Archive for December, 2006

Our Town

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Weather: 37°F (3°C)
Road Conditions: Dry and Salty

Scarlet O’Baron poses on the bluffs above Our Town: St. Paul, Minnesota.

Though my family moved around a lot when I was growing up, I have always considered myself a Saint Paul Boy. Born in 1963 at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, in the heart of downtown Saint Paul, there were at least a couple of saints in attendance when I showed up. Some say it’s a shame that I never learned much from their example…

Be that as it may, my Dad worked at Northern States Power Company, headquartered in Saint Paul, and all of our moves were points in a constellation centered around his job.

We lived in South Saint Paul, North Saint Paul, and West Saint Paul at times during my childhood, with one big slingshot orbit way out to Osceola, Wisconsin, when Dad decided we needed to experience life in “the sticks” for awhile.

Even out there, whenever we visited family, or went shopping for school clothes, it was always back to the bosom of Our Town that we returned.

For a Saint Paul native, Minneapolis is an alien place. We could get anything we needed on Our Side of The River, without ever venturing Over There. Oh, I know they call us the “Twin Cities”, but nothing could be further from the truth.

If you look at a map of the area, blocking out all of the distracting suburbs, and concentrate on the way the Mississippi River divides us here, within our loop of Interstate Highway 94, it would look like a lopsided Yin-Yang symbol. You have to squint just right to see it. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is which, of course, since I am by default biased.

But consider this…

Saint Paul is the state capitol. It was here first. All of the hard work of establishing an outpost in the wilderness was done here, around Fort Snelling on the Mississippi. Saint Paul was built from blue collar sweat and gritty determination, while Minneapolis was built by city-folk, who came along later. It is widely recognized that Minneapolis is the more effete, cosmopolitan center of business, finance, and the arts, while Saint Paul is the wellspring of our unique Minnesota character.

In other words, while Saint Paul is home to the salt of the earth, Minneapolis is populated by people who are bound and determined never to work at a Real Job. That’s why M-town attracts so many people from Those Other Places.

The Minneapolis skyline, from a stock photo website. See the difference?

Saint Paul’s streets are a cipher, not easily learned by outsiders. Our most famous governor, Jesse Ventura, went so far as to say they were laid out by drunken Irishmen. They twist and they turn in rhythm with the restless river, and their names honor our most famous and/or infamous citizens.

Over there in Minneapolis, they have numbered streets and avenues, arrow-straight for the most part, to the point where a tourist from New York City or Los Angeles might feel right at home after a week or so. This leads to immigration, and Dangerous Ideas from abroad.

No, I think the founders of Saint Paul had it right; Keep the bastards guessing, take their money, and send them on their way.

You can see this basic philosophical split in the architecture of the rival cities. Saint Paul clings to it’s real roots, preserving much of it’s old buildings and heritage even though it would be cheaper to replace with modern construction.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, went full-bore in the opposite direction for many years. This is evidenced in the boxy look of their skyline, with a plethora of high-rise, glass and steel skyscrapers, and a dearth of classic brick and mortar buildings in the city center. It is only on the riverfront where they have rediscovered their past, and recently started to preserve it. Even then, that’s only so they can sell condos to the rich yuppies who are flocking back to the urban centers.

The streetlights along the river roads are a perfect illustration of the difference between our Twin Cities. On the left, we have Saint Paul, and on the right, Minneapolis. Need I say more?

Riding through Saint Paul is an exciting experience. Your eye is drawn to strange, wedge-shaped buildings and classic old brick edifices. The sheer variety and scope of the cityscape is overwhelming! You really have to work hard to keep your eyes on the local cage traffic that is trying to run you down. Luckily, you can turn right at most of the red lights there, and that leads to Other Options.

Over in Minneapolis, the vibe is totally different. It is more of a New York City stampede of five lanes going one way between impossibly tall buildings. Your every move is regulated by glacial stoplights, with No Turn On Red signs everywhere you look. You spend more time idling and breathing exhaust fumes than you do in motion. It is a nightmare landscape where I have actually ridden on the sidewalk in order to get where I wanted to go down a one (wrong)-way street.

These days, I avoid downtown Minneapolis like the plague…

Which is all just to say that I will be concentrating on Our Town for the next few Ramble Plans. I want to learn every nook and cranny of Saint Paul, where to eat and drink, where to stop and look at the scenery, before I start messing around Over There in Minneapolis.

Yes, First Thursday happens Over There… I know that. And it is an absolute bee-yotch to get to during rush-hour. Just like everything else. There are more Beemers and Mercedes Over There than there are in Saint Paul. More Jag-you-ares and Porshahs too. Not to mention the hordes of blinged-out Escalades and Hummers and Rovers.

Saint Paul is a full-size pickup / family sedan town, by comparison. It’s friendlier to motorbikes, because not every driver has a cellphone glued to their head. Yet. As long as you know your way around, you can still get where you want to go with minimal hassle. And there is more here in Our Town than at first meets the eye.

