Archive for June, 2007

A Dubious Pilgrimage

Monday, June 11th, 2007

Weather: 86°F (30°C) Under unbearably sunny skies.
Road Conditions: Twisty pavement with the occasional suicidal deer.

The roadside scenery on the way to Chippewa Falls was gorgeous.

Was this trip really necessary?

That classic question occurred to me as I was standing in the lobby of the Leinie Lodge, explaining myself to a couple of female corporate barracudas from Leinenkugel’s / Miller Beer Corporation, after my cover was blown on their free brewery tour. Apparently no media, however small-time, are allowed on premises without strict control in attendance.

When I asked if I could shoot some photos for this blog inside the brewery, or take a portrait of our tour guide, I must have set off a silent alarm. Immediately, I heard the brisk clip-clop of high-heeled shoes across the floor, triggering flashbacks to naughty days in elementary school, and I just knew I was in for a trip to the principal’s office… or worse.

I’m pretty sure Leinies wasn’t like this before The Takeover.

Beer pilgrims on the Leinenkugel’s Brewery Tour.

But enough of that rot… I’m here to tell you about The Ride!

Minn-Max, our local maxi-scooter club, have some very tech-savvy individuals. They have put together a series of local rides that take in the best roads the area has to offer. I honestly can’t tell you which idea popped into my head first:

1) Visit the Leinenkugel’s brewery.

2) Take a ride into the heart of Wisconsin, guided by Minn-Max’s excellent route-sheets.

Maybe the two ideas coalesced into a single impulse, triggered by the catalyst of Vespa Rose. Yes, that sounds right. I certainly wouldn’t have taken on this mission with any other scooter, and on Frogwing it would have been too easy.

But on Rose it elevated to the level of a challenge, because we might be forced to resort to the Interstate, if we dawdled along the way. As most of you already know, I’m all about dawdling these days…

The ride and tour took so long that I missed my ice-cream cone at Olson’s.

And dawdle we did, Rose and I. We stopped for photos everywhere, many more than I have posted here. The county roads along the Minn-Max route twisted and turned, rose and fell, like a carnival ride stretched out across the agricultural landscape.

Had I not been accosted by the “corporate media handlers”, I might have had time to enjoy an ice cream cone at Olson’s, in the heart of Chippewa Falls. As it was, we made a whirlwind tour of the main streets, stopping only for these brief images, before pulling out the route-sheet for our return home.

The empty streets near 7pm on a Friday night were downright eerie…

Riding into the setting sun, after several miles of rural county roads, I began to get complacent. That’s when the deer death-squads began to hunt us down…

I’m guessing that my Vespa Rose isn’t quite as intimidating as the usual Harley or full-size farm truck that travels these roads. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the roads came alive with deer, in twos, threes, even herds of four and five. They went prancing across the pavement like they owned the place!

Rose’s brake pads will probably need replacing at the next maintenence check. It seemed that every deer within sprinting distance of whatever county road we were on had heard of this beautiful little machine I was riding, and they all wanted a close-up and personal encounter with us. By the time we hit Colfax, I had decided that we would be safer on the Interstate, tucked in behind a semi, than dodging legions of curious wildlife along these rural byways.

Wisconsin is called “America’s Dairyland” for good reason.

We stopped for one last photo, along State Highway 40, as we fled towards I-94. All day long, this thought had been nagging me, scratching at my brain, demanding to be let into the light of my consciousness.

As we passed mile after mile of cultivated field, seeing crops and livestock stretching off to the horizon, this very simple idea formed itself in my head…

Just as human beings tend to relax in the presence of a large body of water, so to does the sight of thousands of acres of burgeoning crops and grazing livestock serve to soothe our natural anxiety. The abundant presence of those things which sustain our lives can cause us to relax maybe more than we really should, while in control of a motorbike.

Rose and I headed out towards the Interstate. At least there we were relatively safe from the random violent wildlife encounter. All we had to worry about were those damned trucks roaring up on our backside at 80-plus miles per hour.

Same as it ever was…

Comeuppance: Frogwing’s Revenge?

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

Weather: 81° (27°C) Under sunny skies.
Road Conditions: Fine on pavement, unfamiliar on dirt.

Paul Streeter and his bald-tired 1980 SR500: Agents of Karma?

Paul Streeter is a Fairly Dangerous Man… He stands tall, and rides his motorbikes fast.

But for all that, he is also a Very Nice Guy. Some of you might remember him as the fellow who hosts the KLR Tech Days at his house out in Shoreview, Minnesota.

