Finish Line

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,

11 Responses to “Finish Line”

  1. irondad Says:

    Leap far, young Grasshopper!

  2. Tiff Says:

    well done, that man. That is all

  3. Bob Says:


    I especially enjoyed reading of the transition from the (Red) Baron to the (Black) Baron the other day. Definitely brought out the anthropomorphist in me as I dabbed a figurative tear away from my eye, cheering on the quietly heroic nature of “our” little mechanical friend gracefully passing the torch. Ehhhh, maybe I’m a bit over the top, but I sure liked the way it played out.

    Thanks and well done all the way through. Count me among your legions of past, present, and future readers. Encore!


  4. Bill Sommers Says:

    Round one is over. I didn’t miss a day, and enjoyed every entry. I’ll tune in on the 28th for round two. Ya done good! bill

  5. Mad Says:

    Well Gary, it seems quite a long time ago that someone posted your blog’s address on one of the bike forums I frequent. Since then I feel like I’ve been right there with you as you’ve ridden in all the conditions winter produces. I’ve pulled on my lid in the cold of a North American winter and issued forth to do battle with the SUV’s right beside you. It’s been a most enjoyable experience and it great to know other people ride to work when most folk think it mad (well ’tis my name I guess). In one way it’s sad but in another it’s great. The little Baron, full of pluck, has retired scarred but unbowed which seems sad but the joyous thing is spring’s here, adventures further afield and on new machines await! Best of all is you will continue to write and ride and we will continue to read.
    To borrow your phrase:

    Ride well!


  6. Steve Williams Says:

    You’ve inspired a lot of people. Great rides and great writing!

    Look forward to the adventures of the Black Baron, Frogwing, and the rush hour ramblings…..


  7. Seagullplayer Says:

    It has been great. Glad it’s not ending, just moving on.

    Rubber Down.

  8. J. Carter Says:

    Gary, thanks for sharing your winter with us.


  9. Marc Strangfeld Says:

    Good summary Gary. You’ve accomplished a great deal. Maybe Ride to Work could issue a special “diehard commuter” patch in your honor. Best of luck the rest of the year.




    What can I say? Your crazy! I like that in a person. I did not ride as much this winter as you did, and I live in northern California! Oh well, guess I am getting soft in my old age. I like your writing style, and your jar head mentality. I have read every day since November, and enjoyed all the banter from your readers.

    Well done, and lookin forward to your further adventures.


  11. bro shagg Says:

    Looking forward to the new line you’ll be taking into the curves- lean far and ride well!

    -Bro Shagg

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