In the Belly of the Beast

14 December, 2005 Temperature: 30 degrees F

Power corrupts. They also say that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I would have to say that the mere perception of absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is a profound distinction between the two.

I have spent the last three days in the guise of my nemesis, the dreaded SUV driver. Banner Engineering sent me on another quality audit trip, on short notice, to our satellite plants in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Aberdeen, South Dakota. It is our practice to rent a 4WD SUV for these trips to the hinterlands in winter, because of the unpredictable road conditions. This was an opportunity to get inside my enemy’s head and find out what makes them tick.

On Sunday afternoon, I picked up the burgundy GMC Yukon from Enterprise rent-a-car. My first impression was obvious… this thing is enormous! Five doors, seating for eight, and all this to transport my little butt and one small bag around the tundra. The gas tank was almost empty when I climbed aboard. So I unlimbered my company credit card and went next door to fill `er up. Forty-eight dollars later, the gas gauge showed full, and I drove it home.

My second impression was: “Where’s the road?” I couldn’t feel it from the cockpit. Sitting way up high, it felt like the captain’s chair on a small ocean liner. I found myself looking around for the telegraph to the engine room.

You feel fully insulated from everything in this behemoth. The power steering has a feather-light touch. I’m sure the pump which runs that system requires more horsepower to drive than my scooter makes at redline.

There was a bewildering array of buttons and dials to command climate control, cruise control, traction control… why, it gives the impression that you can control your entire universe with the correct sequence of manual inputs. This could be very addicting. What an ego trip!

I can definitely understand the appeal of these monsters. You take an average guy, the paragon of mediocrity, and plug him into the driver’s seat of a giant SUV. Suddenly, he sprouts a cape with matching tights. He can go anywhere! Nothing can get in his way. As long as he can keep feeding the gas tank, (I got 13 mpg on the highway), he is King of the Road. That is why these things are dangerous.

As it turned out, the roads were kind of icy over in South Dakota. There was a Ford Expedition laying on it’s side in the wide, grassy median. This was on a stretch of road that was dead-straight all the way to the horizon. You could see by the wrinkles on the roof that it had rolled completely over at least once. What the heck was he doing? These were conditions that a 16 year-old me learned to cope with in a 1972 Pinto wagon. In winters long past, I used to drive that thing sideways almost as much as straight ahead. On purpose! No traction control there. I learned to actually DRIVE the thing. Well, you get the idea. People who begin their driving career in these high-tech SUVs never learn their limits, until it’s too late.

But this is interesting: Because of the fact that we had a heavy snowfall last night, the radio stations who interviewed me before both called me again today. I gave a short interview on FM 107 this morning. Ian and Margery seemed quite disappointed that I hadn’t tried to tackle the blizzard on my little scooter. That was a short interview.

Now I am sitting here, listening to Joe Soucheray’s “Garage Logic” on the radio, after his producer called me to find out how I got to work. When I told her, Kelly Lynn said, “Ok… I’ll tell him.” She was profoundly unimpressed.

I don’t think they will be calling me back tonight.

So, they say we expect another four inches of snow before my commute tomorrow. I will be riding the Red Baron. We will leave early, to avoid the traffic, and to ride through some virgin snow on the quiet residential streets. The river roads should be beautiful in the dark, early morning. I wonder if you understand why I am looking forward to this.

It’s not about the risk or the danger. It’s not about the notoriety. Most people are just waiting for you to fall, to fail, to get maimed or even killed… you eventually discover that their main interest is to validate their own “play-it-safe, stay-in-your-box” routine. It’s all about them.

But for me, it’s about being out there, and experiencing this wintery world in all it’s unfiltered beauty. It’s about showing people that there are worthwhile alternatives to the regimented, insulated, cage-driving lifestyle. It’s about having something REAL to look forward to when you get up in the morning, and at the end of the work day. Finally, it’s about having fun on a motorbike, all year round. Really, it’s that simple.

10 Responses to “In the Belly of the Beast”

  1. Tom Says:

    I envy your ambition to suit up for the ride to work. There are many beautiful days during the so-called “riding season” that I can’t be bothered taking the change of clothes and the extra time. It’s much easier to just hop in the car and zip in to work. I like to ride for pleasure, and riding to or from work seems more like work to me than fun. My loss, I guess.

    I have to agree with you about really “learning” how to drive. I understand the safety features on today’s vehicles, but I question the ability of drivers who either never learned, or have lost the ability to truly handle their cars in bad conditions because of the idiot-proofing of newer cars. I know people who “use” their anti-lock brakes everytime they stop in bad weather, just because it’s “easier” than using the proper following distance and slowing techniques. I think everyone should be required to learn how to drive in snow in something like a 72 Crysler New Yorker with a 440 and rear-wheel drive, so they can experience the fear of losing tration and finding themselves looking where they just came from. They can also learn how to harness that power with a lesson in the value of power-oversteer. Winter in one of these cars teaches drivers finesse and respect for the power and weight at their control.

    I took some driving lessons on a skid-pad in Wisconsin in cars and tractor-trailers whose tires could be locked up by the ride-along instructor. That was the most valuable day behind the wheel I have ever spent. Anyone who drives anything should be required to do this- not only do you learn the theory of getting out of a skid, but you actually do it repeatedly, so when it happens in the real world, you don’t panic, you just revert to training. I am a little embarrassed, but mostly proud to say that this has save me a couple times on the road.

