock and the stock handlebar was mounted. With the front ends coming together nicely, it was time to mount the engines.
Alessandro had already assembled the Vespa PK50 powerplants, now breathing through a 130 cc cylinder with a custom exhaust, and brimming with Pendez magic. There’s something extra special about carrying a little two-stroke power source across a garage to be mounted in a chassis — especially for a Vespa, where the engine doubles as the swingarm and rear suspension. It’s gloriously simple, and these ones were beautiful. Bare welds of a fat expansion chamber hanging off the side, stamped with “PENDEZ RACING.” It was enough to give us a rush of excitement, prepping for a race with chunky knobby tires stoically staring at us from the corner of the garage.
Alessandro tackled the really fiddly bit of building one of these vintage scoots, which has to do with the cables. Since these Vespas shift their four-speed transmissions by rotating the left hand grip after you pull in the clutch, there’s a relatively complex set of cables running from the left side of the handlebar to the engine. Picture a push-pull throttle assembly that has to be calibrated to shift a transmission over five feet of cable. Plus it’s all 40 years old. Alessandro said it was better for him to do this, rather than train us. So, we put together the front brake systems for both scoots, a Pendez custom lever setup to clamp a tiny disc. Soon enough, the Vespas were rolling on knobs and had just about everything in place. Both of the fresh engines fired up within a few kicks, and with that we were ready for a test ride.
Not your nonna's Vespa
According to Alessandro, a Vespa PK50 in stock trim makes between one and three horsepower. After he punches it out nearly 200 percent and adds his performance parts, he claims around 17 ponies. It’s not a heart-stopping number, we know, but as Ari and I cut across a small field and into the woods behind Alessandro’s house our notion of 17 horsepower changed forever. It’s genuinely difficult to describe just how vicious and challenging these Vespas were to ride, but I can say the test ride was one of the most surprising and thrilling experiences we have ever had on two wheels. Our number-one priority in first gear was to avoid flipping over backwards, which probably sounds easy but I promise you it wasn’t.
Like many two-strokes, it felt like all the engine wanted to do was burst into the rich vein of midrange power and scream toward redline — and since the chassis has all of the weight in the back it acts like a bipolar drag racer. Even with a wide-ratio transmission, uncontrolled wheelies in second gear were a major concern. We hooted and cursed our way around Alessandro’s backyard as he watched with a gleeful smile. The scoots didn’t want to slow down or go in a straight line, and after a miraculous spell of not hitting any trees we came to a rest and blinked for the first time in about 15 minutes. The look in Ari’s eyes echoed the thoughts in my head: Racing these things was going to be a cage fight, and we hadn’t even gotten to the track yet.
Racing scooters in the dirt
The night before the race, after a few days of chilly but pleasant temperatures, the skies opened and thrashed northern Italy with rain. We wouldn’t have it any other way, really. When we arrived at the Ottobiano circuit, the track glared at us through the mist and fog. It was smooth, but massive. Tabletop jumps rose 15 feet above the ground. The steep dirt walls of the jumps tumbled down into the holes where the earth was pulled from to create them, and small ponds of muddy water sat glassy at the bottom. Experienced dirt bikers would have been licking their chops. Ari and I, on the other hand, had 10-inch wheels, very little suspension, and a total of three days of motocross experience between us.
The structure of the day was a small warm-up session, and then four motos over the course of the afternoon, at about 15 minutes each. Rain continued to fall as we suited up for practice, and what followed was a baptism of mud. The warm-up session and our first race turned out to be pure learning experiments, with survival being the main goal. All of the work we had done bleeding the front brakes on our two scooters was, in the end, a hilarious irony. The wet sand and dirt was so heavy that the little Vespa wheels would sink unless the throttle was pinned.
Care to slow down? Back off to no less than half-throttle, first of all, and if you want to change direction then use every brain wave to communicate with the gods and commence prayer. Steering wasn’t so much “steering” as navigating through a swamp on a rudderless Jet-Ski. Body english and swear words seemed to work best, along with the occasional berm to bounce off and hopefully send the scooter on the right trajectory. Ruts were a nightmare unto themselves, mostly small and cute but not as small or cute as the wheels, and so our front tires went whichever way the most seductive trench suggested.
