Archive for April, 2006

Testing, Testing…

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Weather: Sunny and Springlike, perfect for testing scooters.

The Black Baron, heading downtown.

Yes, I know… I’ve been slacking. At least, as far as my readers are concerned. But the big boss of Baron Motorcycles is over in China right now, visiting the factories, and he needs input on how to improve the 250cc models. That input comes from me, so I’ve been riding the wheels off these things for the past few days.

Extended, high-speed runs were needed for fuel flow and cooling system testing. Loved every minute of that. Creeping along in stop-and-go gridlock for at least a half-hour? Did that too. Hated it. But we had to see how the cooling system performed at the extremes. Gridlock is easy to find, now that we have entered the season of road destruction.

I had a nice chat with a fellow driving a big old Ford pickup truck, while sitting in that sweltering traffic. He asked me what kind of mileage I was getting. I told him, “Between 60 and 70 mpg, depending on how hard I’m riding it.” After an amazed shake of the head, he asked the next, inevitable question: “How much does one o’ them go for?” I told him the price of the model I was testing at the time. Another headshake.

“That’s it!”, he said. “I’m gettin’ me one o’ them. This pig I’m drivin’ gets 15 miles per gallon, tops. At three bucks a gallon, it’s killin’ me every time I fill up! Now it’s cuttin’ into my beer money. That’s the last straw!”

I had to laugh… Are the uptown scooterati ready for rednecks riding Barons?

Is this what the future holds for the family truckster? Makes nice lawn sculpture…

But, in all seriousness, this is exactly what our economy needs right now. Inexpensive transportation for the working class. Something they can buy without a second mortgage, and maintain themselves with reasonable shadetree mechanic skills and basic hand tools.

It’s not about “Lifestyle” for these folks; it’s about getting to work without breaking the bank. It’s about not being enslaved by the oil companies and the auto industry. The environmental benefits and reduced traffic hassles are just icing on the cake, far as they’re concerned.

Even with gas at three bucks a gallon, I still see lines of SUVs with one single occupant, stuck in the road-construction gridlock, guzzling their fuel just to run the air conditioner and radio. Nattering into their Nokias to let someone, somewhere, know that they are running late.

This is America, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and it isn’t a pretty sight.

The latest excuse for raising the price of gas is that the Chinese are trying to get more of it. Well, no kidding. That’s because big business in this country has sold out the American worker and sent all its production equipment overseas, where the cheap labor is.

But most of those workers over there aren’t driving or riding to work, unless it’s on a bicycle. Usually, they live in barracks or dorms close to the factory, owned by the company they work for. How can freedom-loving, home-owning Americans compete with THAT? (Here’s a hint… We CAN’T!)

But this is not a political blog. It’s supposed to be about the joys of riding a motorbike to and from work. You can get your political fix, spun in whichever direction you prefer, on a thousand other sites.

Sometimes, however, you just can’t avoid the subject. It’s like the proverbial 800-pound gorrilla, sitting in the middle of your living room. Try as you might to avoid him, you are bound to trip over him from time to time. It is, after all, the nature of the beast. But back to motorbikes…

I rode Frogwing this morning, because I slept later than usual. “How does that make sense?” -You ask. Well, at this later hour, all the yuppies think they are being clever by avoiding the freeways and driving their stinking SUVs on MY river roads! On the scooters, I have to try and sneak around them, whenever a suitable gap appears, and hope that I have enough power to pull it off. Also, I can’t see around or over them on the scooters.

Enter Frogwing, my urban assault motorcycle. On Frogwing, I have a very bright headlight, and gobs of torque to exploit those sudden gaps in traffic. Standing on the pegs, I can see over all but the most obscene yup-mobiles, better to spot those gaps and plan my moves well in advance.

They watch me doing that in their rear-view mirror, and I can see the Fear in their eyes. This is a Good Thing. I have even added a large “Marines!” bumper sticker to the front of my fairing, to amplify the intimidation factor. I don’t need loud pipes to get noticed on Frogwing, but after almost forty thousand miles, his stock exhaust is pretty snorty.

