Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cruise wear

Right off the bat I have to apologize to the women out there who were attracted to this post by the promising title.

It's quite alright to beat a hasty retreat and abandon this page, you've been lured here under false pretenses.  As a way of making amends, here are some handy  links to Pinterest, Simply dresses, and There's nothing to see here...

Unless you own a cruiser, that is.

Here is the long-awaited review of jacket number two, the Viking Cycle Angel Fire leather jacket from Motorcycle House.  Jacket number one was reviewed a little while back here.
Motorcycle House - Angel Fire men's jacket
It can't be said that it's the iconic biker jacket, but if you Google "Images of classic motorcycle jackets" you will see a very large number of precisely this type of jacket. Once you're on Google, click on the images link.  You see what I mean?

When Motorcycle House initially approached me, and asked me to pick any product I wanted to review, this was the item I picked. I've always secretly wanted a jacket like this.  To me it's the most quintessential among motorcycle jackets.

Oh, and ladies, if you've stuck around in spite of the slightly misleading headline, this riding jacket is available for you as well. Judging from the times I've seen this style of jacket in high-end fashion boutiques lately, it's not only an iconic choice for riding, but a contemporary fashion statement too. To my eye, it's also drop-dead sexy.
Motorcycle House - Women's jacket
Though I love the look of the classic jacket, I know myself, I won't wear something that's out of character for me.  I didn't know whether I could pull the look off on my Vespa, to be honest. But maybe, just maybe, it could work.  My Vespa is black, after all... but it's a stretch to be sure.

Before I move on to the review, I need to explore something that has been making me just a tiny bit twitchy lately.

On the spectrum of religious people, I am far off to the left of the scale.  To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don't care to belong to any religion that will have me as a member.

Susan and I were musing just last weekend, oddly, that we might start a new non-religion.  The place of worship would be round, with lots of comfortable seating, and our preachers would offer Jerry Seinfeld-esque or George Carlin-esque twenty or thirty minute musings about life in general.  It would, like the Seinfeld TV show, really be about nothing. There'd be no ritual standing or kneeling, no prayers to memorize. The only expectation of the congregation would be to offer up the word 'exactly' whenever they felt that the officiant had said something that struck them as particularly pithy, witty, or wry.  That's it.

Why this segue to religion? Because there's something quite strange at work here that's actually affecting my life.  It's some form of sociophylic resonance.  That's the best way I can peg it.

It goes something like this.

I was drawn to motor scooters right from the start, not motorcycles.  A year or two ago, if someone had asked, I would have answered quite confidently that I would never own a motorcycle.  It's not that I have anything against motorcycles.  In fact I would have had to admit that I was intrigued, that I would have one day liked to learn to ride a motorcycle.  But on the whole, unlike motor scooters, there was nothing sufficiently compelling that would have justified the ownership quest.  Besides, more than 90% of my riding is urban commuting and that's the sweet spot for motor scooters not motorcycles.  The likelihood of ever owning a motorcycle seemed really quite remote.

Then Motorcycle House approached me.  Sometime late last summer if I recall. I saw that jacket.  Did I dare reach for it?  So desirable, but kind of out of character?

Yet the allure of the jacket was too much.  Besides, the threshold was very, very low.  All I needed to do was express an interest, and like magic, the jacket might land on my doorstep.  It's a little like those Faustian stories, where the prince of darkness approaches, all good-looking, suave, and debonair, like a soap opera actor, a nice guy really, and offers to make some far-fetched dream or fantasy a reality.  I felt a little guilty, in the way one might feel if placed in that position.  But what the heck, 'live a little' the figurative devil perched on my right shoulder whispered in my ear.

This is not the first time the little shoulder devil won me over, in fact, you wouldn't be reading this if the posse of shoulder angels had won that first tussle.   That's a whole other story.  I have Gary France to thank for coaxing that anecdote out of me a couple of years back.

In the meantime, the giant hidden gears of the universe continued to turn slowly, unseen and obscure, not making a sound, beyond my capacity to know or understand.  Then Sonja posed an innocent question, Michael offered to join me for a ride, one shoe dropped, after another, and very soon now, there will be a mean old black cruiser sharing the garage with my Vespa.

Now someone, please explain that to me.  What the heck does all this mean? Simple coincidences?  There are too many at play, it seems to me.  Could there be something deeper working its way out? Should those flames on Black Betty be a source of greater concern?  I mean really, can you tell me that this isn't the least bit peculiar, or the slightest bit strange?

What the devil does it all mean?
It only occurred to me once I was writing all this stuff down, that when I negotiated the price and signed the purchase agreement with the seller, it was in a downstairs den, heavily curtained against daylight, there was a fire flickering in a potbelly stove where the seller sat, the scent of smoke hung in the air, and the circumstances forced other thoughts to swirl in my brain that I can't bring myself to express here.  I had to double-check the address just now as I wrote this... thank heavens, no sixes.

