Finish Line

March 26th, 2006 by mnscooter


photo by Tracy Mayer

26 March, 2006

Weather: Sunny and … What the hell am I doing at my computer?

Well, I suppose it’s time to wrap this thing up. It’s quarter-to-seven on a Sunday morning, and I want to be done with this thing by afternoon, when it is supposed to be sunny and 41°F (5°C). That’s what we call balmy, this time of year.

I’ve been kicking this thing around for the past couple of days, and I guess what I want to do is kind of review the high points and lessons learned from our Winter of scooter commuting. This could take awhile, so maybe you want to grab a beverage or stop by the bathroom or something before we get going. I’m not stopping once we get on the road…

For starters, let’s go back to November 8th, 2005. This was only my second day on the Baron, and already I was learning some profound lessons:

“Numbers aside, I am learning that my entire attitude about riding needs to be re-calibrated. The scooter has only one-fourth the horsepower of my KLR. This means that I can never ride aggressively, I cannot be the Urban Guerrilla.”

It took awhile, but with practice we eventually found a way over that existential hurdle, didn’t we? I mean, we could never kick it KLR-style, but we managed to get around balky traffic whenever the need arose. Bike lanes and shoulders, even the occasional sidewalk became our alternate routes… but only when it was Right.

I’m afraid that, as a Zen grasshopper, I am a total failure. I can only maintain that guise for so long. Sometimes even long enough; but eventually my inner jarhead comes to the fore. Then it’s kick down the door time… “Gangway! Make a #%&$ HOLE, you maggots!”

It’s a very fortunate thing for the motoring public that I don’t like SUVs. If by some weird magic, I was to suddenly find myself at the wheel of a Hummer, in the middle of gridlock, I’m afraid that Very Bad Things would happen in short order. Given the right set of circumstances, I could very easily become the driver I hate.

Well, with one exception: At least I would be paying attention. There wouldn’t be a cellphone glued to my ear. I would be DRIVING that sucker!

Okay, it’s getting awfully dark in here. Let’s head back towards the light, shall we?

Only two days after that Zen entry, coincidentally enough on the Marine Corps birthday, I wrote:

“It was as if old Sun Tzu himself whispered in my ear:

“Be humble. Use your weakness to advantage.”

Bicycles and mopeds legally ride on the shoulder of this road, as they cannot keep up with the 55mph speed limit. The same must apply to scooters, no? Let’s just move over here, around this smelly diesel pickup truck, and motor on past these poor, stuck cages, with their fuming yuppie drivers. Keeping it around 30mph, I even passed a cop with no hassle. Bye bye, Cadillac! Sayonara, Lexus! Auf wiedersehen, Mercedes! Enjoy your stay….”

Yes, that was something I couldn’t do on a full-size motorcycle. Not without some serious, horn-honking indignation anyway. That cop would have taken issue with me, had I tried to pull the same stunt on Frogwing. As I learned more about the capabilities and limitations of this scooter, I applied those parameters to the tactical problems in traffic, and found new ways to “make a move”.

Remember this? From November 15th:

“Turning from Plymouth Avenue onto Xerxes in North Minneapolis, an eight-point buck sauntered out into the street right in front of me. We stopped and stared at each other for a long moment. Considering the neighborhood, this had to be one of those streetwise, urban deer. Struts around like he owns the place. As he stood there, motionless, I could see it in his eyes… I knew exactly what he was thinking. Say it with me, boys and girls, “What are you, NUTS!?”.

After a long moment, he sort of shuddered and turned away. As he was prancing into the woods of Wirth Park, I swear I could hear him muttering to himself in an Eddie Murphy voice, “Man, I KNOW I didn’t just see a dude on a SCOOTER up in here! Musta been one of them ALIENS come down from outer space… yeah. Lookin’ all Darth Vader and sh*t. I gotta quit grazin’ in these backyard hemp gardens…”.”

Last week, I think it was Wednesday evening, I followed two Golden Valley squadcars down the road leading to Wirth Parkway. As they approached the bridge, their lights came on and they pulled over on either side of a deer that had been hit by some sort of cage. The vehicle was not present, but the deer was bleeding from the nose, and his legs were making weak running motions as he lay there.

You know what I was thinking… Here lies Homey the Deer. Maybe he wasn’t so streetwise after all. RIP, Homey.

Sleep deprivation was a recurring theme throughout the project. Starting with my commitment to nightschool, and then later when I was writing longer blog entries and responding to more comments, it seemed that I just couldn’t shut off the noise in my head when I went to bed at night. Occasionally, that resulted in some amusing, halucinatory moments:

This morning I awoke a couple of hours too early. I had forgotten to reset my alarm to catch up on my sleep, and I knew those hours were now lost. Once my eyes were focused, I found I was looking at my Darth Vader-esque helmet, which I had set upon my dresser. I could hear it breathing. Then it spoke:

“Your powers are weak, old man.”

“Oh, shut up, you sinister brain bucket.”, I croaked.