We were able to squirt around a whole bunch of these little convoys this morning, and made it to work in less than an hour. Our ride home was similar, but for one interesting moment: Crossing the Lake Street Bridge, I encountered the Wednesday Night War Protest. Almost every Wednesday night, the protesters gather on this high-traffic bridge to wave their anti-war signs at passing motorists.

When they saw my very tactical looking KLR with “Marines!” emblazoned across the front, well, there it was… The Fear again. Only this time, I honked my horn a couple of times and flashed them a peace sign. They broke out in cheers. Yeah, I know, there’s that gorrilla again.

Full Moon Friday

Friday, April 14th, 2006

Weather: Sunny and warm again! How long can this go on?

Hot Rod Baron Under Full Moon, w/UFOs?
The Hot Rod Baron on East River Road, under a full moon, with UFO flyby.

There was a brilliant full moon, hanging low in the sky, when I unleashed the Hot Rod Baron on my sleepy neighborhood this morning. Well, it was actually “waning gibbous”, if you want to get technical. Never mind. There was a weird feeling in the air, anyway.

I’ve never been a superstitious man. I prefer logic to magic, calculation to intuition, and skill over luck, any day. So I must admit that the strange events of this morning’s ride shook me to my core.

Flying Saucer sightings? Crop Circles? Alien Abductions? These are the stuff of supermarket tabloid headlines. I picture the uber-geek, living in his parent’s basement, with his home PC slaved to SETI. (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, if you have to ask.)

In other words, nothing at all to do with the down-to-earth world of the motorbike commuter.

Until E.T. starts driving an S.U.V., I don’t give a damn if he phones home or not. I’ll try not to run over him, if he decides to cross the road on my way to work. But everyone knows that alien lifeforms are completely ignorant of traffic laws.

Just what the heck am I babbling about, exactly?

Well, about seven miles from my home this morning, I looked over and noticed that aforementioned gorgeous, gibbous moon. Then I noticed the bare tree branches framing it, and all the other factors which make up a beautiful photograph. So I did a U-turn and parked the Hot Rod Baron, pulled my camera and mini-pod out of the storage compartment, and set up the shot you see above.

Little did I know that unearthly creatures were watching.

For a shot like that, you need to set the timer so that you are not bodily in contact with the camera when it makes the exposure. Why? Because even when we try to hold still, human beings shake. We have this annoying habit of breathing, and our nerves are agitated by the caffiene we require just to get out of bed and ride to work in the morning. So you have to disconnect the shaky organism from the cool digital precision of the camera, if you are to make an accurate image of your subject.

Since it was dark out at the time, the exposure was going to be a long one. The viewfinder told me it would take two-point-five seconds to record all the information it was getting from the lens. That is an eternity, for a lightspeed microchip. So, after I composed the shot to my satisfaction, I pushed the button, and eons passed….

And sometime during that long exposure, something very unsettling occurred.

There was a bright flash of multicolored light, and lots of noise. I was buffetted by a quick, brisk wind. Something had passed between me and the Hot Rod Baron, but what? Hopefully, we had caught it on film! Well, on pixels, anyway.

Alas. As you can see here, our fate was the same as so many others who have tried to record extraterrestrial encounters with lame-ass Earthly technology. There is certainly something there, but the equipment cannot resolve exactly what that something is.

This is probably how Operation Bluebook discredited all the legitimate UFO sightings in the past. Why, the aliens are just toying with us! They use their speed and unfathomable Stealth Technology to invade our lives every day, but only ever appear as a blurry aparition on our primitive recording devices. What a brilliantly evil strategy!

So what does all this have to do with your Ride To Work?

Well, I’ll tell you…

If E.T. suddenly decides to drive his supercharged extraterrestrial S.U.V. in Earthly traffic, you will never see him until it is too late. How can you possibly avoid him? He could run you down so quickly that your entire organism would be a puddle of quivering jelly in the middle of the road before you could even say, “Oh sh*t!”.

Yes, I am convinced now that there is only one responsible course of action.

The only way to defend ourselves against this alien onslaught is to go out and buy the biggest, heaviest S.U.V. that your second mortagage can finance. Make sure it has lots of airbags! Yes, I know that gas is becoming outrageously expensive, but the enemy is counting on that to drive you to smaller, and more fuel-efficient vehicles… the better to mow you down!