With that minor but hopefully entertaining digression complete, as it happens, I now feel quite comfortable and entirely legitimate offering up my thoughts on the Viking Cycle Angel Fire jacket. It's no longer a stretch for me by any means.

First off, let me say this. I love the quality of this jacket.

How about fit and finish?

The jacket Motorcycle House sent me is a large. It fits me very well. It's snug and it just feels good. The jacket if fully lined with black quilted fabric which is not removable. The sleeves have zippered gussets that do a nice job of making the jacket easier to put on, and then zip closed to make the sleeves nice and snug and unlikely to ride up in a slide. This style of jacket is necessarily waist length. That's a safety consideration that I'll get to shortly.  All the zippers are YKK metal zippers that should keep things together and last a good long time.

In terms of functionality, this jacket scores well.

Let's talk pockets.
Motorcycle House
There are six  pockets of varying sizes and configurations. Four of the pockets are what you'd expect in any jacket:
  • two zippered side pockets. The side pockets have decent depth, are well-positioned, and handy as a jaunty place to stuff your hands. In my case, based on my use of the similar pockets in my other riding jackets, I'll use these pockets to hold the leather skull cap I use very effectively to ward off helmet hair (a leftover from a Bar Mitzvah I attended), earplugs in an earplugs holder, and the bike's ignition keys.  For full disclosure on the contents of my pockets, click here.
  • two inside breast pockets. These pockets are essentially the same as those in my non-riding leather jackets, except that those jackets typically only have one breast pocket on the left inside lining. With twin pockets this jacket provides that much more functionality. The only nit I can pick is that unlike my other riding jackets, these pockets do not have closures. I suppose that in a spill, these pockets might give up their contents. That said, you'll see that there are a two other very handy pockets that I find really useful in a riding jacket.
  • one small exterior pocket located in the centre of the jacket just above the waist. This pocket can be centered because the zipper closure is off-centre to accomodate the double breasted closure. The pocket is small but perfect for a cell phone. My iPhone 5S fits perfectly in that pocket. It has a flap with a dome snap closure that will keep your phone safe, yet accessible for when you need it.
  • finally, there is a more generous diagonal slash pocket on the chest with the opening running parallel to the folded lapel. There is ample room in this pocket for a passport (handy for crossing borders on a tour), or a wallet. No reason to fear for the contents because like the side pockets, there is a nice strong YKK zipper to keep the contents safe.
Another aspect of the jacket's functionality is protection from the elements on the road.

The off-centre zippered double-breasted closure is the design feature I love about this jacket and it's what gives the jacket it's signature look. This design is also highly functional and for me that's a big plus. Form that follows function is what really appeals to me.  The jacket is designed so that it can be fully closed.  Here's what that looks like in the case of the women's model.
Once zipped all the way up, the jacket is snug to the rider's neck, and forms a formidable wind barrier.  My first real ride on my original Vespa LX back in 2010 was in late March and it was a very chilling experience.  I wore a leather jacket that normally serves me well.  In this case even at a moderate speed, the cold air penetrated all along the zipper like a knife edge.  There is no such issue with the Angel Fire jacket as a result of the double-breasted design.
The potential downside to the large double-breasted lapels is that when the jacket is worn partially open (which is hopefully the way it will most often be worn), those big lapels could flap in the wind like a Pellican's wings. The collar presents a similar risk, though to a lesser extent. Fear not, there will be no unsightly batting about of collars and lapels, because that's what the dome snaps are for. With the jacket partially open, the otherwise loose leather is snapped tight and well battened down to withstand whatever wind your adventure may bring. That`s another way that form follows function in this jacket.

The jacket has epaulettes and they also have snaps. The snaps make the epaulettes functional, though for most of us, they will serve no purpose. I suppose you could secure the shoulder strap of a camera under an epaulette to prevent it from sliding off your shoulder for when you are off the bike and wandering about snapping photos. Active military types could use the epaulettes for their intended purpose of slipping on a sleeve with rank and other insignia, or as the Antiques Road Show often says, 'militaria'. But you would still be out of uniform, wouldn't you, so what would be the point? Basically the epaulettes are just there to complete the look. It's a nice touch though that they are actually functional, and not merely vestigial.

Although the jacket fits snugly, it never binds, because there are generous expansion gussets at the shoulders that really do a nice job making the jacket comfortable.
What does this jacket lack in functionality?  The obvious answer is that there is no venting (other than riding with the jacket partially open), and the liner is not removable.  If those features are important to you (and to most if not all riders they would be important features), they are available in the Motorcycle Club ("MC") model for a step up in price.

