Archive for December, 2006

Rambling Through 2006

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Wow. Can you believe this year is over already? Twenty-ought-six went by faster than any other year in my memory. I think this is because I filled it wall-to-wall with my two favorite activities: Riding and writing.

It’s warm outside right now. Forty-three degrees F, (6°C), and raining. Certainly not riding weather. That’s alright. My house is warm, and I don’t need to go anywhere. Since all the TV channels are doing some variation on “The Year in Review”, and since I can’t sit still to watch that crap, I am going to do my own Ride to Work version here for you. This is going to run a bit long, and I hope I can make it more interesting than the tube…

(Pause here for a bathroom break, or to pour your favorite beverage.)

As the year began, I was battling the icy roads and cold weather of our Minnesota Winter on a 150cc Chinese scooter. This was quite an undertaking, and it caught the attention of the local media, both radio and television. You will find links to the TV pieces in the sidebar. This provided some needed exposure for Ride to Work, and inspired a few other riders to explore commuting by motorcycle, and to find ways to extend their riding season.

Part I: The Baron in Winter

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The Red Baron navigates Frozen Butter, exactly one year ago today.

The photo above was taken on my home street, on December 30th of last year. I rode the Red Baron for eight miles with both boots sliding over the snow, and frequently saving us from going down on roads as slippery as frozen butter. Then, exhausted from the constant strain, I elected to take the freeway for the rest of the ride to work. We survived that, but I would never attempt it again. You can read that harrowing tale here.

On New Year’s Day, the Red Baron and I competed in the I-Cycle Derby.

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Photo by someone named “RickCorwn” on the web.

This was a Time/Distance Rally event, and since we had neither stopwatch nor accurate odometer, we didn’t place very well. But we finished, and without crashing. Others, like my friend Mark Foster, weren’t so lucky.

The roads, as you can see, were a treacherous mix of ice, snow, and bare pavement. Traction conditions varied wildly, and the sidehack rigs had a massive advantage: Two riders, one to navigate while the other steers, and no worries about falling down. Still, to this day, they don’t compete in a separate class. It seems that if you want to win the I-Cycle Derby, you have to be riding a `hack.

Shortly after that I developed my theory of “Existential Gravity”; that force which makes time at work crawl, while time at play flies. While investigating this phenomenon, I consulted with my brilliant engineer friend Denny McGinn, who did all the math and figured out that Existential Gravity emanates from an entity that we have dubbed “Brown Holes”. Patents are most certainly pending…

In February, I coined the term “sloppery” to define road conditions that were sloppy and slippery from a combination of slush and underlying ice. It’s hard to read these roads while underway, and it slows you down considerably. Still, with my Kenda 761 tires I was able to cope with the worst conditions Winter was able to throw at us, boots to the ground when the going got rough.

This was not always the case, however. One morning in February, the Red Baron and I crashed right off the end of my driveway, for no good reason. This is what happens when we take extraordinary conditions for granted. I had been riding on Winter roads for only a few months, but in my mind I thought I had them all figured out. Ergo, splat.

The Duel…

On another day in February, we had an interesting encounter which really illustrated the utility of the motorbike over four-wheeled transportation for commuting. But more than that, it was my own favorite blog entry of the year. This was the only blog entry to date which elicited a response from Ride to Work founder Andy Goldfine:

Ya nailed ‘er today, Gary.

Keep it up.

Andy

That statement motivated me. I began to concentrate more on the reactions that we got from drivers out on the Winter roads. One reaction that really surprised me was what we got while broke-down at the side of the road. This, more than anything, illustrated the general public’s opinion of anyone who would try to ride a scooter through a Minnesota Winter. There is no such thing as “Minnesota Nice” if you are doing anything outside the accepted norm. That sort of behavior elicits cold, even hostile indifference.

But herein lies a paradox… Every time I stopped in a restaurant or gas station, during foul weather, I was received as some sort of hero. As long as the conditions were bad, and I was prevailing over them, I was welcomed with open arms. But whenever I had trouble at the side of the road, I was avoided like the plague: “What an idiot! Don’t even look at him!”

America loves a winner, but they loathe anything they perceive as a loser.

Still, while we were looked at askance by the Minnesota Winter motoring public, the Red Baron and I were getting things done.

Commuting at 80 miles-per-gallon, and hauling the groceries home are the stuff of middle-class dreams. Yet those poor slobs still drive the mini-van or SUV back and forth to work because, twice-a-week, they have to transport the kids to some sporting event. The rest of the time they have two-tons of metal hauling their singular person around. How wasteful is that?

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It was a dark and stormy night… The Red Baron conquered all!

Most of them could buy a decent motorcycle or scooter for the money they would save on gas.

But…

They couldn’t talk on the cell-phone while they ride to work.

It is very difficult to sip a Latte through a full-face helmet.

Messing around with a laptop, or paging through the local paper, is not an option on a motorbike.