So, when I found out that Paul was going to lead a ride on the gravel roads south of Hastings this morning, I called him to get the particulars. Frogwing has been absent from this blog for some time now, and I figured that it was time to pull him out of the garage for something other than a rainy-day Ride to Work.

After having put 273 miles on my new Vespa Rose yesterday, I thought that a nice scratch-session on dirt roads with my neglected KLR would be just the thing to restore my perspective. I mean, Paul’s riding a 500cc streetbike, with bald tires, on gravel roads. How hard could it be to keep up with him?

Little did I know…

Frogwing in his usual configuration: bags packed, ready for anything.

Alright, so I have been riding my Vespa a LOT lately. Buster Brown himself told me that it could teach a guy some bad habits. But for my Ride to Work, I have been able to switch between the two with no real problem. I mean, the riding positions and control feel are so different between these two motorbikes that muscle memory takes over, and at the surface level, I felt perfectly confident on both machines.

Looking back, however, I should have caught a clue when Sidewalk Dan and I went on Ramble Plan Kilo, and I refused to go play in the mud with him.

Just like Martin Sheen’s character in “Apocalypse Now”, I’ve been getting soft: While I’ve been cruising effortlessly to work on comfy little scooters, my friends in the Twin Cities Dual Sport community have been out there in the bush, getting sideways and roosting around.

These are Copper Canyon, Mexico veterans here, and as you can see, they weren’t carrying any baggage.

Stuart Manning, left, and Adam Beck on the right. Serious riders…

Not only that, but Paul had just been to Marty Mattaya’s flat-track school; roosting around on somebody-else’s 125cc motorbike, learning how to get sideways with confidence. I didn’t know this until I called him to apologize for dropping off the back. Guess it’s time that I went back to school…

The quick and dirty is: Paul turned right, onto a dirt road, right in front of us. I saw his turn-signal at the last moment, too quick to react properly, because I was gazing at the beautiful scenery. So I hit the brakes and continued down the paved road until I could see that there were no oncoming cars. Then we did a quick U-turn and went back to the dirt-road they were riding.

We followed them through a couple more turns, but quickly realized that Frogwing was too heavy to keep up the pace. So we turned around and followed our path back to the county road.

So, now that we were back on pavement, totally humiliated, what was our next move? Time to go eat, of course! Frogwing and I rode back to Prescott, Wisconsin.

There is a little place down there along the river that serves the best broiled shrimp in the area. Called “The Point St. Croix Marina and Pub”, this little joint is owned and operated by a very nice fellow named Bill Hiniker, with help from his niece, Alex.

Bill and Alex on watch at “The Point St. Croix Marina and Pub”.

Bill lives in a beautiful Chris-Craft cabin-cruiser docked in the marina, and Alex is home on Summer vacation from college. Their days are spent watching the marina, serving the customers who come to the pub, and catering to the needs of the boaters who moor there.

I like to visit the The Point because it has such a wonderful view of the Saint Croix River. Boat people share my wandering spirit, and we almost always understand each other immediately. If my life circumstances were different, I could easily see myself living on a boat, travelling wherever the tradewinds took me.

The Point Saint Croix Marina and Pub, Prescott, Wisconsin.

But of course my family keeps me tethered to dry land, and to my job that provides the vital benefits. Living aboard a boat would require too many changes and sacrifices at this point in our lives. So I keep the dream alive with frequent rides along the rivers, and I stay in touch with those who are living my dream, in the hopes that I can join them some day.

Broiled Jumbo Shrimp on deck! Lobster never tasted this good.

The broiled shrimp at The Point Saint Croix are the best I’ve ever eaten. They are covered in spices and cooked in a pizza oven, served with real melted butter and a nice horseradish cocktail sauce. They’re not cheap, at about a buck-ninety apiece, but they are certainly worth the price. I’ll most definitely be back for more…

Work to Ride: Saturday at “The Grind”

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Weather: Sunny and 74°F (23°C)
Road Conditions: Perfect!

Look at that face…does that say “Speed Demon” to you?

Guilt was beginning to gnaw at me, as I peered at the road over the top of Rose’s speedometer. I was in the full aero-tuck position, with my helmet visor only an inch from the headset display. According to the wavering needle, we were travelling nearly ninety miles-an-hour in the fast lane on I-94. According to the tachometer, I was flogging my beautiful brand-new Vespa to the tune of nine thousand rpms.

The mechanical empathy center of my brain was screaming, “Slow-down, Slow-Down, SLOW-DOWN! NOW!”.

So I backed off the throttle and we slipped over into our normal slot in the right-hand lane. Calm ensued; no harm, no foul. No Bad Noises from the engine compartment, either.