Speaking of price, and how can one not, this jacket is reasonably priced, very reasonably priced.  Comparable jackets cost hundreds more and up to six and seven times more at the high end.  For the money, this jacket might just be impossible to beat.

The final chapter has to be safety.

In the cruiser segment, safety is sometimes not the paramount concern, nor is it intended to be.

Abrasion-wise, the Angel Fire jacket is stellar.

In terms of abrasion resistance, leather tops the materials list. Kevlar takes a back seat to leather, and so does ballistic nylon. The first thing that struck me about this jacket was the thick feel of the leather. The Angel Fire jacket is made from cowhide and it seems appreciably thicker and more robust than other leather jackets I own. But is it? I couldn't resist the temptation to put some science up against what my senses were telling me.

Out came my micrometer.

I measured the thickness on the cuff on each of the three leather non-riding jackets I own. Let's call them jacket one, jacket two, and jacket three.  Then I measured the Angel Fire jacket. Here's how they stacked up:
Leather thickness
Jacket Measurement
Jacket one 0.0835
Jacket two 0.1110
Jacket three 0.1270
Angel Fire 0.1045
I guess we can't entirely trust our senses, can we?  I was expecting the Angel Fire to come out on top by a respectable margin.  So what does this mean?

Each of these jackets is made of a different hide, and at least one of them, jacket three, the one that measures thickest, is lamb and is the oldest of the jackets.  The differences between jackets two and three and the Angel Fire jacket are not at all as significant as they seem.  The difference between jacket three and the Angel Fire is about the thickness of two sheets of paper.  Given the remarkable abrasion resistance of leather, the difference is not, as securities lawyers are fond of saying, material (pardon the pun).

To provide some more meaningful context, consider that motorcycle competition leathers are generally three ounces per square foot.  Each ounce of leather per square foot represents a thickness of 1/64 of an inch.  This means that competition leathers are 3/64 of an inch thick (0.0469 of an inch).  Vanson competition leathers are a tad thicker than that (0.0591 of an inch).  The Angel Fire (0.1045 of an inch) is just a touch less than twice that thickness.  Competition leathers will withstand 2,600 revolutions to failure in a standard test, versus ballistic nylon at 817 revolutions to failure, Cordura nylon at 459, and broken-in denim at 168.  That means that the Angel Fire jacket will protect about twice as well as competition leathers.

That's one tough jacket, and I don't mean the looks.

Where the Angel Fire jacket must lose marks in the safety round-up is in the absence of  elbow, shoulder or back armour.  That, and the jacket is too short, ending at the waist with the potential to expose the lower back and abdomen to road rash in a slide.

This is a very stout, sturdy, and well-constructed jacket.

Overall, this is a jacket I am proud to own, and one that puts a smile on my face.
The Angel Fire jacket certainly provides decent protection, and should be more than adequate for the typical use I will put it to: cruising down Lakeshore Boulevard, at a leisurely pace, on a sunny summer weekend, with the other cruisers that parade along that route all summer long.

Once I've done that I'll write a ride review.

I can't wait.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

An interesting alternative for inter-continental travel

Word about the newest dimension of my life on two wheels has been slowly leaking out here and there for the past few months or so. I have been dropping hints, and a few fellow bloggers have been in the know. Sonja spilled the beans yesterday, or so. So it's time to come clean.

As many of you know, my life on two wheels began when I finally dared to fulfill a high school dream: owning a Vespa. In the five or so years I've been riding I've learned a whole lot about what it means to ride. In that time I've graduated from a great urban commuter Vespa, the LX150 model, to a grand touring Vespa, the 300 GTS Super i.e. I'm riding now. I went from commuting to work on slow and easy back roads, to being perfectly comfortable cruising on expressways and Interstates, at home, and on extended trips, in Canada, the US, and Italy.

For the past little while I've been wondering what it would be like to ride a motorcycle. Not that the Vespa GTS is not a motorcycle. At 330 pounds and 287cc's, it's more motorcycle than many of the motorcycles you see on the roads, and the law treats it as a motorcycle in every way. But it's not what comes to mind when I ask you to think about a motorcycle. You'll think of Harley Davidsons, BMW touring bikes, sport bikes from icons of the industry like Ducati and Moto Guzzi, and café racers like the Triumph Thruxton.

There are certain features that all motorcycles share. A frame, a center-mounted motor, a manual transmission, and a combination of hand and foot brakes. Most motor scooters, like modern Vespas, have a step-through body, enclosed motors closer to the rear wheel, automatic transmissions, and front and rear hand-operated brakes.