But no matter how tired I was, it seemed that every time I climbed aboard the Baron, I would wake up enough to enjoy the ride. It was almost always better than driving a cage, even in the most challenging conditions. Almost, I say. When we got near the limits of temperature or blizzard conditions, it became an ordeal. This was where the crashes happened. The biggest lessons I take away from this experience are the limits of two-wheel travel in the Winter.

Lesson One: The low temperature limit is dictated by what the machinery can handle… usually. But hypothermia is a sneaky, insidious thing. It attacks your cognitive center to the point where your brain tries to distance itself from your body, with all of it’s freezing aches and pains. If you’re not wearing sufficient gear to protect yourself from freezing temperatures, you will become a casualty.

Lesson Two: Never attempt to ride in snow that is deeper than your ground clearance. Monday, the 13th of March is still very fresh in my mind. Though we made the entire 53 mile round trip that day, we never should have left home in the first place. But being a jarhead, I just couldn’t help myself. January and February had been so mild that I guess I felt cheated out of my great Winter challenge. Never let your pride force you into an untenable situation. Pride can’t pay your hospital bills.

Lesson Three: Low, streetbike fenders are dangerous in snowy conditions. Either remove them, or design something that gives you some clearance, dirtbike-style, over the tires. I still shake my head when I think that I rode all that way with the front tire constantly locking up on the ice. No wonder I had to drag my feet for fifty miles! Dumb!

From a practical standpoint, the scooter really was a good choice for this project. Early on, I detailed all the reasons that were apparent to me at the time:

Let’s review the advantages of a scooter over a motorcycle for this mission:

1) Light weight, means less inertia if we get out of control, and easier to stop.

2) Low ride height, means that I can put my feet down with knees bent, to help maintain control.

3) Low power, so the rear wheel has less tendency to spin.

4) All controls are on the handlebars, so I can wear big, warm boots and use my feet as outriggers without compromising braking.

5) Lots of plastic covering critical components, so corrosion isn’t as bad.

6) Small motor, which is easy to kickstart and runs off a magneto, so keeping the battery charged isn’t so important.

All of these points proved out, over the course of the Winter. I guess, if I am going to do this again next year, I would like to dig into the Baron parts bin and try to design a scooter something like the Honda Ruckus. Although, to be honest, the 150 SX, sans fenders, would probably do just fine. As long as I adhere to the three lessons I mentioned above.

If I wanted to cheat, I suppose I could build a sidehack outfit around one of the 250cc machines. But what kind of challenge would that be? (Duck, and cover!)

So, here we are then. The Red Baron is sitting in the dark at Baron HQ as I type this, still sporting that stylish milkcrate, bungied to his luggage rack. The 250cc People Mover, which I have dubbed “The Black Baron”, is waiting out in my garage. We are going for an extended ride today, maybe another run for the Wisconsin border.

On Tuesday, March 28th, the blog at this address will become, “Rush Hour Rambling”. That will close “The Baron in Winter” blog to entries and comments, and retire it to the Ride to Work archives. There will be a link to it on the right sidebar.

One adventure has ended, and another has begun. It’s been a hell of a ride, and I can’t tell you how gratifying it is that so many of you chose to tag along. Thanks again for all your comments. I learned a lot from readers during the course of this project, and I want to acknowledge that.

Spring is finally here, and a lot of you are going to get your own motorbikes out of hibernation soon. Isn’t that a wonderful feeling? I urge you all to start out slowly, ride safely, and most of all…

Ride well,
=gc=

The End is Nigh…

March 24th, 2006 by mnscooter

24 March, 2006 Weather: Cloudy and 31°F (-1°C).

So much has happened in the past week. We saw the calander end of Winter come and go on Monday. We wrapped up the Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter project in the media on Tuesday. I was delirious with insomnia on Wednesday, and completely silent on Thursday.

This morning, after having finally caught up on my sleep, I walked out to the garage with a spring in my step. The roads were dry, and the sun was up. It was time to have some FUN again!

The Baron started up with his usual enthusiasm, and we rolled out into the street about thirty minutes earlier than usual. Knowing that our little adventure was going to end soon, I wanted to get out ahead of the zombies so we could have a little playtime on the roads.

Things actually went according to plan, for once. We rolled down Bernard St. all the way to Smith Avenue before we saw another vehicle. This was a small sedan with an elderly lady behind the wheel, and we passed her heading towards the High Bridge.

Crossing the river, it wasn’t yet light enough to take a decent photograph, so I continued on. This wasn’t winter riding, except for the fact that it was one degree below freezing, and we could encounter ice at any time. Our twists and turns through the neighborhood down by the brewery yielded the usual smells of coffee and bacon. I’m trying to remember if these are as pungent in the summer as they are on a mild late-winter morning. I hardly seem to notice them in the summer, but for some reason they become significant in the Winter. I’m not sure why.

Riding on, we passed darkened houses on our way to Shephard Road. Rolling onto this fast thoroughfare, I twisted the throttle to the stop, and then backed it off just a fraction. This seems to be the setting that the Baron likes best. He doesn’t like absolute full-throttle for some reason these days. We accelerated to an indicated 60 mph, which translates to something like the speed limit of 50 here, and that’s all he had to give this morning. RPMs were safely below the 8K redline, reading around 6,500.

