Archive for March, 2006

Stolen Ride Down a Dead End Street

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

Weather: Rainy morning followed by a damp, cloudy day.

There’s a big storm headed our way, coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. At least that’s what the Windsock and Crystal Ball Guild says. What a racket meteorology is! It’s the only profession I know of where you can be wrong so often and still keep your job.

I drove the cage to work today, because I didn’t want to soak the Black Baron in corrosive road brine for fifty-three miles. It was raining hard when I left home this morning, but then it tapered off to nothing throughout the day. I drove through a couple of sprinkles on the way home, but you know what I was thinking… I should have ridden.

My wife had a doctor’s appointment when I got home, (nothing serious), so I hung out with my daughter while she was gone. When she returned, the streets were fairly dry, and I was itchin’ to ride. With Amy’s blessing, I donned my Darien, helmet and gloves, and practically sprinted out to the garage. I would have to get this one in quickly, because the green blob on the weather radar was already approaching the 494 side of the freeway loop around the Twin Cities. With the helmet and gear on, I felt like a fighter pilot scrambling on an intercept mission.

BB and I rolled out of the driveway and headed south. He is such a smooth-running, comfy character. We stayed off the rush-hour highways and headed for Concord Street. This runs through the stockyards in South Saint Paul, all the way out to the ever-sprawling suburb of Inver Grove Heights. I cherish the old buildings and the few independent businesses still operating there, because I know that eventually they will be replaced by the clone-stores found in every strip mall across the country. Progress, huh? And this is a good thing for whom? (Oh, but it’s so conveeeeenient!)

Hey, who put that soapbox there? Sorry…

Speed limits on Concord are right in BB’s sweet spot. Thirty-five mph zones roll into forties, then fifty as you get farther away from the business center. We rode Concord Street all the way to the end, and turned right on something called Courthouse Road.

I had never been here before, and it was a fascinating ride. We had just passed one of the suburban strip malls I mentioned, but here, only a half mile down the road, we were riding past old red barns and pastures. I know for a fact that only a few more miles south lies the prosperous modern community of Eagan. But right here in the middle, caught between the big city and the big-time `burbs, was this bucolic interlude of charming rural character.

Please don’t tell me these are what they call “Hobby Farms”. But of course, that’s exactly what they are… Well, they make for much better scenery than Starbucks-Blockbuster-McDonalds. We rolled past some marvellous homes, tastefully hidden amongst the trees, across many acres of rustic lawn.

Eventually, we came upon a Dead End sign. A lady was walking her two dogs, off-the-leash, right down the middle of the road. I pulled up cautiously, lifted the visor on my helmet, and played the lost traveller.

“Pardon me, but I think I’m lost. What neighborhood is this?”

She smiled and said, “This is OLD Inver Grove”. She really emphasized that “old” part.

“Are there any other roads like this around here?”

She thought for a moment, and then shook her head. “No, we are very fortunate to have this one, so close to the city. Where were you trying to go?”

“Well, to be honest, I was just sort of wandering around. I thought I would steal a ride in between rainstorms. I live in West Saint Paul, and I guess I should be heading back now.”

Again, the gracious smile… “Well, the only way to get there is back the way you came.”

I thanked her, and then the Black Baron and I turned around. We rode away slowly from that little pocket of the American Dream, and made our way back to Concord Street, and the cheap side of town.

It started raining lightly along the way, and the wind was starting to pick up. We pulled into the driveway as the storm gathered strength. I tucked BB in for the night and headed into the house.

The rain is beating down hard on my roof as I type this. I’m sitting up here in my attic, in the dark, listening to the drip-drip-drip of the leak around our skylight. I’ve placed a large bowl under that, and it has never filled up even during the worst storms of the past two years.

Yes, I am a bad homeowner. The trouble is, whenever it’s nice enough outside to tackle a job like fixing that leak, it is also perfect riding weather. I’ve never been able to resolve that conflict in favor of the house. That’s also why I usually have the longest grass in the neighborhood.

Hey, a man has to have his priorities, right?

Gentleman’s Express

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006
Gentleman's Express                

Weather: Sunny this morning, above freezing. Rain tonight.

All the ice is gone from the roads now. In it’s place are patches of salty sand which, if you’re not paying attention, can still put you on the ground. It’s kind of like riding over tiny ball bearings. But if you stay in the wheel tracks of the endless parade of cages, it’s usually not a problem.