The biggest difference between a Vespa and almost any motorcycle, is the manual foot-shifted transmission. That and the look. There's no mistaking a motorcycle when you see one. Just like there's no mistaking a scooter when you see one.

What is it like to ride a motorcycle?

I finally scratched that itch in Florida late last February. They say 'go big or go home'. I went big.

There was more to that adventure than met the eye. As you'll now see, I really needed to learn to ride a shifty motorcycle.  A serious shifty motorcycle.

A few months earlier, my dear friend Sonja approached me for advice.

She said she wished to tour in eastern Canada and the US on a motorcycle but that rental costs were prohibitive. Sonja was prepared to buy a second-hand bike for the purpose, but ownership posed some interesting challenges for which she was seeking answers, and insurance seemed a key stumbling block.

Sonja knows I'm a lawyer, and figured I might be able to shed some light.

"I was wondering if you could be of any assistance in finding out what insurance I could obtain, and even better kindly give me your honest opinion about the whole matter. Do you think it might also be possible to insure the bike in another person of trust’s name, while I ride it around North America, in case I can’t get it insured?" she wrote.

I told her that I'd think about it and promised to get back to her. And think about it I did.

Insurance is a tricky thing. There are cast iron links between ownership, insurance and risk. You fiddle with those links at your financial peril. If a link fails, you can find yourself without coverage, even after paying all the premiums. Co-ownership of a motorcycle seemed like it might be a viable route for Sonja to explore. Assuming you could find an insurer to write the policy.

The first logical step was a call to my insurance broker. I warned him that I had an interesting hypothetical case for him to consider.

If Sonja, a dual Canadian and German citizen, resident in Germany, with a German motorcycle permit, and I, were to buy a motorcycle here in Canada, as fifty-fifty co-owners, could we both get insurance coverage in Quebec? I hastened to add that it was a hypothetical question, and that I didn't want to be a bother, and that there was no rush, because surely I had posed a real head-scratcher of a weird question, out of left field, so if he needed a few weeks to look into the matter that would be fine.

"Ya, sure, no problem" he said.

"OK, thanks I really appreciate that. When should I get back to you?" I said.

"No, you don't understand" he said. "There's no problem. All I need is a copy of the signed co-ownership agreement and a copy of Sonja's German driver's license with a valid motorcycle endorsement, and you're good to go!"

I was truly taken aback. "What?" I stammered. "Are you sure? Don't you want to do a little research?"

"We do this all the time" he said. "For motorcycles?!" I managed, still incredulous. "Well not really for motorcycles, this would be a first for me. But for sailboats, motor homes, yachts, snowmobiles, ATVs, ya, we do it all the time."

All right then. Sonja's unusual request, and my hypothetical interest, literally sprang from crazy theory to rock hard fact in one ten minute phone call. What about the premium, I asked. "Oh... let me see... under $200" he said.

"What?" I uttered, dumbfounded. "Don't you need to know what kind of bike?"

"OK" he said. Now I felt that I was trying his patience. "What kind of bike?"

A big bike I said. A big cruiser. Like a Honda Shadow 750cc. Huge, massive!

"Look, under $200, I'm positive. I'll look it up and shoot you an e-mail" he said. A few says later I got a voicemail message from him: "Hi, look it's me, I'm really sorry, I misled you, I looked it up, the annual premium for that bike will be $75, have a nice day!"

If I was dumbfounded earlier, I was, as the Brits are fond of saying, gob-smacked.

At that moment, I knew that Sonja was getting her wish, and that I was getting a motorcycle. A huge, massive, burly, bad-ass motorcycle. Spousal approval was quickly obtained on both sides of the pond. It no doubt helped that Sonja, Roland, Susan and I had met over dinner last year in Lucca. All we needed to do was find a suitable bike for the right price.

Partnership has its advantages. Sonja immediately set up the purchasing department. We lost one, but in no time we had a couple of hot prospects. Both Honda Shadow 750's, and both within easy range. Within mere days, the bike was seen, the price negotiated, and bingo! Just like that, Sonja and I became the proud co-owners of a 2003, Honda VT 750 American Classic Edition motorcycle.
It's not perfect, but damn close. Low mileage, in pristine condition, but... those damn flames.

And the Cobra after-market-loud-pipes-save-lives are just so look-at-me-I'm-a-greaser-Harley-wannabe! Sonja's take (and she gets the last word): "Who cares about the flames... and what's wrong with it sounding like a Harley??"

Sunday, March 8, 2015


One of the things I don't suffer from one bit, is being surrounded by boring people. Now that's not a nice thing to say, I know.  It's insensitive to boring people.

Who's to say that a person is a boring person? What makes a person boring? I suppose that being cast as a boring person, like everything else, is a relative thing. How far is far? Is red, red? Will the real red please raise its hand?