So, Ramble Plan Echo will take in some of the gritty character that is Our Town, sometime after the holidays. That’s all I know for now. I’m signing off for the Christmas holiday, and will be back with another post before the New Year.

Happy Holidays, from Ride to Work, and Rush Hour Rambling.

Ramble Plan Delta: The St. Clair Broiler

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Weather: 38°F (3°C) under clear skies.
Road Conditions: Dry and salty.

Scarlet outside the St. Clair Broiler. Sorry for the crap-quality photo. We don’t get much daylight this time of year, and it’s hell trying to compose a shot during rush hour on a busy street.

All right you ramblers… Let’s get back to ramblin’!

`Bout time, huh? Let’s shake off all this doom and gloom, and go find someplace to eat, whadaya say?

“Ramble Plan Delta?” – you ask.

Yes. I’ve gone and changed my Ramble Plan designations from numeric to the phonetic alphabet.

“Why?” – you ask. You sure are inquisitive tonight…

Because it is music to my military ears, that’s why. Also, because I goofed. I named the Como Avenue route “Ramble Plan One”, when it should have been `two. My original River Road route should have been `one. And I never even assigned a Ramble Plan to the morning Mickey’s Diner ride. That was a serious oversight, it should have been `three. Confused yet?

Here’s the breakdown:

Ramble Plan Alpha – The Original, River Roads route.

Ramble Plan Bravo – The Como Avenue Route, featuring The Sportsman, and their wonderful chili.

Ramble Plan Charlie – Morning ride to Mickey’s Diner, and finishing up along the RP Bravo route.

And now, Ramble Plan Delta – After-work, early dinner ride to the St. Clair Broiler.

The St. Clair Broiler first opened it’s doors under that name exactly fifty years ago, in 1956. “One of the first restaurants to offer open-flame broiled burgers, the Broiler quickly became a popular gathering spot.” – I stole that from their excellent website. Click on the link, it’s worth a look.

They claim to serve “the greatest hamburgers in town”. Well, that’s quite a statement, and something that begs investigation. So Scarlet and I set off after work tonight, and started down the familiar roads that make up Ramble Plan Alpha. RP-Delta diverges from this shortly after we cross the river at Lake Street.

A few blocks down Mississippi River Blvd., we turned off to the left on St. Clair Avenue. This was a moderately busy street, but it was easy to filter up to the front along the curb at the occasional stoplights, and beat the cages away at the green. We arrived out front just before sunset, and I had to scramble to get that shot at the top of the page.

Once settled in the back corner booth, I perused the menu that was handed to me by my waitress Sarah. This differs slightly from the one online, because ownership just changed hands a few months ago, and some changes have been made. From what I could see on the new menu in my hands, those changes were for the better. They now offer even more selections, including Rudolph’s Ribs. I’m thinking that the new owners also have an interest in that chain. This could be good or bad, but only time will tell.

Since burgers are their claim to fame, I ordered the Mushroom Burger, medium rare, with fries and a strawberry malt. Yeah, I know, way to take care of that blood pressure, huh?

Well, feast your eyes…

…now, do you blame me? It tasted every bit as good as it looks.

I was especially impressed with those fries. Cutting them in wedges, with ridges like that, exposes more of the surface to the (zero trans-fat) oil, giving you a crispy outside with a soft, meaty center. These are the best fries I’ve had in a restaurant. Ever.

The only slight disappointment is that they used some kind of processed Swiss cheese-food, rather than real Swiss Cheese. Some people seem to prefer this, however, and a lot of restaurants do it this way. I know it melts better. It didn’t really detract from the overall mix of sauteed mushrooms and onions and perfectly cooked Black Angus beef. But I can’t tell you it is the best Mushroom-Swiss burger in town. I’ve had better at one other place, at about the same price.

I forgot all about the cheese, however, when Sarah brought my strawberry malt to the table.

Isn’t that a thing of beauty? Ahhh, I will see you in my dreams…

This was Heaven in a Glass. Smooth, creamy, with big, chewable bits of strawberry in the mix. Even the cherry on top was perfect. It whispered to me, “I’m ready for my closeup now, Mr. Charpentier…”.

After the malt, came the bill. Being so close to Grand Avenue has driven up their overhead, to the point where they are a bit more spendy than the competition in other parts of town. Still, for fourteen bucks, I had a wonderful meal, with excellent service, in a historical setting. Not a bad ramble at all.

The ride home took us through busy rush-hour streets in the dark. With weak headlights. Ramble Plan Delta would be a scenic cruise in the soft light of a Summers eve, but it’s not the best way to ride in the Winter. Again, staying to the right side, where bicyclists normally go, Scarlet and I were able to filter and stay out of trouble. But I don’t think we will choose this route again until Springtime, and daylight savings.

Next comes Ramble Plan Echo, (doesn’t that sound better?), whither I do not know, yet. Time to go back to the maps.

Squirrelly Scarlet

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

Weather: Today is 43°F (6°C) and cloudy
Road Conditions: Dry with patches of salt and sand.