I’ve been riding the Black Baron 250PM for the past five days. It is quite a change from the Red Baron. The extra 100cc’s mean that I can keep up with traffic on the highways within the city.

60 – 65 mph is sustainable, and actually quite pleasant. Since he is still under break-in restrictions, we are not doing any top-speed or sustained full-throttle runs yet. But I like the way he accelerates, and I don’t have to watch the rearview mirrors with the same intensity anymore. Now I am scanning forward for cops, hidden in radar traps. Standard operating procedure…

Which probably saved me some money tonight, on the way home from work. The Black Baron and I crested a hill on West River Road, and came upon a Minneapolis squad car parked on the grass, facing traffic in the right lane. This is a new “hide” for them. Normally, they don’t drive on the grass, as this is city parkland.

Nevertheless, there he was.

As soon as I saw the lightbar over there on the right, I was grabbing brakes. We weren’t speeding a lot, but we were a bit above the limit. The Black Baron has hydraulic disc brakes front and rear, and we were legal by the time Johnny Law could draw a bead on us. Yup, Spring is here, and the games have begun.

East River Road, on the Saint Paul side of the river, has many interesting curves. I quickly found the limits of the Black Baron’s lean angle there. The centerstand is the first thing to touch down on either side, and it doesn’t take much. I heard the sound of metal-on-tarmac several times as we hustled through my favorite sections. I was feeling kind of sporty tonight.

But the Black Baron isn’t really a sporty scooter. He is more of a Gentleman’s Express. If you do some research on that term, you will find that there have been several motorcycles and some other vehicles throughout history that have worn that sobriquet.

Fast in a straight line, with civilized handling, but not well suited for hooligan antics. This is more of a dignified, comfortable ride. When operated in that fashion, the Black Baron shines. I’m thinking we might have looked a bit silly tonight, throwing sparks from the centerstand as we negotiated the Ford chicane. No matter. Inside my helmet I was wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Just another night, having fun on a motorbike. What a tough life…

It is supposed to rain most of the day tomorrow. I’m struggling with whether or not to ride. This is not my scooter. It is a development mule. Does that mean I’m supposed to knowingly subject it to a saltwater bath, to see which parts corrode overnight? That wasn’t covered in my mission briefing. The cage is running alright, and I can certainly use that. But I have developed a serious aversion to driving, especially since proving that I can ride in almost any weather.

The soothing tones of Comcast’s Weatherscan channel are playing in my ear as I type this. I see a strong storm system heading our way on the radar, but it has quite a few gaps in it. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and enjoy a dry commute in the morning. It doesn’t matter if it rains on the way home. Man, I sure don’t want to drive…

Guess I’d better sleep on it.


In Moto Veritas

Tuesday, March 28th, 2006

28 March, 2006 Weather: Cloudy and cool, 36°F (2°C)

Hello, and welcome to my new blog, Rush Hour Rambling. Thanks again, Paul Streeter, for coming up with that name. You must tell us what you bought with your Aerostich gift certificate.

For those of you who came here looking for The Baron in Winter, please notice the link on the right sidebar. That blog was retired, along with the Red Baron scooter, after a successful Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter project. The Red Baron and I both survived, with lots of great memories and some bruised bodywork. You should be able to access the entire contents, along with reader’s comments, in the archive.

Spring is here, and that means life is getting busier. So are the roads. Traffic seems to pick up a bit during the Spring, because more people go out cruising when they are not commuting back and forth to work. We have a bit more traffic to watch out for, but there is also so much more to DO!

But for this first entry, I want to discuss my riding philosophy as it exists today. The best way to do that is to share with you the essay that I sent to Cycle World magazine when I applied for an associate editor position this past autumn.

Senior Editor David Edwards put out the call for budding moto-journalists to send in a one-thousand word essay on any motorcycle topic, from Ariel to Zundapp, along with a resume of their other journalistic experience.

In my essay, which totalled EXACTLY one-thousand words, I laid out what I have learned over the course of thirty-some years riding motorbikes. They never called, and that was six months ago. Of course, they never announced a newly hired editor either, unless I missed a memo…

Nevertheless, here is my essay:

In Moto Veritas

It all started when the wild boys came back from World War II. While the rest of postwar society got caught up in movies and music and other tame distractions, the boys found danger and adventure on two wheels.