I’m thinking that it’s time for a tune-up. We have just turned 10,350 kilometers, and have passed the recommended service interval. The Baron starts and runs just fine, but top-end performance is beginning to decline a bit. The reality is, if you are depending on a 150cc scooter as daily transportation, you should probably plan your route to work around streets which have a maximum 45 mph speed limit. Though these scooters will run at up to 65 mph on level ground, in ideal conditions, they will only cruise reliably at between 40 to 50 mph in normal everyday use. Hills and headwinds come into play, and they are more significant than you would think.

Back in my world, work went more smoothly today. I had a good plan and worked it well, until late in the day, when I was sent on an errand to our distribution center. This place just happens to be within a quarter-mile of Baron Headquarters, and that turned out to be a good thing.

The Baron kept up a 50 mph cruising speed on the highway, but it just wasn’t fast enough to be out there amongst the Friday afternoon crowd. People were passing us at close quarters doing 65 mph or better. This was dangerous. It was at that point where I made a fateful decision… Today would be a good day to retire the Baron in Winter.

When I got to distribution, I called Tony at Baron HQ. They had a Baron 250 PM ready for me. This is a new offering that they want me to test in the commuter role. The 250s will do around 80 mph on the top end, more than enough to keep up with highway traffic. This fitted into their plans perfectly. So I figured, why not?

The “Red Baron” 150SX that I had ridden all Winter has served us well. Calendar Winter was over, and the snow that still lingers will be gone within a week or so. (I hope!) Spring is here, and it is time to move on.

This is not the last post in “The Baron in Winter”, however. I have to go back and try to sort out all the lessons I learned from this experience. This means reviewing both my posts and your comments, to come up with a comprehensive summary of this Winter riding experience. I welcome your comments during this weekend, but I plan to post the last entry on Sunday night.

Thanks for sharing this adventure with me. It was fun, most of the time, and the rest was really a learning experience. I’m not sure where we are going from here, but that’s what makes it exciting, right?

Tomorrow I will busy myself with getting Frogwing up and running for the season ahead. The black 250 PM is sitting in my garage as I type this, and I plan to ride that to work on Monday. The adventure will continue, but on different bikes, and under the title “Rush Hour Rambling”. I hope you stay with us. It’s going to be a great season.

Insomnia

March 22nd, 2006 by mnscooter

22 March, 2006 Weather: Sunny again, snow melting, Spring is in the air.

I slept in this morning. After the last couple of days, I really needed to catch up on my sleep. By the time the Baron and I hit the road, the sun was up over the horizon, and we cast a long shadow on the road heading west. I thought about stopping to take a photo, and I really should have, but traffic was building behind us as the rush hour got into full-swing. It just wasn’t safe to stop for a random photograph.

But this gave me an idea for a future, western-themed blog entry, maybe titled “Cast a Long Shadow”. I’ll have to go through some of my old Louis L’amour novels for inspiration.

Our ride to work was fraught with heavy traffic. It is amazing how much difference a half-hour makes. We found ourselves trapped between SUVs and mini-vans most of the way to work. There was no flow, no fluid transition from corner to corner. We were constantly balked by distracted drivers, nattering into their Nokias and braking just for the hell of it, blocking our view of the road ahead.

I don’t put up with this when I am riding Frogwing. I’ll hop the curb and pass the bastards on the grass if I have to. But on the Baron, I don’t have the same options. So I took a deep breath and went to my Zen place for awhile.

We arrived at work, and I punched the clock, and settled in for an eon of Existential Gravity. Time crawled, and my free spirit howled in agony. Why? Because the sun was shining, and it was 42°F outside! (5°C)

Normally, I would plead Spring Fever, or Temporary Insanity, and take the rest of the day off to ride somewhere, anywhere, on two-lane roads far away from the `Cities.

But I have used up too much of my time bank this Winter, dealing with various routine disasters and crises. I had no choice but to serve my sentence behind windows which showed a sunny paradise just outside of my grasp. After several relative centuries passed, I finally dragged my withered carcass to the time-clock and punched-out for the day.

It took all my remaining strength to ride the Baron over ice-free roads all the way home. I’m tired, dear friends. I’m going to bed now. Tomorrow will be a better day.

Overexposed?

March 21st, 2006 by mnscooter

21 March, 2006 Weather: Sunny and just above freezing. Snow is melting.

The Baron and I got an early start this morning. After a sleepless night, I slammed down three cups of strong coffee and we hit the road at five a.m.

We had a date with WCCO-TV, to wrap-up the Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter story for local viewers. On the way to the Nicollet Mall, I found myself wondering whether that lady who watched us crash last Monday was going to be among the audience for the channel 4 morning news. Wouldn’t that be ironic? I don’t know if that would change her low opinion of me, but it might lend some legitimacy to my efforts out there, if such a thing is possible.

We rode the normal route to Minneapolis, and then took a left on Portland Avenue towards the maze of skyscrapers and one-way streets which make up downtown.

