Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's a wrap!

It's been a phenomenal first season commuting on my Vespa scooter. No problems worth mentioning, I've had even more fun and gotten even more pleasure from the experience than I was expecting, and I've learned so many interesting and arcane things about life on two wheels.

I have a longish list of modifications I want to do before the spring riding season rolls around, so that will keep me more than busy in my spare time during the winter.

Without further ado, making good on my promise, here are the remaining lessons learned.

49. Power outlet

I don't know about other bikes, but Vespas don't come with 12 volt power outlets. Installing one is not particularly difficult, as long as you are comfortable with basic power tools and you own a power drill and a Dremel or similar multi-tool. You will find everything you need at your local electronics supply store, such as Radio Shack, The Source or similar outlets. For the Vespa-specific instructions, go to Modern Vespa and search for 12 volt outlet. Alternatively, let Google take you there. I installed mine in the glove box. Once you have the power outlet you can use a GPS unit, charge your cell phone, or power a dead cell phone in an emergency, plug in a portable compressor to fix a flat in the middle of nowhere, plug in a powerful search light, and the list goes on. I wouldn't want to go back to not having a power outlet.

50. RAM mounts

So if you've installed the power outlet, where the heck do you put your GPS unit? The answer to that question is to get a RAM mount. RAM mounts can hold just about anything you want. I got mine for my GPS unit (check out the post where you can see the RAM mount in action). I made sure to get the tripod attachment as well and I used it to mount my digital camera on the scooter and made a short video of my commute (click here for that post). You can get RAM mounts from GPS City. Fair prices and excellent service. For us Canadians, GPS City has a Canadian site too.

51. Blocking the rear brake to pump air into the rear tire

Pumping air into the rear tire is a bit of a chore because access to the rear wheel is severely limited by the muffler and the Vespa's very attractive cowls. You have to rotate the tire by hand until the valve stem is at the 6:00 o'clock position, and then apply enough force with the air pump hose nozzle against the valve stem to get the air going and inflate the tire. The tire will want to rotate fore or aft, and then the nozzle slips off, and, I don't know about you, but I start cursing. Make the job a cinch (or at least much, much easier) by applying the rear brake and using a short length of rope, or a velcro strap, or one of those rubber tubes that they use in the hospital as a tourniquet. Anything that will hold the brake handle in the compressed position will do. Wow! that really works.

52. Caught in the Web

Generations of motorcycle and scooter riders figured out how to ride, and ride well and safely without the internet to guide them. As with most things these days, the internet makes it really easy to become well informed, and get 24/7 advice from the most amazing experts when the need arises. There is no way that I would have gotten close to the amount of value out of my scooter commuting experience as I did without Modern Vespa. It is not possible to say enough good things about that forum, and the wonderful cast of characters who contribute to the goings-on there. Next to the actual Vespa motor scooter, Modern Vespa is the most important thing you need to enjoy the scooter commuting experience. The other place to go for in-depth knowledge about riding gear is Web Bike World. This is not to say that those are the only sites that can help you. But you have to go to those, and if those are the only internet resources you ever use, you'll find everything you need to make the best of your riding experience. No I don't get a commission.

53. Corazzo and Go Go Gear

There are many, many places to buy motorcycle gear, whether online, or in bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. There are also a number of places to get gear that is more suited to the scooter aesthetic. Personally, Corazzo is my favourite. I love my Corazzo 5.0 armored jacket and I highly recommend all their products. No I don't get a commission. For women who are looking for stylish riding jackets and coats that offer similar protection, check out Go Go Gear. They are newer to the market but have really nice things to offer.

54. Ride within your confidence zone

Somebody said that riding a motorcycle or a scooter is 90% mental, 10% physical. The same has been said by a number of athletes about a variety of sports. Who knows if that is a verifiable truth, but I believe it to be true. My experience is that bad things are most likely to happen when you are outside or at the limit of your confidence zone. That zone of confidence shifts with time. Things that are really awkward the first time you ride, are well within your confidence zone in no time. So right from the beginning, and by definition, we are all, to a degree, outside our comfort zone. The key is to recognize your zone, and when you are at the limit because you are learning new skills, stack the odds in your favor by staying sharply focused and learning in an environment where the risks are tolerable. Empty parking lots are a better place to begin riding than city streets. Quiet suburban streets with little traffic are preferable to boulevards with heavier traffic, and so on.

