Saturday, March 10, 2007

Splashing Around

This is the time of the year when I've always had the least patience waiting for the roads to become "passable". As a motorcyclist, spring always made me wish the snow would melt in the span of a day or two. A week at the most and then during the work days so you could ride by the time the weekend rolled around.

Was the weather too cold? Too much sand on the roads? You would think either of these things could be dealt with easy enough. No, these weren't the reasons to wait. Its been easy enough to wear proper gear. We knew how to stay warm. And the sand has been taken with extreme caution with our routes planned around areas where heavy traffic meant the plows had spread alot of it.

Do you know what keeps the majority of motorcyclists off the roads this time of year?


Puddles large and small. Pools of water which anyone on two wheels will eventually be unable to avoid riding through. The front tire hits, the water splits and sprays. It goes in directions that seem unnatural. It sprays everywhere. To put it bluntly, it really sucks to get slushy, dirty, sandy water up your pant legs only to run back down and soak your socks. I don't know what the laws of physics are that cause this strange pattern of flying muck to fan itself the way it does once a tire's force splits the puddle, but it'll manage to hit you in the most inexplicable ways.

I've hit puddles and had water shoot up my nose. Inside my full face helmet! With the visor clamped shut no less. You want a good reason to pull over? This is one that definitely makes the Late Night with David Letterman Top Ten list.

But today I thought about one of the great features of scooters. They have these wonderful design functions known as legshields. And they work as advertized.

Today I went for a glorious little roundabout into the countryside a cup of coffee. In the next town. Actually a few towns away but that's not the point. The point is I traversed large puddles of standing water and was not sprayed once.

Ahhhh the joy. The simple pleasure of finding yet another reason to appreciate these little gigglemachines called modern scooters.

Not that I went out of my way to split the waters, but where I more or less needed to, I crossed them cautiously and slowly. Sure, the Vespa shows its been ridden. The bottom is not so much midnight blue anymore as it is a splattered canvas in shades of brown. Like a Pollack using only earthtones.

For the true riding enthusiast the design of the legshield and floorpan ought to elicit praise. Its functionality provides comfort where other designs might force the rider to choose between putting on extra gear, or waiting for the roads to become dry again. I've ridden hundreds of miles with blown out rain pants. Soaked to the point of numbness and unable to stop because there was a storm ahead of me and another creeping up behind. Where I was it was not raining but the roads were beyond capacity to move the water to the side. While we were not being hit by the rain we were definitely being hammered by the spray coming up to greet us from the surface.

To think of having been on my Vespa that day. Yes, I believe I would have been drenched just the same in the end. The difference being water plowing its way up at you from the road, drenching you the way it had versus the new experience of the scooter's solution to the problem. What comes up to you with such force meets the legshield and floorpan. The mist of it will get you in the end if you need to be riding long enough in the stuff. Think of it as getting hit by a Supersoaker full of very cold water versus a seeping mist, a gradual heavy dampness.

Scooters are incredibly well thought out machines. If form follows function they may be the best for the average riding enthusiast.

The Roadbum

Friday, March 09, 2007

Scooterville equals Happiness

My father has a TN'G Venice. He wanted a scooter to occupy his time. As a retired widower he's got lots of it and he'd like to stay active. The scooter was a fun machine but it does a steady forty mph and forty five if you're willing to push it. It lacks some features which make it less the kind of machine he wanted to live with for too much longer. First, the location of the gas cap is in line with the rear rack and Dad likes to carry a few extra things besides what fits under the seat. Second, I've not seen a workable windscreen for the model. Here in central Minnesota the flying insects in your headlight beam can seem of plague proportions in the early morning and evenings. He lives two blocks (the short way) from the banks of the Mississippi. I live about a mile from it. There are days when cars and bikes can be covered with little six legged carcases. A wind screen is almost a necessity around here.

So dad began thinking about faster scooters and wind screens.

Like my dad I'm no giant but he's even shorter than I am. He tried my LX150 and didn't like the height. He needed something with a lower seat height. Apparently this riding bug really took hold of him. Every couple of weeks he would tell me about some motorcycle dealership he'd gone to looking for scooters. Nothing really appealed to him.

I told him I was going to a place in Minneapolis for their winter swap meet. A store dedicated to scooters and accessories. His eyes got big so naturally I invited him along.

Scooterville is near the "U". Its located in what used to be a factory of some kind. Once you're inside the place is big. There are three main rooms chock full of all manner of scooters, jackets, helmets, accessories and literature. A scooterist's mecca.

The week of the swap meet had crowds of people coming and going. Scooterists and soon-to-be scooterists filled the place. You know something is really good when everyone around you is smiling or laughing. There were great old Vespas and Lambrettas for sale. Stellas, The Genuine brand imports that look near identicle to the Vespa PX series. New Kymcos and TGB's.

There was another brand of bike there which has been making quite a splash among scooterists. The Genuine Buddy. Due to a little priveleged information (I won't say whom) came to me that a red Buddy was on its way to America. It turned out to be the color my dad wanted and he put an order for one of the red ones.

Yesterday we had the chance to make it to Scooterville to see the bike. Its beautiful. Dear old dad is completely enamored with it. He got the front and rear chrome racks and a mid sized wind screen. The guys at Scooterville answered all our questions and set the bike up. They even helped us load it into dad's Tacoma. We talked about the fun we were going to have this year.

That whole ride home the smile never left my dad's face.

Thank you Scooterville.

The Roadbum

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Shop

The shop is an actual shop. Up until now its been a section of a building in an industrial park less than a mile from my house. No, the shop doesn't belong to me but its a kind of hangout for a few guys. Better than any bar and chock full of tools. The Shop has been owned by my friend Loren for the last year or so. The rent was cheap and he set the place up very nicely.

