Archive for May, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Weather: Cloudy, with threats of rain that never materialized.
Road Conditions: Dry, with light traffic. Lots of motorcycles on the Wisconsin side.

The Field of Honor in Zumbrota, Minnesota.

Memorial Day is always a tough one for me. On the plus-side, it is a three-day weekend, of which we have far too few in this country. But on the minus side, it is not a celebration, but rather the opposite: a collective mourning for those we have lost.

So, the poor working stiff gets Monday off, but they are compelled to go to the local cemetary or parade in order to pay homage to those who have fought and died in order to protect their “freedom”. At least, that’s the official line.

Of course, most of us don’t bother with all that sentiment. We are too busy going fishing or golfing or whatever else we use to distract ourselves from the fact that we no longer live in a “free country”. For the vast majority of Americans, this is just another Monday off.

On Tuesday, wage-slavery resumes, and nobody mentions our “fallen heroes” again until next year. I know, that sounds harsh, and I could go on for many paragraphs, but that’s not what this blog is about.

My new Vespa “Rose” and I avoided parades and ceremonies on Monday, in order to ramble the countryside, enjoying the freedom that those we honor have bought us with their lives. After living with Marines for a decade, I know that this is the way they would prefer we salute them:

Celebrate, dammit! Don’t mourn! We did this so you could be happy! Gather together, have a party, toast our bravery and our sacrifice. Make us proud…

Semper Fi, Brothers. I shed no tears for you. (Yeah, right…)

Fog on the Mississippi

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

Weather: 46°F (8°C) With low-lying fog under clear skies.
Road Conditions: Beautiful. See for yourself…

At six a.m., the view from East River Parkway was breathtaking. If you click on the image, you can just see the City of Minneapolis, out there on the horizon.

The Ride to Work yesterday was the best I’ve had in a long, long time.

You know how it feels when the stars align just right, and Fate smiles down on you for a few precious moments in your hectic life? You have to be alert to these things, because they happen so rarely and it would be a shame to miss them.

I had thought about riding Frogwing yesterday, to give my readers some variety and keep the oil circulated `round his violent parts. But had I done so, I probably would have opted for the fast ride in, along the I-94 Tunnel of Hate. This is usually the default decision for me on a Friday, because I want to get to work quickly and get it over with. Especially heading into a holiday weekend.

However, when I was standing outside the garage door, watching it rise slowly in it’s tracks, a strange thing happened…

Rose’s left rear fender became visible first, and the predawn glow of the southeastern sky reflected off of her shapely flank. As the door creaked higher, I glanced over at the sleeping Frogwing. Nothing reflected off of him. The pull of the scooter was just irresistable, and my plans were completely changed in that instant.

The morning light along the parkway reflects favourably upon Rose.

Frogwing and I would ride this weekend, I reasoned, and the Vespa is always best on the parkways along the river. Quieter, no mucking about with clutch and shift lever, Rose rides like a magic carpet sometimes. She truly is a wonder…

How quiet is this Vespa? -you ask.

Well, by the time we reach about 25 miles per hour, the soft rush of the wind past my helmet has already overcome the engine’s sound. When you are riding through a world as beautiful as my Twin Cities were that morning, silence is utterly essential, if you want to truly feel the magic. Blasting through on a loud machine would wreck the whole experience.

Consider the local animals, for instance. Riding Rose, I get to see all sorts of surprised critters that would have fled well in advance of Frogwing’s approach. Not that Frogwing is loud by modern motorbike standards, but with his well-worn stock exhaust, he is more than twice as loud as a new Vespa.

On East River Parkway, Rose and I startled a racoon, rooting through someone’s garbage. He jumped two feet in the air at our approach, and shambled across the yard towards the trees, muttering to himself all the way. Caught in the Act! -as it were.

But of course, racoons have no shame…

View from the Ford Bridge: It’s all water over the dam…

Now that I don’t stop for coffee in the mornings (one of those luxuries I gave up in order to make my Vespa payments), Rose and I cross the river at the Ford Bridge, rather than Lake Street. This takes us through Minnehaha Park, which is one of the nicest sections of our Mississippi River parkways.

The road passes through a cathedral of trees, the sunbeams filtering through and speckling the pavement with their brilliance. A few cars appear, here and there, but nothing that could be called “traffic” yet.

We caught up to a fellow scooterist, riding something called a “Yup 50″. After a quarter-mile of breathing his two-stroke exhaust, I twisted Rose’s throttle, gave a quick wave as we passed, and he was gone from our mirrors after the next corner.

Then we were alone for awhile after that. Just floating along, under the trees, in that early morning light. Banking through the curves and rolling on the power, we enjoyed several miles of solitude, just us and the road. This was one of those short loops of memory-film that you clip off of your daily reel and save in a special mind-vault for posterity.

“Ride towards the light!” -said the voice in my head.