More battle scars. (I came out unscathed, this time.) We rode back to the scene to take this photo today, since I neglected to shoot it last Thursday.

Poor Scarlet O’Baron. She just can’t seem to settle down when the going gets slippery. All that power that I love so much on dry pavement is a real detriment on snow and ice. But even worse than the excess power is a factor that I will call “drivetrain inertia”, and it is a very important part of how a CVT scooter operates.

Let’s go back to last Winter for a moment…

The Red Baron and I rode successfully in conditions far worse than any that Scarlet and I have encountered so far. We were able to keep a controlled, 3-point slide going around corners, when necessary, and even sometimes when we were just playing around. Not so with Scarlet.

She has a 250cc engine, after all, where RB had a 150. She is liquid cooled, while RB was air-cooled. The liquid cooling apparatus means a lot of weight, and some of it is awkwardly placed. Scarlet’s radiator is mounted up high, in front of the steering head. That makes for a very different “feel” during a skid.

Then you have that added drivetrain inertia that I mentioned earlier. In order to handle the increased power and torque, all the components that make up the rotating mass in Scarlet’s CVT are significantly heavier than those in the Red Baron.

When those get to spinning, their rotating momentum increases exponentially until the forces keeping Scarlet’s rear wheel in motion are much greater than they ever were on the smaller, lighter Red Baron. This makes her much more difficult to control in Winter conditions.

To use a technical term, Scarlet is “squirrelly” on snow and ice. This makes her less than ideal for a Winter ride.

Take Thursday morning, for example. The conditions were a little bit sketchy, but nothing I haven’t ridden other bikes on before. After watching “Dust to Glory (D2G)”, just before riding to work, you might say I was feeling sort-of adventurous. I wanted to do a bit of sliding around that morning; to get my confidence back and banish any lingering depression.

On the other side of the High Bridge, there is a little residential section that I often ride through on my morning commute. This is the place I described last year where the morning aromas of coffee, bacon, and eggs come wafting out of working class homes with only one or two lights visible in the windows. You know where the kitchens are, in those little boxes.

Anyway, on the other side of that neighborhood, there is a gnarly, off-camber right-hand corner that takes you over a railroad track just before the apex. This corner is a challenge on sandy, dry Winter pavement. But Thursday morning it also sported the first black ice we encountered.

We entered the corner in the approved foot-down fashion. Scarlet began to slide, so I let off the throttle. This is where her squirrelly side emerged, because she kept right on spinning and sliding until I was at full opposite lock on the handlebars.

That was when I saw the car coming in the other lane.

We were heading straight for it, of course, and I had a decision to make: squeeze the rear brake and try to save us both (a very low-percentage play), -or let Scarlet go and save myself. We were going about 20 mph, not very fast on a scooter, but faster than I can run. Still, I knew that I could just stand there and slide to a stop under much more control than I would have on the ground with Scarlet.

So I let her go…

She flipped to the highside and slid to the opposite curb. I could swear her headlights beamed a look of bitter scorn at me as she slowly spun to a stop. Luckily, the cage driver was alert this morning, and she got stopped about four feet short of where Scarlet came to rest.

Me? I just skated nonchalantly to a stop, and stood there in the road with my arms folded over my chest, like I had meant to do that. I was making a statement, yeah…

Hah. No I didn’t. I was all flapping arms and flailing legs; the helmeted clown who would not fall down. Then I said something terribly witty to the nice little old cager lady, who was rolling down her window:

“Slippery out here this morning!”

“Are you alright?” -she asked.

“Oh yeah, this happens all the time. Thanks for stopping!”

So she drove on, shaking her head. I get that a lot…

I picked up Scarlet, noted the new battle scars, and the new race-modded left brake lever. “Race-modded” means that she shed the extra weight and aerodynamic drag of that little blob on the end of the lever, which is a very common, if unintentional modification on racing motorcycles. Now she will be even faster!

Scarlet started back up, and we took off. I noticed right away that the steering was a little bit tweaked. So we pulled off to the side, and I straddled the front wheel with my boots tight on either side. Then I shifted the handlebars over to what looked like straight, and we were off again. It was good enough to get us to work.

Hell, after watching Johnny Campbell, Mouse McCoy, and all those other Baja characters on D2G that morning, what we had just done was no big deal at all. I was more cautious for the rest of the ride, no longer feeling playful, but it still felt good to be back in the saddle.

Normally, whenever I have a crash, even a minor one like this, I still try to learn something from it. Then I go about the business of changing my little rules and refining my procedures to exploit the new data. I didn’t do that this time.

What I took from this, and the events of the past few weeks, is the fact that I have a squirrelly scooter. She is a hotrod, through-and-through. I will have to keep this in mind, when riding in sketchy conditions, and be prepared for Damage, should it happen again.

Or, I could just put her away for the Winter and drive the stupid truck/cage every day. But you KNOW I’m not going to do that. Nothing worse for the old blood pressure than being stuck in a cage in traffic.

No, I will ride when I feel like it, and drive when I don’t. It’s as simple as that. Oh, and for those of you who were counting… That’s three.