During my long, insomniac vigil, I had run Google Earth and Mapquest on this trip, to make sure that there would be no repeat of my criminal sidewalk-riding performance from last time. I hear that surveillance cameras see everything that happens in this part of town nowadays. That kind of television exposure is a Bad Thing. Best to try and keep it legal.

When we rolled up to the WCCO studios, my videographer friend Tony Peterson greeted me from amidst his array of high-tech TV toys. He is the guy who followed me to work for that first news story, and I was happy to see him there for the conclusion of our Winter adventure. It just seemed… right.

After I parked the Baron in a telegenic pose, we shook hands and spent some time catching up on the “howyadoin’s”. Then I watched the high-powered anchors reading their teleprompters into the camera while Tony fixed a glitch with the microphone. Suddenly it occurred to me that, as long as I was being shot at dawn, I might as well shoot back! I went to the Baron and got my camera out. Then I backed off from the scene until I could capture all the elements in one wide-angle shot.

The unblinking gazeYou can see Tony there, exercising his super-bright TV light. There’s the feedback monitor (is that the right term?) and the camera on either side of him. Anchors Karen Leigh and Bill Hudson have their backs to us in the shot, and you can see the big satellite dishes over on the left. The Baron is lit-up like the monolith on the moon in the movie “2001…”.

(Click on this thumbnail, so you can see the details.)

Okay look, I’m not sure if you people even care about this stuff. I feel like a jarhead writing home about meeting a big star at the USO show. Even though I am supposed to be a jaded moto-journalist, this big media machine still holds a certain fascination for me. I’m not going to pull an attitude with you here and pretend that I wasn’t impressed by the whole thing. Why do you think I couldn’t sleep last night?

I suppose I could sum it all up by saying, “A funny thing happened on my Ride to Work this morning…”.

Karen Leigh is delicious to look at. She even smells good in the frozen air of a Minnesota Winter morning. I’m going to get in SO much trouble for writing that here. But when she came outside and we met face-to-face, I was stunned. It was very hard to stay on-message, but I managed to plug Ride-to-Work dot org once during our very short interview.

I looked like a beached Killer Whale next to the lithe and lovely Ms. Leigh, but that was better than the gnarly gnome act I pulled next to Brian Gotter, the last time I stood in the glare of these bright lights. Let’s face it, I look terrible on TV. I will never seek the camera’s cold gaze again, as long as I live.

For those of you who want to see this comedy, I sincerely hope you can link to it here:

http://wcco.com/video/?id=15464@wcco.dayport.com

I don’t know how much longer it will be up, so check it out soon. You have to sit through one of their banal commercials first, of course. Sorry.

The next entry will deal with The Ride again. My fifteen minutes are over.

Spring is Here, and We Have a Winner!

March 20th, 2006 by mnscooter

20 March, 2006 Weather: Cloudy and un-Springlike, 36°F/ 2°C

It was so nice to get back on the scooter after driving the cage last Thursday and Friday. My knee feels about 90% now and my legs don’t hurt anymore.

Im Clean!The break was good for the Baron as well, I think. He started right up and idled fast, seeming to strain at his leash. Though his bodywork is battered, his heart is still beating as strong as ever. Duct tape took care of the cracks in the dash, and he looks like a combat veteran now.

So the Baron and I have made it all the way through to Spring. At least, that’s what the calendar tells me. Wow…

During a normal year, today would have been our last day together. But since we still have six to eight inches of snow on the ground, it looks like our tour of duty has been involuntarily extended. I don’t mind. There is no other motorbike that I would rather be riding in these conditions than this tried and true Red Baron.

The plan right now is to push on to the end of this week, and then take a look at the long-range forecast. If there is no snow predicted for the first part of April, then the Baron can retire with full honors.

Having said that, we still have to announce the winner of the “Name My Blog” contest. Can I get a drum roll please? Wait… not yet. Let’s do the honorable mentions first.

By the time I had reviewed all entries on Saturday, I had ten titles submitted by six different readers. Since I am a racing fan, I will construct an imaginary podium here and introduce the first three finishers in reverse order:

In third place, with an entry that was elegantly simple, was reader JS_011762 with “Ride Well”. This is how I sign all my replies to comments, and I don’t want to get too repetitive. Thanks all the same, JS.

Second place ran a really good race. It would have come in first, if I hadn’t taken the time to Google it. The San Francisco Chronicle, and SFGate.com, has something called “The Commuter Chronicles”, and I didn’t want to seem like I was plagiarizing anything currently playing on the web. Jim and Susan entered a whole bunch of different ideas, and it was fun sorting them out. That funky frog fixation at the beginning was quite humorous. Thanks for playing, Jim and Susan, you were very good sports.

In the end, I needed something that would fit the mission of Ride to Work dot org, and still reflect my penchant for wandering. Nobody nailed this, not exactly. But Paul Streeter came closest with his entry, “Diary of a Rush Hour Rambler”. It is to him that we award the $100 Aerostich / Rider’s Wearhouse gift certificate.