If anything buoyed our spirits it was the realization that we weren’t the only ones struggling. The track looked like a two-wheeled reenactment of D-Day — riders strewn next to their machines, kicking furiously to get them restarted, or simply slumped against the base of a jump waiting for a light at the end of the tunnel. It was pure moto mayhem, more like an enduro or a rally than an actual race. Eventually, after what felt like a month of riding, the checkered flag for race number one was out and we had held on. Worse than most, but still standing.
We had just enough time before the next race to catch our breath and sort out a quick jetting issue with my blue Vespa, which wasn’t running well at full throttle. Since the scoots were wide open for about 80 percent of any given lap, the tuning at full chat was crucial, and Alessandro was convinced just from listening to the scooter that a slightly fatter main jet would help. Ari popped the fuel tank out from under the seat, and I accessed the bottom of the carburetor to thread in a larger main jet. The rain finally let up as we rolled up to the starting gates for race two.
Now, anyone familiar with motorsports will tell you that turn one is often the most exciting segment of a race. With that in mind, imagine 40 vintage scooters lined up along a motocross starting gate, aimed at a narrow right-hand turn. Anxious two-stroke revs puffing smoke into the foggy air, a five-second board is raised near the flagger. Heart rates rise horribly. When the gate drops everyone releases all of their pent-up anger into the clutch plates, desperate not to be last. The result is a phenomenal amount of noise and mud flying in the air, making it difficult to see the other decades-old machines accelerating nearby. And now, in the midst of this anarchy, remember that none of these 40 scooters can steer with more than a one-in-three chance of going the desired direction.
If the picture has been painted clearly, it will come as no surprise that there was a pileup crash in the first turn of race two and we were caught in the middle of the mess. Ari hit the deck and I slammed on the brakes (hey, they do work) to avoid T-boning a stricken Vespa. Having survived the crash, our goal became clear. All we had to do was stay smooth, calm, and upright to improve our overall standings. The whole “smooth and calm” thing didn’t work out, but my new jetting was working and we avoided catastrophe for the remainder of the race, ending moto two in tenth and eleventh places.
After that slight confidence boost, the third moto was not our finest. I let my excitement get the best of me and hung up on the starting gate as the green flag flew, while Ari’s handlebar cover came loose and jammed his throttle wide open going into a berm. He bailed out and his Vespa careened into a fencepost, busting the throttle pulley wide open. Ari’s DNF and my start snafu were unflattering, which meant we had only the final race to save face and actually deliver Pendez Racing the success its scooters deserved. We took some deep breaths and lined up at the gate for the final showdown.
Moto four: last dance and the after party
The gates dropped and Ari was off like a shot, determined to make up for the previous race’s mishap. He had the leaders in sight until he lost momentum and tipped over in a sandy section. Ari recovered just in time to join me in about sixth place, and for a few laps we were holding our positions well. Angry Vespas swarmed everywhere, living up to their wasp name, and we were giving as good as we were getting. But with great speed comes great responsibility.
Midway through the race, motoring up one of the massive tabletops, Ari’s front wheel caught a particularly devious rut and sent him off course. He adjusted his body position and cursed, as is the standard technique, but it was no use. For the second time in two races he bailed out, watching his glowing orange Vespa sail off the track, this time tumbling end over end down the side of a jump and splashing into a muddy pond.
It was a messy end to an already dirty day. My luck turned, maybe in part to people’s weary bones sending them off the track or backwards, and I ended the final race in fourth place overall. Pendez battled for the overall victory all day, but was bested in the final race. Still, he and his posse were happy, and didn’t seem bothered that Ari had drowned his Vespa in brown water. In fact, we didn’t see anything but smiles in the paddock, even after a disgusting and demanding day on the track. Sem and Pendez brought us bowls of pasta and steaming stew, clapped us on the back, and invited us to drink beer with the rest of their crew.
Somehow, racing hopped-up, vintage, two-stroke Vespas around a muddy motocross track with a flock of crazy Italians ended up being even more insane than it sounds. In the best possible way. The competition was fierce and the weather was terrible, but we dare you to find a group of people having more fun on two wheels, anywhere in the world.
Hopefully, next time you see a college student zipping around campus or Audrey Hepburn charming the pants off Gregory Peck, you’ll think about the muddy madness of VespaCross, and the potential little beast that lives inside every old Vespa. We sure will.