How bitter is bitter? Is dry Vermouth bitter? What about Campari? Is Campari bitter? Is there anything more bitter than Campari?

Is maple syrup bitter?  Anything but!

From that perspective, my dear friend Marc, is anything but boring.

Marc doesn't ride.

Well he does ride, he rides his bicycle.  And he does that a lot.  In fact, Marc logs more bicycle miles than anyone I know. Weather permitting, Marc rides here, there, pretty much everywhere in the greater neighborhood, prowling garage sales, going to the Beaconsfield shopping centre, over to friends' places, down old Lakeshore road and back.

Back in the day, Marc did ride, and he spent quite a bit of time ranging all over Montreal and surrounding cottage country on a classic Italian motor scooter.

A few days ago, Marc was tidying up and he came across a rare photo of himself and his scooter.  It turns out to be a 1950's Iso scooter.  Made in Milan from 1946 to 1964.  Similar to a Lambretta in design.  Iso is the same manufacturer that invented the Isetta bubble car that later continued life briefly as a BMW.  One of my relatives pulled up to our house in the burbs back in 1962 in an Isetta.  Easily the coolest car I had ever seen.  The single door was the whole front of the car, including the steering wheel.

When Marc e-mailed me the picture I knew instantly I needed a copy.  I needed to share it here, and I plan to take it to the office and scan it.  Most likely I'll print it and laminate it, stick it on the home office wall.  Amazingly, yesterday, you could still find an Iso scooter on e-bay for 600 pounds sterling, just waiting to be lovingly restored.  Today, that find is unfindable.
Marc has told me all sorts of crazy stories about his scooter summers.  From anyone else they'd be taken with a grain of salt or two, but with Marc, I know them to be true.  I can't really repeat any of them here, except in the vaguest most general way, because on the one hand I don't want to embarrass Marc (though, if you know Marc, that might be rather difficult to achieve, trust me).  The other reason is some of the scooter experiences might still not be sheltered by the statute of limitations or others' capacity to forget.  Suffice to say, some involved intimate contact with female pillions, and at least one involved taking the scooter off road, and into a restaurant, where clearly it didn't belong and wasn't welcome.

But that was a long time ago, back in 1961 when Marc was a young'un.  We've all been more interesting in our youth, less boring, shall we say.

So why do I say that Marc in particular is anything but boring?

Because Marc is different from most everyone I know.  If you have a challenge and you want it solved, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more creative problem solver than Marc.  He excels at pretty much anything he sets his mind to.  From riding a scooter, to skiing, to sailing, to building a log cabin with his then girlfriend (now his wife), to literally writing a book on sales and marketing, to delighting both his wife and me by buying my beloved and badly under-used Miata roadster as a gift for his wife.  And the list of his remarkable achievements goes on, and on, and on.

Marc is anything but boring.  And he never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

He is a living testament to the remarkable capacity of the human spirit.  Marc really knows how to live life on two wheels.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Nothing stays the same forever. Even Stonehenge and the Pyramids show their age.

When it comes to web sites, I'm generally not a fan of change.

More often than not, when a web site goes through a 'refresh', it's rarely an improvement. Stuff that was easy to find becomes impossible to find, stuff that should have clear links right on the home page becomes buried, making the user click repeatedly with growing frustration trying to find the thing that used to be right there.

Lately I've been prodded by my daughter Lauren to update the look, broaden the appeal, in a word, to 'refresh' the ScootCommute. Life on two wheels lends itself a little better to covering some of my other interests along with motorbikes. It's a subtle thing, but putting the emphasis on the blog's primary name, rather than the by-line, may lead to greater editorial freedom.

I followed with interest when Steve Williams went through a similar process, switching Scooter in the Sticks from Blogger to WordPress, and to a custom domain name. Steve is continuing to make changes, upping his game. Clearly making these kinds of changes isn't trivial. Getting the changes right, and by right I mean changes that most readers will appreciate, is a tall order.

I'm doing my homework, and taking baby steps. If you're the observant type (I'm not a particularly good observer), you'll see that the URL has changed. Hopefully it was more or less seamless, but some springs sprang loose all the same. I think everything has settled down now (crosses fingers).

Right now I'm looking at blogs to see what others are doing that I think works. My personal belief is that the container should enhance the content, not get in the way.

One ingredient is certainly fashion.

Often, fashion is what drives the changes to a website, and often the look is a killer look, but the functionality is also killer, the killjoy breed of assassin. The 1994 look based on primary colors, content in html tables, and Times Roman font for all text, is pretty much dead everywhere. Everywhere except RefDesk. The reputed go-to news and reference site Washington power brokers swore by has not evolved one little bit. Craigslist is another high-functioning dinosaur. Compare those sites to the Huffington Post which is the more modern graphic idiom. Then compare all of those to the TV network sites. RefDesk and Craigslist get more information into their dashboard home page using old-school web design than most other sites.