And finally: They couldn’t be completely ignorant of their surroundings, as they can in the bowels of a Comprehensively-Insured Hummer. “Out of my WAY, peasant!”

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The Red Baron crosses the Finish Line, March, 2006.

In March, I retired the Red Baron, along with “The Baron in Winter” blog, and embarked on my new gig as development rider for Baron Scooters. With the change in mission came a change in blog title. Now that I was going to be riding Frogwing again, along with whatever scooter I was currently testing, I needed to find a title that would fit the new format.

By the way, if you want to read a comprehensive review of The Baron in Winter, pick up the Fall 2006 issue of Scoot Quarterly magazine. This is available on their website.

Part II: Rush Hour Rambling

Ride to Work and I held a contest to name the new blog, and Paul Streeter came up with “Rush Hour Rambling”. The focus of this blog aligns perfectly with the Ride to Work mission. The guiding premise is that you can ride to work, but you don’t always have to ride straight home. On a motorbike, you have a passport to adventure every day when you get off work. The homeward commute is a time for exploration, relaxation, and recovery from the stresses built-up during the workday.

Then, of course, there were the weekend rides, like the Spring Flood Run in April. That report was the first of what I would call “Work to Ride Specials”.

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Frogwing emerged from Winter hibernation just in time for the
Spring Flood Run.

This was a huge event, up and down the St. Croix River, on both sides of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Like most events put on by bikers, this one benefits charity. Originally conceived to bring needed relief for local victims of flooding, the event has evolved to benefit various other charities as well. You can find more info here.

April was a month of extensive testing on two new Baron 250cc scooters; the PM, and the SX. Not only that, but it was the first time that I got my girls up on two wheels. Talk about a milestone!

Amy Scoots!
Spy Photo: Amy Rides!

Emily settled into the role of enthusiastic passenger, and Amy took delivery of her very own Baron 150 VLA scooter. We went on family rides together, usually around the local parks down by the river, and always culminating in a picnic. Family scootering became our new favorite sport.

The month of May belonged almost exclusively to Frogwing. From the frantic First Thursday to the great road trip we took to “Fort Pierre and Beyond“, my faithful adventure-touring steed and I really racked up the miles. Of all the rides and rambles I went on this year, that trip out west was the best by far.

The Long and Winding Road
My faithful Frogwing, on the long and winding road.

June brought the Blind Lizard and the Farmington Antique Motorcycle show. These are both big events in the Minnesota Motorcycling calendar. You get to see more Fine Machinery in the space of a couple weekends than you do all the rest of the year.

We did some more family scootering in June, and Frogwing and I rambled around the lake country in North-Central Minnesota, chasing Forest Fairies and Wood Nymphs near the tiny mythical town of Automba. Another intense month of riding.

July found me completing another round of testing on some of the new Baron scoots, and taking delivery of my very own Scarlet O’Baron. She is a 250cc version of the same tried-and-true SX chassis that I rode through the last Winter. But of course, as I have mentioned elsewhere, in slippery conditions she is a tail-happy wench. This is due to the bigger, heavier, and more powerful engine mounted unsprung to the rear wheel, and the drivetrain inertia that she works up when you twist the throttle.

July was also a month of reunions, both with my cousin Eric, and my old Kawasaki cafe racer, “Gypsy”. Frogwing and I rode up north to the little Iron Range town of Chisum, and spent a weekend riding and visiting relatives.

Gypsy in her natural habitat.
Gypsy was made for roads like this.

August was a busy month as well. This was when I began putting together Ramble Plans, for my homeward commutes, and did a restaurant review that would set the standard for future culinary adventures. I learned that there is something about a close-up photograph of a well-presented plate of food that really grabs the reader where they live.

In late August, Frogwing and I hit the road for work again. I did quality audits in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Aberdeen, South Dakota. This trip was all-business, with very little time for rambling. We did manage to do another restaurant review and write-up in Watertown, South Dakota, but that wasn’t published until early September.

Reading back through that month’s blog, I can really feel the sense of impending Autumn, and the slowing-down of my riding season. Even though Autumn is my favorite time of year, for some reason I was dreading it back in September. It had been such a hectic riding season, with so much happening all the time, that the thought of slowing down should have been welcome. But for some strange reason that I have yet to figure out, it wasn’t.

October brought the first hints of the coming Winter, along with my first ride with our local Minn-Max group. These folks were wonderful; friendly, unpretentious maxi-scooter enthusiasts. We had an interesting group ride through the heavy traffic and detours around the Twin Cities Marathon, and out to our picnic destination on Grey Cloud Island. The Minn-Max’ers put on several big group rides during the season, and I’m sure Scarlet and I will join them again sometime in 2007.

It was also in October that Kenda supplied me with Scarlet’s Winter tires. The K761s that served us so well on The Baron in Winter have done well on Scarlet, though her extra power and drivetrain inertia overcome rear wheel traction too easily to ride confidently on ice and snow. This year, we are choosing our rides around the road conditions, and not tempting fate too recklessly.

