Sunday, June 15, 2003

Offbeat Bikes, The MZ Skorpion

Are you looking for a lightweight bike that corners like a dream and comes stock with stainless steel braided hoses, Grimeca disc brakes, Paioli forks and Metzler racing compound tires? Are you more interested in the perfect execution of a set of twisties than in setting record quarter-mile times? If this sounds like your ticket, then haul your elitist ass down to the local MZ dealer and check out the MZ Skorpion line. Where is your local MZ dealer? They are probably sharing space on the floor at your local Laverda dealer, or Guzzi dealer, or should I say Aprilia dealer (Aprilia owns both Guzzi and Laverda, but that's another story).

I first learned of the MZ Skorpion a few years ago while purchasing a vintage Honda at Bikeworx in Maynard, Massachusetts. The owner, Galen Miller, had a few of these peculiar German bikes on the sales floor as well as his own race-ready Sport Cup in the parking lot. Miller is a regular on the Sport Cup circuit and he appears to be one of the most knowledgeable MZ enthusiasts around.

I found a small MZ/Laverda/Guzzi dealer on the West Coast called Moto International (MI) in Seattle. The one thing I have found in common with dealers of these off-beat bikes is that they are very knowledgeable about the product and they seem to be in the business for the love of the sport - not the money. The guys at MI were so laid back that they gave me the keys to a Sport and a Traveler and wouldn't have cared if I attached a plow to the triple clamps and bulldozed all of civilization into a pothole.

There are three main Skorpion models: The Sport, the Traveler and the Tour. The Sport also comes in a race-ready flavor and is coined the "Sport Cup" after the racing series. While they all share the same motor, suspension and frame, the ergonomics are quite different between models. The Sport models have a maxi-pad style seat, low clip-ons and either full or half fairing. The Traveler has higher clip-ons, a standard seat, a full-fairing and hard bags. The Tour has the same seat as the Traveler but has regular handle bars and looks rather bland in its unfaired form.

The entire Skorpion line shares a simple yet highly functional tubular steel frame designed by Seymour Powell, the famous European design house. This practical steel tube design is well matched with the overall package and has as much to do with the bike's amazing handling as the suspension. The rear monoshock can be adjusted for preload, but the Paioli 41mm telescopic forks are one-size-fits-all. If you really need to tweak the front end you can change to a heavier fork oil or drop some spacers in the tubes. Like a few other motorcycle companies with low R&D budgets and lunch-money bank accounts, the engine is outsourced from Yamaha.

Calling this engine a power plant would be a misnomer - the 660cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, four-valve thumper makes 41 horsepower at the rear wheel. This mouse of a motor not only fits in a soup can, it doesn't even rattle the lid. Power-junkies can fix this by adding a 42mm Flatslide Mikuni Single Carb Conversion Kit and a Vortex slip-on from Dale Walker. The carb will set you back $600 but it buys you an additional five horsepower, and the Slip-On Exhaust will help pinch out a few more horsepower like flatulence from a well-fibered horse. Despite the lack-luster lump, you get time-tested reliability, and you'll be able to stoink liter bikes as soon as the road gets twisty.

In stock form, the engine has a fairly narrow power band. It does have more torque than a GS500, but getting the most out this 660cc thumper requires flogging the throttle and constant shifting of the five-speed tranny. I found myself bouncing off the rev limiter like an unruly poodle in need of a muzzle, but a quick upshift restored order. The transmission is one of the nicest I've ever experienced, with very positive short clicks from gear to gear. If you do get one of these bikes blazing, the powerful four-piston Grimeca caliper, floating disc brakes and braided steel lines combine to give tremendous stopping power. I found the brakes on the Skorpion Sport and the Traveler to be excellent and feedback was superb.

The Skorpion Sport comes with extremely low clip-ons and very racey ergos. The Traveler's clip-ons were a little more accomodating for those of us who are doing our best to avoid wrist and back problems, but the bars are not interchangable between the two models due to the Sport's fairing brackets. It may be possible to swap the stock bars for Telefix adjustable bars, if they are available for 41mm forks. Telefix bars adjust in several planes of motion - lower, higher, wider, narrower or even a different angle from stock - possibly the perfect solution for riders who spend more time in the street than at the track.