55. Bicycle skills do translate, to a degree

I love to ride bikes and at different times in my life, I put a lot of miles on a variety of bikes. During the 2009 riding season I logged more than 600 kms on Montreal's bike share BIXI bikes between May and November, riding to the office from the commuter train and back morning and night, and exploring the city on my lunch hour. Some skills definitely translate from bicycles to motor scooters. The general way that the two-wheeler handles and balancing issues are examples. If you are confident and reasonably skilled riding a bicycle, riding a motor scooter will come reasonably easily. On the other hand, there are many, many things about riding motor scooters that you'll never learn riding a bicycle. The obvious differences are in the weight and geometry of motor scooters that are a world apart from bicycles, and the speed at which you travel. For instance, I never experienced counter-steering on a bicycle. On the other hand, heavy braking into a curve seems to be very comparable to the experience on a bicycle. I would expect that if you don't feel comfortable and relaxed riding a bicycle, a powered two-wheeler will be a challenge for you.

56. Occupy the lane, drive like a truck

Riding in traffic with cars and trucks can be daunting. I have found, however, that if you ride your Vespa as if you were driving a car or a truck, you get a lot more respect, and feel much safer as a result, than if you ride as if you are on a bicycle. What I mean by riding as if you were driving a car, is that you occupy all of your lane. In that way careless or inconsiderate drivers will be less likely to squeeze into your space or attempt to squeeze by you in traffic. It's part of the mental aspect of riding a powered two-wheeler that translates into the physical experience in a tangible way. Filtering and lane-splitting are ways that scooters allow you to beat congested city traffic. But when you are filtering up through stalled traffic or lane-splitting through crawling traffic, you aren't occupying your lane, or driving like a car or truck. So when you decide to filter or lane-split, you really need to exercise extreme caution, not just because those activities are inherently tricky (like avoiding clipping a car's side view mirrors), but also because you are behaving more like a bicycle than a car. As you filter and lane split, you are causing the surrounding traffic to react differently to your presence. Whether consciously or not, many of the drivers observing you are re-calibrating their expectations of the space you need or deserve on the road. Three blocks from now, one of those drivers might be more inclined to try to squeeze by you. I don't know if this is just stuff going on in my mind, or if it's really happening this way, it just seems to work that way in my admittedly limited experience.

57. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

It's November 20th and the Vespa has been under wraps for a week now. My last commute to work was way too cold with the temperature below freezing when I set out. There's a post on that experience so I'll just link to it here rather than repeating it so soon after it was posted. I am positive that riding in November safely and comfortably is easily achievable. It's just that I don't yet own the gear that would allow me to do it. Based on others' experience, for a one-hour commute at an average speed of about 40 or 50 km/h, I'd need a good wind-proof jacket liner with a balaclava, or a combination liner like the Corazzo underhoody, good winter gauntlets, handle bar muffs, lined armored pants, a windscreen, and perhaps heated grips, or a scooter skirt. Then I'd be good to go. I'm planning to get at least some of that gear before the spring, so that I can start riding comfortably in mid or late March.

58. Have fun!

Of all the lessons my scooter commuting has taught me, the key lesson is that you've got to take a few chances and have fun. There are a million reasons it took me until my late fifties to get a motor scooter, not the least of which were strenuous objections from the women in my life like my mother and my darling wife. I have to admit that while I may be more quirky and adventurous than some, I am far from a dare-devil. So there was also that angel on my shoulder whispering constant exhortations to reason and caution. But I finally took the chance, and I have to say, it's been a very satisfying and worthwhile experience.

So that's it, I have nothing to add, nothing is left to say or share. At least for the time being.  As I dig in to the modifications I have planned for the off-season, I'll post my successes and complain about my failures.

I started this blog as a way of repaying the kindness and candor of the countless strangers whose blogs and forum posts gave me the knowledge and insight to get my scoot commute off the ground and sailing along through this magical first season. Blogging is the best way of making my own experience as a newbie powered-two-wheeler owner and enthusiast public so that someone like myself who is thinking of doing the same thing will get some benefit from reading these posts. Mission accomplished.

Happy hibernation!

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The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.