It’s not perfect, mind you, and in the interest of artistic license I am going to trim it a bit to fit my vision. I have written diaries as columns my whole journalistic career, so I’m not going to start up another one here. But rush hour is when I ride the most, and when I ride, I tend to ramble. Put me in front of a keyboard and an empty screen, and I ramble some more. Ramblin’ is a way of life for me, on most days, and it is while ramblin’ that I am happiest.

So, without further ado, (you can do that drum-roll now), I present the title to my next blog on Ridetowork.org:

“Rush Hour Rambling”

Good job, Paul. Enjoy that prize!

EXPOSURE, part II

Tomorrow morning, at 6:15 in the a.m., the Baron and I are going to be on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, at the WCCO-TV studio once again.

They are going to do a follow-up to the story they aired at the beginning of this adventure. Kind of a, “Look folks! Would you believe they actually made it?”.

The photo you see at the beginning of this entry is the Baron outside of our do-it-yourself carwash, getting a bath before his last TV appearance. I put the front fender back on after we got home. I want him to look his best for the cameras.

I’m looking forward to answering their questions, whatever they may be. My message is a simple one:

“Are you a working class person who craves adventure, but you always seem a dollar short, or a day of vacation away from your dreams? The answer to this dilemma is simple. Buy yourself a motorbike and some good riding gear, for much less than you would spend on a car, and Ride To Work.

The adventure is waiting right outside your front door! “

Last Call: Name My Blog Contest

March 17th, 2006 by mnscooter

St. Patrick’s Day, 2006 Weather: Mild Winter Conditions, above freezing.

Well, we’re almost there. Monday will be the last day of calendar Winter.

Please notice that I capitalized the word Winter. I have been struggling with that all season long. I’ve seen it done both ways, but I seem to remember being taught in grade school that we capitalize the names of the seasons.

Regardless of academic rules, Old Man Winter has earned his title this year with his brilliantly vicious, end-of-season ambush. He is a formidable foe, who must be accomodated on those days when he decides to throw-down on us puny humans. He has left a seasonal legacy a foot deep in most of my neighborhood, and he may not respect our arbitrary calendar limits on his reign this year. We’ll see…

Regardless of that, however, I have got to bring this “Name My Blog” contest to an end. This is last call for entries to win the $100 Aerostich gift certificate by picking a suitable name for my next commuter blog on ridetowork.org.

At noon tomorrow, 18 March, 2006, I will begin to gather and cull all of the entries we have received since the inception of this contest. When I have come up with a top-10 list, I will contact my Ride To Work colleagues, and we will review the best entries to decide the winner. On Monday, 20 March, 2006, we will announce the winner on my evening blog entry. I’m not sure yet if that will be the last entry in TBIW, because I won’t ride anything other than this well-proven Red Baron in the snow. But we will all know the name of my next commuter blog come Monday night.

I am hoping to make a seamless transition from TBIW to whatever comes next. Andy Goldfine has made the suggestion that I take some time off from blogging, but this has almost become an addiction for me. I hope you all are enjoying reading this as much as I enjoy writing it.

My next blog on this site will be much more subtle in tone and varied in subject matter. The adversary will always be box people and cage traffic, along with the tyranny of the clock; but the scenery will vary a lot more.

I will travel into areas as-yet unexplored and introduce you to places, people, and images that you would never see anywhere else. You will meet other riders, and learn their stories. You will see cool places in our Twin Cities and meet the people who work or hang-out there. All of this on my Ride To Work, and home again. After all, nobody ever said that we have to go straight home every night.

This is going to be fun, and I am really looking forward to it. So send me a name! Something that I can wrap this thing around and light it up with. I’m looking forward to your final efforts before we pick a winner. Good Luck!

Lessons Learned…

March 16th, 2006 by mnscooter

16 March, 2006 Weather: Snow all morning, mild afternoon.

Well, I didn’t need a briefing to see that there were six inches of snow on my front steps this morning. Opening the screen door, I stuck a yardstick into the snow, and I knew right away that I would be driving today.

My neighborhood was covered in white, including the streets. And those streets were treacherous, because the fresh white blanket covered ice ruts and ridges which would throw the Baron and I to the ground with no warning at all. It wasn’t scooter weather, that’s for sure.

I won’t bore you with my morning commute in the cage through freeway traffic.

But I want to tell you about some lessons I have learned this week, which bring the entire Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter project into perspective.

First, on the way home this afternoon, I decided to do another reconnaissance of my scooter route. What I found was very revealing. Public Works crews had been busy since last night preparing the roads for the coming snowstorm. They got out ahead of the snow and laid down a nice layer of salt and sand. Apparently, they were fully staffed, because there was nothing but slush on even the worst sections of my favorite roads home.

This started me thinking…

Monday’s storm started on Sunday night. If P.W. is like any other union, members get double-time pay for working on Sundays and Holidays. Could it be that the managers of Public Works decided to save some money on labor by waiting until Monday morning, after the worst of the storm damage was done, to send out the full compliment of crews? Is this why the ice was allowed to build up on the sidestreets to the point where they were dangerous to cars, let alone crazy me on a scooter? I don’t know. I will probably never know. But it is something to keep in mind on Winter Mondays in the future.