Loren started the shop as sort of a giant hobby room in which to work on his ever changing assortment of snowmobiles and motorcycles. He's got antique sleds and bikes dating from the seventies. Two stroke engines are what he loves.

I've done some very minor work on my own things there but mostly it was a place to hang out and talk about anything that came to mind. Motorcycle design, parts he's made to fit a certain need. Snowmobiles especially. Scorpions are his favorite. He's got a couple of those too.

There's a Yamaha Riva 180 waiting for a variator and rollers there. A CT70(?) and some other ancient red 65cc or 90cc Honda. Cool bikes. He gets them in trade for work he's done for people fixing their everyday rides. People want new everything so they give Loren what they think is pretty much useless and within a short time he's got some early seventies small displacement machine running smoothly again. Its fun to ride them and see what it was like when these were the only machines people had to choose from. Back then it seemed bikes were designed around real world needs intead of looking or riding like they were track bound. To me they were more honest in that fashion. You can see it today in the insanely fast sport bikes and dirt machines. Ya gotta look like a pro. Credibility on the street is all about appearance.

Maybe its why the market for cruisers is so huge. You get to sit on your bike in a very normal almost ergonomic position. People do what they have to in order to ride and they'll take the best they can find. I wonder if another standard four hundred cc Japanese motorcycle would stand a a chance in today's market. Would people accept it?

When I look around Loren's shop its a very different history lesson. We always hear about the venerable Honda CB750. A motorcycle which ushered in a new era in motorcycling. But while the magazines and that guy down the street were singing its praises, many models were still in use and variants appeared right along side the CB. There were large displacement two strokes like the H1 and 2 by Kawasaki. These machines tipped the displacement scales at around 750cc's. Huge in those days. But people were still riding and loving the little screamers. They were just fun.

Loren constantly has offers to take some small displacement UJM from someone's barn or shed and he gladly does every time. By today's standards the way they ride is definitely timeworn but at least he's getting them rideworthy again. Back on the road to someone whose been hoping to reconnect with something they remember.

The shop is going away at the end of this month. To be seperated into storage units and Loren's garage. It's taken a tremendous amount of time away from his riding both his sleds and his bikes. Not to mention some of his family time. You just don't get those things back.

The Roadbum

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Snow, blown furnaces and Cycle Empire

Its been a harrowing week in some ways. My kids are a little under the weather and they passed it along my way. Must be some part of the homework program I'm unfamiliar with.

The upper midwest got some snow (finally) which also put me in gear to get a certain 29 year old Allis Chalmers snow thrower here and running again. A lovely safety orange beast sporting an old iron Briggs and Stratton five chuffer.

Then my furnace decides to cough nothing but cold air. Turns out it was a minor fix and if I'd looked a little more intently I could have saved quite a bit of money. Insulation fell into the fan negating the sensor to allow the thing to ignite. Point of the insulation? You got me...

Which brings us to Cycle Empire.

If you live in an area conducive to motorcycling, chances are you'll eventually find a strange store in your general locale. Usually on the outskirts of town. The kind of place which doesn't sell any particular brand of actual new motorcycle but its loaded to the rafters with out of date parts for any model you can think of from the last thirty years. Its also the kind of place where the owner puts out one of those huge chrome coffee makers you find at outdoor parties. Styrofoam cups still in the filmy plastic are stacked upside down next to it. Coffee Mate products on the other side. If he's a generous man there are little stir sticks but usually its a spoon on a napkin for everyone to use. He's got some local papers on the counter and if you're as lucky as we were, you showed up after work every Thursday for your own copy of The ONION. If you've never read the ONION its satire I rank with some of the finest. In those days it was incredible.

Behind you were some of the used bikes for sale. On occasion there would be a Vespa or two. I never knew where they came from and I wished I'd picked one or two of them up over the years. Less often would be the Cushmans. More like tiny motorcycles. The Vespas were cooler. We knew it even back then. The scooters were always put along the wall. The bikes more haphazardly rolled into sort of a line. Anywhere from five to ten motorcycles were for sale and they ranged from mid eighties UJM's to the occasional true antiques. It was there that I saw my first Indian Scout. A small machine commanding alot of money to part from its current owner. Apparently there was a little bidding war going on with that one as master was on vacation and told the store to give him the best offer when he returned.

Once you'd had your coffee, ONION, and a cigarette with the guys talking by the bikes and scooters, you moved to the right of the coffee counter and into another room. Saddle bags, oil, and literal stacks of parts seperated by brand and not much else greeted you in the isles. Old grey men lost deep in thought, hunting their own strange grails.

Turn right after the register and up a half flight of stairs brought you into a large room filled with every kind of riding gear you could imagine. Jackets, rain gear, protective gear, every imaginable brand of helmet.

Heading back out, you had to look up before you went down the steps because there hung the strangest brown Triumph custom motorcycle you may ever see. This thing looked like it formed itself out of a bad acid trip. They might do some interesting shaping on the discovery shows but they've got nothing on this thing. Its been hanging from the ceiling since at least the mid eighties and was present in the nineties when I last was there. I can't begin to describe it, you have to see it for yourself. All I know is the engine is definitely Triumph. The rest? From the mind of an insane visionary.

The beauty of Cycle Empire was it drew creativity to itself. It carried parts for the Harley crowd, the UJM crowd, sport bikes and things that sometimes left you wondering to yourself. Its lot could be filled to capacity with every concievable style of ride, the picnic tables crammed with people just hanging out and enjoying themselves. It was a mecca of bike-ness on the south side of Milwaukee and I miss it.

The Roadbum