But of course, it couldn’t last. As we neared the monoliths of downtown Minneapolis, the box-people filtered groggily onto the parkways. Latte in one hand, cellphone in the other, this thing they do with their fat SUVs can hardly be called “driving”. At least, on the parkways, they are doing it slowly. They present easy obstacles for Rose and I to negotiate. The box-people don’t become dangerous until the caffiene kicks in…

So now we are on a slalom course, swooping past somnolent motorists. Although the speed limit hasn’t changed, our velocity has increased, in order to present a more elusive target. We encounter our first stoplight at the end of West River Parkway, and now it’s time for Survival Mode through the heart of the city.

Traffic is thick but still fast on Highway 55, as we head west on the last leg of our commute. We no longer bother with Wirth Parkway in the mornings, because traffic there has increased, and the highway gets us to work ten minutes faster. It’s one of those “Lesser of two evils” kind of things.

Rose pauses, at the edge of downtown, before plunging on into the chaos.

Out on the highway, I’m delighted by Rose’s acceleration and cruising speed. At the stoplights, we out-accelerate everyone, and make a healthy gap between us.

Approaching a suit in a Lincoln pickup-truck from the rear, we zoomed past him with startling results. The next thing I knew, he came roaring up to us, edging over into our lane, with a manic look on his face – eyes bugged out, white knuckles on the wheel. Then he floored that sucker and blasted off over the horizon, at what had to be ninety-plus.

Maybe being passed by a Vespa negates the effects of his Viagra?

How many of you have seen the “Man Law” beer commercials?

“Man Law # XXX: If you are driving your full-size pickup or SUV, and you are passed by a Vespa, you MUST pass them back immediately. Failure to do so will result in shrinkage!”

That could explain his reaction. He looked scared… like a dinosaur contemplating extinction.

That graffiti starts with a “V”… Could it be a Vespa gang?

Arriving at work, we toured the entire parking lot before finally stopping in our assigned space. Shutting off Rose’s engine, I lingered a moment in the saddle. Lifting the visor on my Arai Renegade, I breathed deep of the aromas emanating from my new scooter: Hot metal and rubber with a hint of gasoline.

Does anybody make a candle or incense with the scent of Modern Vespa?

Rush Hour Road Test: 2007 Vespa GTS 250ie

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Weather: 76°F (24°C) With scattered thunderstorms.
Road Conditions: Wet.

Vespa GTS is so hot, that fireplug might come in handy…

Now that my Vespa GTS 250ie “Rose” and I have travelled over 700 miles together, and I have been able to ride her out of the break-in constraints, it’s time to do the Rush Hour Road Test.

This is going to require me to put away all the emotional attachments I have developed over the past week, and kill my New Bike Buzz for a bit, so I can try to give you an objective report on how the GTS compares to other commuter motorbikes I have experienced.

It’s not going to be easy, mind you, but I can do this. I am, after all, a Professional. (Thanks, Hunter…)

The Vespa GTS is the culmination of a long evolution in Piaggio’s stylish retro-scooter line. All of the traditional curves are there, slightly updated in strategic locations, so as not to be confused with the vintage ancestors. Liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, electric-start (only), and sporting a digital LCD dashboard, it has all the modern conveniences.

Hmmm… “All Mod Cons”… Now, where have I heard that before?

But I don’t intend to get all caught up in the cultural ramifications here. That’s not what Rush Hour Rambling or Ride to Work(tm) are about. The object of the Rush Hour Road Test is to evaluate the suitability of the test subject for the mission of daily commuting. This entails measuring such parameters as fuel mileage, maintenance costs, comfort, visibility, utility, and performance as it relates to getting through heavy traffic during rush hour.

In other words, what is it like to actually live with this bike, day-to-day?

GTS dash is pure class.

First and foremost, the Vespa GTS is a modern scooter. That means it has an automatic, CVT transmission and is driven by a clean four-stroke engine. The Piaggio “Quasar” engine has a chain-driven, single-overhead-cam bumping four valves in the liquid-cooled comfort if its’ single cylinder head.

The fuel injection operates without a glitch, from idle all the way to full-throttle. The exhaust system keeps the whole show nice and quiet, so we don’t wake the neighbors when we take off for work in the pre-dawn stillness. Of course, all modern scooters are quiet. But not all commuter motorbikes are.

My Termignoni-equipped Ducati made me Neighborhood Enemy Number One for awhile there. We would set off car alarms just rumbling past in second gear. I’m really not so sure that Loud Pipes Save Lives, but I know for a fact that they do piss off the neighbors.

Since I took up riding scooters, my neighbors have forgiven me. Some of them actually talk to me now, from time to time. And that is mostly a Good Thing…

Out on the road, the GTS feels like it was carved from billet. The Vespa’s stamped-steel monocoque chassis resists twisting much better than the underslung backbone frame and plastic bodywork of its’ Asian rivals. The modern single-sided, trailing-arm front end, originally derived from aircraft landing gear, is surprisingly stable. Even in hard cornering, I could not detect a bit of flex or other bad behaviour.