The second thing I learned: There is a reason dirt bikes are built with fenders far above the tires. That is so your front wheel doesn’t get clogged and lock up whenever you encounter a slip-sloppery mess like I did on Monday morning.

The third thing: Never try to ride in snow that is deeper than your ground clearance. This should be self-explanatory, but it never occurred to me until Monday morning.

Finally, I learned to take some time to weigh the risks of my actions against the possible rewards. The risks I took on Monday were way out of proportion to what I had intended at the beginning of this project. But I got so carried away with the challenge that I let my brutal jarhead mentality come to the fore, crushing all reason and rationality with it’s implacable, relentless will to win against impossible odds.

Riding to work is a wonderful thing, for so many reasons, but it is not an overpowering mandate. Never risk your life just to get to work. Wait a day, and the misery will still be there, waiting for YOU. Get there safely, so you can live to ride another day.

Baron Battered, But Unbeaten

March 15th, 2006 by mnscooter

15 March, 2006 Weather: Mild winter conditions, horrible roads.

I would really like to know what Public Works was doing on Monday night, into Tuesday morning. None of the sidestreets that I ride received any attention. These roads still had ridges and ruts of solid ice, frozen from the slush left on the streets overnight. Road conditions were worse on Tuesday morning than they were when I rode home on Monday afternoon. This is inexcusable.

Have the cities and counties run out of salt and sand? Hardly. After our mild January and February, they still have stockpiles of the stuff. Have they already laid off some of the plow drivers? I don’t know, but I would sure like to find out.

I suited up on Tuesday morning, ready to ride the Baron to work. When I went to pull him out of the garage, he wouldn’t budge. He acted like his front brake was stuck on. Why? On closer inspection, I found the entire space between the tire and fender was solid ice. The spaces between the three spokes of the wheel were filled with ice and snow. This was a lightbulb revelation! Now I knew why it felt like the front tire had gone bald on Monday. Now I knew why the ice and snow seemed especially slick on my ride home. The snow and ice had packed into the fender and were acting like a front brake every time I hit a slippery surface.

That was why I strained my groin muscles holding the front end off the ground so many times. That’s why my right knee is a solid mass of black and blue right now. That fender would have to come off if I was going to ride in any more heavy, wet, sticky snow.

I thought about busting out the tools and doing it right then, but I was already late for work. The thought of trying to hurry down such treacherous roads with weak legs and a bruised knee convinced me that it would be OK to drive the cage to work. Throw Old Man Winter a bone, let him win one round… why not?

On Monday, The Baron and I proved that we could punch our way through his worst blizzard of this season. We both deserved a little R&R. So I drove…

I piloted our family Beetle down the roads which comprise my normal scootering route. This would be a reconnaissance for Wednesday morning. I found frozen ruts so bad that the suspension bottomed out. I heard ominous scraping sounds underneath the floorpan. I could imagine a mini-iceberg ripping the guts out of the oilpan, turning us into a four-wheeled Titanic.

This imagination thing got so bad that I started driving with the tires on the high-spots, straddling the ruts and sliding everywhere. There was NO WAY I could have ridden through there on the Baron. But I would take the same route on the way home, just to see if conditions had improved.

They had, but not much. West River Road was still not safe for a scooter. The only improvements had come from sun-melt, but this didn’t affect the shady spots. I doubt that a plow truck went down there all day. East River Road was only a little better. There were still long stretches of solid ice, with little or no salt/sand mix to aid traction.

If the Baron and I were to ride this morning, I would have to come up with a different route.

Using Google Earth, I flew a virtual route that took Robert Street to Kellogg, to Marion, to University Avenue. University parallels I-94 through the Twin Cities. It is a high-traffic thoroughfare, so it should be in good shape. From University, I could cross the river and hook up with Highway 55 via a couple of sidestreets, minimizing our exposure to the really wretched conditions.

For once, everything went exactly as planned. We made it to work this morning in an hour and ten minutes. There was little traffic, as we left early, and the conditions were just as I had predicted. The ride home wouldn’t go as smoothly, however.

The Baron looked pretty beat-up sitting out in the parking lot. The plastic along the right side is scraped, and there’s a big chunk missing out of the “dash”. There are cracks all along the floorboard and around the steering head. Then there were his spindly fork legs sticking out, naked without their stylish fender. Still, after three crashes in one day, he carried me to work like a champion this morning.

The ride home, along the same University Avenue route, was a traffic nightmare. I didn’t leave work until almost four p.m., and it was four-thirty by the time we got into the thick of the traffic along this four-to-six-lane boulevard. The traffic signals prevent it from being a free-for-all, but you sure spend a lot of time waiting for your chance to dash another block, only to stop again. It was maddening, not to mention dangerous. I believe there are a lot of road-ragin’ refugees from the freeway who drive this route. People make the most ridiculous moves, just to get a car length or two ahead. Nobody was looking for a scooter out there, and I was feeling extremely vulnerable on the Baron.