It had to be done, of course. What kind of motojournalist would I be if I didn’t actually test for Top Speed? Twelve-hundred miles had passed beneath Rose’s wheels since I bought her, double the break-in mileage, and she had fresh oil in the crankcase. It was Time.

So, am I claiming that my new Vespa can do ninety miles-an-hour? Of course not. Scooters are known for having ambitious speedometers, and Vespa certainly isn’t an exception. But I am sure we were doing at least eighty, by the simple fact that we were keeping up with the rest of the traffic on this notoriously fast section of freeway.

The point I am trying to make here is that this fun little motorbike, which squeezes seventy miles out of each gallon of fuel, really is a valid transportation option, both in and out of the urban landscape. Just ask the folks who rode them coast-to-coast in The Cannonball…

An eclectic mix of machinery and people, in front of The Daily Grind.

Rose and I were on our way to meet Buster Brown at his habitual Saturday morning haunt: The Daily Grind Espresso Cafe in Hudson, Wisconsin.

“The Grind”, as it is known by regulars, has long been Buster’s headquarters for setting up group rides, or just gathering with friends, kicking tires and telling lies. It is also where he indulges his fanatical obsession with the New York Times crossword puzzle. Don’t try to get him to do anything else until he has finished that.

The Grind attracts an eclectic mix of people. From the former Mayor of Afton, Minnesota, to caffiene-addled sportbike riders and off-road warriors, The Grind provides a sort of neutral space where all of these folks can gather without sparks being struck. The conversation is often just as stimulating as the espresso drinks they serve.

On this sunny Saturday morning, the mix of motorbikes parked at the curb couldn’t have been more diverse, although the cruiser genre was conspicuous by it’s absence. At the slower, prettier end of the scale was Rose, my Vespa GTS. On her right we had Buster’s well-worn and befarkled KLR, and on her left we had Clarke Schroeder’s Teutonic Superbike, the incomparable BMW K1.

Der Schnell-Panzer kommt! BMW K1, vintage 1989 – 1992.

I was going to write up a short synopsis of the K1’s specs and capabilities here, but I can’t find any reliable sources on the web. It seems that this bike kind of fell through the crack between the best loved classics of yesteryear, and the modern superbikes of the Internet age.

What I can tell you is the “Wow!” reaction this bike inspired back when it was first introduced. I remember it being described as an “Intercontinental Ballistic Motorcycle” by some wag at one of the glossy moto-magazines. Although it’s performance has been surpassed by modern sportbikes, for visual impact, it is still in a class of it’s own.

When Buster was finished with his crossword, I asked him if he would like to take a ride on my Vespa. He agreed, and after giving him a very brief and easy walk-around, I watched him buzz off into the early morning Hudson traffic.

Buster Brown meets Vespa Rose, and immediately falls… asleep!

The photo above reflects Buster’s overall impression of Rose’s in-town manners. He rode her around a few blocks, and came back mildly impressed. “A guy could learn a lot of bad habits on this.” -he said. Turns out he used to ride the old-school Vespas, with the shifter and clutch on the left handlebar, and the rear brake on the floor. Mr. Brown has always been a traditionalist, at least where motorbikes are concerned.

After Buster’s test ride was over, Rose and I headed north, out of town. We normally go south, because the best roads lie in that direction, but I wanted to do something different on this sunny Saturday. It was supposed to rain in the afternoon, so there wasn’t a lot of time.

We rode through Somerset and Osceola, where I stopped for lunch. No photo or review this time, because the burger I had at The Cascade Bar and Grill was pretty average. Leaving Osceola, we headed across the river again, back into Minnesota and State Highway 95, southbound towards Stillwater.

As we rolled into the little town of Marine on Saint Croix, I noticed a whole line of motorcycles parked in the lot to our left, across from an outdoor bar. There were a bunch of “bikers” congregated there, and my curiousity got the better of me. Pulling into the lot, we passed the entire line of motorcycles on a sort-of inspection tour. As we turned around to find a parking spot, I could hear uproarious laughter coming from the bikers, now gathered behind our back.

Rose looks right at home in this “Bad to the Bone” crowd. NOT!

Okay, I thought, so they want to play it like that?

“Dey doan’ know who dey messin’ wit’…”

After we parked, I slowly took off my helmet, leaving it with Rose. Then I strolled down towards the bar, and the large group of leather-clad folks who had suddenly gone strangely silent. They were all staring at me like a being from another planet.

I stopped walking just outside their invisible perimeter, and stood with my feet shoulder-width apart, arms akimbo, staring back. Then I did my best pec-flexing, Incredible Hulk impression, complete with the loud “AAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!”

This time, they weren’t laughing at me, but with me.