Don't expect this site to be emulating RefDesk or Craigslist any time soon.

Who knows, maybe there won't be change. But maybe there will.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Comfort zones

Each of us has our well-worn comfort zones.

I'm no mad adventurer. I know that because I have a very close friend who is a heli-skier. Now that's mad adventure. I know people, people I've traded e-mail with, who have crossed continents on Vespas, including Africa, and ventured to the furthest reaches of North America, to the Arctic Circle, on two wheels. That's not me, and unless something snaps, it won't likely be me.

I know that I'm more adventurous than some. I may perhaps be more adventurous than most. Just above-average on the adventurous scale. I've pushed the envelope on some occasions. Like zip-lining down a massive mountain in Colorado in pitch blackness. One of the reasons I didn't chicken-out was, that next in line behind me, were a couple of ten-year-olds. That, and I was with my son, Andrew. He's at the very least in the mid-range of the fourth MAS quintile (the Masse Adventure Spectrum).

What does it feel like to venture beyond the comfort zone? Well I certainly can't speak for anyone else. Here are my thoughts on Monday's flirtation with mad adventure.

Let me see if I can break it down.

The past me, the guy from two or three months ago, is definitely the most fearless, the most dangerously reckless, of my alter-egos. Let's call him 'the planner'. He's the guy who sets the wheels (pardon the pun) in motion. He's the guy who gets the wacky idea (how cool would it be to ride a motorbike in Florida?), the guy who chats it up with blogger-buddies, the guy who rents a motorbike, and the guy who gets on the plane.

The future me is the guy who gets the past me to plan in the first place. The future me is the cool guy who exagerates to anyone who cares to listen (or can't plot a decent excuse to break free) over a cappucino, or a Corona, or a flute of Proseco, the glorious carefree motorbike ride up the coast of Vancouver Island, along the rolling ancient hills of Tuscany, or wedged between a dome of blue sky and the vast expanse of the Florida Everglades.

The present me, the guy in the passenger seat being driven by his wife, with the credit card in his wallet, headed to the Eagle Riders Harley-Davidson rental shop in Fort Lauderdale, is the guy left with the actual job of stretching the envelope, breaking the plate-glass partition lining the air-conditioned, elevator-music, marble-floored, comfort zone, and otherwise dealing with the vicissitudes of reality. If karma is a bitch, reality can be a hard mistress.

"Hey buddy..."

That's the present me whom Ozzy at Eagle Riders is addressing. "Hi" I offer, trying to look pleasantly nonchalant, while softly and silently berating past me for my predicament. "Did they tell you that we don't have the Sportster, so you're getting a Harley Switchback?" Sadly, yes they had. I'm desperately trying to convince myself that transitioning from a 330 pound Vespa GTS 287cc bike with an automatic continuously variable transmission, to a 718 pound Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback 1,690cc bike with a 6-speed manual transmission is within some realm of possibility. I'm frantically rummaging around the attic of my psyche searching for my inner madly irrational optimist.

I'm led out back and introduced to the blue beast.
I get a thirty second tutorial on the idiosyncrasies of Harleys. Big ignition switch on the tank with a secret locking mechanism, separate left and right turn signal switches, a kill switch that isn't prominent and red, a suicide kickstand without an ignition interlock, and the starter switch that doubles as hazard flashers. How difficult could it be? Over the next couple of hours I'll find that every other time I attempt the starting sequence I'll be just sitting there with a perplexed frowning look, like Marvin the Martian... "there was supposed to be a kaboom..."

Conchscooter rolls effortlessly into the back lot, right on time, with a smile and a warm good-natured greeting. Michael admires my new rental steed and nods appreciatively.
I saddle up, and do my best to look confident.
I must have fooled Michael because in no time at all we hit the road right on schedule at eleven a.m.

Michael takes me out the back way so that I can figure out getting in and out of first gear while avoiding calamity. The learning curve is steep, but the noob doesn't stall, or drop the massive bike. A short stretch south down Federal Highway after a left hand turn at a traffic light, then a long right sweeper onto westbound I-595.

Once the Harley is rolling, it sheds its weight and becomes much more familiar. A twist of the throttle produces a deep growl to accompany the acceleration. 'I could get used to this' I muse.

Doing 60-ish once we hit the back roads, I hit the trusty control on my Sena and ask Siri to play some Colin James. Rocket to the Moon matched my mood perfectly as I thundered down the highway without a care in the world and a big goofy grin on my face.
Conchscooter leads the way. At the first intersection on southbound 27, when the light goes green, I stall. Shit. Clutch-in, hit the starter. "Ba-room boom, boom, boom..." Clearly I didn't downshift enough. I hit the shift and "thunk". 'Idjit!!' I think. And I stall again.