We made it home, but it took us nearly two hours. I hate that route. I won’t ride it again, if I have any choice, not during rush hour.

Tomorrow we are supposed to get another six inches of snow. With my scooter roads still in lousy condition from Monday’s blizzard, and with my body still mending from the damage it sustained, I don’t think I want to deal with this.

I’m starting to feel like a “short-timer” in one of those Vietnam War movies. Man, I am so close to going back to the real world of Springtime riding and commuting that I don’t want to get zapped so close to the end of my “tour”. My repairs to the family Beetle are working, and my wife has found a friend at work she can carpool with, so the cage thing is very tempting.

I’m not going to make a decision tonight. I’ll wait until after my morning “briefing” of news and weather reports before making up my mind. Six inches of snow is the deciding factor. If we are going to get that, it would be irresponsible and foolhardy to try and ride. The Baron and I have nothing more to prove, and I don’t want to be laid up in a hospital for the first part of the real riding season.

Tune in tomorrow…

Old Man Winter’s Revenge

March 13th, 2006 by mnscooter

13 March, 2006 Weather: Blizzard Conditions, 32°F/0°C Wind Gusting 40mph

If I had it to do all over again, I would have driven the cage this morning. Better yet, maybe I should have just stayed home.

March often brings Minnesota some of it’s most, um… interesting weather of the Winter season. Though seldom terribly cold, we do sometimes get horrific snowfalls this time of year.

Some attribute this to esoteric factors such as basketball or hockey tournaments.

But you and I both know it is all about the de-hibernation of our motorbikes. The heat and noise of our combined exhaust rises into the air, as we rev motors which have been dormant for four or five months, and this provokes Old Man Winter into a fit of rage at us puny humans. He responds by dumping outrageous quantities of snow upon us, just to shut us up!

Such was the case this morning.

Over the weekend, we had Springlike weather which saw motorbikes of every type running around the Twin Cities as though Winter had never happened. Daytona Bikeweek was going down in sunny Florida, and motorcyclists everywhere were feeling it. OMW was pissed! After a wimpy January and a mediocre February, his numbers were sagging in the polls. He had to do something drastic!

So he marshalled his forces and hit us with a solid foot of snow, all in less than twenty-four hours, and brought most of the Twin Cities to a standstill.

Now, early on in this project, I had speculated about what conditions would prompt me to abort the scooter-commute in favor of driving the cage to work. If I recall correctly, that was going to be six inches of accumulation on the ground at the time I had to leave for work.

This morning, we had exactly that, but something else in the equation had changed: I no longer had reliable four-wheel transportation.

Do we really wanna do this?It was scoot or stay home this morning. Last Friday used up all my available time-off, so I felt compelled to ride to work as long as the Baron and I could make forward progress down the street.

OMW is a wily old bastard. He uses guerrilla tactics to suck an overconfident adversary into his ambush. He let us ride down our street, and down neighboring streets, without too much trouble. The going was slow, of course, but I thought it was manageable. Ramsey County had sanded and plowed a little bit on the sidestreets that I normally ride, and I was feeling pretty good as we got to the end of East River Road.

My intention was to stop for coffee at Dunn Brothers over the Lake Street Bridge and figure out the rest of my route from there. But Dunn Brothers was dark, as were the streetlights and traffic signals. This part of town had been hit by a power outage. So the Baron and I made the right turn onto West River Road, and that is when we entered Old Man Winter’s kill zone.

Hennepin County assigns no priority whatsoever to West River Road during a “snow emergency”. At least that’s the way it looks from the saddle of the Baron. We seldom see anything done to this road other than the erratic tire-ruts of SUVs and luxury cars. When we try to follow those ruts, especially in these slick conditions, every deviation from straight ahead means we have to slow way down, put the boots down, or risk taking a spill when the front tire tries to follow a vector at odds with our momentum. This is polished slush-ice, and there is no traction at all for a lightweight, two-wheeled vehicle.

The constant footwork required to keep the front-end tracking eventually wears out the old thigh and ab muscles. I was getting tired, and just before we reached our turn on Plymouth Road, I faltered. The Baron went down, but I remained standing, humiliated in the middle of the road, with an imperious wench in a big Lexus SUV smirking down at me from the oncoming lane. I clearly didn’t belong out here in these conditions. The really sad thing is… she was right.

Turning left onto Plymouth Road, things went from bad to impossible. We tried to make headway, but the forty-mph wind gusts hit so hard that anytime we established a semi-stable track along the rutted road, the wind would push us sideways and cause the scooter to fishtail and weathercock.

I tried Highway 55 to no avail. This too was icy and rutted with the added hazard of heavy traffic. I would get killed out there if I tried to continue. So we went back to the sidestreets.

These were just plain impassable. By this time, the snow was over eight inches deep, and the Baron only has four inches of ground clearance. We had trouble moving on flat ground, but the slightly uphill slope of these roads were impossible for us to negotiate.