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Emily Witch on Halloween night, filmed in Night Vision Green.

November was surprisingly busy. We began the month by unmasking the Mysterious Red KLR Guy. Only the hard cores showed up for First Thursday, and some of them were driving their cages.

Later in the month, I reviewed Mickey’s Dining Car in downtown Saint Paul. That was a classic. I have dubbed that route “Ramble Plan Charlie”, and will probably go that way to work again someday soon.

Finally, in late November, Scarlet and I crashed for the first time. This set off a series of three unfortunate events, (Why do they always come in threes?) that brought us into this current month of December.

Things have calmed down now, as we stare down the barrel of 2007. Twenty ought-six was a hectic, busy, but in the end very satisfying year. Frogwing is in hibernation until sometime in late March or early April, and Scarlet O’Baron is carrying me on my Ride to Work and the adventures I tell you about in this blog.

I have big plans for Ought-Seven, but I’m not prepared to tell you about them yet. A lot depends on my negotiating skills, and the size of my loyal readership here on Rush Hour Rambling. We are going in new directions, because routine is my enemy, as I have said so many times before. I promise to try and keep it fresh, to inform as well as entertain. We will investigate new Ramble Plans together, and I will review some more tasty local cuisine. You all seem to like that.

Tomorrow is New Years Day, and the I-Cycle Derby. Scarlet and I are going to skip this one. I still don’t have a stopwatch, and we are supposed to get freezing rain and snow overnight. The Tail-Happy Wench is going to stay in the garage, and I guess I am going to spend the day surfing through channels, watching the many different versions of The Year in Review after all. This will probably lead to napping, but that’s all right. Twenty ought-seven is coming, and I had better gather my strength to greet it.

Smell Something Cookin’?

Friday, December 29th, 2006

You should. I am wandering the vast archives of “The Baron in Winter” and “Rush Hour Rambling” to bring you my version of Ride to Work’s “Twenty Ought-Six’s Greatest Hits”.

I plan to publish this tomorrow, while the girls are still out of town, and I remain in control of our Media Command Center. When they get back, the assault will begin, because they both received new computer stuff for Xmas. When it comes to defending against such an attack, my Rules of Engagement are terribly restrictive: Surrender, or die.

I’m just putting this out there because some of you probably think I’ve been slackin’.

A Riverside Ramble on Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

Weather: Sunny and 40°F (4°C)
Road Conditions: Mostly dry, with patches of ice in the shadows.

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Christmas Eve on the beach, in Minnesota. Global Warming anyone?

Christmas Eve Day is normally a time to spend with family. But when you are a Rider, and the weather is sunny and warm, it would be a crime not to go out for a little ramble, wouldn’t it? Especially in Minnesota! That was my thinking, anyway, as I sat there on the couch, flipping through the hackneyed holiday specials on the tube.

The girls were doing their own thing anyway, sorting through Emily’s vast wardrobe to pick just the right fashion for her to wear over to Grandpa’s house for Christmas Day.

I was completely irrelevant, and bored out of my skull.

It was time for me to get off the couch and on the road. I shouted my intentions at Emily’s closed bedroom door. The girls muttered some distracted reply, which I took to be affirmative in nature. Suiting up in record time, I dashed out to the garage.

Scarlet was certainly a willing accomplice. She started right up at the touch of a button, and was ready to go by the time I had the camera packed, and my heated vest plugged-in. We turned left out of the driveway, away from our normal Ride to Work, and headed unerringly for The River. I wanted to see what the Mississippi was doing on Christmas Eve.

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Driftwood on the Upper Mississippi. Art? Or not?

We rode past the Mississippi Pub, where we can usually find some of my friends, whom I call “The Riverside Eccentrics”. Today, however, they weren’t anywhere to be found, and the Pub itself was closed. So we meandered further south, turning towards the water at every opportunity.

While the main roads were salted and dry, these little side streets along the river had huge patches of ice and slush on them, which we negotiated with some trepidation. I had both feet ready to hit the deck at the first hint of slip or slide. But since I wasn’t on the throttle at all, we negotiated it with no drama. Thanks again, Kenda.

We rode past a sign that posted Park Hours, and I saw this driftwood on the beach. I couldn’t find anything with a name for the park on it, so that remains a mystery. There was no road down to the water’s edge, but there was a discernable trail in the grass. This was a perfect photo-op, and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like regulations stop me.

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A brown Christmas, with splashes of red.

We went offroad, and made our way through the sand to the place you see here. Scarlet handled all of this with grace, and my confidence in her took a turn for the better.

I’ve just got to remember to be easy on her throttle, that’s all.

After the photo shoot was over, I sat on the driftwood with my helmet off, and watched the river for awhile. Nothing was moving out there but the water, and it was a very soothing interlude.

Tomorrow is the big family gathering at my Dad’s place, and that will be filled with it’s own kind of stress, but for now I was totally at peace. Finally, I suited up again, and rode Scarlet home… the long way.