The Vespa GTS makes you want to visit places like this.

Essentially, the handling of the Vespa GTS is better than any other scooter I have tested. But let me clear something up for any new Vespa owners in the house: Every single scooter I have ridden has exhibited some tendency for front-end oscillation on deceleration. I’m not sure if this is a product of the steering geometry, or the small wheels supporting a lot of weight, or what. It is, in effect, very much like what you get on some shopping carts when one of the wheels wobbles back and forth.

*Epiphany! Maybe that’s why most scooter pilots never wave!

On the GTS, this quirk never progresses beyond the mild curiousity phase. Kind of, “Huh, I wonder why it does that?”. Some of the Asian scooters I have ridden will go into full blown tank-slappers if you don’t use force to restrain them. But if you have both hands on the GTS’ handlebars when you are coasting or slowing down, then you won’t even notice it. Applying brakes damps it right out.

Speaking of brakes, the stoppers on the Vespa GTS work just fine. Hydraulic discs both front and rear, they have excellent feel and the rear can be locked with a good hard squeeze, if you must. I’ve never tried to lock the front, and “stoppies” are never necessary during the course of moto-commuting.

Acceleration is brisk, for a scooter of this size. Most 4-wheeled adversaries can be defeated away from a stoplight with a quick burst of full-throttle. That’s where the CVT is nice, because you never stop accelerating to change gears. But don’t get cocky… Many modern cages have high-performance engines which will allow them to stay with, and even pass you on the way to that single-lane construction zone up ahead. Just let `em go, and live to ride another day.

So, what about the numbers that matter? Rose is getting a solid 68.2 mpg average over the course of 706 miles. I spent $40 on the supplies for her First Service, which I performed with a little help from my friend Roadbum. Had I brought her to the dealership, they would have added another $176, plus tax onto that. So the advantage definitely goes to the gearhead who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

Just retro enough to look right at home in a time warp.

Comfort-wise, I have no complaints. The GTS’ seat is perfectly positioned for my 5′9″ frame, and the reach to the bars is completely natural. The ride is a revelation, after the cheap shocks and forks I grew used to on the Asian scoots. I have set the rear shocks at about medium preload, as the factory soft setting was a bit too plush for my liking. Vespa includes a nice little spanner in the tool kit for this purpose.

Although lower than my KLR, Frogwing, I can still stand up on the floorboards to see over most vehicles in front of me. You can’t do that on a sportbike, unless you let go of the handlebars – never a good idea in rush hour traffic. Sometimes such a perspective is crucial in avoiding gridlock, as it enables you to start moving towards the exit earlier.

You can’t beat the maneuverability of a scooter in tight city traffic. With 12″ wheels, the GTS fits the standard scooter mold better than the larger maxi-scooter category. This allows moves that wouldn’t be possible on a Silverwing or Burghman. Yet the GTS will keep up with them on group rides, all the way up to illegal speeds on most two-lane country roads. Rose has seen the far side of 75 mph indicated with my non-aerodynamic bulk perched upon her back.

Purchase-price is the only parameter where the Vespa seems to give ground to the competition. But that’s only if you count plastic-bodied, angular-styled, non-traditional scooters as The Competition. In the world of Ride to Work(tm), where we evaluate strictly on the merits of a moto-commuting platform, there are better deals to be had.

Kymco puts out a couple of 250s that have similar performance, at around $1,500 to $2,000 less. That’s a lot of money, to somebody who is shopping for a scooter to save on commuting expenses. They also have an excellent reputation for reliability and parts availability. Honda and the rest of the Japanese Big Four produce 250cc machines with similar performance for less cash outlay.

That’s a lot of weight piled on the other side of the decision scale, for the pragmatic moto-commuter.

Pack a bag, and hit the road. How much simpler could it be?

And that’s the point at which the practical, logical riders are separated from the romantic, emotional riders. Right-brain vs. left… or is it vice-versa? I always forget.

But I could never forget the Vespa GTS’s radiant Vintage Red color, or those gorgeous, classical lines. I could never forget the feel of that metal body underneath my polishing cloth, or her wonderful Italian heritage. This scooter looks so good in photographs that I take twice as long to get anywhere for stopping to set up the shots.

Oops, I guess I slipped there, didn’t I? Objectivity flew out the window like the smoke from a fine cigar…

I bought my GTS because I’m a sucker for tradition, and a connoisseur of fine Italian design. I bought her because she caught my eye across the showroom floor like the girl of your dreams down at the end of the bar. And now that I have known her in the most intimate ways, I can tell you with complete confidence that I have no regrets. Rose, my 2007 Vespa GTS 250ie, is everything I hoped she would be, and more.