Sweating inside my helmet, trying to see out of a fogged-and-frosted visor, I spotted the Minneapolis Hmong Academy building just off of Highway 55. The Baron and I slid into their parking lot just as the faculty were arriving. We made our way across the snowy expanse and I asked them if I could take shelter in their building for awhile. They didn’t know what to make of me at first, but their good nature got the best of them, and they let me inside.

I spent the next half hour explaining the Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter project to them, and while they didn’t exactly get behind the idea, at least they accepted me as an earnest, if misguided, fellow human. The power was out in that neighborhood too, but they fed me cookies and bottled water as I waited for the plows to come by or the traffic to die down.

Well, we made it...Eventually they all decided to go home, and that meant I would have to continue my journey as well. The Baron and I headed out onto Highway 55 and had no trouble keeping up with the 5-10 mph gridlock crawl. We did this all the way to work, where I found the power was out and we were not going to be working today. Oh, great…

The Boss said I could hang around the building for awhile until the weather eased up, or the plows had a chance to catch up. Neither of which happened before the Baron and I set sail for home.

We toppled over a couple more times on the return trip. I put this down to fatigue, both mental and physical. The snow-covered ruts all look the same after awhile. Some are very slippery, others are not.

53 miles of this!?Either way, it is not the right place to be riding a scooter. Today, we found the limits of this Winter Scooter experience. The Baron has lost a bit more plastic, but is otherwise perfectly functional. I have a few more bruises and strained muscles. This is how we learn, I guess.

Fun in the Sun?

March 10th, 2006 by mnscooter

10 March, 2006 Weather: Springtime, partly cloudy

It felt so good to ride without the whole freaking spacesuit for a change. I left the rain pants and heated vest at home yesterday, and the Darien jacket kept me warm without electrical assistance. We passed the Red KLR guy on East River Road again, and waved, again… this is becoming a routine. Nice bike. Who are you?

We didn’t stop for photos, because I had to get to work early. Amy and Emily were going to meet me in the afternoon and we were all going to visit Baron HQ so the girls could shop for their new scooter. They were so excited, it was all they could talk about. My girls are finally going to see what it’s like to ride out of the box this Spring, and I can’t wait to show them the way.

Work went quickly. At three-thirty, I wrapped things up and met my girls in the parking lot. We drove over to Baron HQ in the family cage. The less said about that, the better. Amy is a capable driver, but I am a terrible passenger.

Baron Motorcycles is housed in a warehouse complex off Highway 55 in Plymouth. It is a family business, everyone who works there is related. The atmosphere nearing the beginning of Spring is a bit chaotic. However, sales-manager Ivan made us feel right at home.

Amy was interested in the VLA 150 “Classic”, and we pulled a white one out of the ranks of scooters awaiting final assembly and shipment. She sat on it, rocking it back and forth, and told me that she REALLY likes it now.

I wanna ride!Young Miss Emily wasn’t so sure. You see, though it may be pretty, it isn’t pink. Mama Amy doesn’t do pink, but Miss Emily has been exposed to the whole Hello Kitty / Disney Princess consumer culture, and there is no other color acceptable to her.

Daddy says, “A pox on ad agencies everywhere! I want my daughter back!”

So we had our little family argument while Ivan stood patiently to one side, checking the ceiling for cracks. Finally, we asked him what other colors were available, and he said “You wouldn’t believe it. I’ll email you a color chart, and we can order one up special.” How cool is that?

Once that dispute was settled, we wandered around the showroom looking at the wide variety of scooters they sell under the Baron name, and some bigger ones that have come in from a company called CF Moto. Miss Emily found a pink scooter over in one corner, and wouldn’t get off of it until I took her photo.

Old World CraftsmanshipThere is one tranquil space in this warehouse where the chaotic atmosphere fades away. Up towards the front of the showroom is Uncle Zhenya’s Workshop.

Uncle Zhenya performs assembly and maintenance on Baron scooters to soft strains of classical music, coming from a small radio on his workbench. He speaks Russian, with only a few words of English, but he is a mechanical maestro on these little machines.

When our visit was over, we went across the street to a Chinese buffet. After a nice meal, the girls drove me back to Banner, where I picked up the Baron and rode a leisurely pace home. I had told Amy to follow me in the car, but they opted to take the freeway. This was a choice they would soon regret…

I had been home, pacing the floor for well over an hour, when the tow truck finally brought my girls home. AAA to the rescue once again. This VW New Beetle has been nothing but trouble from day one. I can’t fix it because the bodywork is shrink-wrapped over every critical component, and you need tools I don’t have to work on it. This time, it overheated in gridlocked traffic, and there was coolant residue in the oil. Not good at all.

I won’t bore you with the details. It has been an ongoing battle with VW service to get this thing fixed properly. Here we go again… Just another reason why cages suck.

So I didn’t ride to work today. I stayed home to try and sort out my four-wheeled nightmares. My dad came over to help me out. Amy’s Beetle is now safe enough for the local trips she usually takes. The truck is going to need a lot more work. I’ve left it sitting for far too long. That’s what happens when you commit yourself to travelling on two wheels, I guess. Do I regret it? Not one bit.