Every bike in the Skorpion line will handle the twisties as if it were capable of teleportation between the entry and exit points of a curve. No matter what you throw at them or how hot your corner entry speeds, these machines will leave anyone foolish enough to shadow you wishing they were jumping logs on Christopher Reeves' horse. What these bikes lack in neck-snapping power they make up for with sheer-footed agility.

With race-bred handling, quality components and a well-mannered motor, the Skorpion line has appeal for both experts and beginners alike. And at $5790 for a Skorpion Sport with a two-year warranty, these bikes are a fairly inexpensive way to step into exclusivity - something hard to find in an age where trend-surfers have even managed to transform the Ducati into a seasonal fashion accessory.

Monday, February 17, 2003


Girl Wonder and I flew down to California last week to enjoy some of their rain. We don't get enough of our own fucking sopping wetness here in Seattle. And LA offered some of the best east-coast like rain I've seen
since, well, the east coast. The purpose of our trip was to go dirt biking somewhere warm. Actually, the real purpose was to learn how to do it without getting killed, and to get a break in the weather. Both things
happened, despite the soggy start.

I've been riding street bikes a long time. About 30 years in fact. And I've never had a get-off. On Wednesday that changed. I did crash -- or rather, I fell. It was no big deal. I was following Gary LaPlante and I watched him go completely side-ways on a patch of saturated clay the size of a Karmen Ghia. A half-second later I too went sideways. He recovered, but I didn't. Do I feel like I failed? No freakin' way. Gary is a trials champion and former motocross racer. I'm just a 40 year old guy whose been on a dirt bike a handful of times over the last quarter century. Anyway, this dump actually gave me some confidence that I can survive a get off. I've come a long way from a few years ago when my back was so messed up from
a motorcycle accident that I couldn't even bend over to tie my shoes. Yes, my back survived this fall.

Girl Wonder got her own instructor, a great rider named Cheryl. I had to share Gary
LaPlante with 2 older gentlemen. One was a 50-something and the other was 65 going on osteo-implosion. A few times I thought we were going to have to revive him or else use him as a small hill to jump over. He was due for a hip replacement, bionic knees and a heart transplant.

After a full day of survival exercises, or put another way, everything you've been doing wrong because you are a street-rider, I got my dirt wings. Gary suggested that the other two guys join the girls to practice some more while he and I went trail riding. Very cool. This is the kind of terrain you just don't get to see in Washington:

Girl Wonder also had a dirt epiphany. She has only ridden a dirt bike once before, but absolutely kicked ass -- and after working with Cheryl for two days, she was jumping, sliding and climbing her way all over Gary's training area on his 300 acre ranch. See

After Paul, the younger of the older dudes, spent an hour or so shaking off his fear and working on the drills we had learned before, he joined Gary and me on a trail ride. Earlier that day he had been scared shitless as we climbed to a spot about 3000 feet high. In particular, he was too scared to descend from that spot down a very steep hill speckled with boulders and other assorted hazards. Gary rode his bike down for him the first time, but now he was ready to try it himself. He made it by riding down with the motor off, using the clutch as an additional brake Man, I've never seen an old guy look so accomplished in my whole life. After that he stuck like glue to us as we traversed the various trails.

If you really want to see some incredible riding, then try to stay on Gary's tail. This guy can ride a wheelie for several thousand feet of the most twisted trail, jumping and swerving (still on one wheel, mind you) and
exhibiting more control than I've ever seen from a guy in his mid-forties. Not even Jesus could ride a two-stroke better than this mortal. Sure, I may be easily impressed, but I think the guy's record speaks for itself.

Bottom line is that if you're a novice dirt biker and you want to add volumes to your skill set, Gary LaPlante's Motoventures ( in Southern California is a great investment. My girlfriend had so much fun that she has been hinting at getting a dirt bike so she can "practice" her lessons.