Lesson one: you can't get a Harley rolling in third, or second gear. Oh... and lesson two: first gear goes "ka-chunk" not just "thunk".

Amazingly, the 18-wheeler on my tail never delivered the air horn blast I fully expected as my due. He may have been killing himself laughing and was too distracted to reach for the horn.

Michael takes us down a side road off the Tamiami Trail leading south into the Everglades. Some ways in we roll to a stop on a patch of sandy grass. The attraction here is a pair of alligators.
A six footer lounging on the bank, and another in the water with just the top of its head above the waterline.
Being this close to a pair of indolent stone-cold killers in the wild might stretch some people's comfort zones, but hell, I got here on a big-ass Harley. I've busted loose. Rock on 'gator buddies, rock on! These are not the last wild alligators we'll see on our swamp tour.

Our next stop is an improbable delight. A nice little art gallery tucked away in the swamp.

Naturally, following the 'when in Rome' principle of leisure travel, we park the bikes on the side of the parking lot where an enormous alligator is sunning itself.
The gallery sells the works of Clyde Butcher. He is a large-format old school photographer who has dedicated himself to capturing the natural beauty of Florida's wetlands for all to see and enjoy. If Steve Williams were here with us, we would have never been able to tear him away.

At my suggestion, Michael and I switch bikes. The next destination is a bite to eat and still a ways off.
The Triumph Bonneville is another motorcycling icon and it's truly a privilege for me to experience a second amazing bike on this, my first real shifty-motorcycle experience. If the Harley-Davidson is a hulking freeway bomber, the Triumph Bonneville is a lithe Spitfire. The engine revs easily and delivers instant torque to the slick gearbox. This is a bike built for twisties.

Michael shared his impression of the Harley on his blog, here.
In due course, and without incident (although a one point we did have to avoid a migrating turtle making a mad turtle-dash for the other side of the road) we made it to a charming little Cuban joint out where the pavement ends at the Gulf Coast.
Michael and I shared some traditional Cuban fare and a drink or three (Michael prudently had a couple of diet cokes and I had an ice-cold beer). We lounged and chatted as bad-ass biker dudes are wont to do.

Before we knew it, it was time to shove-off. And this is where I made a serious mis-calculation. I think I have to blame Michael. At some point, Michael commented that he would have to stop for gas before hitting the Everglades.

Here is Michael prudently topping up the Bonneville.
Michael casually mentioned that I was lucky the Harley had a massive gas tank and that I could tour for countless miles. That's why I was taking pictures while Michael pumped.

As we were leaving Chokoloskee, I glanced at the fuel gauge and confidently reported a quarter tank. Michael said we'd stop at Miccosuki for gas. I kind of knew where that was (Alligator Alley and Snake Road), and did some rough calculus that indicated I could probably nurse the Harley all the way there.

Talk about wild baseless optimism coupled with a questionable and far too casual read of the fuel gauge.

During the carefree portion of the ride, the skies became threatening. Michael pulled over, and as the consummate British gentleman he is, offered me a brand new set of Frog Togs rain gear. By this time I had fully morphed into my new-to-me bad-ass-cruiser-dude persona, and so obviously I declined his generous and very considerate offer.

When the heavens eventually opened up and drenched the landscape, we rode on, content for the wet relief from the late afternoon Florida sun.

About the time I was drying up, so was the Harley. I glanced at the fuel gauge. Gosh that seemed lower than I felt it should be. Alligator Alley: definitely not an alley; definitely no alligators; definitely no gas stations either. Other than Miccosuki, that is. When the LCD display came on, cryptically indicating "R: 31" it took a mile or two for me to figure out that it was trying to tell me that my range was, by the time I figured it out, 29 miles. And there began a miserable countdown I won't soon forget.

Michael was riding sweep, because I think his calculus indicated that my burly Harley was doomed to run dryer than a bone in the Nevada desert long before we reached Miccosuki. 24, 23, 20, 18... though the sun was low in the afternoon sky, sweat was building on the back of my neck and trickling down my back. The Boy Scout side of me was tsk-tsk-tsking away, dancing images of my spare touring gas can before my mind's eye... I began to juggle scenarios in my mind... 15, 14, 12, 10... I'd see a sign looming and pray for that gas symbol and a number that fit within my dwindling range number.
No such luck... 9... and then the Harley hit me in the gut: "Low Range" it said. That meant it had given up, and saw no point in attempting to calculate the precise moment the bike would sputter and cough and coast onto the shoulder, leaving me to suffer the hot dusty gales of passing eighteen wheelers, as unseen alligators passed the word through the swamp "prime rib in the Alley, boys".