    I am licensed to operate anything on the road and also am a driving instructor and road-test examiner. I firmly believe that all drivers should take at least some sort of familiarization course to learn about all types of vehicles they will encounter on the road, so they know what to expect and how to deal with them. I don’t think it’s too much to ask before they are licensed to put themselves in a 3,000 lb or more lethal weapon and hit the road. It’s far too easy to get (and keep) a license…

    Jeez… did I need to vent.

    OK, getting off the soap box now…

  2. Lev Says:

    ‘72 Pinto Wagon! Yes! I had one of those. Black with tinted windows. Bought it for $150. And yes, I was 16. I mentioned Pinto to my guys at the shop, they didn’t even know what that was! Wow… I feel old!

    This was a real classic road bomb… literally. If you got rearended, the gas tank exploded. Cool!

  3. Marty Laplant Says:

    Another snow tire source for scooters,
    www.ixs.de
    These are the tires used by the Swiss mail carriers on their scooters.
    They use the modern lamelen tread.
    They are supposed to be good for all year and much better than what you are using now.
    If you need translation help let me know.
    Marty
    I agree, the most important thing about getting out of the “boxes” is to feel and realize that we are part of this whole thing that is life, not separate from nature and the rest of life. I notice that here in Germany all motorcycle riders greet each other with a wave stop to help if they ever see one on the side of the road.
    Car and other “cage” drivers don’t see each other as humans but just as threats or obsticals to get around. I know I catch myself thinking the same.
    I often think that every driver should experience their commute on a bicycle or scooter, they would never drive the same again.
    Keep up the good work and faith!

  4. mnscooter Says:

    This is great feedback, guys. I’m writing to you from that coffee shop in the news video. We are riding through about four inches of snow on some of the side streets this morning, and there is no traction there at all. We are creeping along at about 10 mph, feet out, and since there are no other vehicles moving about at this hour, I’m having a ball.

    Gotta go now, though. If I hang around too long, the SUV monsters are going to come out. Yikes!

    Ride well,
    =gc=

  5. Tina Says:

    Yep, it’s all about being out there and on the bike. :)

    I live in Scotland, and the weather here isn’t as cold, and my commute only takes about 40 minutes, but even folk here think I’m a loon for still riding to work this time of year. But I love it. It’s what gives me the motivation to get up in the morning. But there are so few people who seem to understand that.

    Love your blog, keep riding and keep writing. :)

    -Tina

  6. Buster Brown Says:

    Two words: Ice screws. I was talking to the Moto Mutz the other night. They are riding on the ice somewhere every weekend. Moto Primo now sells liners for ice tires so you can run 3/4″ Kold Kutters without having to cut up an old street tire as a liner. For $525, they will sell you a pair of Kenda ice tires already set up with screws, 1050 of them in each tire. It sounds expensive, but it’s actually not a bad deal, considering the cost of tire, liner and screws. But you don’t need that. About a hundred screws per tire would suit you just fine, and work better on pavement.

  7. Mad Says:

    You get good commenters!
    Marty’s so right about being out in nature and about the camaraderie between bikers. Getting a wave from other bikers always gives me a smile; whether they are on a scooter, hooligan sportsbike or a cruiser.
    I’ve heard it opinioned that all cars should have a six inch spike fitted to the centre of the steering wheel: that would ensure careful driving!

  8. Dick Aal Says:

    Almost every time I gross about having to put on all that gear to protect myself from the environment for a ride it turns around on me and I find myself really enjoying the ride and GLAD I decided to take the ride. In fact, the ride seems even more ejoyable because I had to go to the trouble of getting ready and the environment is a challenge. Keep riding and enjoying.

  9. mnscooter Says:

    Tina, that’s fantastic! I know it isn’t all THAT warm in Scotland this time of year. What do you ride?

    Hey Buster, nice to hear from you again. I’m definitely not doing screws. I have been talking to Andy Goldfine about studs, and that is still an option, but so far I don’t see the need. 90% of my riding still happens on wet pavement with a bit of slush here and there. So I just slow way down on the other 10%. The Mutts are using screws probably on dirtbikes which they take out to a frozen lake or something, right? That’s not what I’m doing at all. It does sound like fun, though.

    Cheers, Mad. I’m sending you an email right after I get done typing this.

    Dick, I know what you mean. But putting on the gear has become a ritual with me, something like suiting up for combat. It is a time to center myself and mentally prepare for the challenge ahead.

    Ride well everybody!

    =gc=

  10. Tina Says:

    I ride a recently resurrected 1980 Suzuki GSX 400, bought earlier this year for £300 after being left to rot away in someone’s garage for 10 years. After a month or two struggling to get the clutch problems sorted, she is now running beautifully, and I take her out every chance I get.

    I have another bike, also resurrected, after 15 years mouldering in a garage, which is an MZ TS 250/1, an old East German 2 stroke. This is currently back in the garage though, until I can get a chance to take it to bits and find out what’s going on in the gear box.

    My ambition is to one day own a bike that hasn’t been run into the ground/abandoned/neglected for years by a previous owner before I get my grubby paws on it. ;)

    -Tina

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