Oh man! How could I have been so wrong!? Motorbikes are DANGEROUS! Stay away! The only thing to do is to join our headlong rush into energy gluttony, and use up all the fuel on Earth before the Aliens get to it. You are either with us, or you are with the Aliens!

This message has been brought to you by Exxon-Mobil, who just announced yet another record-breaking profit this quarter.

Hot Rod

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Weather: Sunny and 68°F (20°C)

Hot Rod Baron 250 SX
Hanging out under the bridge. Could this be a rehearsal for my post-industrial lifestyle?

Yeah, it’s a tough life, being a development rider. Actually, I prefer the title Scooter Test Pilot. Just call me the Chuck Yeager of Chinese motor-scooters.

Or don’t.

It all depends on how far you want to take the fantasy, I guess.

The last couple of days have been sweet and easy. Twist and go scooters offer the best of both worlds for commuting. You get the ease of an automatic transmission with the fun of riding a motorbike.

Yes, I love the power and brutality of Frogwing… it’s nice to have the “nukular” option when you really need it in traffic. But the scooter I rode tonight was probably the perfect vehicle for commuting on city streets. It zigs, it zags, and when needed, it zooms.

“Hey!”, you ask, “What the heck IS that thing, anyway?”

Yeah, I guess I got ahead of myself there. Tonight, the Black Baron is in the care of my Baron pit crew. Over the past couple weeks, I have come up with a comprehensive list of improvements we can make to these 250 PM scooters. Today and tomorrow, my pit crew is going to implement those improvements, and I should be riding a better Black Baron by next week.

In the meanwhile, they have introduced me to the shop Hotrod: The 250 SX. I am not going to name this scooter, other than to simply call it Hot Rod. Why? Because I cannot own it. It would only get me in trouble.

This is the same lightweight chassis that I rode all winter on the Red Baron. But this one has an additional 100cc’s of displacement, power, and torque to play with.

Oh, we did Bad Things in traffic tonight. I mean the kind of things that would be perfectly normal in someplace like Bangkok, I suppose. But here in Minnesota, people get downright offended when you pass them on the highway riding what looks like a child’s toy. It just doesn’t seem right.

Yeah, those 13-inch wheels and slim chassis make for wonderful ground clearance. We swooped through the twisties on some of my favorite roads like we were on rails. It is so nice to ride on clean, dry streets again. There are still stray patches of sand to watch out for, here and there, but that only adds to the thrill.

Now, the Baron shop hotrod is not perfect, by any means. It has those unrefined qualities of every hotrod that has ever been created by shoe-horning a big engine into a small chassis. It vibrates quite a bit, making the image in the rearview mirror only a blurry suggestion of what might be menacing you from behind.

The answer to that dilemma is simple: just gas it! If the blurry image doesn’t light up with a kaleidoscope of red and blue light, you’re good-to-go. Twist that grip until the vibrating blob disappears altogether. Bye-bye, Mr. Mini-Van Commando!

Of course, if you do get lit up, you had better pull over. It’s still a scooter, fer gawds sake. There is a limit to these delusions, you know.

Once I got used to the extra power and ground clearance, I took the Hot Rod out hunting. Tonight was the unofficial opening of Scooterati season. We went out looking for Stellas, Vespas, Kymcos, what-have you, but to no avail. Isn’t that always the way?

We trolled Northeast Minneapolis, Nicollet Island, and St. Anthony Main. These are the neighborhoods most likely to harbor urban hipsters on officially recognized scooter brands. No luck at all. Instead, we endured mile after mile of condescending glances from “real” motorcyclists, out for one of their first rides of the season. Still, it was nice to see them out there.

Finally, we had to head for home. We passed SUV’s with impunity on the river roads. We threw sparks bending it through the Ford Chicane. The smile on my face threatened to crack my visor. Too soon, it was over. We pulled into my driveway, and then into the garage. Time to be a good family man again. The transformation from road-running werewolf back into the suburban husband and father only takes forty feet. I’m smiling as I open the front door.

Honey, I’m home…