Unaccountably, I made it. Never have I been so happy to see a miserable fuel stop out in the middle of nowhere. At the intersection of Alligator Alley and Snake Road. Ordinarily not the description of a place you'd want to be. But it was gasoline heaven to me and my Harley.
The day's adventure was coming to a close.

Here we were, with two incredible motorcycles, full tanks of gas, and Snake Road winding away to the North. Now Snake Road is no Tail of the Dragon, but it is listed as a worthy riding road with requisite twisties. Michael sent me off ahead, like you would send a panting six-year-old past the gates and into the wonders of Disney World.
Snake Road is definitely twisty, in a land of ramrod straight orthogonal roadways, that is. Snake Road is a good test for getting texting drivers into the ditch, and perfectly safe for riders who haven't figured out the strange black art of countersteering a motorcycle.

Our Snake Road experience behind us, we hopped back on Alligator Alley and parted ways all too soon, as Michael swung south to the Keys, and I headed East into the tumult of South Florida rush hour insanity.

Thanks to Michael of Conchscooter fame, and Ozzy and the rest of the crew at Eagle Riders of Fort Lauderdale, I am now a bad-ass biker-dude, and fiercely proud of it. Sky's the limit, baby!!

Friday, February 20, 2015

How size matters to me, or the Slippery Slope

It's still the dead of winter.

My Vespa sits comatose on life support, shrouded in its OEM cover.  The only signs of its dormant existence are the intense glare of the reflective safety markings bouncing the car's headlights back at me, and the soft glow of the battery tender's intravenous drip keeping the battery fit for eventual duty.

That doesn't mean one little bit that very interesting things aren't happening at the ScootCommute.  They're just happening deep below the surface. Like the way that tectonic plates move and grind.  With the potential to change the landscape.

Right now I'm on a mission.  Wednesday night I was cruising along at more than 400 miles an hour, 34,000 feet above the ground.  I was heading south. It was half-past eleven, thirty minutes to midnight, and the land of perpetual summer was slipping by silently below, as Fort Lauderdale crept ever closer on the seatback monitor.  Just Susan and I, and hundreds of other anonymous fellow travelers escaping for a week of sun, and respite from the bone-wracking cold of the Great White North.

One thing that has held my mind in sharp focus these last few days is the Harley Davidson Sportster 883 I've rented for a day.
Well, not this one in particular.  I ran into this one in the men's department at Macy's in the Aventura Mall, of all places.  Until I saw it in the flesh, I was concerned it was a huge bike.  In fact it's only a little longer, and a little skinnier (yes skinnier) than my Vespa GTS 300, and not that much heavier.

That's right folks, just when you thought you had me safely pegged, and permanently pigeon-holed, as the completely dedicated Vespa guy, the urbane scooter commuter, you need to do a little re-think.

Have I been harboring a secret bad-ass cruiser-dude alter-ego?

Be warned, your host is a dreaded Gemini shape-shifter.  Two sides to this coin, my friends, and the coin is set to flip.

There will be more on this topic, much more.

Wait till I share what's in store for this coming Monday.  Crazy stuff.  Wild adventure!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Winter doldrums: Key West!!

January and February are deader than dead, riding-wise.

I think I've found a way to get a riding fix in late February that will keep my spirits up until the 2015 riding season kicks in.


Susan and I are planning to devote a week or so to the Sunshine State.  I'm planning to steal a couple of days, rent a bike at Eagle Rider, and teach myself (with a little tutoring and written encouragement from Dar in her brand-spanking-new moto instructor role) to ride a cruiser.

Dar suggested a 600cc'ish cruiser (Honda Shadow, Yamaha XV S650, or similar).

My plan is to drop in on Conchscooter for a beer and maybe a burger or something.  I'm also hoping to entice some fellow riders to join in.  The thing is that they're all up around Jacksonville or Tampa St-Pete, and it's a lot to ask for folks to take three days or so and put all those extra miles on just for a lark.

Stay tuned my winter-bound friends.  We'll see how this goes.


My Florida plans have been scaled back.  Too little time to get all the bases covered.  Key West has taken a back seat, at least in terms of our upcoming trip.

There will be other occasions, I am quite sure.  Perhaps occasions when the stars will align more auspiciously.  Occasions where a band of riders will be able to join in and ride with abandon to the southernmost point.

I will still rent a bike, but I'll confine the ride to an afternoon.  The A1A in Fort Lauderdale beckons.  Its siren call is no match for Key West, but it has the allure of being doable, and there's a lot to be said for that.

I hope to be able to report in the near-ish future that I have will have expanded my repertoire from Vespas to include shifty cruisers.
The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.