Out on the open road, riding in packs with their buddies, they rediscovered the camaraderie they felt in the hedgerows of Europe, and on the beaches of the Pacific. Sporting colors like those of fighter squadrons, they competed against each other in contests of skill and courage, all over the wide open spaces of America. From hill climbs to hare scrambles, drag races to bar fights, they wandered the roads in search of… what? Some call it truth, but I have always liked the Latin term: “Veritas”.

For many, the motorcycle is the best vehicle for this kind of journey. It is the closest mechanical analogue to the cowboy’s faithful horse. You sit in a saddle, with your feet on pegs not unlike stirrups, and you ride high and proud out there in the elements. The machinery is minimal, simple, and elegant. You are not dragging two tons of tin around with you, while watching the world go by through a window. But this has all been said before in various books on the subject, and if you ride, you probably already know.

Motorcycling today is not as simple as it once was. Now it seems you must have a different bike for each particular type of ride. The motorcycle is no longer simply a mode of transport, but a Lifestyle. Each group has its own religion. They believe that only their unique combination of ritual and tribute will deliver their souls into Moto Heaven. Veritas indeed. It seems we spend so much time looking down our noses at each other that we fail to see all the cool rides we are missing.

The American V-Twin sect seems to dominate motorcycle religion right now, and I’ve counted myself amongst their ranks in the distant past. But things started changing in the 1980’s. Before the Holy Evolution, you had to be a competent mechanic and a full-time badass in order to claim membership. V-Twin Veritas involved a rigorous code of honor, which often conflicted with socially acceptable behavior.

Today, however, you simply have to pay your tithe and look the part at the various revivals and festivals they hold around the country. The rituals pay homage to the traditions, but more in the manner of an adult theme-park. Doctors and deviants, judges and pimps all meet in places which, for a week or two, are entirely devoted to indulging their perversions and taking their money. Well, why not? It’s the American way, isn’t it?

For a while there, in the 1990s, Ducati came on strong as a sort of neo-papist crusade in sportbike culture. I also belonged to that devotion. We worshipped at the feet of Saint Carl of Blackburn, during his glorious reign as World Superbike Champion. For me, riding a 900SS full-throttle into turn one at Brainerd was definitely a religious experience. In the Exotic Sportbike Brotherhood, we worshipped on the road, but we learned the truth in various courtrooms: “You cannot practice your religion in public, lest you menace the infidels.”

I was all set to convert to the Shrine of the Vintage Japanese Motorcycle, when I took a detour and followed Robert Pirsig a little too far down his peculiar rabbit hole….

Pirsig wrote “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, back in the 1970s. Many of us picked up that book, hoping to read a definitive tome which would teach us to adjust torsion bar valve springs and balance the six carburetors of the formidable Honda CBX, all while meditating in the lotus position. How disappointed we were when motorcycles figured only superficially in his mind-bending odyssey.

But I was intrigued, so I tagged along through his next book, “Lila”, in which he introduced the “metaphysics of quality”. That led to Sarte, Camus, and Nietzsche; years of unguided wandering in the mental minefields of philosophy. Soon, the brand and style of my motorcycle weren’t nearly so important as the places it could take me.

That was when I discovered the Dogma of Dual-sport, on the humble, ubiquitous KLR 650. I started writing “Backroads Diary” then, and my attempt to describe thumper theology went like this:

“He is not fast, after all, and he is not pretty. These things were important to me, once upon a time. I always wanted my bike to stand out in a crowd, and leave the punters behind out on the roads that mattered. When you watch motorcycle commercials on television, these are the essential themes. But for some reason, I seem to have gotten over that.

Today I want my bike to be capable of transporting me over varied terrain, for long distances, with as little drama as possible. The KLR is a good basic platform for this. You want simplicity? One cylinder, one carburetor, one spark plug. How’s that for a zen motorbike, Grasshopper? When I am able to ride it on one wheel, I will have achieved nirvana. Ohhhmmmmm….”

A curious devolution continues to this day. My current project is to ride a 150cc Chinese motorscooter through the teeth of a Minnesota winter. With the “Minnesota Winter Scooter Commuter Project”, I ride the fifty miles to and from work, every day that the roads are plowed, in temperatures as low as the machine will stand. I am using technology to cope with temperature, and riding skills learned off-road to overcome the challenges of winter conditions.

Hey, when the middle-aged mother across the street rides a Harley, how else do you stand out as the neighborhood rebel? 

So finally we come to the moral of this story. It’s a truth I have distilled into a simple slogan, worthy of a banal TV commercial perhaps, but veritas nonetheless.  

Here it is: Life is short. Ride everything.